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METHODISM CAME TO PORT NECHES IN 1881

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from W. T. Block, "Methodism Came to Port Neches," YELLOWED PAGES, XI (Aug., 1981), 123-126;
also, W. T. Block, "Methodist Movement Follows Midcounty's Growth," MIDCOUNTY CHRONICLE (July 22, 1987), p. 26ff;
also W. T. Block, SAPPHIRE CITY OF THE NECHES (Austin: 1987), Ch. V, pp. 109-115.

When W. E. Parsons, an early citizen of Port Neches, penned the history of his church in 1942, he cited a quote from Edward Everett Hale, which so profoundly portrayed every forgotten circuit rider who ever carried the tenets of Methodism into the wilderness:

"No blaring trumpets sounded out his fame; he lived - he died - I do not know his name."

And so it was with the unknown Christian soldier of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, who first preached on the banks of the Neches River at Grigsby's Bluff, now Port Neches. It may have been Alexander Hinkle, Jarvis L. Angel, Lacey Boone, W. H. Cotton or any one of a dozen other saddlebag preachers who traversed the "Alligator Circuit" of Southeast Texas in the early days; his name has vanished amid the mists of time.

In 1981, First United Methodist Church of Port Neches celebrated its centennial anniversary. It was there on September 6, 1881, that Rev. W. H. Crawford organized the first Methodist congregation in the home of Mr. and Mrs. William Gentz.

Except for a small sawmill and a shingle mill, Grigsby's Bluff possessed no industry worthy of mention until 1902, the year that Central Asphalt and Refining Co., later to become Texaco, built its roofing and asphalt plant there. In the same year, the town's name was changed. For fifty years, the population had remained steady and strictly rural, with about thirty farm families scattered from Smith's Bluff, the site of Union 76 refinery, to the present city limits of Groves.

Half of the earliest residents were German-speaking immigrants, who probably had been Lutherans in their native Prussia, but found no church of that denomination in Jefferson County. Early immigrants included Frederick Rexas, Frederick Behlke, George Christian Gentz, Fred Gentz, Charles Gentz, William Gentz, George Block, William Block, Charles Block, Albert Block, George L. Block, August Schramm, John Wiltz, Mikiel Staffen, Karl Meinke, Henry Wendt, Henry Wendling, Joe Block, Adolph Block, Leopold Block, August Block, and John Kline.

Native-born families included John C. Beaumont, Jack Beaumont, Sam Lee, B. G. Whittington, Oliver and George Keith, Albert Smith, 'Bud' Smith, Sam Remley, Henry Heisler, W. G. Gentz, Will Merriman, Marion Merriman, Otho Merriman, Walter Merriman, Albert C. Block, Will Block, Sr., Martin Block, Charles Hemmingway, Albert Staffen, Charlie Staffen, Jim Rachford, Robert Rachford, W. M. Nelson, Seburn Berry, Radford Berry, Levi and Lastie Hillebrandt, D. A. Bibb, and D. W. Sampson.

The first congregation had only sixteen members. The earliest services were conducted in the homes of the Keiths, Smiths, Beaumonts, Gentz, Remleys, Klines, Sampsons, Lees, Nelsons, and Merrimans.

According to the late George Keith, Rev. Crawford once commented about the hardships of his circuit-riding days, which resulted in the establishment of the Port Neches congregation, as follows:

"In 1881, I served Sabine Pass and Terry Mission (Orange County) and elsewhere in Orange, Hardin, and Jefferson Counties," Crawford reported. "I traveled 200 miles each month and organized a church at Grigsby's Bluff of 16 members. Alligators, which infested Taylor's Bayou by the hundreds, were the only inhabitants of what is now Port Arthur. I was once lost between Grigsby's Bluff and Taylor's Bayou in a dense fog, and came near losing my life."

As the turn of the century approached, newcomers to Midcounty helped swell the membership, and some descendants of the old Prussian families embraced Methodism. New additions to the church included the J. B. Cooke family of Nederland, Fred Wood, Miss Verna Gibson, the Will Block family, and Miss Maude Lonsdale, an early Port Neches school teacher.

Usually, a foot-pedaled organ accompanied the services. Coal oil lamps and lanterns lit the sanctuary at night. As was then the custom, women sat on one side of the church and men on the other. Sometimes worshippers brought lunches, prepared for an entire day of services. Although a Sunday School was conducted each week, circuit riders came only infrequently until well into the twentieth century, with rarely more than a single service each month.

About 1885, George Rexas sold a house to W. P. H. McFaddin of Beaumont, who soon mounted it on rollers and wagons as he attempted to move it. When his equipment broke down, he offered to sell the house for $100. Because of the generosity of Margaret Keith, Port Neches acquired its first church building, which was also used as a school. (This building at 504 East Port Neches Avenue and Sycamore Street still stands, being long since converted into a residence.)

In 1894, as Port Neches developed more toward the west, Emory "Bud" Smith allowed the congregation the use of a one-acre tract at Port Neches Ave. and Nall Street, but did not convey the title to it. Later, when the land, on which had also stood a combination church and school building, was sold, Dr. J. H. Haizlip of Nederland bought it and sold it to the Methodists for only $150, even though the congregation had offered him $550 for it.

