First United Methodist Church
Known as “ Old First”
Organized in 1816 as First Methodist Church , the first services were held in Robert Simpson's home on Ellicott Creek Road . The first church was built in 1842. The present church building was built in 1880 on land donated by Col. John Sweeney on the site of the first school house built in North Tonawanda. The brick school building was 20'x30'. There were 21 taxpayers and 12 non-taxpayers in the settlement at the time. Methodist Church services were held in the schoolhouse that comprised the entire local school system until Goundry School was built and North Tonawanda Union School was established in 1866. The North Tonawanda School District was established in 1897 when North Tonawanda became a City.
The Church structure is an excellent example of a restored, turn of the century church. Its stick style architecture and elaborate stained glass windows are reminiscent of the Eastlake style of architecture. The Church building has been called “Old First.”
The first recorded mention of Methodism in the Tonawandas was in 1816, when a local preacher, John Foster, held a religious service in the home of Robert Simson, one and one-half miles from the river, on Ellicott Creek.
The first regular religious work centered around the family of Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Long. Mrs. Long's father passed through this region on horseback on his way to Canada in the early years of the 19th century. While here, he bought from the Holland Land Company 160 acres of land lying between the Tonawanda and Ellicott Creeks. To take possession of this property, Mr. and Mrs. Long, with their five children, left their home in Pennsylvania in 1828. The trip was made by ox-drawn wagon and took over six months, from early June to mid-December. They came to Tonawanda from Buffalo over the River Road, the last lap of the journey taking a day and a half.
In 1829, Mr. Long built a log home at the junction of Ellicott and Tonawanda Creeks, and this building, known today as the Long Homestead, still exists as part of the Historical Museum of the Tonawandas. With help from the City of Tonawanda it was restored as closely as possible to the old plans. The Historical Society of the Tonawandas has refurbished it according to the style of the 1830's and keeps it open much of the year for tours and other activities.
It was in this home that the Methodist Sunday School was started and the Long children, including Christiana Long (Smith), made up the majority of the students. Occasionally, Circuit Riders held services in this log house, and twelve worshippers comprised a satisfactory attendance. For larger assemblies, open-air services were held under a large chestnut tree on Sweeney Street, just off Webster, with Circuit Riders as leaders.
In 1831, Colonels John and James Sweeney donated land on Tremont Street near Main on which a 20 x 30 foot brick schoolhouse was built by the school district. The Sunday School which had been started by Mr. Long began to hold its sessions in this school building and the settlement became a stop on the circuit of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Two of the earlier preachers were Mr. Ripley and Mr. Buck. A series of revival meetings were held in the mid-thirties and a church building was started near the corner of Tremont and Main in what is now North Tonawanda. It was only partially completed at this time.
Upon completion, the brothers donated a school bell, and the building comprised the school system until 1866 when Goundry School was built. When the brick schoolhouse was built, there were only twenty-one taxpayers and twelve non-taxpayers living in the village. As late as 1854, the school budget was $144 and the teacher's pay was $4.00 per week! It was also noted that destitute children were given books by the Sweeneys.
John Simson, son of Robert Simson, started a Union Church movement and a building was completed on North Canal Street in 1841. The Union movement did not work well, so Mr. Simson withdrew and incorporated the Society for the Erection of a Methodist Church. The trustees were Lewis Deming, Jesse Locke, and Nathaniel Cummings. Under their leadership, the Society completed the unfinished church edifice on Main and Tremont Streets. Many adherents of the Union Church joined the Methodists, and the church was incorporated December 17, 1842.
The total cost of this 22 x 70 foot rectangular structure, and the adjacent horse shed, was $2500. Mr. Simson gave $2000 toward the cost of the new church. It was surmounted by a small tower with a front door opening into a vestibule from which two doors opened into the church which could seat about 250 people. Above the vestibule was a gallery for the choir which was accompanied by Mr. Simson's daughter, Mrs. John DeGraff, who played the organ. At the other end of the main room was a high, boxed-in pulpit with two flights of stairs, one on each side leading up to it. Bare, whitewashed walls provided the background for the box pews and for the two wood-burning stoves which provided the heat. Daylight sifted in through long narrow windows with their many panes of greenish glass. At night, the sanctuary was lighted by oil lamps supplemented by tall candlesticks for the pulpit. Its appearance must have been very similar to New England churches still in use which have squared-off seating areas entered through small individual doors.
