The sign out front reads “Gainestown United Methodist Church, Established 1919,” however, Gainestown United Methodist Church is actually older than the sign states. The 1919 could possibly indicate when the congregation joined the United Methodist Church, but even that is up for debate. What the beautifully handwritten records do show is that a congregation was meeting and keeping active records as early as 1812. In 1812, the church was known as the “M.E. Church at Suggsville.” In 1817, it was called the “Methodist Church, Gainestown, Alabama.” It is unclear if the Gainesville and Suggsville were the same community at one time or if the congregation moved from nearby Suggsville to Gainestown.
The founder and first pastor of the Methodist congregation was Reverend Joshua Wilson. Wilson, a native of North Carolina and a Revolutionary War veteran, came to Gainestown around the year 1817. Wilson has been called the “founder” of Gainestown. Wilson’s son, Dr. Joshua Sanford Wilson had the antebellum home that is now called the Wilson-Finlay House built in 1846.
In 1854, a two-story church building was built. The top level was used as a masonic lodge and the lower level was used for worship services. For 57 years, the building served the needs of the people of the bustling town of Gainestown. In 1911, a tornado devastated Gainestown and destroyed the two-story structure, along with many other businesses. The congregation resolved to build the current church from salvaged materials of the first church building. It was built on the same plot of land, but the foundation was laid in a different place.
Seven generations of Terri Lancaster McLemore’s family have attended Gainestown UMC. The church is special to McLemore who has spent much time preserving the written history and cleaning the aging tombstones of the cemetery so that they can be read. The cemetery itself is unique. It is shaded by pines and cedars and contains many plots of families that lived, worked, played and worshipped in Gainestown. The age of the oldest grave is not known because it is believed, based on the evidence of uniformed imprints in the ground, that there are unmarked graves of Native Americans, slaves and others who lived in the community whose graves were not marked or have lost their markers to time. These indentions in the ground are consistent with the shape and size of a typical grave and are located in the back of the cemetery.
Nature has not always been kind to the quaint wooden structure with the “simple pretty” stained glass windows. Ninety-three years after the church was rebuilt from the rubble of a tornado’s aftermath, Hurricane Ivan roared into the Gulf and brought with it destruction that the area had not seen for decades. The church remained on its foundation this time, but not without significant damage. The 2004 storm caused heavy damage to the roof and to some of the interior furnishings. Again, the resolve of the Gainestown faithful rose to the challenge. A new roof, updated wiring, and carefully selected light fixtures were added. Even after repairs in the modern era, the simplistic nineteenth century vibe can still be felt in the building.
Dr. William S. Pitts wrote a hymn based on his travel through a river valley in Iowa in 1857. The stagecoach he was traveling on stopped to give passengers a moment to stretch and Pitts happened upon a valley near the Cedar River. In his mind’s eye, he envisioned a church in the valley and wrote the lyrics to “Church in the Wildwood.” Several years later, Pitts returned to the area to see a church being built on the spot that he had foreseen. Pitts never made it to Gainestown, Alabama, but his description of the little country church by the river rings true for the “Gainestown Church,” as iPhone maps have labeled it.
“Come to the church by the wildwood
Oh, come to the church in the vale
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale
How sweet on a clear Sabbath morning
To listen to the clear ringing bells
It's tones so sweetly are calling
Oh, come to the church in the vale.”
The congregation of Gainestown Methodist Church remains faithful. The body of believers meets on the first and third Sundays of each month at 11 a.m. Rev. E. C. Russell is the pastor. Homecoming services are hosted each October.
Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.