This additional expense being added to the $125 annual preacher's salary, it appeared at one time that the members might default on their indebtedness. Conrad D. Wagner of Nederland, however, loaned them the money to clear all of their obligations and, although they repaid a part of the loan, he graciously cancelled the balance.

Between 1885 and 1916, the Port Neches Methodists continued to be served by circuit riders or by preachers who pastored two or more churches. Most of them remained only one or two years, and the list of ministers is too lengthy to elaborate further.

Reverend W. M. Sherrill organized the first Epworth League and Missionary Society in 1904. In 1903, Rev. J. C. Kee lost his life while attempting to swim the Neches River on horseback.

From 1913 to 1915, Rev. J. C. Stewart pastored the church, followed by Rev. M. F. Wells in 1916. In 1917, Rev. J. L. Redd preached here twice each month. (While in Port Neches in 1918, Rev. Redd's son, Pvt. J. L. Redd, Jr., was killed in the U. S. Army in France.) Although Port Neches was still sparsely settled, wartime employment at the Texas Company (Texaco) asphalt plant bolstered the enrollment of the church substantially.

The writer can recall a few families who united with the Methodist congregation before or after World War I, including Martin Wagner, W. E.Parsons, A. C. Mullins, Bruno Huval, Amos Tenner, T. A. Barnes, E. S. Bellair, B. E. Bigler, W. H. Garrett, J. M. Bland, Dr. J. G. Welch, C. E. Nicholson, Fred Nelson, A. L. Brooks, C. M. Miller, H. Burkhart, Mrs. M. McConica, B. J. Knight, E. M. Wilkerson, and Wesley McKee.

By 1917, the membership totaled about 100, and it became obvious that they could not tolerate the cramped quarters of the old building much longer. Electric lights had already been installed. When weather permitted, Sunday School classes met on the lawn outside. But Rev. Redd informed the board of stewards that he would not sponsor a new building program until the membership increased.

Anna Block (later Mrs. B. J. Knight) tried to enlist the aid of her father, a steward and trustee, to sponsor a building program in defiance of the minister, which he refused to do. Undaunted, she mailed a number of unsigned post cards to members bearing the following message: "There will be a meeting at the church Wednesday night to consider the building of a new church."

When the members convened, Mrs. H. Burkhart and Will Block explained the purpose of the meeting and the unauthorized mailing of the post cards. Each headed the building subscription with a $100 donation. Before the meeting adjourned, $700 had been raised, and a $500 donation from the Texas Company was soon added. In the fall of 1919, the new sanctuary was completed, with the Carter Lumber Company holding a $3,600 mortgage against it.

During the years before a bank was organized in 1920, A. C. Mullins, as church treasurer, was often entrusted with sizable sums of church funds. To safeguard it at night, he sometimes placed the money in a cotton sack and "used a large chinaberry tree in his yard for a bank, tying the sack up high in the thick branches."

In 1920, Rev. W. E. Hassler became the first full-time pastor and remained until 1925. Membership quickly jumped to 250, with an average attendance of 200. In 1921, the adjoining parsonage was completed, giving the church a solid frontage of one block along Port Neches Avenue.

Rev. Hassler also conducted the first Vacation Bible School in Texas, perhaps in the entire South, which lasted two months and was eagerly attended by adults, young people, and children. By 1925 when Hassler wass transferred elsewhere, the church indebtedness had been paid off and the mortgage burned.

During the ensuing years, Bro. Hassler was followed by a number of popular and industrious ministers, including as follows: Revs. T. C. Sharp, 1925; L. T. Brothers in 1927; R. E. Connell, 1929; T. I. Beck, 1932; Harry Rankin, 1933; M. S. Jordan, 1936; S. P. Wright, 1937; and F. C. Adams, 1941. In November, 1941, Rev. Hassler was returned by the conference for his second pastorate. Following his retirement in 1956, he returned to Port Neches to reside, and he continued as associate pastor until 1972.

By 1942, the church had again outgrown its sanctuary, but World War II would delay the erection of a new sanctuary for seven years. Church membership by 1942 had jumped to 460, with an average Sunday School attendance of 200. The Board of Stewards had grown to eighteen, and sixteen Sunday School classes met each week in the educational buildings.

A new church site at Nall and Eugene Streets was purchased, and during the second pastorate of W. E. Hassler, the present sanctuary was constructed in 1949. In 1954, the present parsonage was built by Rev. L. A. Reavis, and in 1960, the educational building was added under the pastorate of F. D. Dawson.

In 1979, the pipe organ was installed and dedicated to the memory of the beloved Rev. and Mrs. W. E. Hassler, each of them only recently deceased. The present pastor (1981) is Rev. James M. Frazier (who continues to the present day-1988), ably assisted by Rev. Gary Leinhart.

A century of church history always represents the accumulative efforts of many ministers and laymen. Those who have labored in the Port Neches Methodist vineyard in the twentieth century are most often the best recalled and recorded. So often, though, the endeavors of so many early circuit riders and pioneer church members remain entirely unidentified and unheralded, and like our unknown soldiers of past wars, their religious exertions are, and must remain, known only to God.

Copyright 1998-2018 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, the material published on this site is copyrighted by William T. Block.
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