Mount Olive Cumberland Presbyterian Church
Historic Photograph of the Mount Olive Cumberland Presbyterian Church
MOUNT OLIVE CUMBERLAND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH,
Jehoiada Jeffery arrived in present day IzardCounty in 1815 and was the first pioneer to permanently settle the area. Jehoiada was twenty-six years old when he, his wife Mary Weir (or Ware) of Virginia, his daughter, Jane and sons, Elijah and Miles arrived on the banks of the White River in the wilderness of north central Arkansas. Coming fresh from the War of 1812 where he served under Andrew Jackson, Captain Peter Craig and Captain John Shaw; fighting in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and New Orleans, Jehoiada received with his discharge the right to one hundred sixty acres of land west of the Mississippi.
Returning to his home in southern Illinois, Jehoiada collected his young family and trekked across the wilderness from Illinois to north central Arkansas, settling on the banks of the White River in an area known as Pine Bayou. There he built a two-story log home and cleared land for farming, creating with his farmstead the first permanent settlement between Batesville and the Missouri State line.
Soon after Jehoiada and his family became established in the area, other settlers began arriving, including his father James Jeffery and brothers Daniel and Jesse. As settlement in the area grew, Pine Bayou became a small, established community which soon had its name changed to MountOlive, after the mountain rising on the eastside of the town.
Jehoiada prospered over the years, becoming a wealthy, respected farmer raising cattle,
Orleans. He served as a representative to the Territorial Legislature in Little Rock from 1824-1829. During his legislative service, Jehoiada introduced bills that created IzardCounty and FultonCounty. Following the establishment of the county seat of IzardCounty at MountOlive in 1830, Jehoiada served as county judge from 1833-1838. He also served as Justice of the Peace for twenty-five years.
The Mount Olive Cumberland Presbyterian Church was one of the first churches founded in Arkansas. It was organized in 1826 as the White River Cumberland Presbyterian Church and a member of the Arkansas Presbytery. The Arkansas Presbytery was created in 1824 in Batesville and organized into three districts: White River, Crawford, and Red River. The Mount Olive Church was designated for membership in the White River District.
Jehoiada Jeffery, and his brother, Daniel Jeffery were both founding members of the Mount Olive Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Jehoiada represented the MountOlive congregation in the 1827 organizational meeting of the Arkansas Presbytery. Jehoiada’s son, Little Daniel Jeffery became a noted Cumberland Presbyterian Minister at MountOlive. Jehoiada’s son-in-law, Elihu Bone, and a nephew, Phillip Jeffery also would become prominent ministers. Jehoiada’s daughter, Eda, and a niece, Synthia Brickey, were charter members of the nearby Strawberry congregation which was formed shortly after the Mount Olive Church was established.
After the Civil War, steamboats began to navigate White River in the late 1800s making MountOlive an important commercial port. Cotton, furs, hogs, cattle, lumber, and other produce were shipped from MountOlive to markets in such places as Batesville, Memphis, and New Orleans. Steamboats returning up the White River carried salt, clothing, guns and ammunition for hunting, whiskey, and other consumer goods for residents of the MountOlive area. The courthouse and river trade made MountOlive the most important community in IzardCounty by the end of the 19th Century.
By 1902, the Iron Mountain Railroad had completed tracks down White River through MountOlive to Batesville and other points south. Inevitably, the steamboat traffic on
White River began to fade away. MountOlive’s river port vanished almost overnight but it was replaced by a train depot established by the Iron Mountain Railroad. The depot became an important hub of commercial activity instead of the river landing, and business continued at a more intensive rate.
