Salem United Methodist Church History

Salem Church was the first Methodist Church in Vermillion County organized, at the insistence of
John Helt, one of the original pioneer settlers. The township where the church now stands bears his name.
The first minister in the area was Rev. Chamberlain, a “circuit rider” who arrived in 1821 and preached in
local cabins or barns as were made available. Rev Chamberlain was quickly followed by Dr. William B.
James, a Virginian who came from Ohio, moving to a permanent log home in Helt’s Prairie in October 1822.

Dr. James was not an ordained pastor in the beginning, but a practicing physician. Nevertheless, he preached and helped with church services, attending clergy classes whenever the opportunity presented. Dr. James first preached in a simple log barn belonging to John Helt and later held regular services in a small log cabin schoolhouse with split-pole seats (literally a long tree log split horizontally and roughly stood on tree branch legs to form a bench) located about ½ mile due north of Helt’s Prairie Cemetery. He preached and practiced medicine until 1826, when he headed to New Orleans with a boat loaded with corn. He fell ill, stricken with cholera and died unexpectedly near Vicksburg, Mississippi. At the age of 57 he left behind a wife and 13 children, several of whom intermarried with the original settlers. Many of the James’ remained in Helt’s Prairie and some of their ancestors continue to live in the area today.

The next minister was Rev. Warner who came from Parke County. He organized a “class” or congregation in the spring of 1828 that met in the same log schoolhouse, which became known as the Helt’s Prairie Bible Class. The people of this area worshiped in the schoolhouse, in local barns, at the Samuel Rush residence, and at the large new house of Samuel Ryerson (Leigh & Barbara Mack’s old homestead-built in 1828) until 1846, at which time they pooled resources and built their first permanent church structure in the area.

William Henry Skidmore, the first pioneer child born in Helt Township (Feb. 1819) was a devout Christian
man and an active member and worker in the Helt’s Prairie Bible Class and Methodist Church. As a boy he
would walk over to the settlement of Summit Grove to tell the townsfolk of the nearing approach of a circuit rider, religious meeting, or revival. He and his father John (one of the original settlers and the direct ancestor of current church members), assisted greatly with the construction. Land located near the center of Section 22, Township 15 North, Range 9 West in Helt Township was deeded to the Trustees of the Helt’s Prairie Class by James and Elizabeth Harper Sr on November 20, 1845. Built in 1846 by church members and volunteer local craftsmen, this was the first dedicated church building in Vermillion County, IN. It was a rather large, 1920 square foot wooden structure. That first church was built on the current Salem Church site and became known Salem Methodist Episcopal Church. The new church was dedicated as “Salem”, taken from the Bible, Genesis 14:18 and Psalm 76:2, meaning “peace”.
The Jewish interpretation is that Salem comes from Jerusalem. Another reference is to the town identified as Salem, located near the Jordan River where there was an abundant supply of water and near where John the Baptist himself was baptized. The church the Helt’s Prairie Bible Class erected was their Jerusalem and the Wabash River was their Jordan for baptizing. On December 3, 1872, an adjacent piece of land was deeded to the Methodist Episcopal Church trustees by Robert and Amanda Davis so a parsonage could be built on the same site just west of the church. This wooden-framed church served the congregations of Helt’s Prairie until 1877 when it was sold to George Skidmore, relocated and re-purposed as a barn on his farm (currently the Kauffman farm) located immediately south of Salem church.
In that same year (1877), construction began on a more permanent brick structure. William Henry Skidmore was instrumental in the designing and financing for building and furnishing the brick structure of Salem Methodist Episcopal Church which was built in Early Gothic and Romanesque Revival architecture. The new church was built upon the same 32’ x 60’ foundation as the original wood frame church. The church congregation raised the necessary funds and paid a total of $2,838.36 for the finished and furnished 1920 square foot church completed in 1878. The first preacher in the new building was Rev. W.A. Smith.

Bricks for the church were made in Parke County near Mecca, IN and were ferried across the Wabash River
on an “apron” (a large, angled sail-like platform on the sides of the ferry) powered ferry owned & operated by David Miller. The ferry was secured with large cables stretched across the river and the force of the river current against the “pitch” of the aprons propelled the ferry across the river. Materials were then hauled to the building site by horse or mule drawn wagons. The wood and framing came from abundant local timber.

Oak, hickory, and even black walnut commonly reserved for special wood furniture or cabinetry was so
plentiful it was used for studs, joists, and rafters and other general framing lumber. The original plaster for
the walls (still mostly intact) was mixed with horsehair (as was the practice of the time) to make it hold
better to the lath (thin wood strip) backing to improve strength, flexibility and reduce cracking. The
sanctuary was finished and furnished by local craftsmen who donated their labor to lay brick, frame and
finish the church and provide furniture. The Early Gothic and Romanesque Revival architecture is clearly
seen in the eight Gothic arch windows, with mullions dividing the windows into 8 panes of glass. A striking lancet window sits above the south entry, capped by a large date stone with a rose window above, topped with a Gothic spire steeple with pyramidal roof and concave slopes. The steeple holds a large cast iron bell repurposed from the old schoolhouse where the early circuit riders preached. The bell was often rung for special events and holidays as well as to call folks to gather at the church for emergencies. It was wrung several times over the years to assemble bucket brigades to put out fires in area homes and barns.

