1815 – 1900
The Horseheads Methodists held their first meetings in 1815, 27 years after the first settlement. According to our early records, it was in this year that the Westlake families came to Horseheads from near Newburgh. Benjamin Westlake, a local preacher, gathered the Methodists together and held services in their homes.
As the group in Horseheads grew, the homes became too small so the congregation moved in 1816 to the newly erected school house on the “Teal Meeting House Lot,” now Teal Park on Main Street. This plot of 2_ acres was deeded to the trustees of the village by Nathan Teal, father of Elmira Teal, for whom Elmira was named. It was to be used “for church and cemetery purposes and such other public use as might be thought advisable.”
In 1827 a society was formed, which with the societies of Catharine, Havana (Montour Falls), and Millport constituted “one charge.” The first quarterly meeting of the charge was held in a new barn on the Jonas Sayre Farm to the east of Hanover square. The members from the entire charge were expected to come for both Saturday and Sunday. The Saturday afternoon service was to prepare members for the Love Feast and Communion on Sunday.
On November 25, 1834, the society of 14 members was incorporated as the First Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Horseheads, and was part of the Genesee Conference. The society erected a white wooden building on a lot given by Colonel Jacob Westlake (probably a son of Benjamin Westlake) at the corner of Grand Central Avenue and Broad St., during the pastorate of T.J. Champion.
About 1841, and for several years following, Camp Meetings were held one week in June in a large grove near West Junction (a station on the Erie Railroad south east of the Holiday Inn area). Each family was expected to bring a tent and provisions. These meetings were well attended for the served as an occasion for fellowship as well as spiritual blessing. The members were active in a Sunday School, Prayer Meetings, Bible Classes, Missionary Societies, Ladies Aid, and a Christian Endeavor, later the Epworth League.
Annual church festivals were held in the Town Hall and were great social events. One of the more beautiful ones was in the new railroad station in 1875. The station was trimmed with hemlock and Chinese lanterns. There were booths of all kinds and crowds of people. The proceeds helped pay current expenses and the minister’s salary. The minister was also supported by gifts of food and fuel given at a periodic “Donation Visit.” In our archives is an invitation to a Donation Visit to be held at the Methodist Episcopal Parsonage on the evening of February 9, 1870, for the benefit of the Rev. L. Northway. “Yourself and Friends are respectfully requested to attend, by order of the Committee.”
1900 – 1961
As the years passed, it was decided to build a new brick church to better meet the needs of the growing congregation. The white church was torn down and the new one built on the same lot. In the archives is the contract which was awarded May 24, 1905, to Howell Brothers, contractors of Elmira. The consecration was June 3, 1906, (pastor, W.H. Yard). In 1923 additional changes were completed that included a new furnace and a much needed lavatory.
The membership continued to be enthusiastic and kept up the Missionary Budget to help projects abroad. In our own community, needy families were helped at Thanksgiving, Christmas and other special times. The Epworth League helped by giving plays once a year under the leadership of George Curns and Lewis Van Orden. These were presented to local members before being presented at nearby churches. Under these same leaders the Christmas Pageant was developed. For years our church was noted for this pageant.
The Ladies Aid held plant sales near Memorial Day. The plants were obtained from a local florist and sold for cemetery pots and gardens. For several years homemade ice cream socials were held on Sarah Dykes lawn (corner of Broad and Main Street). The Annual Sunday School Picnic, held in the summer at one of the Elmira Parks, was always enjoyed by young and old.
As the church continued to grow we needed still more room. In late 1949, the quarterly Conference authorized the appointment of a building committee. George Lee was elected chairman. (pastor, Earl Robertson). A two-story additional building called Bethany Center was erected in August 20, 1950. The location chosen was where horse sheds were from the early days when members traveled to church in horse drawn carriages or sleighs. The sheds were torn down in 1922.
In 1951, a memorial committee was formed to supervise the Memorial Fund. At the death of each member, the church gives a donation to the Memorial Fund and the person’s name is entered on a page in the Memorial Book. Memorial Funds are used to purchase special items for the church.
In 1960 or 1961, Mr. Maynard Howe created the first Succah Booth as a way to illustrate the Bible story of such a booth to the Sunday School children. The children seemed to understand the story and the plight of the needy much more clearly when they could contribute to the building of the booth and the giving of food. At the time of its creation, the Succah celebration did not include all Sunday School classes, but grew to do so at some point.
On March 7, 1962, the Quarterly Conference authorized the appointment of a building committee for a new church. They were duly elected with Carl Schnautz as chairman. Plans were developed for an edifice west of the parsonage at 1034 West Broad Street. The plans were presented to the congregation and accepted. The pastor at the time was the Reverend Cuthbert Rowe. Ground breaking was May 1, 1966, and the first service was held April 9, 1967, with 769 people attending. Additional land was set aside for future development.
In 1968, a summer-sharing worship service was initiated. The July services were held at the First United Methodist Church in Horseheads and the August services were held at Horseheads First Presbyterian Church. At that time the pastors would also cover each other’s weekday schedules so that each person could take some summer vacation.
In 1971 the shared summer services became one ecumenical Thursday Evening service and one Sunday service, meeting one month at the Presbyterian Church, the other at the United Methodist Church.
In March, 1981, Hope Mayhew promoted the first program at our church for the Heifer Project International. $80 was raised for160 chickens. By March 1991, the 11th Annual Heifer Project was underway, with $1,000 being collected for eight sheep. Money has been given for bees, cows, goats, and pigs. A Sunday School program is conducted in conjunction with the Heifer Project where Sunday School students learn about the program. The children are encouraged to earn the money which they can contribute to the Heifer Project.
On September 24, 1983, a fire started when two neighborhood children gained unauthorized entry to the church. They were exploring the building and climbing in the storage area above the sacristy, the candles used for lights accidentally ignited packing materials from the old stained glass windows. The front third of the sanctuary was severely damaged, including the pipe organ, choir loft, and roof. Services were held the following day in the church parking lot, with about 380 people attending. Services were temporarily held in the Fellowship Hall. On April 8th, 1984, a church conference voted to give the building committee full approval to proceed with the renovation plans. Ridgeline Construction, of Elmira, was retained to repair the building. The first service in the newly renovated church was on September 16th, 1984.
Before the fire, only one worship service was held at 10:30 AM with Sunday School at 9:15 AM. As a result of the fire, two services were needed to accommodate the congregation worshiping in the Fellowship Hall. When the building project was completed, the early service continued.
The Living Nativity on the front lawn of the church, which began in 1985, has become an integral part of the Christmas celebrations. The nativity is in place several nights before Christmas and before and after the services on Christmas Eve. Costumes were designed and constructed specially for this event.
Also started in 1985 by the Outreach committee was the Giving Tree Christmas tradition. The Giving Tree is decorated with symbols which have been inscribed with the needs of specific congregation and community members. The members of the congregation respond, redecorating the tree with gifts, boxes of food, and promises to visit the shut-ins. These gifts are subsequently delivered to their recipients.
The CROP walk has also become an annual event in the life of the church. Each walker secures his or her pledges and then walks 6 miles. It is a hunger walk, designed to raise money to help feed people in the United States and in other countries, to help them provide for themselves and to assist in natural disasters. The money collected is divided, with 25% remaining in the local food pantries and 75% being sent to the Church World Service.