Roots run deep

Lucille Nelson Husband can recall a lifetime of memories attending the Ellenton United Methodist Church at 3607 U.S. 301 N. in Ellenton, a church that this year is celebrating serving the community for 125 years.

“When I was a child, all of the activities were at the church,” said the 83-year-old. “We were out here and none of us had transportation to go to Palmetto. We had a church youth group. That was our life.”

The church kicked off its 125th anniversary celebration March 8. The anniversary commemoration will culminate Nov. 22.

“We’re just celebrating the past and the people that have come before us,” said Ann Miller, communications chairwoman for the church and member since 2002, who has been researching the church’s history for the anniversary celebration. “Some of the people were lifelong members. They’ve given us a strong church.”

Families like the Gambles, Pattens, Leffingwells and Nelsons have “deep roots” in the church, according to Miller. The history of the Ellenton United Methodist Church is intertwined with the history of the Gamble Plantation.

The Ellenton United Methodist Church began in the homes of members in 1884 as the Union Church of Ellenton, according to Miller. The town of Ellenton was believed to have gotten its name from General Hiram Leffingwell’s wife, Ellen. Leffingwell was a big land owner in Ellenton, having bought 200 acres from the Gamble family across from their plantation.

Leffingwell eventually donated some of his land to build a community church, and in 1885 the first church building was constructed at the corner of Leffingwell Avenue and Division Street, according to church archives. Division Street later became U.S. 301.

“We’re just guessing when the church was built, it was on the corner,” said the Rev. Dr. Bruce Ebert, pastor of the church the past four years. “A church like that they would have put on the corner.”

The church was across from the Gamble Plantation, which before the Civil War had been a state-of-the-art sugar mill that operated with slaves, and later became known for the time it served as a temporary refuge for Judah Philip Benjamin.

Benjamin was considered to be the “brains of the Confederacy,” and in the final days of the Confederacy, was shuffled through the plantation in an attempt to escape capture, according to the history compiled by Miller.

The Union Church of Ellenton became a chartered Methodist church in 1891, according to records. Husband remembers it always being a “community church” and used by people of all denominations.

“A Baptist minister would come to the church one Sunday and a Methodist minister would come the next Sunday,” she said.

The church flourished, Husband recalled, and at one point, rooms had to be added onto the old church to accommodate the growing number of children.

“Back then there were Sunday School kids in every room,” said Husband.

A parsonage was moved to the property in 1943, according to a historic timeline compiled by Miller. A new church was built in 1950, a cornerstone was laid, and worship in the new building began in 1951. It was also at this time members of the old Union Church of Ellenton turned over the property deed to the Ellenton United Methodist Church.

Husband recalled her strong family ties to the church that date back to the Union Church of Ellenton, where her grandparents attended and her father was christened. Husband and her siblings grew up in the church, and she eventually married the pastor’s son, Charles Nelson, in the church.

“We’ve been here forever,” she said of her family’s roots. “When you’re born and raised in that church, it’s just your church. It’s just home.”

Husband’s father-in-law, William Nelson, served as pastor from 1945 to 1948. Husband’s three children grew up in the church and were christened by their grandfather in the church.

Ellenton United Methodist Church played an important role in the life of Husband’s son, Joe Nelson, who lives in Ellenton.

“It’s given us a strong sense of community,” he said. “It is truly a family of faith.”

A new church was built in 1950, to replace the aging church, according to history.

The old church became the new fellowship hall behind the new sanctuary and was the place for meetings, pancake breakfasts, dinners, wedding receptions and other activities, according to Husband.

She recalled the church’s prosperity.

“I can remember days when the church was full on Sundays,” said Husband.

In 1968 the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to become the United Methodist Church. Like many of the Methodist churches, Ellenton Methodist Church became a United Methodist church at that time, and has remained a United Methodist Church ever since.

These days, as the Ellenton United Methodist Church celebrates its 125th year, it still serves the community, just in a different way, said Ebert. Church membership comes from the neighboring retirement residences and mobile home communities rather than families. The church no longer has a youth group, and the only children that attend are in its childcare program, which the church sponsors.

Yet programs abound and those who attend relish the fellowship, said Ebert.

“We have a lot of older-age people that can relate to older-age people,” he said. “We have fun, share the love of Jesus Christ, and that’s what it’s all about.”