The first sermon delivered in this territory that became our county was probably in 1831 by John Dunham of the United Brethren at the home of one Matthias Rhinehart. This was at a time when Urbana and Champaign County was sparsely inhabited and this area was a part of Vermilion County. Also about that time a Rev. William Peters lived in the Salt Fork timber and used to travel and preach over much of the area. Rev. Peters preached what was called a “free salvation”, for he never asked for compensation for his labors. He didn’t exactly follow the instructions Jesus gave his disciples-to carry neither purse nor script in their wanderings either. For it is said that he often carried with him upon a preaching tour, a barrel of whiskey to retail among the people. On the Wabash River he could purchase whiskey at 20 cents a gallon and sell it at his appointments for 25 cents a quart or 50 cents a gallon. The money he profited gave him as good an income as the average pastor received at the time. The people not only regarded this as acceptable, but thought it a religious duty to buy their whiskey from “Uncle Billy”, as he was affectionately called, thereby assisting in the spread of the gospel and at the same time securing a supply of whiskey.
The first Methodist who came to the area was Rev. James Holmes who appeared at the settlement in Urbana in 1835. A millwright by occupation, he was attracted here by an offer to build a grist-mill for a Mr. John Brownfield as no such facilities existed west of the Wabash yet. Holmes saw the opening for evangelical work, like a true missionary, and accepted the call and set about proclaiming the gospel. Preaching in the settler’s homes and in a nearby school house he organized the first Methodist Class in Champaign County about 1836. This class subsequently developed into what became known as the Urbana Mission, the Urbana Circuit, the Urbana Station, and eventually the First United Methodist Church of Urbana.
In the year 1839 Rev. Arthur Bradshaw came to the Methodist Class in Urbana, which had grown into the Urbana Mission by then, with the desire to minister to and organize what was still at the time a frontier area. Bradshaw had served previously near the Wabash River. In short order Methodist Societies were organized north and east of Urbana and then the preacher headed to what was called Old Homer. He arrived on a Sunday morning searching for a place to preach but nothing was available, no hall, no house, no church. Someone in the town suggested he try the little white house that was in the north part of the village as it served as a meeting place for dances twice a week. The owner of the home, Dr. Harmon Stevens, and his wife consented to letting Rev. Bradshaw preach there on the Sabbath as they didn’t hold dances there on Sundays. Before the year was out the doctor and his wife professed religion and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Old Homer Society was formed, this was 1839. The dancers never were to return again. Societies were later organized at Sidney, Sadorus, and a few locations about 40 miles to the south of Urbana. Bradshaw wrote that the entire preaching circuit was made about every three weeks. Old Homer remained on the Urbana Circuit until 1853 when it was set off as a station by itself and has remained as such since. Sometime before being set off as a station the Society had built itself a suitable church building of wood, earlier meetings were being held in the local school house. Then in 1855 when the town moved south to the railroad, the wooden church building moved with them. Where it was placed, at this time I do not know, but it served well until the 1860s when it was decided to construct a new church building of brick.
On March 5, 1866 George and Rachel Custer deeded the corner lot where our church now stands to the trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church; of which George Custer was one of the trustees. The project must have been planned for sometime before as the opening day for taking subscriptions to pay for the new church was August 1, 1865. One of the surviving artifacts in our historical archives is the financial records of the paying for that church building which was stretched out over a period of four years. The three men whose names appear in the stained class windows in our present sanctuary, Custer, Ocheltree, and Dr. Core made this church possible by their unselfish generosities. Custer was a man whose faith in God spoke out in his life, he was always found visiting the sick and helping the needy. Ocheltree was a successful local businessman who held the Temperance Movement close to his heart. Dr. Core was a community leader and physician that possessed more energy than many men half his age. He also served as a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church during his last eighteen years. The church they helped erect was one long room with a gallery in the west, the approach being from the hall on the west. The pulpit was in the center of the east end, with a choir loft to the south of the pulpit. This building was dedicated in 1866.
For nearly 36 years this building served the church well but around 1899 the building began having serious problems. The floor on the north side of the church had sunk three inches, the coal furnace was in constant need of repair, and on December 13, 1900 the Building Committee reported that the roof of the church was leaking badly. Repairs were made as needed but the question of building a new church was first raised at the Church Board meeting of March 8, 1901 at the home of Rev. Poe, who was serving the church at the time. Ten days later the board met again on March 18th and voted to build a new church for $6000 provided the funds can be raised before a contract was signed. Before a month was up over $3000 was pledged in subscriptions and plans for a new church were being considered from various architects. By mid-summer the subscriptions had slowed down and the resolution to construct a church for $6000 was revised to not exceed $5000. Then in October the Building Committee reported that the smoke pipe of the furnace was badly in need of repair and that surface water was running into the furnace room. Newspaper accounts say that high winds also damaged the church steeple but no mention of that is found in the church records but during the late fall and winter months it wasn’t uncommon for the committees to not meet officially so no minutes would be available today.
In March of 1902 an all church meeting was held for the purpose of devising a way and means for the erection of a new church building. H. J. Wiggins presided over the meeting and a number of individuals pledged to increase their subscriptions with several doubling theirs. Total pledged now was a few dollars short of $7000. On April 8, 1902 another all church meeting was held for the submission of the list of pledges and the vote to construct. The church members gave power to the building committee to get funds and agreed to support them in any action they may take. By May 12, the furnace, chairs, bell, church library, etc. had been moved to a place of safe keeping and Mr. Charles Wallace was appointed to secure a suitable cornerstone for the new building. On July 31, 1902 the cornerstone was dedicated and the completed building dedicated the following year on July 12, 1903. During construction the church met in the old town hall and later at the “new” opera house.
This is a brief history of how our church obtained it’s present building and facilities. The story of our heritage is rich and inspirational, one that is both interesting and entertaining.