Looking Back over Baldwin County and the Loxley Methodists
The following information was gathered from discussions with members of The Loxley United Methodist Church over the last 12 years, records that can be found at the church and on the U.S. Census website, unless otherwise listed.
Immigrants from all around the world were settling in Baldwin County after having spent their primary stay elsewhere in the country. Daphne received the first immigrants who were Italians, the Castagnolli brothers and Domenica Trione. Soon many more Italian families from Chicago joined them. In Fairhope a group of settlers came in forming a “commune” type environment. Here all of the families pooled their resources and bought land, grew crops, and managed their children and education all for the betterment of the “community.” This had some of the other residents and colonists uncomfortable as they called this group “a bunch of crazy Yankees, with crazy ideas.” The commune style group attracted a group of Quakers who also settled in Fairhope. Potatoes and corn were the primary crops grown by most.
In Silverhill, just west of Robertsdale, a Scandinavian settlement had taken roots. Their focus was on dairying and truck farming. A store owner, located on a hill in this quaint community, insisted on being paid in silver rather than paper currency. Hence the name “Silverhill” was born. Later satsumas were introduced to the area by Mr. Johnson. In 1904 A. Norden opened one of the first “Traveler’s Hotel” and soon after a group of Bohemian families settled in Silverhill. The growth continued and in 1926, 400 families strong, Silverhill was incorporated.
A few miles southeast from Silverhill the German immigrants were focusing on an area called Elberta. During this same time, 1905-06, families from Poland were looking to settle in Summerdale. Both, Summerdale and Elberta, had lumber companies importing the immigrants to their area. These families were recruited because of their excellence in farming and would eventually migrate to other areas in Baldwin County. Jason Malbis, of Greek, decent, decided to settle in an area just east of Daphne after tasting a piece of watermelon grown in Baldwin County soil. The Malbis family erected the Orthodox basilica to give their residents a spiritual feel of “home”. Other growth in Baldwin County was also occurring as French-Canadians moved to Fairhope, Croatians, or Jugoslavs to Perdido, and an Amish group to Bay Minette, known as the “Hooker Mennonites”. All of these immigrants brought with them their own unique cultural diversity and the most current farming techniques to be shared and learned by others. This growth would soon bring in the railroad to connect the south end of the county to the north and gave the ability to move large quantities of marketed products quickly. (Burnette, 2007, pp. 24-30)
With all of the changes that were taking place in the early 1900’s in Baldwin County, the Town of Loxley was also founded. Meanwhile, in 1898, a small group of folks were gathering at a one room local school house for Bible studies on Sunday afternoon. They would sometimes have a local pastor from Belforest lead the study but most times were on their own as the laity took turns leading. About ten years later this small group decided to form a church about ½ mile south of the school at a location just east of the big cypress pond. This was the beginning of the Loxley Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In 1909 the Loxley Methodist Episcopal Church, South was formally established and within five years began construction on a Sanctuary. Formed with 14 charter members on the books the church had been in the works for some time. One hundred years later, the Loxley United Methodist church has grown to almost 300 members and still gathers for worship in the same area as it began.
However, in the beginning, one thing lead to another and families in the town began working together as the large timbers were floated across Mobile Bay and then hooked up to big wheeled carts pulled by horses, oxen and mules across the dirt trails all the way to Loxley. In a letter addressed to Mr. McConnel, who was the pastor here from 1940-43, Beatrice Saxe gave a brief history as best she could recall. Dated August 19, 1943, she wrote her children were small and she remembered Mr. Comstock was the builder. She also mentioned how the people arrived at Sunday school. “People came in various conveyances, wagons, buckboards and buggies, while others walked from as far as two miles, some three miles away.”
In our historical records I also found information stating the church was built in 1914 with Mr. Saxe playing an integral part in the building process. This record also states that Mr. Comstock supplied all of the bricks used in the building, bricks he and his sons formed themselves. March 3, 1909 is the earliest record we have on membership and 1925-26 are the earliest quarterly conference records we have. We also have some membership records of area churches we were with, in multipoint charges, one of which is Robertsdale UMC. In 1923 we both had Rev. Horn as our pastor but no minutes are available to tell what may have taken place during any gatherings. In the spread sheet, we were asked to put together, I show a continual increase in Baldwin County’s population from 1900 to present. Also, the projected growth is expected to be over 70% by the year 2020 in Baldwin County. During the years 2000-2020 the projected growth in Baldwin County is estimated to be more intense in Loxley than most of the other regions in Baldwin County. (Villafana, D., 2008)
In comparison we also had a continual growth in church membership. Over the years The Loxley UMC has been linked to eight different churches within its charge lines. However, there were never more than five churches on the Loxley charge at one time. Over the past one hundred years there have been several wars/conflicts involving the United States but none have affected the membership or attendance significantly. Two other changes that could have affected the church growth were the restructuring of the Methodist Church in May of 1939 and April of 1968. However, again, this had no significant impact on the membership or attendance of the Loxley Church. I found it odd that neither the wars nor the changes in the Methodist church were mentioned in any of the board minutes available. Loxley has always been much diversified in its make-up according to the age and sex of its members. Children and youth have always been an active part of the church and the ratio between male/female has fluctuated only a little with the female population always the majority.
