A Short History of First United Methodist Church
The history of the First United Methodist Church and that of the city of Burlington are closely intertwined. In August of 1833, a man named Dr. William Ross crossed the Mississippi river and arrived in the small settlement of Flint Hills bringing with him a valuable stock of goods and a deep spiritual conviction. At that time, the settlement consisted of only a few log cabins clustered close to the river. Dr. Ross soon erected a cabin on land where River Park Place now stands. He opened a store to sell his goods and, in addition to being one of the first store keepers, he was the first postmaster, doctor, druggist, county clerk and surveyor of the original plat of Burlington. The original boundaries of Burlington were from the river west to Boundary Street (now known as Central Avenue) and from North Street to South Street. Dr. Ross was so important in our city’s early history that he has been called the “Father of Burlington.”
During the winter of 1833-34, Dr. Ross corresponded with Peter Cartwright, a presiding elder of the Methodist Conference in Illinois, about the need for a church in the new settlement. Peter Cartwright sent his young cousin, Barton Cartwright, to the little settlement. He arrived in late March of 1834. On April 27, 1834, Barton organized a class of six members in Dr. Ross’ cabin and thus our church was born. We have been told that often there were too many people to fit into the little cabin and the people met in the “grove” ( a timber around the cabin where North Hill Park is now located). Our history tells us that there were often many Indians worshiping along with the Methodists.
Old Zion – As the number of worshipers grew, Dr. Ross felt that the need for church building, so he purchased land on North Third Street between Washington and Columbia and gave it to the new congregation. It is said he also bought bricks, sand and gravel to get it started. The new church was enclosed and partly completed by 1838. It was a plain two-story brick building. The sanctuary was reached by steps leading up to an open platform that ran along the front of the building.
It should be remembered that at this time Iowa was not yet a state – that didn’t happen until 1846. It was part of the Iowa Territory and the legislature of the territory needed a place to meet and the only place large enough was the new church building. President Martin Van Buren gave permission for the territorial government to meet in Burlington. Three sessions of the legislature of the territory of Iowa met in Old Zion from 1838 to 1841. Our historic records also showed that the church was rented to the Supreme Court of Iowa and the District Court of Des Moines County. With money gained from rental to the legislature and a festival fund raiser, the church’s backless seats were replaced with pews, the front platform was replaced by a dignified two-story vestibule and a belfry was added. A handbill prepared by S. J. McKinney for the Burlington Daily Telegraph in 1851 advertising the fund raiser stated that “Old Zion needs a new roof” and thus gave the church its name. The Annual Conference recognized the name at its meeting in 1854. From that time on, the church was known as Old Zion. During the early years of the Old Zion church it was also used as a school and a court house. There was even a time when Iowa troops were stationed in the basement during an Iowa/Missouri border dispute! A bell weighing 1,400 pounds with its yoke and frame was purchased for the new belfry. It was used not only to call people to worship but as the town’s fire bell. There were several times when no one was available to open the building and the doors of Old Zion were chopped open to get into the building so the “fire” bell could be rung.
In 1881, it was decided that Old Zion was too small for the growing congregation. It was sold and torn down to make way for an opera house. Today there is a large stone with a plaque on top that tells about Old Zion. It is located across the street from the Burlington Police Station on North Third Street.
Ebenezer - At certain times of the year and after heavy rains, Hawkeye Creek (which now runs through a large storm sewer under the tracks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad) flooded, making it impossible for people living on the south side of town to attend worship on the north. Consequently another congregation was established for the convenience of those living on the south. It was called the South Burlington Mission until the Ebenezer Methodist Church was built and dedicated on September 23, 1855. It stood on the northwest corner of Fifth and Division where the former Tom’s Market used to be. With the sale of Old Zion, the congregations combined until a new church could be built and the name was changed to the Division Street Church. In 1881 the Iowa Annual Conference changed the name of the combined congregations to First Methodist Episcopal. By 1885 the congregation had outgrown Ebenezer and new church was desperately needed.
First Church – It took many years and much deliberation to decide where to build the new church. Several sites were considered including Fifth & Division, 7th and Washington, Boundary Street between College (now University) and Market (that one was considered too far away) and the southeast corner of Fifth and Washington. Dr. Charles Stocking, whose specialty was new churches, was assigned as the pastor. The southeast corner of Fifth and Washington Streets was selected and G. W. Kramer, from Akron, Ohio, was hired as the architect. He drew up plans for a handsome building in what was known as the Akron style. The stone selected was jasper or red granite from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was shipped down the Missouri River and up the Mississippi River to reach Burlington. In 1888 Ebenezer was sold to Bethany Lutheran church (though the congregation kept meeting there until the new church was completed) and construction on the new church began. The church was dedicated on August 4, 1889, three weeks earlier than expected! The organ was moved from the Ebenezer church, as well as the bell which had originally come from Old Zion.
