City, church grew up in shadow of each other

Dan Whittle, The Murfreesboro Post, May 22, 2011

First Presbyterian Church building destroyed by the 1913 tornado.

Wartime destruction or devastating tornadoes could not keep the doors shut at Murfreesboro’s historic First Presbyterian Church.

Murfreesboro, the name, came before formation of First Presbyterian, but barely.  “When Capt. William Lytle donated 60 acres for downtown from the 1,200-acre grant ordered by President George Washington, he also gave a tract for a church where the Discovery Center now sits,” noted church historian/longtime member Bill Ledbetter. “Capt. Lytle insisted the name be changed from Cannonsburgh to Murfreesboro after his good friend Col. Hardy Murfree, and the downtown be located up on higher ground from the original location at Towne Creek and Lytle Creek…  “If you want to know more about the history of Murfreesboro and the Presbyterian Church, there’s a “historic drama” scheduled for June 5, at 5PM at the church’s current location at College and Spring streets.

“The Ghost of First Pres is free to the public,” noted play publicist Bart Walker, WGNS Radio owner/personality.  “It’s the church’s Bicentennial Historic Drama as the church and Murfreesboro celebrate Bicentennial years.

“Well-known local historian Susan Daniels, publication editor of the Rutherford County Historical Society, has provided detailed historic data for the dramatization, Walker confirmed.  When located on Vine Street, where Old City Cemetery is located today in downtown Murfreesboro, a Civil War general ordered the building torn down, and, according to popular legend, the bricks were used to construct Fortress Rosecrans leading up to the Tennessee’s largest Union/Confederate engagement, known today as the Battle of Stones River. But the Presbyterians kept the faith, and rebuilt after the Civil War at the present location.

“They saved the bell from the war,” Ledbetter informed.”  Church members hid the church bell out of the belfry from Gen. Rosecrans, and that bell still serves today,” confirmed Ledbetter.

“During the war, the Presbyterians sometimes met in the Rutherford County Courthouse.  After the war, when church construction resumed, they brought out the hidden bell… the only physical part of the church that survived the Civil War.”

102-year-old Smyrna resident Mary Frances Hooper Brandon, who has attended the church since age 4, recalls the Good Friday 1913 tornado that destroyed most of the original post-Civil War building.  “But again, they saved the bell,” Ledbetter confirmed.  “When it hit the ground as the tornado struck, they retrieved it and put back in the belfry.  The church organ also survived that tornado…”

“I recall often walking to church as a girl,” noted Mrs. Brandon, who still faithfully attends First Presbyterian each Sunday, along with her daughter, Judy Clemmons, of Smyrna.  “Sometimes, since my father, a clothier, often provided us with ponies and buggies, we rode to church.  I was in fourth grade when we got our first automobile…”

“The 1913 twister also destroyed my parents (the late Ed and Frances Hooper) clothing store and they relocated to the West side of the Square,” Mrs. Brandon shared.  “I recall (age 4) being big enough to walk, holding Mother’s hand, up to the pulpit, to be baptized along with my 2-year-old brother,” Mrs. Brandon noted.  “We were baptized at the same time…”

Changes she’s seen?  “Obviously, clothing styles have changed,” she recalled.  “When I was young, you entered church, sat down, and remained quiet.  There wasn’t a lot of yakking, I guess I should use word ‘fellowship’, it was more reverent then.  “Today, it’s like a picnic, but the Presbyterian Church has always had dedicated people.  Not large numbers, but dedicated.  I guess more people attend First Presbyterian today than any time before in our history.”

The Presbyterian movement began in Murfreesboro before the name change from Cannonsburg.  “They first met in a log cabin where the Discovery Center now sits, with no windows and no fire place,” Ledbetter traced back across three centuries of history.”

The history of Murfreesboro and the Presbyterians have pretty well paralleled each other…”  Amen!!!

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