With the information available to me, I have also discovered that the members of the Loxley church are from several walks of life. The folks attending Loxley Methodist Church currently are: in farming, some in construction (labor force), some in education industry (teaching and administration), and many in retail as well as a few business owners and retiree’s. For the most part they are middle income earners and 75% live within thirty minutes of their work. There are a few businesses in the area that have over 100 employees but many of the businesses are much smaller. Within the last five years there has been multiple retail stores built in the vicinity. Prior to WWII farming and timber were the main industries in Baldwin County. Roger Barnhill, now deceased, told me how some of his family was in timber and most were farmers but in the late 20’s early 30’s he decided to try out the industry of turpentine and he became very successful, much to his family’s disapproval. Irish potatoes, cotton, sweet potatoes, corn and soybeans were the most common crops in the early to mid 1900’s. A few years prior to WWII a family owned business, Flowerwood Nursery, opened in Loxley. Flowerwood has grown to be the largest family owned wholesale-nursery in the south. Other than a few times of accelerated growth, probably due to the personality and gifts of the appointed pastors, Loxley Methodist only faced one time of near closing. In 1996-97 there was a devastating split among the members and the attendance, at times, had dropped below 30 a week. The financial state of the church was near ruin and the spiritual well being was at a bare minimum. The District Superintendent was called in on several occasions and special meetings were held to try to patch up the damage. Apportionments hadn’t been met in years and membership was declining at an alarming rate. However records do not necessarily reflect the magnitude of the damage, it was severe. The church had been deemed “stagnate” for some time and off the record talk was of closing the doors. Fortunately, Baldwin County was still growing at a rapid rate and was considered by some to be the #1 County in the State with building and growth. Three of the area churches were growing and there was talk of starting a Methodist church in Belforest – five miles west of Loxley.
The Town of Loxley was receiving invitations from several businesses wanting to come into their incorporated boundaries in 1998 and growth was increasing in this little section of Baldwin County. Another change in Loxley in June of 1998 was the appointment of a new pastor at Loxley UMC. This was his first appointment and even though many believed the Loxley Church may have to close its doors soon, God had other plans. Many things worked to turn things around in this struggling church and they followed suit with what the county/town was doing and they too began to increase in membership. Being actively involved in the community as well as the church becoming a community again has helped in building the church in many ways.
A few thoughts to ponder as I reflect on my current research have me thinking about some of the pastor’s reports of the early church at the quarterly meetings. Change of leadership has been the single most important factor in church membership and attendance in the life of this church. On more than one occasion they reported on the work of the Sunday school classes, and emphasis on promoting Christian education and the reading of the “General Rules”. Today Sunday school classes barely exist in many of our churches and in others they have been replaced with “small group” meetings taking place in various locations on various days. Christian education is well thought of today but that is it, “thought of.” As for the general rules, the only time they are read now is if you study Methodism in a classroom setting. We have set them aside as a means of direction though they group all of the rules in three simple categories, all of which demand accountability; Evils and Sins to be avoided 1-16, Good Offices and Works to be done 17-22, Ordinances to be observed 23-28. (Manual of Methodism, 1879) In our celebration of 100 years in ministry I was pleased that we received a proclamation from the town, had a record turnout for homecoming and a dinner on the grounds that would have fed the multitude. Yet, I am saddened by the fact that we live in a world that operates as if the General Rules are simply part of our history!
Unfortunately, what I have learned in doing research for this class is far more than I can include in these few pages. Changes in the growth of Baldwin County have been increasing for the past one hundred years but there have been some small rate decreases. There was a decrease in the rate of growth from 1905-1915, but immediately after WWI there was a serious increase in growth until just before the Great Depression, 1929. Through the years of the depression there remained only a slight increase in the growth except for a period prior to WWII. During the Korean War the growth actually stopped for a while but eventually took a positive turn during the Vietnam War in the 60’s. Around 1975 there began another direction in the growth rate which carried through the devastation of Hurricane Frederic and the building of I-10 bridge over Mobile Bay. From 1985 till 2005 the growth rate took a significant upward turn as the growth rate reached a record breaking 42.8%. From 1990-2000 Baldwin County also had an increase in domestic immigration exceeding 30,000. From 2000-2005 Baldwin County had the second highest growth rate increase in Alabama. (Villafana, D., 2008)
I was impressed with how much I didn’t know about my current church, especially since I had gone through some of this material in recent years. Going through the history with an agenda makes one do so much more thoroughly than not having one. I believe three keys to a successful ministry are by following God’s word, community involvement and the realization that growth is more than numbers.
- Burnette, O. Lawrence Jr., 2007. Historic Baldwin County: A Bicentennial History (Historical Publishing Network. San Antonio, Texas).
- Faulkner, Jimmy., 2007. Byways of Baldwin County (New South Books. Montgomery, Alabama).
- Hawley, Bostwick, D.D., 1879. Manual of Methodism; The Doctrines, General Rules, and Usages of the Methodist Episcopal Church (Phillips and Hunt. New York).
- McLaurin, Melton A. and Thomason, Michael V., 1980. The Image of Progress: Alabama Photographs 1872-1917 (The University of Alabama Press. University, Alabama).
- Villafana, David., 2008. Baldwin County Profile: An Analysis of the Demographics and Other Characteristics that Constitute Baldwin County (Baldwin County Planning and Zoning Department).