Recent History – The church building was remodeled in the early 1960’s with a rededication ceremony on September 10, 1967. The rear balcony was removed and the overflow area floored to create 3,400 square feet of classroom space for children. The narthex was enlarged, and a cloak room, ladies’ lounge, crib nursery, kitchenette and minister’s conference room were created. New pews were installed to form a center aisle and two side aisles. The pulpit and choir areas were lowered to the main floor level and the rose window was once again visible after having been covered by organ pipes for fifty years. At the center front was a white marble baptismal font. The pulpit stood three steps higher and resembled an open bible. Up four additional steps was a white marble altar. The organ was also rebuilt at this time by the Temple Organ Company, using parts from the existing fifty year old instrument. In 1968 the Methodist denomination joined with the Evangelical United Brethren to become the United Methodist Church. The name of our church was then changed to the First United Methodist Church – the name it has today.
In June of 1994 a campaign began to repair our 105 year old stained glass windows. Considerable deterioration had been discovered following an explosion at the ADM grain elevator which shook the city. The repair was undertaken by the Decker Studios of Winona, Minnesota. The large windows were taken to their studio and those remaining were repaired on site.
The next large project was the installation of an elevator and ramps for handicapped individuals to meet accessibility guidelines. A ramp from the parking lot was placed at the southeast entrance and another was installed at the northwest entrance, providing access from Washington Street to the sanctuary level. An elevator that reached all floors of the building was placed inside the southeast entrance and a lift was installed to facilitate entry into Ross Hall. This project took place in 1997. The elevator and lift were consecrated on December 14, 1997 and dedicated on January 16, 2000.
The sanctuary was remodeled again in 2000. This project included plaster repair and painting, updating the heating system, adding air-conditioning in the sanctuary and removing the multiple levels in the chancel area to create a more useable space for special worship experiences. The organ screens were changed to restore an appearance more in harmony with the architectural style of the building. Consecration took place on January 28, 2001.
A screen and projection system were added in 2004. The system was used for the first time on All Saint’s Sunday, October 31, 2004 and was well received.
In December 2005 a digital marquee-style sign was installed on the Washington Street side of the church building. The objective was to increase the community’s awareness of our ministries. This cost was paid for primarily with memorial gifts honoring Bette Niehaus.
When the church’s heating system boiler failed in November of 2006 it was replaced in time for the Christmas holiday. Shortly thereafter the women’s restroom on the sanctuary level was renovated and became a unisex/family facility. The kitchenette was also remodeled to better facilitate coffee preparation and cleanup. These projects were completed in March or early April of 2007 and were paid for through the endowment fund and memorial gifts.
On April 29, 2007 the church building fell victim to an arsonist’s fire which gutted the interior of the structure leaving only the walls standing. The arsonist was caught, convicted and sentenced to spend thirty five years in federal prison. Thus began the long and arduous process of rebuilding our church home.
For a short time following the fire, our congregation met with that of the First Congregational Church in their sanctuary. The Congregational Church members were between ministers and it was of mutual benefit to welcome our members and pastor. Our congregation began meeting at Grace United Methodist Church on Angular Street in September of 2007.
At a Charge conference on July 29, 2007 a building committee was elected. They led us through the next twenty months of meetings, planning sessions and discussions. An option to buy land on Mason Road for the possible construction of a new church building was secured. The firm of HLKB Architects of Des Moines was hired and plans were drawn for both a new church at the Mason Road location and reconstruction at our downtown site. On April 26, 2009 a vote of the congregation was held to decide whether we would build new on Mason Road or rebuild downtown with the additional purchase of the Stoermer Building, directly south of the downtown site and fronting on Jefferson Street. Rebuilding downtown won by a narrow margin of five votes.
At a Church conference on July 26, 2009 a new building committee was elected. Construction bids were let and Ball Construction Company of Des Moines was the ultimate winner. Following a lengthy abatement process of asbestos and other hazardous materials, construction finally began on July 1, 2010 and the official groundbreaking ceremony took place on July 11. The reconstruction of the church building has been completed and the first service in the restored building was held August 25, 2013. The work on the Loft on Jefferson (previously called the Stoermer building) continues.