North of Kirksville on Highway B sits Bear Creek Church and Cemetery. What was once the first church in Adair County now has a gaping hole in one of the walls. The inside has even more decay — collapsing floor, signs of disuse and disinterest, and a rotting piano. To the general public, this church is just another building that grew old and unwanted, but for the people who know its history, this church is worth preservation and attention.
Blytha Ellis is the president of the Adair County Historical Society and has a special interest in Bear Creek Church and Cemetery — seven of her relatives are buried there. She is one of the few people left who knows the rich history of Bear Creek Church and cares about its preservation.
Ellis said even before the church was erected, there was a congregation. The first records from 1838 indicate the members would meet in their homes. She said the church was being built in the 1850s, but construction was put on hold during the Civil War. Production resumed after the war ended, and community members built the pews to go inside.
Ellis told the story of the first minister of Bear Creek Church, a man named Louis Connor. In January 1858, he hosted a revival during which many people were converted, and many wanted to be baptized. They cut a hole in the frozen creek so Connor could baptize them. He died of pneumonia a few days later.
“Do you know why the church has two doors?” Ellis said. “It was traditional that the men sat on one side of the church, and the women sat on the other. So they had two doors to go into — one for the men, and one for the women.”
While church services ended in the early 20th century when people began moving to other congregations, the church was used for burial services long after.
The cemetery is the only part of Bear Creek that has seen upkeep through the years, with only enough funds to mow the lawn.
The building’s manager Scottie Mihalevich cannot find a way to have the church demolished. She tried to donate the building to the Adair County Rural Fire Department for a controlled burn for training purposes, but because of the way the wood foundation was cured, burning the building could cause environmental harm. The wood used to build the church is old, rendering its boards useless for building something else. Even the cemetery association did not have the money to get the building demolished.
“It’ll probably just sit there until it falls,” Ellis said.
Mihalevich has made many efforts to have the building restored. She applied for the church to be named on the historical registry, which was granted in 1984. She applied for several restoration grants to fix the building and has been denied on the basis that the church is too far out of town, which would create problems with theft and traffic.
Ellis said Mihalevich reached out to First Baptist Church, since the women of First Baptist put out a commemorative plaque recognizing Bear Creek Church in 1946, to no avail.
“We had called the church to see if they were willing to help us get a grant or help us do something about it,” Ellis said. “But the person we talked to said that they didn’t even know anything about it — so I think it’s kind of been forgotten, you know — and that they weren’t interested in it.”
Ellis said someone cut a hole in the side of the church earlier this spring and moved the wood stove before it was sold, presumably to steal it. The hole in the wall has not been fixed.
“Scottie tried to donate the wood stove as well,” Ellis said. “But it was solid iron, and we thought it would be too heavy for the floors at the Museum. She was able to sell it to someone.”
The pulpit, two pews and the light later installed on the front of the church now can be found on the second floor of the Adair County Historical Museum, along with much of the historical texts of Bear Creek Church.