By 1916, MountOlive boasted a population of over 1,000. It was during this time that a new Cumberland Presbyterian Church building was constructed. The land, material and much of the labor was provided by descendants of Jehoida and Daniel Jeffrey who had originally founded the church. Another institution, the Mount Olive Male and FemaleAcademy, thrived as the area’s most prominent center of education and culture. Rail transportation made it possible for the academy to draw students from a wide area up and down the White RiverValley. In addition to an outstanding Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and the locally renowned Mount Olive Male and FemaleAcademy, the town had two cotton gins, several blacksmith shops, and a large lumber and stave mill that employed at least 100 men counting those who cut and hauled logs to the mill. The town contained several retail stores, and a couple of hotels that were filled during court days. It had a post office, and two medical doctors that served the town and surrounding farms.
The Iron Mountain Railroad made it possible for MountOlive residents to order their clothing, tools, seed, fertilizer, and other goods from Sears and Roebuck in Chicago. It also made it possible for people to easily travel to faraway places like Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, Little Rock, and Memphis. Life was good. Store bought clothes from the city, full employment in the town, good medical doctors, a comfortable new church, an outstanding school, and the county seat gave MountOlive some powerful bragging rights as one of the White RiverValley’s shining jewels.
Just over the horizon, however, lurked a sea of changes that MountOlive did not anticipate. The town’s retail establishments began to struggle trying to compete with Sears and Roebuck catalog sales. The white oak timber in the area had been stripped away for barrel staves manufactured by the Mount Olive Stave Company, the town’s largest employer. The political balance of power had shifted from MountOlive eastward
toward Melbourne, and the Melbourne residents were successful in gaining the courthouse for their community.
Mount Olive was already showing signs of trouble when World War I began to beckon many of its young men to participate in the fighting. Some were killed in the war and others, by choice, never returned. Having seen the outside world for the first time, young, ambitious ex-soldiers sought greater opportunities in faraway places like Kansas City, Batesville, Little Rock, and Memphis.
Ironically, by 1916, exactly a hundred years since its birth, MountOlive was headed for its grave. It had lost its largest industry, the Mount Olive Stave Company to Batesville; the railroad and Sears and Roebuck had dried up the town’s retail business, the courthouse had relocated to Melbourne, its excellent school enrollment was dwindling, and most of its young men were on their way to great adventures far beyond the mountains that would no longer be their home. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church was losing members and barely hanging on.
By the end of World War II Mount Olive was practically a ghost town. The train depot was closed, the post office shut down, the retail businesses disappeared, the school was empty, and the few remaining young men that were there had served in the military, and like many of their World War I counterparts, were settling in other places with greater promise of economic and cultural opportunities.
By 1950, MountOlive was stone cold dead. The only remaining institution was the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
By November of 1961 the church had ceased meeting. Although the Church was down, it was not completely defunct. Thanks to the will of some older members of the Presbytery, the MountOlive was left on the active roll of churches. The church was barely managing to cling to life when in the 1970s a few families begin returning to MountOlive. In 1979 several members in the community led a drive to revitalize the church and regular services were once again held there. Under the leadership of Jeff Sanders the church has continued to make progress.
The Church now hosts an annual Mount Olive Homecoming in September of each year. The Homecoming is a high-profile activity that attracts a hundred or more visitors each year from places near and far who come greet old friends and reminisce about days gone by. The Church continues to have regular services with a congregation of about 30 or more people assembling there each Sunday for worship.
Today MountOlive survives as a rural community with few remaining reminders of the thriving town that once existed on the banks of the White River. One of those reminders is the Mount Olive Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Built at the end of the town’s heyday, the church stands today as a reminder of MountOlive’s rich history and as a landmark for the community.
The Mount Olive Cumberland Presbyterian Church is being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A and C with local significance, as the only remaining historic institutional building in MountOlive and as an excellent example of a Plain-Traditional style building. It is also being nominated under Criterion Consideration A: religious properties.
Campbell, Thomas H. , et al. ArkansasCumberland Presbyterians1812-1984: A People of Faith. (Memphis, TN: Arkansas Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 1985)
Hanks, Dale. Jeffery Pioneers in the Ozarks: Their Lives and Times, 1800-1900. Montpelier, VA: Privately Published, 1999.
JefferyCemetery National Register Nomination, 1999.