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Little church in the wildwood

Little church in the wildwood

Homecoming at Wacahoota 

The faithful who reunite annually at Wacahoota UMC end their homecoming service by joining hands in prayer. Photos by Susan Green.

WACAHOOTA – It was a big day for the little church. The pine floorboards were swept, the 14 hardwood pews dusted, the windows opened – all stood ready to welcome the faithful, just as they have for more than a century.

People in Sunday dress took their seats, and a preacher in circuit rider garb stood at the chancel. Outside the open windows, another two dozen or so worshipers listened from the churchyard.

“People need to hear about Jesus,” said Rev. Will Clark, re-enacting the role of clergy from yesteryear. “If we don’t care about them enough to get on a horse and ride around and take them the sacraments … how do we know they will hear the Word?”

Pastor Will Smith administers the sacraments of communion
Pastor Will Clark, dressed as a circuit rider, administers the sacraments of communion to those assembled at a homecoming service at Wacahoota UMC. 

He pulled out a book of liturgy published by Cokesbury, the oldest he could find, dating to the Methodist Episcopal time period.

“It’s beautiful and poetic – we’ll use that,” said Clark, who every year tailors a sermon to suit an annual homecoming for a congregation that dates to the mid-1800s. The service ended with worshipers singing, “Come to the church in the wildwood,” taken from an old brown Cokesbury hymnal.

The message on Sunday, Oct. 18, was part commemoration of the role Methodists played when Florida was a wild frontier, part celebration that the little church still stands to receive worshipers and part exhortation to those gathered that they should meet regularly in a suitable church of their choice.

Wacahoota UMC, outside of Williston, got its start as a house church in the 1850s, Clark said. The Smith family gave land for a church, and a sanctuary built of logs was erected in the 1860s. It was the end of the Seminole War era in Florida, followed by civil war, and somehow two churches built at the spot burned down. A cemetery with at least one headstone dating to 1854 reposes across a clearing.

“I can stand right here and see Confederate graves right out there,” Clark told listeners, as he gestured from inside the church toward the front door that opened on a view of the final resting place for many parishioners past.

The one-room sanctuary where about 60 people gathered earlier this month was the third Methodist church built on the spot. Built of heart pine, that durable center of ancient pine trees that once stood in Florida, the building has stood for over 115 years, without electricity or bathroom facilities, remaining much as it was at its dedication in 1899.

It is one of the oldest Methodist churches in Florida still hosting some form of regular worship service. Pisgah UMC, Tallahassee, still holds weekly worship services in its sanctuary dating to 1854, and Middleburg UMC outside of Jacksonville still uses its 1847 building for some events, according to Nell Thrift, who oversees archives at the Florida United Methodist Heritage Center at Florida Southern College.

Worshipers in lawn chairs receive communion outside Wacahoota UMC
Worshipers outside Wacahoota UMC receive communion at the annual homecoming for a congregation founded in the 1850s.

The faithful who gathered for the Wacahoota UMC homecoming service were a mix of choir members and others who normally attend Clark’s other charge, First UMC, Williston, plus descendants of the church founders and others who have ties to the church or kin buried in the historic cemetery.

Some traveled from out of state to join the celebration and planned to return home that night.

Barbara Feaster, a former local resident who now attends Shiloh UMC, Micanopy, said she came to the annual service because her husband, Fred, who died two years ago, put the most recent roof on the small country church.

“I was thinking about Fred and that roof, and I just wanted to be a part of this,” she said of the annual gathering.

JoNell Smith and her husband, Wilbur Allen Smith, traveled from their home near Atlanta.

“We come down once a year,” she said, adding that the couple try to time their visit around the homecoming.

Her husband, 79, grew up in the community. The congregation stopped meeting every Sunday as far back as his grade school days, he said, but services were held in months with fifth Sundays for a long time.

He said his family traces its heritage to three brothers from Germany who settled in the area. Family lore suggests there was a Native American village in the vicinity where the brothers built a chapel.

“The first minister who came by to consecrate it was a Methodist circuit rider,” Wilbur Smith said.

Jim Smith, a descendant who maintains the cemetery and homesteads property adjacent to the church, said Wacahoota UMC still counts about 30 members, many descended from founding families. The structure is solid but sometimes costly to maintain.

Jim Smith looks for the date on a headstone in Wacahoota cemetery
Jim Smith, whose ancestors founded the church now known as Wacahoota UMC, checks for dates on headstones commemorating deaths in the 1850s and '60s.

In the 1970s, Jim Smith recalled, the Wrangler jeans company donated a substantial sum to film a commercial at the church because the producers wanted a rustic backdrop. The proceeds went to property maintenance.

Jim Smith said the company built a steeple adjacent to the sanctuary to enhance the look. But the addition had nowhere near the longevity of the original sanctuary. It deteriorated to the point it had to be torn down about two years ago, he said.

People native to the area pronounce the name of the community as “Wacahootee.” According to the State Library & Archives of Florida, the original name was spelled “Watkahootee” on a Seminole War period map and is thought to derive from “vaca,” which is Spanish for “cow,” and “hute” or “hoti,” which is Muskogee for “barn.”

Some historians say the name refers specifically to a cow pen owned by Billy Bowlegs, a well-known Seminole leader of the time period. Seminoles ran free-range cattle through the area in the 1800s and had enclosures for the occasional roundup. The church is thought to be the last relic of a settlement that once included a post office and general store.

Keeping the church intact is important as a reminder of how early Methodists went about making disciples of Christ, homecoming organizers said. Wacahoota UMC continues that legacy by drawing newcomers to the annual worship service, as well as offering an opportunity for old-timers to renew their faith. The building also has been used from time to time for baptisms, weddings and funerals, Clark said.

For the homecoming, the pastor based his sermon on Hebrews 10: 24-25, which reads in the old King James Bible: “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

“Because they come once a year,” Clark said after the service, “I try to make it something of a reminder of the importance of worshiping more than once a year.”

– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor. Freelance writer Mary Ann DeSantis contributed to this story.