This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
AKERS – It’s been more than three-quarters of a century since the walls of Mt. Zion Community Church were raised in rural Shannon County, thanks to hands and hearts that helped haul rocks up the hill for its creation.
Today, though, the history held by those walls — and the story they will tell to the future as a fixture in the Ozark National Scenic Riverway — is too heavy a load without some additional support.
To help, an effort is underway to gather around $60,000 for necessary repairs. To date, a little more than $7,500 has been raised.
Shining sun and waving green trees seemingly peek through the windows of the church. They’re revealed by taking history in hand, through a twist of the old metal doorknob, allowing visitors to follow the tired-but-true wooden door inside.
There, another time is revealed — as is the church’s age. Two of its original wooden pews are up front as if waiting for service to start. An old wood stove still sits in the corner. Out back, the old original outhouse tries to hide in the trees.
Other signs, however, are more concerning and include cracks in the walls, an insufficient roof, and a mold problem that needs to be addressed. Another concern that can’t be seen is with regard to the restroom facilities, which must be added if the church is to be used for events.
“If you walk around the building on the outside, there’s cracks in the stonework,” says Judy Maggard Stewart, president of the Shannon County Museum and coordinator of the Friends of Mt. Zion Church Facebook group, among other leadership roles in a number of local preservation organizations.
Speaking of a large crack in the wall, she says, “This on the inside is also on the outside.”
Stewart’s greater credentials in this case, however, are her family connections: George and Jane Purcell, her grandparents, donated the acre of land for its construction.
“When Mt. Zion Community Church of Akers was organized, September 8, 1938, in his home, to enable his wife, who was then on her sick-bed, to share in the proceedings, he and Mrs. Purcell were charter members, and Mr. Purcell gave the land on which the church building was erected. He found peace and strength in the assurance of God’s presence with him,” noted the Shannon County Democrat in 1945:
The Purcells’ granddaughter shared the church’s history at the Upper Current River Celebration at Akers and Cedar Grove on May 14, an annual event that highlights history, features and needs of the area.
Akers, a nonexistent place today save a ferry across the Current River — also operated by Stewart’s family, as it has been for generations — and the church, was once a community with a sawmill, school, blacksmith shop, fraternal lodge, store and more.
News items tell of the community where the figurative foundation was laid in the years prior to the church’s eventual construction. Due to limitations on newspaper database searches, most immediately available are from the early 1900s in The Current Wave newspaper:
“The Odd Fellows observed Decoration Day at Akers on Sunday last, which was attended by a crowd of more than three hundred people. … The crowd was well behaved throughout the day and all had an enjoyable time.” – June 12, 1913
“The Lewis brothers of Gladden, Mo., brought their steam thresher into this part of the country last week and everybody now has their wheat threshed. The yield was fairly good and the quality was excellent.” – Aug. 20, 1914
“The people are about through with making molasses and are now getting in their corn, which, by the way, will be a rather light job this year. The tie business is quite brisk, but hands are hard to get.” – Nov. 2, 1916
“Ed Dooley recently took a 400-pound hog to Salem and sold it for $32.00, and hogs are now selling for still better prices than they were then, and we want to note that this is under a Democratic administration, too.” – Sept. 7, 1916
“Several of the young folks around Akers were intending to go to the pie supper on Lewis Hollow Saturday night but were disappointed on account of the river being past fording.” — May 5, 1921
“Quite a number of people were out Friday expecting to hear trial, but on absence of the attorney, it was dismissed until April 12. Everybody come.” – April 14, 1921
“Albert Howell went to Salem Saturday on his new car. He had to go over the ridge in order to cross the river at Cedar Grove. We hope he will be successful in making the trip.” – May 24, 1917
Such goings-on led up to 1932, when a group of women formed a club with the intention of building a church house.
“They gathered funds for the new project by giving pie suppers and programs, sales of food and articles of clothing made by members of the club,” records a document, written in 1949, about the church’s history.
The club’s members turned over $320.53 — the equivalent of more than $6,666 in 2022 — for work on the church in June 1939, and the first supplies arrived around six weeks later.
“All of the community members worked hard to build it,” says Stewart. “It was a hard process gathering all of the rocks, wood, and everything needed to build that building.”
Other of those people were Erwin Taylor’s grandparents, Jason and Ada Boyet, who handled the stonework needed for the church, and were part of a much different world than what most know today.
“Every person here was self-sufficient because they didn’t get electricity down here until the ‘50s,” he says. “Everything you ate, you had to collect it out of the woods or grow it on the farm.”
“Every stone had to be carried up out of the valley, up the hill, on wagons and mules. … That building was put together literally by hand.”
Taylor also spoke of his grandfather, who was a blacksmith by trade, but also an accomplished carpenter.
“Those benches were put together with wooden dowels,” he says. “If you look close, you won’t see any metal unless someone, in recent years, has repaired it … with some metal.”
The stones and seats were only one part of the building process, which took around a decade to complete.
Progress was gradual: In September 1938, people met to clear the grounds. In 1939, the Bluff School District donated $2.20 for a heating stove. The ceiling was installed in 1940. Two years later, the hardwood floors were added. In 1948, a church in nearby Birch Tree donated the bell, which cost $6.45. The steeple was finished and it was installed on Nov. 15, 1948.
But those steps didn’t keep them from having their first service, which took place in 1939.
Itinerant ministers were typical in those days, as rural congregations couldn’t always support one all their own. Instead, church was held periodically and folks came out when they heard the preacher was on his way. An example is from 1945, when the Democrat reminded folks that services would soon be held.
The small rock church was only used as such for around a decade after work was complete. Services ended in the late 1950s or early ‘60s as plans emerged for the ONSR, which officially began in 1964.
As individuals’ property began being purchased by the federal government, people began moving away, and the church was closed.
It’s largely been unimproved in the half-century since. Sentiment is greater than cash in this case. Even though the church is part of ONSR, there just haven’t been the financial resources available in the park’s budget to do all that needs to be done.
“There’s only so much funding that you can get from the federal government,” says Skyler Bockman, Upper Current District Interpretive Ranger for ONSR. “It took me a while once I got the ball rolling with my career to really understand the ins and outs of that. And so, you know, I would take a look at a structure like this that was in the park, and I thought, ‘Well, it’s a park structure. It’s our job to preserve it and take care of it.’ But when you have an entire park that slowly dilapidating at once, there’s a lot of funds that need to be pulled in a lot of different directions. And again, over 134 miles of river, you can see that those funds don’t go very far.”
A few events have been held at the church over the years — such as annual Christmas celebrations — and it’s hoped that others can in the future. That’s where the Ozark Riverways Foundation, a nonprofit launched in 2020 that can collect money for specific projects, has stepped in to help.
“I think that things are looking bright for the area and for the park,” says Bockman. “And then also with the addition of Ozark Riverways Foundation: As the official friends group of the park, they really hit the ground running and brought a lot of light — I admit I’m pretty partial to the upper Current, because this is my history — but they brought a lot of light up into this part of the world since our headquarters is all the way at the other end of the park.
“There’s a lot of good things on the horizon. Again, it all starts with awareness.”
Want to donate?
To learn more about Ozark Riverways Foundation, this project, and to make a donation, click here. You may also learn more about Ozark National Scenic Riverways via this link.