January 19, 2011

New life at Old Corner Church in Waterboro

A local group is working to preserve the structure, which dates back to 1804.

By Deborah Sayer dsayer@pressherald.com
News Assistant

The First Baptist Church of Waterborough (also known as the Old Corner Church) once was located in the busiest section of town and boasted the largest Baptist congregation in York County.

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This photo shows The Old Corner Church in Waterboro as it appeared in early 1900s, with the church at right, the Old Corner Schoolhouse on the left and its old the horse sheds in the center.

Photos courtesy Friends of the Old Corner Church

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The church still looks good, despite the work needed.

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The building still rests atop its original 1804 foundation on a grassy, gated knoll. But town central has long since moved, and with it an active congregation. The church closed in the early 1940s due to declining membership. It has since sat empty, except for the few nostalgic services it hosts each year.

A group of neighbors and history buffs stepped in to care for the aging building. Many of them are the children of former congregants who value the church as the town's oldest known public building and one of the few structures to have escaped the flames of the 1947 forest fire.

The group got the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. And, in 2004, the nonprofit Friends of Old Corner Church, formed to preserve the historic integrity of the structure.

Money comes primarily from a few annual fundraisers, like a ham dinner, and grants. The dinners generate just $600 or $700 per meal and grants are hard to come by since the group does not yet hold the deed to the property. Even so, the group has overseen projects to restore the exterior front and sides of the church has committed to a projected $20,000 job on the church's rear, assuming no structural damage is found when the aging clapboard siding is removed.

Treasurer Linda Hanscom, 70, of North Waterboro, believes the key to ensuring funds for the church lies in revealing the stories of its past.

The group has turned to yet another town treasure to provide those details: 93-year-old historian Esther Smith.

Born and raised on the family farm in South Waterboro, Smith was a farmer's wife and mother of two, who discovered her gift for writing and recollection later in life.

She returned to school at age 60 to take typing classes and began typing her memoirs of rural life in the early 1900s shortly thereafter. Those accounts were published in a series of newspapers articles nearly three decades ago. Now Hanscom is working with Smith to compile those stories in one book, with sales benefiting the church restoration fund.

"Esther is well known for her knowledge of area history and one of the few people who can tell us the history of this church," said Hanscom. "In fact, Esther is one of the main reasons that our group was formed. She was worried about who would care for the church after she is gone. We think that people, especially newcomers not familiar with the town's history, will welcome having this collection of her stories in one booklet."

According to Smith, the original building has undergone several renovations in its 200-year history, most notably in 1849, when the building's height was reduced by 7 feet "from the ground up." Then, two second-floor balconies removed, the sanctuary's slanted floor was leveled and an elevated pulpit was lowered. Those alterations were thought to make the unheated building more energy-efficient. There was no electricity in the space, therefore lighting and heat were provided solely by candles and tin boxes filled with hot coals to keep the women's feet warm.

Smith recalled her late grandmother Addie Phoenix's tale of maintaining her composure during one lengthy sermon, when a mouse ran up her heavy wool skirts.

"My grandmother caught the mouse (within the folds of her skirt) and held on tightly until the sermon was done so as not to make a fuss," said Smith. sermon's end, the poor mouse had slipped into eternity.

Smith spoke of church suppers, ice cream socials and the congregation's annual Fourth of July picnic, when people would hitch up the horse and buggies and tote freshly made pies and lemonade to Ossipee Lake for a day of swimming and fun.

Those musings likely will be included in the book, along with Smith's recollections of growing up on the 150-acre farm and attending a one-room schoolhouse on a property adjacent to the church.

Now legally blind, Smith relies on Hanscom to help her put her stories in order. But it is no chore for the women, whose families were an integral part of the church's history; Hanscom's mother was a Sunday school teacher there, and Smith's father, Ivory Smith, was a deacon.

Esther likely inherited her passion for recording history from Ivory, who always kept the book, chronicling the church's history, on his desk.

"My father always told me 'If this house ever catches on fire, and you can carry anything out with you, make sure it's this book,'" said Esther of the church diary. The book now rests in the hands of the Maine Historical Society.

Soon Christopher Closs, Maine Historical Society field service preservation adviser, will visit the Old Corner Church to assess the building's condition and help the Friends group create a viable preservation plan. One item high on his recommend list will be to encourage the group to secure the deed to the property.

Closs finds the group's dedication and service to the building remarkable, considering that they have not financially benefited from the work.

I guess you'd call that a labor of love.

 

Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: dsayer@pressherald.com

 

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