The original entrance doors to the sanctuary were on the north side of the church. The men entered and were seated on the east side of the church, women and children entered in their own door and were seated on the west side of the church. The pews were separated with a relatively tall partition, making it nearly impossible to see over when seated. The pulpit area was located at the south end, under the steeple area, and a large coal/wood furnace was located at the north end between the two doors to provide warmth. The high, rather squared-arch vaulted ceiling in the sanctuary surprisingly provides great acoustics.

The pulpit (made from local walnut and oak) has an octagonal front that symbolizes regeneration coming
through the Word of God (the numeral “8” being a symbol of regeneration). The pulpit is adorned with rope design carvings symbolizing life without end. This pulpit and two oak cane-bottom chairs (with the Fleur De Lis carvings) are original furniture from 1878 and are still in use today. In 10 short years (1888) there were over 100 active members attending every-other Sunday worship services alternating with Sunday School classes. The walls still retain the original wood wainscoting, and some door frames show signs of soot stains from wall mounted oil lamps.

In 1896 the original pulpit bible was stolen so a new one translated directly from Hebrew was donated to the church by Mrs. Sarenna Belle Miller. The bible was rebound at a cost of $80 as a gift for the church’s 100th celebration in 1978 and although fragile, is still in use. S. B. Miller’s name is written in pencil in the first page or so of the bible.

The last pastor to utilize the parsonage at Salem was Rev. Johnson around 1900. Somewhat dated but much needed further south at Fairview Park (since they recently joined the “circuit” with Salem), a prominent area carpenter named Martin Harper disassembled the parsonage in sections, hauled it to Fairview Park on hay ladders pulled by a team of 4 horses, and reconstructed the home continuing its function as a parsonage.

The growth of the church continued with a brick addition (the “Back Room”) which was added in 1902 and fundamentally changed the entire church layout. The two original north-side entrance doors were blocked off and altered to become interior doors providing access between the new “Back Room” addition and the Sanctuary. With a similar Roman Revival Architecture, the windows and transom above the door is more rounded-arch medieval style rather than the pointed-arched Gothic style of the main sanctuary. The practice of seating men and women separately had been discontinued sometime earlier and, with the center partition long removed, the main church entrance was changed to the south side, where it remains today.

Construction of the “Back Room” addition was largely directed by John Wesley Casebeer, a carpenter who
lived in Hillsdale, IN. He and Albert Miller (son of David Miller who owned and operated the ferry that
carried the original church bricks across the Wabash River) reconfigured the church by building a new
entrance at the south end of the building complete with a small vestibule (Narthex) with two large swinging doors leading into the sanctuary or (Nave – Latin for “ship”). The church building was represented as a ship sailing toward heaven with the passengers (parishioners) setting in the main body of the ship (Nave or Sanctuary), with the “gospel” area of the sanctuary raised and separated by an altar rail. The altar rail was designed and built by John Casebeer and Albert Miller sourced from native woods including maple, walnut, pine, cedar, and oak. The two original entrance doors were altered to become interior doors providing access to the new “Back Room” addition. At this time a partial basement was dug, and a coal bin added on the east side allowing for the installation of a central coal-fired natural convection furnace bringing the church into the modern era of centralized heat. This sanctuary and classroom configuration remains functional and intact today.

In the 1920’s the church walls began to “splay” outward from the weight of the roof and the church was in
danger of falling apart. Mort Miller, a renowned local inventor/machinist, owned a machine shop in Summit Grove. He and fellow parishioner Joe Helt (who also worked for Mort as a machinist) hand wrought and threaded large turnbuckles to run through the church walls at the pilasters. Over a period of several months, tightening them every week or so a few rounds, they “pulled” the walls of the church back together to plumb, which raised and supported the roof. These turnbuckles are still a major support feature for the church today and were used to hang large milk-glass pendant lights when electricity was finally installed in the church in the mid to late 1930’s.

In 1967, The Methodist Church merged with The United Brethren and the name was officially changed to
the Salem United Methodist Church. In February 1969, “new” used pews were purchased from the Center
Church near Libertyville, IL. These pews are made of oak, have a Gothic door design carved in the ends and match the sanctuary size and décor nicely. They were purchased for $25 apiece and increased sanctuary seating capacity to 108 when tightly packed. With the addition of padded cushions donated later by Kathleen Allen, they are almost comfortable!

