Saturday, December 19, 2015

Jesus was born down in Wayne County

I've been saving until the appropriate season a brief news item clipped from The Chariton Herald of Feb. 26, 1903. Now that it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas and the season is almost upon us --- here it is:

"A funny little Christmas-time story has just been told by one of the Chariton school teachers. It was during the exercises held in one of the lower rooms just before Chritmas vacation, and the teacher was asking various questions about Christmas.

"She asked where Christ was born, and one little boy popped up his hand and answered, 'Down in Wayne county.'

"The teacher tried not to laugh, and asked him again to make sure. Again came the positive reply, 'Down in Wayne county.'

" 'Why do you think he was born in Wayne county?' the teacher asked. 'Because you told us once that he was born at Bethlehem,' the boy replied, 'and that's down in Wayne county, because Papa gets coal there.' "


My papa, too --- although 15-20 years after this item was written, as a kid along for the ride when his dad and young uncles headed down with teams and wagons across country from the Myers settlement on the New York Road to pick up a winter's supply of coal.

Stops were made then for supplies at the store in Bethlehem before continuing on to the mines east of the village, occupied at that time still by a hundred or more people.

I followed their route down Friday afternoon, a little frustrated in the quest for historical accuracy because Wayne County recently has closed the Duck Valley road and I had to drive straight to New York, then take the paved route east to the Jordan River crossing and up to the highlands beyond.

Here's is how Bethlehem looked yesterday --- only two dwellings and Bethlehem Chapel downtown now, plus the giant Rathbun Regional Water Association tower. But there are a few other houses, some brand new, in the suburbs --- greater Bethlehem, as we call it.


Here's how Bethlehem looked --- in map form --- during 1897, when it was immortalized in the Wayne County plat book of that year. Note that there once were three churches here --- Christian (Disciples), Methodist and Baptist. (The Disciples were between churches when this map was drawn and neither the location of the original Union church nor the later Frist Christian, dedicated in 1903, is shown.) And also that the most northerly east-west street was "Palm." appropriate for Bethlehem.

The Methodist church was the last to go and Bethlehem Chapel was built in what once was city park --- site of July 4th and other celebrations --- from its remains.

Interior of Bethlehem Chapel (dead flies on the carpet, alas)

The little chapel was dedicated during 1973 and remains in good repair, although the electrical supply to it has been cut and it needs sweeping since every fly in Union Township came here to die as the days grew colder.

This map locates Bethlehem in relationship to New York in Union Township --- but don't be looking for Millerton. That metropolis didn't come along until 1912-1913 when the Rock Island railroad was built west of New York, dooming its already declining neighbors to the east.


Here's some "official" Bethlehem history, lifted from the 1886 Biographical and Historical Record of Wayne and Appanoose Counties, Iowa.

There's a wonderful map on the wall of Bethlehem Chapel, showing who lived where over the years, and a couple of snapshots have been placed behind its protective glass, too. These are the images interspersed here.

Downtown Bethlehem, as remembered ca. 1972.

"Bethlehem is one of the oldest points in Wayne County. It was platted June 6, 1853, by Columbus and Martha Parr. Morgan Parr & Sons built a saw-mill here in 1855. Benjamin Parker was the first merchant and Columbus Parr, the first postmaster. In 1857, Bethlehem was a good town.

Store building, dated 1914. I believe I.O.O.F. lodge rooms were located upstairs.

"William McCarty was merchant and stockdealer, the saw-mill was in full operation (though removed the following year), Dr. L.D. McKinley was practicing medicine. Drs. John Boswell, William Prather and Dr. Townsend were all early physicians here.

Roof repairs under way at the Methodist Church.

"In that year, 1857 (or 1858), the different denominations partly built a church, which was used by them jointly until 1861, when the Methodists purchased it and completed it. This building remained in use until 1885, when it was sold and the Methodists and Baptists united in remodeling the Baptist church, which was built in 1865. Revs. Swim and Coiner were early Methodist preachers, and Rev. Bolster is well remembered by the Baptists.

"Eli Hammer kept the first 'tavern' for several years. A steam saw and grist mill was built in 1875 and operated intermittently until the fall of 1885, when it burned.

Store building, dated 1900.

"In 1867, the farmers of Union Township organized the Union Township Agricultural Association, and held two very successful exhibitions in the autumns of 1867 and 1868 at Bethlehem.

"Louis Protzman is the present merchant, and William King postmaster."


Credit for naming Bethlehem --- and the nearby Jordan River for that matter --- probably should go to Morgan Parr, who also was a Campbellite peacher and reportedly led the first church services in the neighborhood in his log cabin home during the early 1850s.

He was instrumental in organizing what was called the Joint-Stock Church in 1857 or 1858, acquiring  a lot to build the building shared by all denominations from my old friend Eli Hammer --- Bethlehem's first inn-keeper (Eli ended his days in Russell, north of Bethlehem on the Transformer road). First Christian Church at Bethlehem was not organized officially until 1901, however, and its building --- torn down in 1938 --- was dedicated during 1903.

Here's a little story from The Humeston New Era of Feb. 11, 1920, that contains more information about the source of the name, Bethlehem. Credit for some of Wayne County's charming place-names --- Bethlehem, Confidence and Promise City among them --- occasionally is given to Mormon pioneers, some of whom did indeed pass this way after the "middle" route to Garden Grove was blazed ca. 1849. But they were headed west and really didn't stick around long enough to name anything.


"The Sunday Des Moines Register in giving an account of the naming of different towns in Iowa, printed the following regarding the naming of the town of Bethlehem in this county. Some of our older citizens perhaps know better than we do whether the account is correction or largely fiction. Here's the story:

"The village of Bethlehem was so named by one Morgan Parr, who had the town surveyed and was said to be the first man who preached in the place. He built a dwelling house in the year 1852 where the first religious services were held and the same building still stands and is occupied by E.E. Mumma and family. It is still a comfortable dwelling house.

"Mr. Parr named the town Bethlehem and organized the Christian church. There is a creek a mile and a half west of the town and when he would take a convert into the church he would say, "Let us go down to the Jordan for baptism," which originated the name of the stream. The first postmaster's name was Columbus Parr, a son of Morgan and Anna Parr. At that time they received their mail once a week, and the mail was all put in one box which could be carried under his arm."


I should add that the old Dry Flat School bell, which summoned me to classes from primary through second grade, hangs in the Bethlehem Chapel steeple. I was going to give it a ring on my way out Friday, then got preoccupied with making sure the door was secure --- and forgot. There's a project for another day.

1 comment:

Jan Husmann said...

I was also sure Jesus was born south of us. I had heard of Bethlehem and there was a broken down shed at one of the four corners on the New York road. My husband has always laughed at me about this--------- Janice Jennings Husmann