From Preservation Issues, Volume 7, Number 1

Historic Preservation Program UPDATES

The First Free Will Baptist Church of Pennytown -- Born Again

by Karen Grace

The small church... is the visible memory of the history of the town and the triumph of its people over adversity and injustice...
Exactly three years ago, Preservation Issues (Vol. 4, No. I,) published the story
of the Pennytown "project": the efforts of the descendants of the town's early
residents to raise the capital to restore the Pennytown church. That inspiring story
has come to a happy conclusion as reported below.

The First Free Will Baptist Church is the last remaining building still owned by Pennytowners in a once thriving freedmen's hamlet near Marshall, Saline County. The town itself, founded and nurtured by ex-slave Joe Penny in the late 19th century, no longer exists. The homes, schools and businesses of 40 families that once surrounded the church are gone, replaced by an MFA test farm.

But Pennytown still lives. It lives in the memories of Pennytowners, and its story is passed down to younger generations and honorary Pennytowners of all ages, races and creeds. The small church, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is the visible memory of the history of the town and the triumph of its people over adversity and injustice in post-Civil War Missouri. It also serves as an important reminder of a part of Missouri's and America's history that should not be forgotten. It was for these reasons that Pennytowners, under the leadership of the late Josephine Lawrence, began their lengthy effort to gain national recognition for the Pennytown church and raise enough money for the restoration project. Through bake sales, dinners, raffles, the sale of a Pennytown cookbook and "passing the hat," the group had raised $18,000 by 1994. It was not enough for the restoration project, but it was enough to help match a Historic Preservation Fund grant, awarded in early 1995 by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources' Historic Preservation Program.

DNR photo by Karen Grace
The adult children of the late Josephine Lawrence harmonize in the newly restored church sanctuary during the 1996 Pennytown Homecoming. Until her death in 1992, Lawrence led the fund raising effort to preserve the church.

The project consisted of the construction of a new foundation, the reconstruction of the exterior walls using the building's original hollow masonry blocks, construction of a new roof and the installation of new windows and doors. Minimal interior work included drywall and a wood plank floor. Volunteers accomplished the interior and exterior painting.

In 1996, on the first Sunday in August, as they had been doing for 50 years, Pennytowners from throughout the United States came back to the church for the Pennytown homecoming. More than 200 people gathered on the lawn surrounding the building to greet old friends, make new ones, eat dinner and enjoy an inspirational program. But most of all, they were there to celebrate the restoration of the Pennytown church; their "project" had come to a successful conclusion, and a new life was just beginning for the church building.

The restored church will play an important role in Saline County's heritage tourism initiative, hosting busloads of visitors who want to learn about Pennytown's history. It will also be the location of an educational field study program for the county's school children, especially those who are studying Missouri history.

Pennytowners, now under the leadership of Lawrence's daughter Virginia Houston, have many plans for the future. Fundraising will continue for maintenance of the church building and for the restoration of the historic privy (also listed in the National Register). A fence, a sign and a brochure for visitors are also planned.

DNR photo by Karen Grace
Lawrence's daughter Virginia Houston stands in front of the recently completed church.

For more information about Pennytown or to arrange a tour, call Virginia Houston at (816) 886-8171 or 886-8418.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
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