In February of 1977, Salem United Methodist Church became registered on the National Register of Historic Places through the efforts of Patricia (Heskett) Crum. Patti and Dorothy Mae (Miller) Mussatto published a rather complete history of the church in September of 1977 (often cited here).

Later that same fall, Hillsdale water laid a water line, bringing running water and the possibility of indoor
restroom facilities to the church for the first time. In the spring of 1978, the congregation funded a new
annex designed and largely built by Swinford Construction Co. The addition was complete with a kitchen
area, a restroom and small fellowship/classroom area and air conditioning was added to the church for the first time. The church sanctuary and back room were air conditioned a few years later. The two outhouses located just a few yards northeast of the back room were also retired in the mid 1980’s, intentionally left for a while to be used by weary travelers along the highway. Waunita “Tiny” Farrington donated the outdoor picnic shelter in 1986. The outdoor sign was built in the same year in memory of Bessie & Elmer Swinford. Having served Salem Church in 1954-55, Rev. Wendell Adams returned to Salem in 1986 and served until his retirement in January 1999.

In February of 1999, Rev. Bill Felts began his ministry at Salem. Salem Church was awarded “The Small
Church of the Year” in the fall of 1999, became incorporated in 2001 and is now known as Salem United
Methodist Church of Vermillion County, Inc. With the influx of families with children, we started a youth
group named “KIC” – Kids in Christ. Vacation Bible School was always big at Salem Church and drew kids
from all around the area. Commonly, 20 to 40 children attended but youth activities flourished in the early
2000’s. Our biggest VBS ever was 2003 when 81 children attended with 33 adults helping. Our growing
congregation needed more space!

In 2003, plans were finalized for an addition to the church (fellowship room) to support our growing church family. The land for the new building addition was donated by the Mack (Leigh and Dick) Families.
Construction began with a ground-breaking ceremony held on March 14, 2004. This addition totaled 1920 square feet, complete with a mechanical room and private office and was designed to accommodate the entire church population and act as a backup sanctuary if needed. Construction was completed in four months and a ribbon cutting ceremony to dedicate the new Education and Fellowship Hall costing $200,777.09 was held on Sunday, August 15, 2004. During the summer of 2008, a new playground was installed for the many young children attending Salem. During the growth spurt experienced between 1999 and 2009, the congregation also got more involved in external mission activities including Chrysalis Flights, the Walk to Emmaus, Red Bird Mission, and UMCOR, utilizing the kitchen and fellowship hall for more and more community events, meals, Lenten and CAMA activities, as well as our own fundraising efforts. A senior group, the Salem Seniors also started having programs and really utilizing the facilities. Realizing the need for an updated and larger kitchen area, the board and trustees approved a much-needed kitchen and bathroom addition/renovation, which was dedicated on June 30, 2013, at a total cost of $71, 945.56. New clear glass sanctuary entrance doors were installed soon after, designed to making entering the church more inviting.

2014 saw the installation of new high-efficiency propane furnace for the sanctuary and in 2015, two 70-inch TVs were installed to assist with services and picture sharing. In the fall of 2016, a large gap opened at the wall and floor juncture all along the west side of the sanctuary. The soft brick foundation had eroded over the years allowing the floor joists to sink. Pads, beams, and screw jacks were added to support and raise the floor back to its original position. In early August of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a small concrete patio complete with a pergola and two memory benches were installed in the garden area between the sanctuary and fellowship hall. This space was designed to be used for quiet reflection and outdoor meditation, dedicated to the many saints who have passed through Salem Church over the years it has been a small beacon on the hill.

Pastor Bill Felts retired and dedicated his full attention to the 14th and Chestnut Mission in August of 2020 leaving a legacy of accomplishments as our church grew physically, prospered in the Word, and was
maintained well into the pandemic. We were blessed to receive Pastor Duane Caperton as our newly
appointed pastor effective September 15, 2020. Duane’s musical talents, counselling, and teaching
experiences bring a whole new dimension to our little church on the hill. Several current members are direct descendants of the early settlers responsible for bringing the Gospel to the area and building a permanent structure in which to worship and fellowship. Our hopes and prayers are that we, the faithful few, will continue to be a beacon of Christ’s Light shining brightly as we celebrate more than 200 years of ministry in the Helt’s Prairie area.

This comprehensive history was compiled from several actual church records and previous written histories including an account written circa 1902 to dedicate the Back Room addition, the 1928 50 th Anniversary of Salem Church, the 1978 Centennial celebration and dedication of the kitchen, restroom & classroom annex, and from area family documents and newspaper articles. Compiled by: Bob & Janet Heskett with the help of Arlene Mayes for the 200th Anniversary of Ministry in Helt’s Prairie, Rally Day and Ice Cream Social held at Salem United Methodist Church of Vermillion County, Inc. held on Saturday, September 17, 2022.