GREENFIELD — The same history talk that drew a standing room only crowd to Knightstown last fall is coming to Greenfield.
Beech Church, near Carthage, was named to Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list for 2016. Built in the 1860s, the church and a nearby cemetery are what remains of the Beech Settlement, Indiana’s first community of free black settlers.
A presentation by three descendants of Beech settlers packed the storefront of Historic Knightstown Inc. in September (Daily Reporter, Oct. 15, 2016, C1). In the audience were a few Hancock County Historical Society members. Seeing how successful the program was, they wanted to bring it here, said society president Rebecca Crowe.
Story continues below gallery
Priscilla Jackson Phelps and Phelps’ siblings, Doug Jones and Judith Jones, will speak about the history of the settlement and the church building, share the plan for restoring it, and outline how audience members can help. A question-and-answer session will follow.
The presentation is planned for 3 p.m. May 21 at the Chapel in the Park museum, located at the southeast corner of Riley Park, corner of Main and Apple streets, in Greenfield.
They tell of their ancestors, a group of free black people who arrived in the 1820s and settled where they did in part because of the Quaker presence in the area. Walnut Ridge Friends Church was nearby, and Quakers were known to be willing to sell land to black people and be neighbors with them.
The Beech Settlement, named for the beech trees in the area, grew to 400 people, Crowe said. Eighteen members had, between them, bought more than 1,500 acres. Over the years, however, small farmers found it more difficult to make a living and sought opportunities in cities. Crowe said fewer than six families remained by 1920.
A log church built at the settlement burned, and a new one with wooden siding was built around 1865. As the settlement’s numbers dwindled, the church closed in the early 1900s, Crowe said.
A donor stipulated the site could remain in the hands of the settlement’s descendants as long as it had at least one service a year. Since the first homecoming in 1914, the tradition has continued. The African Methodist Episcopal Church, the denomination the settlers chose by vote in the 1830s, sends people to conduct a service.
But Phelps, a Knightstown High School graduate, said she says a prayer as those gathered each year sit down on the wooden pews. The structure, which she said rests on four large boulders, bears the weight of its years.
When Indiana Landmarks named the church to its 2016 list of 10 Most Endangered landmarks, it also offered a grant from its Efroymson Family Endangered Places Fund to pay for an architectural study.
According to Indiana Landmarks’ website, restoring the church — by providing a more stable foundation and repairing its roof, windows and siding — will cost about $200,000
The Standiford H. Cox Foundation, a fund of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, offered a grant that matches contributions to the restoration. Church supporters have applied for another grant and are waiting to hear about it, Phelps said, and the church is in the first stage of the process to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
They are promising steps, but there is more work to do.
“We are still shy from our goal,” Phelps said.
Hancock County Historical Society will play host to a presentation by Priscilla Phelps, Judith Jones and Doug Jones at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 21, at Chapel in the Park museum, located at the southeast corner of Riley Park. Refreshments will be served before and after the presentation.