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Church to celebrate 200th year
Photo by Joseph Koziol Jr.
Pastor Harry D. Buch and his congregation are looking forward to the 200th anniversary of Burton Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, on Aug. 22.
Church to celebrate 200th year
By Joseph Koziol Jr.
If walls could talk, those of the Burton Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, would have much to say about the town where history lives.
The church, which was founded just a decade after Burton's first settlers arrived, has stood witness to 200 years of the town's history.
This month, the congregation of Burton Congregational Church, will be marking its 200th anniversary with a number of special activities. The public is being invited to be part of the historic event.
The celebration begins at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 22 with an alfresco feast, followed by an evening of jocularity, stories and songs. Tickets are available at the church office, 14558 W. Park St. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for children 10 and under.
On Aug. 23, various musical groups of the congregation will offer a concert in the sanctuary, followed by a reception. The following day, a special worship service is planned at 10 a.m. with a number of former ministers and representatives of the wider church in attendance and participating as worship leaders.
The first day of the celebration is being held exactly 200 years from the day the church was formed by a group of eight members in what was once the expansive wilderness of the Western Reserve.
"The Congregational Church in Burton was organized Tuesday, Aug. 22, 1808, by the Rev. Enoch Burt, another missionary of the Connecticut Missionary society," according to an account by Elwell O. Mead in 1894.
Mr. Mead wrote that few settlers had arrived in the Western Reserve, an area that stretched for 120 miles along the Lake Erie shoreline to an east-west line just south of Youngstown and Akron.
"When the first settlement was made in Burton (1798) there were only 125 white people on the Reserve, but when the church was organized Burton had about 30 families and the population of the Reserve had increased to 16,000."
The church, according to current Pastor Harry D. Buch, still contains much of the original construction with hand-hewn beams evident in the basement, although numerous renovations have taken place in the church's history. More importantly, he said, the church has continued the tradition of serving the community.
"This congregation understands its place as a positive role in the community," Rev. Buch said. "We don't go out tooting our own horns about it. We're a very quiet, but effective network."
Whether its providing a food bank for those in need or a space for community groups to gather, the church has been there for the community, he said.
That tradition of serving the community has been a part of the church from nearly the day it had its own place to gather. Initially, church members met at members' homes.
"The first meeting for the public worship in Burton was held at the house of Isaac Clark, a little east of Beard's Mill, about a mile and a half west of Burton hill," Mr. Mead wrote.
For the first seven years, there was no regular pastor, Mr. Mead wrote.
Its first pastor, the first for Geauga County, was a Rev. Luther Humphrey. Rev. William H. Armstrong, who chronicled the church's history in 1983, wrote that the Rev. Humphrey was a staunch prohibitionist, who may have had a lasting affect on the area.
"His was the first dwelling in Ohio to be 'raised' without the benefit of whiskey," Rev. Armstrong wrote. "His ministry must have had an enduring effect for long after the repeal of prohibition the Township of Burton was to remain 'dry.'"
While the congregation waited for a house of their own, they met at the academy on Burton Square as well as the ballroom of Peter Beal's tavern on the square and at a schoolhouse that once stood on the square.
The church building that now serves a congregation of about 268 was built in 1836 at a cost of $4,000. It was originally located on the square. Rev. Buch said his best guess is that it occupied a space where the gazebo now sits.
Jane Kay Gonczy, a church member who wrote a history of the church in 2008, noted that the new church was an impressive sight at the time for locals.
"The building was large for its time and a matter of township pride. It was 30 feet from floor to ceiling with galleries on the sides and rear and a conference room over the vestibule," she wrote.
In 1850, the church was moved from the square to its current location using large beams, horses and soft soap to grease the skids.
In 1875, some of the greatest changes were made to the structure.
"In 1875, a floor was built across the height of the old galleries, which were removed, thus making the building two stories, the upper story being the audience room and the lower story the Sunday school rooms, parlor and kitchen," Ms. Gonczy wrote. "A steeple, rising 104 feet from the ground, crowned the roof in the front center, and the audience room was frescoed and furnished with new seats and pulpit."
Mr. Mead wrote that from the time the church rose on the square, it found use by the community.
"It stood upon the public square and was frequently used as a public hall," he wrote. "In it, one man was tried for murder. On the brick floor of its vestibule, in the first days of the war, was often heard the tramp of the soldier boys drilling. Its walls have resounded with the marvelous eloquence of school boys on exhibition days ... It was for many years used as the main hall for the Agricultural Fair (the forerunner of the Great Geauga County Fair)."
Coming from Elyria in 1999, Rev. Buch said he was amazed when he first stepped into the church. The ceiling, lined with wood slats, was in the shape of a ship's bow turned upside down, causing him to think it must have been built from the remnants of a ship.
For him, coming to lead such a congregation rich in history was a drastic change from the urban scene in Elyria. "It was Norman Rockwell come to life," Rev. Buch said. "I heard that it was a great place to raise kids and I found that to be true."
He said he also found a congregation that devotely loved its historic church. "Devoted people through the years have really taken care of it," he said.
Ms. Gonczy noted the congregation's dedication. "We cannot begin to mention the names of all the church members who have given untold hours of volunteer help over 170 years in order to nurture and protect the building proper. A great deal of energy, ideas and love can be seen in every crack and crevice."
Each time there has been a need for the church, he said, the congregation has come through. When an $80,000 elevator was needed to make the worship space accessible to all, the congregation pulled together to raise the money.
Each year, he said, a group of volunteers prepares and serves dinners from September through May. Money raised is given away to meet the needs in the community "that may have fallen through the cracks." Rev. Buch said those dinners have raised $100,000 for the community.
The church has had steady membership with some families going three or four generations back. He said the church's oldest member, Lois Newcomb, now residing in North Olmsted, plans on being at the chruch's celebration.
The church, founded on the principle to "live rightly and preserve fellowship," is open to all. "We have the conservatives, theologically, sitting next to and talking to and getting along with those who are liberal theologically," Rev. Buch said.
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