Magnolia Heritage


The 49 Montgomery Alabama Stake youths piled out of their vehicles. Rakes, shovels, and axes were unloaded from auto trunks as they began to tackle the weeds, leaves, and debris around the old Magnolia chapel. They were continuing a tradition of service for the Church that stretches back nearly 80 years to the night of Saturday, May 8, 1897, when Henry McCoy and Grover Surginer passed a group of riders hurrying through the dark, wooded lane. The men’s faces were covered, which caused the pair to wonder.

“I recognized one of the horses, though. It belongs to John Garrett,” one of them commented as they continued to the bowery erected for the conference sessions being held in Magnolia.

When the men got to the crossroads where the bowery was located, they discovered that the seats, made of planks and sawed blocks, had been heaped together and ignited. The two men quickly put out the blaze.

The next day the members met again in conference despite the blackened ends of the seats. For them, persecution was nothing new. The missionaries had been tarred and feathered before and had eggs thrown at them. Converts reaped the ire of relatives and neighbors alike, but they didn’t quit. Service to the Church has continued into modern times.

Some of the youths were directed to begin digging around a stubborn four-foot stump. It wasn’t long before thick roots had to be chopped through with the axes as the young people laboriously dug deeper in their attempt to remove the old stump. It had been a stately tree when the Church took hold in that part of the state.

The tree had been young when Olivia Tucker McCoy joined the Church. In her diary she wrote: “We were baptized Oct. 3, 1897. My husband’s father had given him the place he settled on with the understanding that he would help him work and pay for that place and the one his father bought, but as it was his father’s he never got the deed. So, after we joined the Mormons his father told him he would have to move.”

Their little daughter had been burned in a fire in December, and they asked for time before moving the child but were ordered out. On January 3, 1898, “We put her in the wagon on a bed, moved to what they called the Coates place, and rented the same from Jim Smyly.

“The Christmas of 1898 I spent with my sister, a Mrs. Guinn, the one I lived with when I was married. But the folks didn’t seem just the same. You see, I had joined the Mormons and I was reminded of it.”

Nor did the early Saints forget it either. In 1913, with the aid of Elder Sellers from Vernal, Utah, and Elder Joseph E. Ward from Parowan, Utah, the Magnolia chapel was built. It stands now as the oldest LDS chapel in Alabama.

Before construction began, a mob gathered to drive the elders out. Mrs. Willie Autrey, a nonmember, stepped out with her gun and turned the mob away. So the Magnolia chapel was built and has stood through the years as a monument to the dedication of area Saints, early and modern.

The youths raked the weeds and leaves from the Church’s cemetery. The area around the building began to look neater, although the stump was not yet removed. The diggers were making progress when they stopped briefly for lunch.

Despite the persecution in the early days, a number of families joined the Church. Later many moved west—the Martins, Sealeys, Cranfords, Torberts, and others—leaving only a few to use the chapel and the adjoining cemetery.

Today, the old LDS chapel in Magnolia is used for socials only. A newer, larger building stands next door and is used by the 50 members of the Magnolia Branch.

The young people returned to work. The ancient, worn-out fence was pulled down, the rotted wood piled for a bonfire. That afternoon they held a testimony meeting, followed by a hot dog and marshmallow roast, which concluded at 7:00 P.M.

Perhaps as they worked or relaxed, they recalled some of the stories told about the chapel, including the time it caught fire during a conference in 1937. The blaze was caused by a defective flue to the pot-bellied stove. A bucket brigade was formed, and water drawn from the well was passed up to Heber B. Martin, who doused the burning wood.

The chapel has been the scene of a number of talks by various Church authorities, including mission president Charles A. Callis, who presided over the Southern States Mission for about a quarter of a century and later became a General Authority.

Sometimes as many as 30 missionaries would be in attendance at the conferences in Magnolia. Today, conference is held in the Montgomery stake center 100 miles east of Magnolia, but the small chapel, while no longer in official use, still stands as a reminder of the heritage of the Alabama Saints.

[photos] Photos by Ted and Joyce Squyers