Bagpipes and Drums Commence Presbyterians’
150th Anniversary Celebration

About a week ago bagpipes were playing at El Dorado’s First Presbyterian Church, getting attention for a big anniversary celebrated by the congregation.

On that day, Jan. 12,  a “typical 1870’s worship service” was led by the Reverend Ruth Waite, interim pastor, and the Reverend Laura Frazey, Moderator of the Presbytery of Southern Kansas and pastor of the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Wichita at 400 W. Central

Contributing to the observance were the church’s chancel and bell choirs. The service concluded with a second performance by the Caledonian Pipes and Drums, a nod to the Presbyterian Church’s Scottish heritage.  

Linda Saunders provided the following history of the church

In 1870, Kansas had been a state for nine years, and El Dorado was a town of 400.  Transportation into and out of town was by stagecoach along a wagon trail between Emporia and Wichita.  The railroad wouldn’t arrive until 1877.

On Saturday evening, January 8, 1870, at 7:30 p.m., eight people met at the home of Dr. James P. Gordon for the express purpose of forming a Presbyterian Church in El Dorado. Who were these individuals?  Dr. James P. Gordon , age 61, was a physician and druggist, owning the J. P. Gordon and Sons Drug Store in El Dorado.  Living in the home were his wife, Martha E. Gordon, age 44, and his two sisters, Rachel Gordon, age 67, and Rebecca Gordon, age 49. Maria McGowan, age 30, was married to Dr. John C. McGowan.  A single woman, Anne McEnlear, was age 55.  Little information is available about T.R. Wilson and his wife Sarah E. Wilson. It is recorded that the Wilsons transferred their membership to the M.E. Church in Arkansas City, Kansas, in 1872.

The fate of the church was tied to the economic conditions of the fledgling town of El Dorado.  During the early 1870s, El Dorado and the surrounding area was plagued by a series of natural events – fires, drought, and two grasshopper invasions.  With damaged crops and facing starvation, many homesteaders left Kansas including El Dorado.  However, by 1877, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway completed a line from Florence to El Dorado.  Farmers and ranchers had access to markets.  That was a turning point.

The church received its first called pastor on June 1, 1871.  Pastor William M. Stryker served as pastor until September 14, 1874, difficult years in the life of the church. Construction of the church building started in 1872.  The congregation was able to fund and build the shell of a structure – walls and roof.  However, they lacked significant finances to complete the structure.  For five years the unfinished building served as storage for corn.

At the beginning of 1874, Pastor Stryker went back East to raise funds to complete the church building, yielding less than stellar results.  The church record describes the state of the church as follows:  “The past year has been to us a year of great spiritual death. While all around us the people of God have been revived, we have scarcely had sufficient spiritual life to mourn our low estate, and too lifeless to be sensible of the spiritual necessities.”

The church was without a permanent pastor from September 1874 until the arrival of S.M. Crothers for three months in 1876.  Pastor William M. Pocock arrived July 1, 1877, and the church construction resumed.  On November 25, 1877, the church was completed without permanent pews.  With the addition of permanent pews, the church was dedicated on April 7, 1878, with a membership of forty-one.  For the record, the church was built at a cost of $3,000 and adhering to a cash system, the church was debt free.

In 1885, a frame addition was joined to the west end of the existing church building, making the structure T-shaped at a cost of $2,500.  In 1887, the first pipe organ was installed thanks to the persistent efforts of Mrs. S.E. Black, the choir director. Unfortunately, the janitor was not consulted about the purchase as he was required to hand pump the organ during services.  

In 1907, the building was again remodeled.  Brick veneer was placed on the exterior walls of the church and art glass windows were installed.  Inside, the interior walls were covered with burlap, and metal ceilings were added.  The original pine pews were replaced with solid oak, and a new furnace was installed.  The dedication of the rebuilt church was held May 31, 1908, with much fanfare and celebration.

On October 6, 1915, the course of El Dorado’s history changed forever with the discovery of oil in the Stapleton No. 1 field.  The discovery of oil prompted an enormous shift in the regional economy and spurred a huge population growth. Scores of people arrived to work in the oil fields and to supply the oil industry and its employees with goods and services.  It also prompted growth in the membership of the church.

