Local Church Thrives After Several World Wars, Catastrophic Fire and Many Changes; Ooltewah Baptist Church Celebrates 150 Year Anniversary

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

This year marks Ooltewah Baptist Church being one of the longest continuously operating churches in the area as it commemorates its sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary with a three-day celebration from Sept 28-30.

Festivities will kick-off with an open-to-the public “150th Anniversary Co-Ed Golf Outing” from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28 at Waterville Golf Course in Cleveland. The outing fee of $50 includes golf, cart and lunch for participants. Anyone interested in attending needs to reserve a spot with Scott Harrington at Harrington.scott13@gmail.com or 865-583-9309.

Saturday’s free “Block Party” event on Sept. 29 from 2-6 p.m. takes place on the property of the church, 5514 Main St. in Ooltewah. The celebration will include a “Vision of the Decades” antique car show, games and fun for the kids (and kids-at-heart), free food for everyone at the “Dinner on the Grounds,” and music from Mountain Cove Bluegrass and the Scott Brown Band, with special attraction, Scott Brown’s horse demo with Dusty, featuring retired rodeo cowboy and pastor of the Cowboy Church. Everyone is encouraged to bring a chair, bring a friend and enjoy the fun.

Sunday morning’s “150th Anniversary Homecoming Service” will be held on Sept. 30 from 10:30 a.m.-noon. This special service and celebration will welcome familiar and new friends and family as the church honors those who played a role in its legacy and commemorates Ooltewah Baptist Church’s steadfast history. Former pastors, staff and local dignitaries are being invited to join this special event. Music will feature a glimpse of hymns from the ages to modern day. Following the service, a meal will be served in the adjoining Burl McMillan Activity Center to allow guests time to mingle and reconnect. Everyone is welcome and invited to join the church in this celebration.

Church History

The beginning of the church’s 150-year legacy began in 1868, shortly after the end of the Civil War, when Pleasant Grove Baptist Church was re-established as Ooltewah Baptist Church. The church originally shared the use of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church building, located on the corner of Ocoee and Main Streets in Ooltewah, along with the Methodists and the Presbyterians, each church meeting on different Sundays. In 1882, construction began for Ooltewah Baptist’s first church building at the corner of Main and Church Streets, across the street from its current location. The church completed the building in 1886, and membership was recorded to grow from 32 to 81 members.

The church and its members stood strong despite the numerous wars and challenges that rocked our world over the years. Many church members served in the military or were touched by World War I, World War II, Korean War, Viet Nam War and the mid-East wars. One long-time member, Loyd Walker,  now well into his nineties, proudly served as a Navy “frogman” during World War II. This new branch of the U. S. Navy was so secretive, that no one besides those directly involved knew what they did. This elite group swam ashore with explosives strapped to their bodies, with their mission to blow up any potential obstructions that could impede amphibious equipment from landing on the beaches. The name of this brave group was later changed to Navy Seals.

The Great Depression rocked the world, starting after a major fall in stock prices on September 4, 1929. A catastrophic stock market crash followed on “Black Tuesday,” October 29, 1929. The severe worldwide economic depression continued through most of the 1930s. But, as often happens during tough times, people flocked to the church and membership grew to 157 members.

Ooltewah Baptist’s church building underwent numerous additions, property acquisitions and reconstructions over the years. On Sunday night, February 5th, 1961, the church suffered a great loss. It was believed that the baptistery was being drained and the heating element had not been turned off. The unit overheated and started a fire that burned the original building and its contents to the ground. The deacons met that night and they immediately went to work. The church never skipped a service, as members met the following Sunday in an educational building across the street using a borrowed organ and piano, pulpit and hymnals. The building committee went into action and blueprints were drawn for a new sanctuary. On July 15th, 1962, the new sanctuary was dedicated, where, with additions and upgrades, it still stands and is in use today.

Current church members include three couples who are all now in their nineties and were childhood friends at Ooltewah Baptist Church. Peggy and Loyd Walker, Bettye-Jean and David Knisley, and Kathryn and John Echerd. Most state that they have been members of the church since they were young children. Peggy Walker claims that she went to the church while in her mother’s womb! They share great memories of the church’s history, some of which include the devastation when the church burned to the ground. 

One memory the group recounted was that of Pat Nunley, Loyd’s uncle, the bell ringer for the church when Loyd was a child. When Uncle Pat pulled the rope to ring the bell, Loyd would hang on to the end of the rope and happily ride the rope up and down. Even though the couples’ journeys through life led them to different areas of the country to follow military service and jobs, they returned to their home and home church in Ooltewah.

Tommy Key, another long-time member, said, “Ooltewah was the best place to grow up in the fifties. We had two creeks and a mountain to play in. Some of us boys from church would go up to watch the trains at Depot Hill. Why would you want to grow up anywhere else?”

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