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Commission on Archives & History

Historical Sites

The Site of the First Log Church on the River RougeRiver Rouge Church

by Ronald A. Brunger
(from the Historical Messenger, March 1979)

Location: Wayne County - The historic marker on this site was erected and dedicated by the City of Dearborn and the Detroit Annual Conference in 1954.  The marker is 0.2 mile east of Greenfield on Butler, on the north side of the road.  It is a little ways from the River Rouge, the original site, which is now Ford Motor Company land and inaccessible.

In the fall of 1810, Rev. William Mitchell organized the first Methodist Society in Michigan, consisting of seven members--William and Maria McCar, Robert and Betsey Abbott, William and Betsey Stacy, and Mrs. Sarah McComb.  These people, with the probable exception of the Abbotts, lived in this neighborhood on the River Rouge, some six miles west of Detroit.  For several years, this Methodist class was the western anchor of the Upper Canada District of the Genesee Conference.

In the spring of 1818, these Methodists under the leadership of Thomas Harmon, a local preacher from Canada who had fought against the Americans in the War of 1812, proceeded to build a log church.  A deed of one acre of land was given the Society by Thomas and Margarette Sargent.  The land was given from within their own private Claim #52, which included 7.52 acres of land on the Rouge.  An early Advocate map located it just west of the Dearborn town line, on the Dearborn Road running on the north side of the river.  The early picture published in Pilcher's history in 1878, shows this log building near the river, on the bank of which lies a crude bark canoe, suggesting clearly that this was a prominent method of traveling to the church in the early days.  Some early worshippers certainly walked to church; others often rode horseback on occasion.  They might have come by wagon or cart, but there would have been no buggies in that early time.

This fascinating notice was published in the Detroit Gazette, April 3, 1818.  "THE FIRST PROTESTANT CHURCH IN THE TERRITORY OF MICHIGAN was erected at the River Rouge on the 31st ultimo by a society of Methodists.  The said society was established at the River Rouge in the year 1810, and through the mercies of God, has remained inflexible through the storms of war and various other trials, and by the Divine Blessing, is still in a prosperous way.  Robert Abbott.  One of the Trustees of the M.E. Church.  River Rouge, April 2d, 1818"

This first Methodist church building in Michigan was described by John A. Baughman, the last minister to preach in it, as about 24 by 30 feet in size, "standing lengthwise east and west, fronting south towards the road and river."  The pulpit was on the north side opposite the door; a central aisle ran from pulpit to door.  The pulpit area had flooring of plain boards slightly dressed; it was entered by steps at the east end.  There was no altar rail.  The seats were plain rough benches supported by round sticks of wood.  There was a ceiling of round peeled logs for joists, over which boards were laid.  The house was warmed by a stove in the center.  The church walls were of large hewn logs.  Evidently the Methodists and neighbors got together for a pioneer log-raising, and put the building up in one day.  Joseph Hickock, who preached on the Detroit Circuit from 1815 to 1817, and who located further up the Rouge in 1820, described it as a "comfortable hewed-log chapel."

This church served as one of the preaching points of the circuit for about ten years.  Within a few years, four of the original members moved away, and the class leader died.  Dissension sprang up in the society, and meetings here were discontinued.  Log buildings usually did not remain long in good repair.  Elijah Pilcher in 1830 found the building quite dilapidated.   Its work and service were done.
A few years later somebody set fire to the old building and destroyed it.  In June, 1851, the ministers of the Methodist Episcopal Church who lived in Detroit went up to this historic site.  The men were James Shaw, Presiding Elder; Elijah H. Pilcher of the Woodward Avenue Church; George Taylor of Congress Street; and Lorenzo Price of Lafayette Street.  They carried off the timber that appeared sound, and had it manufactured into canes, about 30 in number.  The Elijah Pilcher cane today is in our Detroit Conference Archives in Adrian.

On June 12, 1954, the Detroit Conference joined the Dearborn Historical Commission in dedicating an attractive historical marker for this first log church on the Rouge, the first Methodist church in Michigan.   The service was marked by music and remarks by city, state, and conference leaders.  The marker was presented by Mayor Orville L. Hubbard and dedicated by Bishop Marshall R. Reed.