The property was deeded to the Methodist Church in 1867 by John Simson. In the mid-1940's, because of a member's concern, the title was searched again by Lawyer C. Lautz and found to be perfectly legal. Hopefully, the matter will not be brought up again!
From 1816 to 1844, Tonawanda was a stop on the Clarence and Black Rock Circuits. In the church minutes of 1840, it is mentioned as Tonawanda Mission, attached to Black Rock, with renowned Glazen Fillmore in charge and Carroll Sutherland as junior preacher. From 1844 to 1862, it formed a part of the Ridgeville and Pendleton Center Circuit.
When Goundry School was built in 1866, records show that regular preachers were assigned to our church. This was the time of separation when North Tonawanda became a separate village with its own administration. There were then 245 residences and a population of 440.
A new church edifice was begun on its present site in 1880 and was finished in 1882 at a cost of $15,000. The cornerstone was laid by the Reverend Dr. Huntington. Bishop Peck gave the consecration sermon and the Rev. L. D. Watson was the pastor. The first sermon in the new church, however, was delivered by the retiring pastor, Rev. G. H. Dryer. An 1886 map shows the new church and a dwelling where the old school stood. Across the alley were two more dwellings, as well as the Episcopal Church which stood at the corner of Tremont and Marion Streets. Also indicated is the line of wooden water mains which ran beneath Tremont Street.
The old church building was sold to Armitage and Herschell Co. and moved to the yard at the rear of their Goundry and Oliver Street plant. It was used as a paint shop until it burned down one Fourth of July evening.
The Genesee Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church was held in our church in 1890, with Bishop McCabe presiding.
Because of rapid population growth down Oliver Street, two members of the North Tonawanda Land Company, George E Smith and its secretary, George Hathaway, gave our church the use of a house on the northeast corner of Oliver and Wheatfield for a satellite church, November 22, 1890. This church, called “Central Methodist,” was first served by Rev. W.A.V.E. Pattysen, with Sunday School at 9:30, preaching at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. James H. Rand was Sunday School Superintendent and Brother Armitage was appointed Class Leader. Reverend West was listed as minister in 1898. Apparently this satellite church ceased operations about 1900 when the property was sold.
Under the leadership of George F. Rand, Sr., religious services were held by the Church of Christ on the southeast corner of Oliver and Wheatfield in early 1899. Later, these were held on the northeast corner where a tabernacle was built in two stages, eventually seating 1600 people. More on this later.
In 1905, the old parsonage was sold for $200 and razed by the purchaser. A mortgage was taken out on the church building to pay for a new one, built at a cost of $4500.
It is interesting to note that our trustees at this time were influential men in the city. Under Reverend Sylvester W. Lloyd, they were: J. N. Primeau, A. J. Hathaway, James H. Rand, W. W. Robertson, W. D. Trimble, Elias Root, James H. DeGraff and D.B. Stevens.
There is in our records a souvenir program for a “Complimentary Entertainment,” in honor of Central Church of Christ Sunday School on the evening of January 28, 1921. The entertainment was presented by the Methodist Episcopal Church Sunday School, but consisted of music by members of a double quartet under the direction of Mrs. Vernon Curtis, our church choir director. On the back of the program it states, “If you are not now a member of another school, you are invited to join either Central Church of Christ Sunday School, which meets at 9:45 or First Methodist Episcopal Sunday School, which meets every Sunday at noon.” Certainly this is a fine demonstration of Christian cooperation.
The Methodist Episcopal Church in Gratwick was organized in 1898 and a building erected. Preaching services and Sunday School were held there until 1907. Financial difficulties arose, so that congregation broke away from our denomination and became the Third Presbyterian Church, which exists today.
In 1916, there was an interdenominational revival movement that held services in a tent located on Goundry and Marion Streets. Children were cared for in our nursery during services. Even today, our Educational Building is used for pre-school classes by the YWCA.
On Wednesday, April 7, 1909, at 1:45 p.m., a tremendous gale blew down the tall steeple of our church, carrying with it the south central gable and doing much damage to the roof and to the interior. Fortunately, no one was injured. We were able to hold regular services as First Presbyterian and North Christian churches offered their buildings to us. By May 30th, our building had been repaired with a much shorter steeple. Eight beautiful stained glass memorial windows, the first in the church, replaced the plain glass ones which had been broken.
