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Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church: Weathering a Storm

“The Jefferson Avenue M.E. Church was struck by lightning at 2:20 a.m. according to the statement of William E. Shonyo, the janitor, who with his wife lives in the first house south of that edifice. He says: ‘My wife and I were up and dressed shortly after storm commenced. I was looking out of a window when an unusually vivid flash of what I would call chain lightning appeared to strike the steeple and almost simultaneously there was  a deafening crash of thunder, while bricks and slate fell in a shower upon my roof. The largest portion of the steeple fell on the north side, crashing in the roof and piling debris of all kinds in the vestibule of the church, while considerable into the auditorium.”

-The Saginaw Evening News, August 10, 1896.

Goodridge Brothers Stereograph c. 1873

The cornerstone for East Saginaw’s Methodist Episcopal Church was laid in June of 1867. Located in the 300 block of South Jefferson avenue, the first service in the building was held on  August 7, 1868.  Designed by the Chicago architectural firm of A. Barrows and Garnsey, the auditorium, seating 900, was located on the second floor. The church’s steeple was reported to be 162 feet – taller than any other structure in the city. Until the storm of August 10, 1896, it was a local landmark. After its fall, one paper reported: “residents in the neighborhood long feared the tall spire which overtopped them to dizzying height and some of them [said] they are not sorry it has disappeared, especially since no loss of life was occasioned by its fall.”*

Goodridge Brothers Stereograph c. 1869. Note the scaffolding on the steeple.
Goodridge Brothers Stereograph of the Interior of the Church.

Newspaper accounts differ on the details of  what occurred during the storm – some suggest the steeple was toppled by a tornado. A headline in The Saginaw Evening News proclaimed:  “Saginaw Suffers the Most Disastrous Wind in Her History.” Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church was not the only building affected; the damage was extensive throughout the city – including two chimneys toppled at the Saginaw Club.


Over the next few months, the congregation would meet at First Congregational Church, a block south of their home. The local papers chronicled the congregation’s negotiations with insurance companies  and reported on a strange, rather macabre recreation of the disaster:


“The electrical workers of this city are going to give a unique and interesting entertainment very shortly, which will contain a number of new and novel features, illustrative of the uses to which the subtle fluid [sic] can be put. One features will be an electrical storm in which a model of the Jefferson avenue M.E. church will apparently be struck by lightning and the tower will topple over with a crash, while a good imitation of a wind storm will bring out in a realistic manner the combined forces of electricity and wind. The mechanical effects will be somewhat startling and those interested in electrical experiments and others will enjoy a rare treat.” (The Saginaw Evening News, November 14, 1896.)


The congregation formally dedicated their restored home on December 23, 1896:


“The completion of the repairs and of recarpeting of the Jefferson avenue M.E. church, will be commemorated by the rededication of the sacred edifice on the morning of Sunday, Jan. 3.  . . . There will be special music for the occasion which will be a memorable one in the church annals.


About 540 yards of carpet have been used for the auditorium and the whole interior of the edifice has been remodeled and improved since the steeple was destroyed in the big storm. A new steam heating system has also been introduced which is a great improvement over the former, the seats have been remodeled and rearranged, the pulpit rail cut down, the upstairs replastered  and redecorated, and taken altogether the interior represents a more modern appearance and is in line with the style in vogue. The Sunday school rooms have also been recarpeted and redecorated, new electric light and gas fixtures put in  and several other needed improvements have been made. The loss of the steeple is not deplored very much and many like the present appearance of the church better than when the tall spire was on it. (The Saginaw Evening News, December 23, 1896.)

In the 1896 reconstruction, the tower was capped with a low pitched, hipped roof. It was reworked in 1987 when a new steeple was constructed – one that is much shorter than the original steeple.

Postcard c. 1910. The Steeple was replaced by a low, hipped roof.

After a merger with another congregation in the early 21st century, Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church became Grace United Methodist Church. In 2008 the building was sold. Now the home of Kingdom Life Ministries, remains a South Jefferson Avenue landmark.


*As quoted by Lloyd J. Carwright in Our Little Brown Church: the Jefferson Avenue United Methodist Church of Saginaw, Michigan, 1978.


The Recipe - Cream Dressing

This recipe is from Domestic Review, published by  Jefferson Ave. ME Church, 1929. Printed long after the disaster, it reminds us that the building was already six decades old when the book was published on the eve of the Great Depression. The recipe is  perfect for a sweltering summer day. (In case the November 1896 recreation of the destruction of the steeple inspires you to tempt fate, we provide a warning – and an opportunity  - to recreate a culinary disaster.)

1 cup cream                                                                                                  1 tablespoon sugar                                                                                        1 tablespoon vinegar                                                                                     ¼ teaspoon salt                                                                                            Dash of red pepper

Mix the sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper thoroughly together; then add the cream gradually.


CTK Notes: Thia is a simple, traditional recipe and is perfect for lightly dressing leaf lettuce. One rule - make certain to gradually add the cream to the vinegar. If not, it is quite possible you will end up creating curdled sour cream dressing. That is an empirical experiment we will leave for another recipe and story. This recipe reminds us of the sour cream dressing the CTK uses for cucumber salad.

Don't do this...



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