In the early morning hours of April 1, 1973, fire struck the historic Elgin First United Methodist Church. A quiet calm was replaced by frantic activity as the word spread quickly throughout the community of Elgin. Elgin Volunteer Fire Department members, church members, neighbors and friends all rushed to the scene where the blaze was finally controlled by the fire department.
Since the fire occurred on April 1, many who received calls about the fire thought it had to be an April fool joke that was ‘in bad taste.’
There are no records at the fire department past the 1980s and the 1973 book with that year’s Elgin Couriers also was not available at the Courier office. It was rumored that lumber/building materials being used for improvements to the annex might have been left on top of the floor furnace in that area, but that was not confirmed. A letter dated in May of that year from the church to the fire department members read, “Because of your splendid work and the work of others in stopping the fire in time, we feel we will be able to restore our sanctuary building to its original condition.” The letter was signed by Phillip Knowles, who was the Chairman of the Administrative Board. It had been estimated that the cost of restoring the facilities would amount to $200,000, according to church minutes. However the Building Committee was able to cut the costs to $141,000.
On April 2, a congregational meeting was held at the First Baptist Church to determine a course of action; the members overwhelmingly voted to restore the annex and sanctuary. Pastor Bob Blackwell read I Corinthians 12:27 to those present: “Now you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.” One of the ways the committee lowered the restoration cost was to not replace the original pressed tin ceiling in the sanctuary. However, Shirley Lundgren led the group to use a portion of the original ceiling to provide the border along the top of the sanctuary ceiling.
In a frenzy of activity on April 1, the grand piano was pulled to the church’s side yard where members removed the top of the piano and poured water out of the instrument that was a memorial gift. There were towels being used to dry out the inner parts of the piano that is still used today. The pipe organ was damaged extensively with the pipes being near the annex where the fire was thought to have started. The organ had been given to the church by the Rivers family and had a mellow tone that was impossible to duplicate. A committee, composed of chair Elizabeth Caudill Rivers, Zoe Webb, Glynda Schroeder and Shirley Lundgren, was formed to purchase a replacement pipe organ. The organ is still recognized as the ‘Rivers Memorial Organ’ due to the generosity of Elizabeth Rivers Caudill and the Gene Cherry Stayton families, in memory of their parents, longtime members of the church.
Mary Gregg Christensen remembers that fateful morning, as she and Jimmy Lee lived nearby and were aware of thick smoke and activity in the neighborhood. Their son, Paul, a junior at Elgin High School, was told to gather some of his high school friends and help with the removal of the church pews. Muffet Harden was among those who cleaned and dried the pews before Kay Hicks, his sons, Kevin and Russel and others loaded them on a flat-bed truck of Kay’s and took them to Lawson Rivers’ cotton warehouse for storage. Those pews are still used today.
Miraculously, many historical things survived the fury of the fire, not the least of which was the beautiful stained glass windows that have glorified the sanctuary since it was built in 1905. The efforts to save the artist’s rendering of Christ knocking at the door on canvas that was attached to the wall right next to the pipes of the organ were successful. The canvas was undamaged, thanks to the efforts of several church members including Paul Abel, Joanna Hicks, Shirley Lundgren and others. Joanna recalls that the canvas had become loosened from the wall because of the dampness from the water, and they carefully removed the undamaged canvas and rolled it up. It is attached to its original location and is admired by many today.
Amazingly, the Chrismons, stored in the attic, were saved, with only a little smoke damage to be cleaned. These decorations for the Christmas tree, lovingly crafted by members of the Susannah Circle, still adorn the Christmas tree each year in the sanctuary. This was just one of the miracles that accompanied the devastation and heartbreak that morning.
Church services were held that very morning, April 1, on the grassy lawn under a tree near the Fellowship Hall. Pastor Bob Blackwell conducted a prayerful and emotional time of worship, and L.B. Harden remembers a mockingbird helping the pastor preach and out-singing the congregation! From that Sunday until May, FUMC members were graciously invited to hold their services at the First Baptist Church. Services were held after that in the FUMC Fellowship Hall.
The congregation experienced great compassion from the community and from afar, with former members and friends voicing their concern and giving donations for the renovations. There were 25 churches within the Elgin FUMC District that donated to the restoration project. The carpet in the sanctuary was less than a year old when the fire occurred and the Brock Henderson family, who had donated the earlier carpet, also donated new carpet for the sanctuary.
While reconstructing the annex, a church parlor was furnished and equipped by the local United Methodist Women, with Shirley Lundgren as president. Special memorial gifts helped to make the parlor an elegant place for parishioners to meet.
On the first Sunday in March 1974, services were again held in the beautifully restored Gothic sanctuary. Dedication of the restored sanctuary was on June 9, 1974 with Bishop O. Eugene Slater as the speaker. Former pastors, former members and friends were guests of the service and the meal that followed.
The community, local churches—especially First Baptist Church—members and former members all came together to lovingly assist the congregation in any way possible.