When the Hotel Statler was redecorating and making other changes one of their organs was declared surplus. L. A. Meyers, chairman of the music committee, heard of it and began negotiations to obtain it for the church. For the sum of $1000 it was ours. T. Sahr contracted to install the organ and make necessary changes for church use. The cost was $6000. Installation was complete in the fall, and a dedication was held on November 17, 1946. Bishop W. Earl Ledden conducted the service. This Wurlitzer organ was built in 1923 and was the one used by Carl Coleman for regular Saturday night radio broadcasts from the Statler. The organ is still in use after 46 years.
An improvement program was instituted in the mid-1950's under the leadership of the pastor, The Rev. Charles E. Titus. The first phase resulted in a fine youth chapel in place of a storage room in the basement. A more ambitious program converted the sanctuary to cathedral style from the amphitheater style which had been so popular in the last years of the 19th century. With this conversion, which was completed in 1956, the seating capacity of the sanctuary was increased to satisfy the growing membership. By 1958, the $60,000 cost of the project was paid up and dedication services were held.
Because of the continual overcrowding in the Sunday School area, there were grave concerns for the safety of the children in case of fire. The furnace was in the basement under the sanctuary in a completely wooden building. It soon became apparent that the only solution was to have a fire resistant addition. The Trustees were able to purchase the former Gosch house at 65 Main Street alongside our north side property line. The lot was 49 feet wide and large enough for our expansion purposes.
The Congregation, under the leadership of Rev. Bugbee, again hosted the Western New York Annual Conference in 1964 with Bishop W. Ralph Ward presiding.
In the late 1960's, other opportunities presented themselves. The Pletcher house across the alley from the parsonage was bought and razed which removed the annoyance of undesirable neighbors from the parsonage family. The following year, the adjoining Asa Rocket property was secured giving us all the frontage on Tremont to Marion Street (now called Columbia Drive). The property to the North was available from Ives Ice and Coal Company so all the land required for a parking lot became church property. After surfacing and striping, we had an excellent parking area for about 80 cars. The total cost of about $48,000 came from the estate of Maud Gorsline.
The hiring of an architect was authorized in 1968 to study and design a structure to replace the narthex, parlor and kitchen area and to extend it northward to the Educational Building. There would be a street level door on Tremont Street so that entrance would be covered. This brick section was estimated to cost $200,000. At a charge conference session, members voted against construction, possibly because many of its functions would duplicate those in the Educational Building.
After receiving 215 Falconer Street from the Gorsline Estate, the former parsonage was rented until it was taken down in 1978. This opened a direct path to the parking lot. We were then able to build what is now called the “Gorsline Entrance.” A hydraulic lift was included so that handicapped persons could easily attend services. This project was completed in 1979.
The Trustees have been very active, using interest from the Gorsline bequest as well as regular contributions to the building fund. A great deal of attention has been directed to the kitchen where a dishwasher has been installed, worn out equipment replaced, and changes completed to comply with inspectors' requirements. The heating system has been altered to supply hot water heat in all the buildings, and up-to-date controls have been added for reasons of economy. The sanctuary building has been insulated and windows repaired. Recently, new pew cushions were installed, a gift from the late Mrs. Lillian Harrison. The sanctuary interior and complete church building have again been repainted and a complete carpeting job done. Both buildings have had fire warning security devices installed.
The parsonage has also had close attention over the years with a new garage, roof, siding and porch enclosure. The interior has been updated frequently. There seems to be no end to possible improvements, and we are fortunate to have such an interested group.
Our sanctuary is graced with beautiful edifice windows. The rose window and those directly below it are the only original ones. As previously stated, the south windows were all lost in 1909. The rest are all memorial windows. Beginning at the front on the south side, these are: Christiana Long Smith, first Sunday School teacher in the Tonawandas; Mr. and Mrs. W. H. Hepworth; Robert Fowler; Mary E. Fowler, Martha Humphrey; Paschal Humphrey; Mr. and Mrs. Stevens; and Mary A. Dailey.
The window in the narthex is a memorial to Dr. Carl Rasch, the west front window to George A. Rasch. The windows on the north side are memorials to: H. B. Gorsline; Maud Gorsline; Morris D. Lloyd and Lillian Hepworth Lloyd; the Parents of Maud and Harold Gorsline; William Gillie Family; Elizabeth Janke Eaton and the Families Whose Names She Bore; Shirley Jean Spring by family and friends; LeRoy Gaul by his wife Rose.
Previous anniversary brochures have contained lists of items given in memory of members. There are other gifts to be noted, such as: the Paul Sherk cross on the Educational Building, the Bell Family Tower Chimes, the Douglas Joyce Flagpole and Area, and many others. The list will continue to grow.
