For the past 125 years, the people of Oak Hill Christian Church have gathered on top of one of God’s rocky-top Ozark hills in the White Rock community. It is here they sing hymns of praise and collectively raise their children with “the wisdom and admonition of the Lord.”
I have come to attend the Sunday service today, to write about the tenacious presence of this little stone church and its congregation of 55 members, some whose roots dig five generations deep into the rocky soil of this hilltop.
Arriving at Oak Hill’s scenic perch, I drove to the end of Highway ZZ’s blacktop, turned left and continued down a mile of dirt road. The church lane is steep and between two low water crossings, “Douglas Ford,” where early members washed away worldly sins and began life anew in Christ, and “Coyle Crossing,” named for an early resident and 1905 church deacon. It is possible to get “rained in” during church service at Oak Hill and possible to get “rained out.”
“We once ended up with 14 people in our house Sunday morning,” said Garry and Rita Jensen, members whose home is just before Coyle crossing. It was Rita’s father, Walter Douglas, who laid the stonework on the “new” church building, constructed just east of the old one in 1984.
The back door of the church overlooks a rolling green valley and the tree-fringed edge of Little Piney. It is a breathtaking view; the rocky hills of the Ozarks, tamed and tempered with green grass and fat cows, its boundaries marked with rock-pile corner posts.
The early settlers of the White Rock community came after the Civil War from Kentucky, Tennessee and Germany. They brought with them a belief in hard work and an attitude of “service to the Lord.”
They cleared land, picked rock, planted and raised their crops and families.
In the beginning
By 1884, the salve of progress was beginning to ease the bitter wounds of the Civil War. People were moving to Texas County in hopes of finding a new start and true claims made by real estate men of agricultural miracles and cheap government land. The nearby settlement of Houston was booming, and toward the end of the year, businessmen would be successful in incorporating Houston into village status.
The White Rock settlement, 10 miles northwest of Houston had an established German Lutheran church where services were conducted in the German language, but March 5, 1884′ the people of the community determined that a “common place of worship should be built.”
Money was pledged, and 12,000 wooden shingles were purchased. Drinking water was carried to volunteer builders from the log home of Willis Green Douglas, who deeded the hilltop site for the building, in water pails and community dippers, newly purchased for $1.25. Timbers were cut, and lumber hand-planed. Hardware and two wood stoves were ordered and shipped to the still-new Cabool train station. It was said “nearly every family in the community gave something, even several of the German Lutheran families.”
The men juggled farming tasks and construction under the direction of head carpenter Ike Yoakum who built the ornate, pine pulpit still in use, today.
Besides blisters, sore muscles and tired backs, there was one listed casualty. Robert Wall, grandfather of Houston’s Dr. Joe Wall, severely cut his foot with a broad ax while hewing sills. He could not walk for several months, no doubt a hardship for his wife, Sarah and their eight children.
It would take two years to complete the small, ship-lap sided church with the large stone steps and the coal oil lights. The congregation met every week and hosted traveling evangelists, but did not have a regularly paid preacher until 1906 when Brother Bart Thomas was hired to preach once a month.
I am one of the first to arrive at the church door. Ushers and brothers John Malam and Chester Malam stand ready with a welcome and a program. Both have attended this church since moving to the White Rock community in the 1960s. Chester and Leslie Malam were the first to be married in the new church building May 24, 1986.
Sunday School began at 9:45.
Marilyn Malam, John’s wife, played “Dwelling in Beulah Land” on the piano with a familiar ease acquired from decades of practice. She grew up within walking distance from the church. It was her great-great-grandfather Willis who donated the property. “I began playing when I was 12,” she laughed. “I will occasionally get some days off…like when my children were born!”
I decided to join the “older adults” Sunday school, where 84-year-old Russell Koch is teaching the lesson “Putting on the Armor God” today.
“Study,” said Russell, “is the first step.” He has been a member all his life. His mother, Etta Wall Koch, was daughter of Robert Wall, a charter member, and his father, Christian Koch was listed as an elder, circa 1910.
“Koch is German,” he said, “but we always came to the Oak Hill instead of the German Lutheran Church.”
A Sunday school offering is taken for support of church camp. The youth have always been a focus. The church has a regulation size gymnasium that was constructed in 1998 where basketball and volleyball games are played.
A buzzer signals a five-minute warning to wrap it up.
The congregation re-convenes and Marilyn’s piano carries the singing, “He Invited Me.”
Diane Moore, Houston High School math teacher and Malam sibling, shares a reading about living in the Ozarks, and yesterday’s success of the kids’ day of fishing.
Brent Kell, Houston High School girls’ basketball coach, spoke the communion message, comparing our search for the Word of God to our reluctance in asking for road directions.
Communion is open to all believers. “We are all Christians only, but not the only Christians,” said Wendy Crockett, pastor’s wife, citing the Christian church’s motto.
Pastor Don Crockett’s delivers his message of “opening our hearts to others,” from the original 1884 pine pulpit.
The blonde curls of Jacina and Aubrey, the pastor’s two young daughters, peek above the back of the pew. They are nestled comfortably under the arm of favorite buddies.
After church, I was encouraged to return, and families dispersed to Sunday dinner destinations. I loitered, looking at the view and driving down the church lane, I turned left to Douglas Ford. It is hard to imagine a day when the Little Piney was deep enough to cover the sins of those confessed. Today, we would be in trouble. Only 6 inches of water runs over the cement pad. The air is cool, and the spring foliage is thick with poison ivy and the blue blooms of spiderwort mingling without malice.
In such a natural setting, it is easy to imagine the early days of the church, the dusty roads, the deep ruts made by family-filled wagons pulled by teams of horses and then later, bone jarring model-Ts, all congregating on top of the hill overlooking God’s green earth.
There have been many changes; the original building was replaced in 1986, and a parsonage was built in 1991.
But much remains the same.
The archives tell of fish fries, ballgames, and picnics. Future plans include fish fries, ballgames and picnics.
It was at the 1984 centennial celebration, Houston’s building trades instructor, Stanley Moore, presented plans for a new building. Stanley is married to childhood sweetheart Diane Malam, and his grandparents attended Oak Hill. He is an active participant in the plans for this weekend’s 125th anniversary celebration.
When Willis Green Douglas donated land in 1884 he had no idea his investment would reap the attendance of his great-grandson, Walter and wife Laveda Douglas and the following three generations 125 years later.
Doris Douglas said in 1984, “Today this people, who rather than the building are really the church, have a dream just as those saints of 1884, to provide a proper house of worship where we may serve Him and our children, and our children’s children.”
The roots on the little church on the hilltop have run deep into the rocky soil. They hold firm.