An innocent request by a former area pastor aimed at preserving the historical documents and photographs of the 167-year-old High Street United Methodist Church in Springfield led Urbana resident and church historian Daniel Walter on a trip back in time. This journey, which led to the discovery of a close connection between the development of the city of Springfield and the church, is outlined in Walter’s first published book: “High Street United Methodist Church: A Comprehensive, Illustrated History.”
When former High Street UMC Pastor Jeff Allen suggested that someone from the church go to the basement of the 230 E. High St. building and look through three or four boxes, Walter, who was baptized at the church in 1948 and just happens to be a history buff, decided to take on the duty.
“I went down there and found 25 boxes,” he said. “I volunteered to go through them and make an attempt to preserve them and sort them, which I eventually did.”
While looking through the documents as he placed them in special archival boxes and sleeves, Walter – having grown up in Springfield – noticed something that caught his interest.
“Along the way, it became clear that the history of the church going back to 1849 was also essentially the history of Springfield and Clark County,” he said. “A lot of the movers and shakers in the community were members of High Street, so that’s when the idea of the book started to take shape.”
Walter, who holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Duke University and a master’s degree in English and American literature from Ohio University, said the 300-plus-page book, which was printed in November and took about a year to write, is “essentially an ongoing history of Springfield, Clark County, and to a lesser extent Champaign County.”
He added, “I tell people who may have zero interest in this book that there hasn’t been a history of Springfield written since the 1980s when William Kinnison, former president of Wittenberg, published one.”
High Street UMC, city of Springfield histories go hand and hand
After introducing his book to fellow church members, Walter said the response he received was similar to how he felt after going through the church’s historical documents: “People had no idea that the history of our church was so instrumental in the community.”
For example, Walter highlighted the fact the High Street UMC was the first Methodist church west of the Alleghenies to have family seating as opposed to having men and women sitting on different sides of the church.
As for the connection between the church and the development of Springfield, Walter said, “A lot of the same people who were in influential positions within the community were members of High Street. Not all, but a lot of them were.”
Former High Street UMC trustees William Whitely and Scipio Baker helped put Springfield on the map from an economic standpoint.
Whitely, who owned Champion Machine Company and is best known for his Champion reaper, opened a plant on East Street in Springfield in 1882 that was one for the record books at the time.
“He was quite the guy in Springfield,” Walter said. “He employed thousands of people at what was the largest manufacturing facility in the world behind only Krupp (Works) in Germany. His company ultimately became International Harvester or what is now Navistar.”
Baker was former president of the Champion Chemical Company in Springfield, which in the late 1800s and into the 1900s was one of the first big players in the funeral business. During Baker’s reign, the company, in operation today as the Champion Company, specialized in embalming fluid and air-sealed metal vaults.
While Whitely and Baker were church officials who helped shaped the Springfield economy, there were also members of the church who fought for social change.
For example, Walter’s research led to the discovery that Eliza Daniel “Mother” Stewart, who was involved in the social movement against alcohol and founded the Ohio Temperance League at Springfield in January 1874, attended High Street UMC.
“I expected from reading about her that she might have been a member of High Street, but nobody knew that until I found those records,” Walter said.
Book availability, next venture
Having had time to reflect on his first book, Walter is happy with how it turned out and how it’s being received by others.
“I’m proud of the prominence of High Street (UMC) people in the development of the community in Springfield and Clark County, and that I was able to parallel the church development and the development of Springfield,” he said.
The book is available at the church during business hours for $20 or copies can be mailed out by calling the church at 937-322-2527.
Having spent the majority of his career as a freelance writer and with his first book now in the rear-view mirror, Walter is contemplating his next venture, which takes into account his love of history.
“I just always considered it almost an obligation to learn as much as I could about everywhere I’ve lived, and the same goes for my family history,” he said. “Strangely enough, people in my family didn’t seem to have an interest in their own derivation. Since there wasn’t a big interest in my family, I’ve kind of picked that up.”
Walter’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Dan T. Davis, did write a history of that side of his family in 1955 called “Us Davises.”
Walter’s plan is to continue to add to his grandfather’s genealogical work.
“If he had not collected oral history of our Welsh ancestors, we wouldn’t have anything, and I would have had nowhere to begin,” Walter said. “My next project may well be to augment his history of the family.”
Joshua Keeran may be reached at 937-508-2304 or on Twitter @UDCKeeran.