Gifts have been received in varying amounts up to $5000 from these estates: Leigh Duncan, Cora B. Swan, Nina Gillie, Katherine Bowen, The Eaton Family, Vernon Curtis, Claudia Smith, Emma DuBois, Fred Root, Raymond Koenig, Mrs. Nellie Fritchie, W.I. Robertson, and Harry Maxwell.
Larger bequests have come from: Floyd Hopf, Maud Gorsline, Harold Gorsline, and Mabel McLaughlin.
There are several interesting items about the church buildings and contributions which members have made to the community. When the sanctuary was built, the ridge board holding up the roof and giving east-west support was made from a single tree trunk, cut to 75 feet and reduced to about a foot in diameter. This tree in all probability came from Grand Island property where Daniel Webster had white pine woods. The tree has been holding up our church roof for 110 years. Add to that another 110 to 120 years for it to attain its growth and we can see that this white pine must be at least 230 years old!
Members have told how the original organ was fed by a hand pump, part of which is now stored in the organ loft. They also said that pumping for long hymns was very tiring and for that reason, or some other one, pumpers sometimes stopped pumping causing hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” to come to a wheezing stop. No mention was made of parental correction being invoked.
Members of the congregation have held many civic offices. There have been several long periods when three of the five members of the Board of Education, as well as of the Library Board, were Methodists. Numerous superintendents, principals and teachers are, or have been, our members. Where for many years we had two aldermen, we now have one. Something new has been added though; we now have a town supervisor.
News items keep surfacing from 65 years ago and since about clubs still in existence such as the Irvings and Shakespeareans. At the start, these consisted mainly of Methodists. Stories have also been told of their meeting refreshments, usually pies. These would be baked and placed on a cooling shelf outside the kitchen window. Since only grownups could attend, the boys in the families felt they had a right to some of them, and usually not all of the pies remained on the shelf when it came time for serving.
We had some very revered members who lived near “Our Lady of Czestochowa.” Boys playing in the street were overheard discussing them. “And what does Mr. do?” one asked. Another answered, “Oh, he is a priest, but he doesn't work at it.”
The YMCA was previously mentioned. The building was erected in 1892 on the corner of Main and Tremont. This large building was as important civic center housing activities such as evening classes, swimming, gymnastics, City Hall, Police Department, and top floor apartments. Instruction was given in religion, business, electricity, handwriting, and music as well as year-long programs of lectures along the lines of a Chautauqua. Many of our members were active in the YM leadership. Early in the 1930's these activities ceased due to lack of funding and an available room in the building was used as an adult Sunday School when our own space was overtaxed. It is believed that the “Y” was razed around 1938.
The early life of the present city was concentrated within a few blocks of Main Street, so there were many boys in the area to support our Troop 72 of the Boy Scouts. This troop thrived for many years under church member leadership, and for many of the later years under non-member leadership, like Harry Schwartz and his son. Most of these scouts continued relations with our church and became active members. When families became smaller and lived at greater distances from Main and Tremont, it became necessary to disband the troop.
After a quiet but stable membership period, we enter the 1990's enjoying a rapid growth in all age groups. Much of this has resulted from a very fine Sunday School program, as well as an active musical program, both of which have wide appeal. For instance, in the area of music, our congregation is now served by five vocal and three handbell choirs. Because of increasing enrollments, studies are being made as how to best use our facilities to accommodate everyone.
Early communications were through a short lived “Messenger.” Copies of the “Messenger” are available in the files of the Tonawanda Historical Society. In 1948, the Couples Club began publishing monthly issues of the Circuit Rider, which carry pastoral messages and vital statistics, as well as summaries of current activities. Items of special interest have included reports from our exchange students. Most recently, under the auspices of the Northeastern Jurisdiction of the Council of Youth Ministries, Craig Hodgson visited Russia in 1988 and Nicole Sizer went to China in 1989.
The church has changed its identity through the years as the denomination developed. Up until 1939, the local church was known as The First Methodist Episcopal Church. In that year, the three major branches of Methodism merged (Methodist Episcopal North, Methodist Episcopal South, and the Methodist Protestant) into the Methodist Church and the local church became First Methodist Church. In 1968, with the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist denominations, the church on the corner of Main and Tremont assumed the name of First United Methodist Church.
Since 1842, when the original congregation was incorporated, to the present day (a period of 150 years), 46 pastors have served the church. These pastorates ranged from one to 19 years in duration with most lasting from two to six years in length and averaging 3.2 years overall. The Reverend Gerald Wolter is the current pastor.
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