Still going at 200

When Empson Peters was a boy, he spent his Sundays singing and worshiping at Driftwood Christian Church.

Peters walked the 20 minutes with his parents, Holmes and Iva, and his brother, Darrell, from their farm to the church on State Road 135 about three miles south of Vallonia.

Sunday provided a feeling of comfort, Peters said, because he was surrounded by other farm families who all knew each other by name.

He recalls the look of the church — white on the outside, small sanctuary on the inside. It was a simple building, with no kitchen or classrooms or indoor restrooms.

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The beauty of the pews, though, is a vision etched in the 86-year-old’s memory.

“They were semicircle with two aisles going down, and they all matched,” said Peters, the church’s oldest member. “They were beautiful.”

This year, the church will celebrate its 200th anniversary, which makes it older than the county seat, the county and the state. Those three will celebrate their 200th birthdays in 2016.

On Sept. 19 and 20, the church will conduct a celebration of the two centuries along with a service for current and former members and former ministers.

“It will give them an opportunity to update us on where they’ve been and their memories,” Pastor Steve Gommel said. “We’ll have something for everybody to do.”

Gommel, who has been the church’s pastor for 12 years, said county records show Driftwood Christian Church was in existence in 1815.

“1815 is the earliest mention that we can find of a congregation meeting in this area,” Gommel said. “And actually, they met across the road, where the cemetery is now, in a log cabin.”

The property where the church was located originally was owned by William Graham. In 1811, he lived on a 150-acre farm between the East Fork White River and Muscatatuck River. He also served in the state legislature and U.S. Congress.

“He gave the land for the cemetery, and he wanted it to be used to establish a church for the community that was open to all Christians,” Gommel said.

The cemetery has some gravestones dating to before 1815.

Gommel said the first one-room church was built in the 1840s. The first recorded pastor, Jacob Berkey, served the church from 1839 to 1841.

In 1907, a second building was constructed, which is used as today’s fellowship hall. It later was expanded with a kitchen and an education wing with classrooms for Sunday school, a nursery and adult classes. A basement was built in the 1930s, which is used today.

Stained glass from the 1907 building windows have been preserved and used in some of the current windows, Gommel said.

Today’s sanctuary, which can hold more than 200 people and has seen overflow crowds of as many 250, was added in 1997-98.

The expansions are due to not only the wear and tear from age but the growing number of members and worshipers.

“The church had been from 40 to 80 people for 150 years, and then they started growing,” Gommel said. “There needed to be something done.”

Gommel said he credits some of that growth to the children of farmers leaving the area after they grew up and then returning.

“In the early 1990s, they began moving back, and they would build a house on the family farm,” he said. “Some would take over farming, or some would just build a house and work some other places.”

The church now averages about 145 people on Sundays. They come from all over the area, including Brownstown and Seymour and even as far as Salem.

The growth is one of the biggest changes Peters has seen at the church since he became a member Oct. 31, 1939.

“I used to know everybody by their first name,” Peters said. “Now, two-thirds of them I don’t know their name.”

Then he added with a smirk, “There’s no gossip about any of them, no tales.”

Peters said that, as a boy, about six farm families made up the congregation. Now, there are few farmers and more doctors, lawyers and families of all kinds, he said.

But what has kept him coming back is his family ties, he said.

Peters lives within walking distance of the church and brings his wife of 65 years, Lela, with him. His son also is active in the church, and his brother, Darrell, still attends.

“My whole extended family earlier and later were always connected to this church,” he said. “Aunts, uncles, Grandpa, Grandma, … everybody married locals, and nobody ever married anybody away from here.”

In fact, the pews in the sanctuary were built with Darrell Peters’ height taken into consideration.

“They had him sit down where he was comfortable, and that’s how they spaced the pews,” Gommel said.

In addition to being a member, Peters has been heavily involved as a trustee and was once Sunday school superintendent.

“I couldn’t sing a lick,” he said with a laugh. “I would lead the singing. Why me? I don’t know.”

While there are generations of local families who attend the church, there also are newcomers. One of those is associate minister Mike Goltry. The 28-year-old moved to Brownstown with his wife and child from Knoxville, Tennessee, more than a year ago.

He said the welcoming feeling the church offers is what drew him in and has kept worshipers coming back.

Goltry said the church is filled with members from multiple generations, but there also are new members creating a place of worship for their family and children.

And there’s no indication the growth will slow down. This year, six babies are to be born from members — one will be Goltry’s.

“One of our strengths is when people come, they don’t just come and stay for a little while,” Goltry said. “They are blown away by how welcome they feel.”

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Driftwood Christian Church

Where: 5564 S. State Road 135, Vallonia

What: Celebrating its 200-year anniversary this year

When: Celebratory weekend to be conducted Sept. 19 and 20 at the church for the public and former members and ministers

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