I have always wondered what happen to the records of the Old Bethel Cemetery in Bantam, Clermont County, Ohio. I am interested in these early records since Benjamin Franklin Hitch, my 3rd great,-grandfather was buried there with many other Hitch relatives. I have always felt a kinship to Benjamin, I guess it is the quote on his headstone that draw me to him. It reads "I know the Loved who have gone before and joyfully sweet will the meeting be, when over the river, the peaceful river, the Angel of death shall carry me."
Tonight while researching the Hitch family in Clermont County, Ohio I finally have my answer. The Old Bethel Church Journals where shared with the Clermont County Genealogical Society. The Society has made an index for the journals and will give a copy to the Methodist Archives in addition to the one in the Batavia Library. Sections of the Old Bethel Church Journals may be printed in the Society's newsletters from time to time, and The Church of The Latter Day Saints is putting everything on microfilm. These records would not have been found if it wasn’t for Mrs. Norma Johns Wuichet and her tireless research and dedication to finding these records. I truly appreciate her efforts.
Clermont County Genealogical Society
OLD BETHEL CHURCH AND CEMETERY
by Norma Johns Wuichet
It is difficult to determine when an interest in a particular place develops. In the case of Old Bethel Cemetery my interest probably began when I was about seven years old. At that time Uncle Henry's body was shipped back from overseas. Uncle Henry was the son of William David and Isabell Powers Johns in Bantam, Ohio. He and his brother, Clarence, were in the Ohio National Guard and were called into service during World War I. Henry was killed in action in France on October 31, 1918, just eleven days before the war ended. He was buried in Old Bethel Cemetery and for several years after that the American Legion held a service at his grave every Memorial Day. The sound of the rifles being fired was frightening to me, but family and friends gathered there every year. Now on Memorial Day the Legion gathers just inside the cemetery gates and honors all the veterans.
The Old Bethel Church was within walking distance of the Johns home and several members of the family were members there. My mother and dad, Donnie Lou and Mamie Miller Johns, were married in Batavia December 24, 1910. They attended the Christmas Eve service at Old Bethel that night. They lived in Bantam for a few years after their marriage and I was born there. Later we lived in Batavia for many years, and when I was in high school I took piano, pipe organ and voice lessons. When we visited my Johns grandparents on Sundays Geneva (she is really my aunt but since she is only five years older than I, I never call her aunt) and I would go to church at Old Bethel. Invariably the person in charge would say "Norma is here so she can play the organ for the service," or "Norma is here and she can sing a solo, or she and Geneva can sing a duet." Now all this is part of the reason for my interest in The Old Bethel Church, but there is more.
Grandma Johns died in 1928 while I was in High school, and Grandpa Johns died in 1934 while I attending The Ohio State University. This put an end to my attending church at Old Bethel. Bantam grew smaller as families died and people moved away. Church membership dwindled to twenty in 1965 and could not financially support a minister. At Conference that year Old Bethel became an OUT-POST CHURCH SCHOOL. Finally the Conference of the Methodist Church closed the church. The last services were held on December 21, 1969.
The U.S. government purchased the property in 1972. The church was vacant, and the building deteriorated. The roof was about gone and the state was thinking of tearing the church down when it bought the property to construct the East Fork State Park. In 1975 a small group of people, many of whom were former members or whose family had been former members, banded together and formed The Old Bethel Church Historical Society. Its purpose was to save the church. About 1978 they obtained a lease from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and had the church listed on the National Register.
The Historical Society repaired the roof, refinished the pews, restored the pulpit, rebuilt the bell tower, and painted the inside and outside of the church. Of the original 77 lifetime members of the Society approximately 20 remain in the area and perhaps 10 are active. I am a lifetime member but can not help because I live in Columbus, Ohio. Without new blood it will be difficult for the Historical Society to survive. They have services at the church twice a year; on Memorial Day and a Homecoming each fall. When my father, Donnie Johns, died in 1978 I suggested that those who wished could make contribution to the Historical Society in his memory. With that money the old pulpit chairs were refinished and reupholstered.
All that I have written thus far tells how my interest in The Old Bethel Church and Cemetery developed but it doesn't indicate why and how I found the original historical journals of the church. The WHY is because I am a person filled with curiosity and an interest in history. So one day when I was thinking about the closing of the Old Bethel Church I wondered what happens to the records of any church when it ceases to function, and that is where the HOW comes into the story. Since I am a Methodist I concluded that if anyone knew the answer to that question it should be the Bishop. So I called the Bishop of our district and he said that the records should have been given to the District Superintendent, and ultimately to The Methodist Archives at Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio. The Curator at The Beeghly Library at Ohio Wesleyan said that they didn't have any records from the Old Bethel Church. Being a very determined person, I set about to find them.
I called the office of the Superintendent of the Wilmington District of the West Ohio Conference and asked them to see if they had the records. I received a letter saying that a thorough search of the records in their district office attic had been made but that no membership book nor records had been found. They did find the folder with the records of the last Charge Conference held at Old Bethel, and they sent copies of those.
Still not being willing to admit that I had come to the end of a blind alley, I pondered about what some lay person could have decided to do with those records under the stress of closing the church for the last time. The closest Methodist church would have been the one in Bethel. So I called the United Methodist Church in Bethel, Ohio and was fortunate to find the secretary in. When I told her what I was searching for she said that she thought she remembered seeing a box marked Old Bethel way back in the corner of a storage. room. I told her that I would stay on the line if she would please find the box and after opening it tell me what she found. She found some hard-bound journals from Old BetheL I asked her if they had a copying machine. When she said that they had one, of course I also asked if she would please copy a few random pages and send them to me.
When they arrived I was delighted. They were beautifully handwritten pages entitled History of Old Bethel Church! They included the story of the first church made of logs from the surrounding forest, constructed in 1804 on land donated by Rev. John Collins and later replaced by the frame church. I immediately called the Methodist Archives at Ohio Wesleyan University and the Curator wrote to the United Methodist Church in Bethel telling them to release all of the records to me. I made an appointment with the secretary and my husband and I drove down and picked them up. There were four journals and I read them all before taking them to The Methodist Archives. By this time I had spent more than $100 including phone calls, trips to Delaware and Bethel, meals enroute and postage. I didn't expect to be reimbursed but when the Curator said that the library would like to show its appreciation in some way, I suggested that they xerox the journals for me. They did exactly that.
When the large box of the copies arrived I thought about various ways I could use them, and wondered how I could share anything I might write from the information in those wonderful Old Bethel Journals. The obvious way would be to give a copy of whatever I wrote to The Clermont County Genealogical Society to put on the shelf in the genealogical section of The Doris Wood Library in Batavia, Ohio. At that moment I knew exactly what to do. Having very strong family and emotional ties to Batavia and being a lifetime member of the Society, I contributed the Old Bethel Church Journals to The Clermont County Genealogical Society. The Society has made an index for the journals and will give a copy to the Methodist Archives in addition to the one in the Batavia Library. Sections of the Old Bethel Church Journals may be printed in the Society's newsletters from time to time, and The Church of The Latter Day Saints is putting everything on microfilm. Now that is really sharing what I finally found!
,Norma Johns Wuichet
3482 LaRochelle Drive
Columbus, Ohio 43221