Discussion to build a new church started as early as April 1919, but attempts to raise the necessary funds were sporadic, and the project was put on hold.  In April of 1922, the Session entered into an agreement to purchase the school located on the church lot on the northside of the church for $650, and a building committee was appointed.  A congregational meeting was held in April 1923.  At that meeting, plans were on display, and the congregation voted to build a new church.  A second congregational meeting as held in October 1923 to report the effort to raise funds was insufficient to proceed with the plan.  Although there was a vote to dismiss the building committee, the meeting continued.  Once again the question was proposed, and the congregation voted to build the new church.  The original church would be razed and the new church would be built on the corner of Central and Washington.  The congregation would worship in the Senior High building during construction.

Architect Charles A. Smith of Kansas City, Missouri, delivered the final plans on July 26, 1924.  The Neo-Gothic styled building would be made of red brick with white doors and windows trim. The architectural style was carried out with the peaked-shape windows and doors, the ornate gutters, and the off-set steeple, topped with a weathervane.  The interior would also reflect the architectural style in the design of the main floor pews, the stairway newel posts, the copper chandeliers in the auditorium (sanctuary), the plaster panels at the back of choir loft, grillwork, and hardware. The interior was painted in tones of ivory and gray.

The lower level half basement contained a banquet room, kitchen, Primary Department, furnace room, and toilets. The main level consisted of the auditorium with a small pastor’s study and choir room flanking the choir loft.  The men’s classroom, assembly room, and ladies’ parlor were located at the north end of this floor.  The upper floor housed the balcony and the Intermediate and Junior Departments, each with its own gathering area and classrooms. A new pipe organ was installed.

It is instructive to note that on the architectural drawings, the openings for stained glass were labeled “old art glass.”  Several window openings were labeled “old art glass cut to fit.” Further, the oak pews in the balcony were of an older style.  One may draw the conclusion that the stained-glass windows and the 13 single and one double, old style pews in the balcony came from the 1907 remodeled original church.

The first service in the new church was September 6, 1925.  During the service, Pastor B. W. Young delivered the sermon with special music provided by a select quartet.  Mrs. E. E. Wheeler presided at the organ.  Proceeding the formal church dedication on September 27th, a church banquet was held in the banquet room on September 24th and an organ recital on the evening of September 26th.

Although church members enjoyed the new church facility, a dark cloud hung over the congregation.  In 1928, the church’s financial books showed that $20,000 remained to be paid on the construction loan.  Committees were formed but collections lagged.  In November of that year, the Trustees came up with a bold plan to pay off the existing debt by May 1, 1930. Thomas Ellsbury and Bernard Johnston chaired the committee. They took the bull by the horns, contacting members who had not fulfilled their pledges.  They made significant efforts to solicit new contributions and loaned the church some of their personal funds to repay the debt. Their efforts were successful. At year’s end, the construction loan was paid off before the Crash of 1929.

The Great Depression weighed heavily on the lives of the American people as well as the finances of the church.  According to the Trustees’ minutes from that time, the minister’s and janitor’s salaries were reduced significantly.  Most months, the church finances were in the red.  The Trustees would prioritize the bills to be paid and wait for the weekly collections to determine which bills they could pay while loans were secured to pay other obligations.

Other remodeling projects would be undertaken and completed to meet the ongoing needs of the congregation.  While most projects made changes to the interior footprint of the church, one project stands out because it added square footage.  Between 1985-86, a one-story addition was added to the west of the original building.  It included offices for the pastor and church secretary and main floor restrooms. The area in the basement included a choir room and needed storage.  A main floor entrance to the building next to the parking lot was created and an elevator was installed just inside the door.

The walls of this 95 year-old building encase the deep tones of the organ, the passionate voices of pastors, joyous voices raised in song, and the laughter of children.  This building represents our heritage and connections with those who came before.

Looking at our history, one truth emerges – change is inevitable.  There have been good times and bad, but the members of this church have persevered by relying on their faith and working together toward common goals.  As we celebrate our 150th anniversary and look to the future, this congregation will use the lessons and examples from our past to continue to strive to fulfill our mission:  Loving God, Nurturing People, Making Disciples.