1. Archive

A century's place of worship in Dunnellon

For more than 100 years, Second Bethel Baptist Church has fulfilled the spiritual needs of many residents of the small community of south Dunnellon.

Its first minister, the Rev. Henry Shaw, preached to the black people who came to Dunnellon in its heyday to work in the phosphate mines, the sawmills and the turpentine stills.

Now a building that was home to the church for half a century is being placed on Florida's Black Heritage Trail, a list of more than 150 sites important in African-American history.

The congregation left the building in 1976 for a new, cinder-block chapel across County Road 488 in Citrus County. Today, the former church building houses the Annie W. Johnson Senior Service Center.

Shaw founded the church in 1888 in an old house with borrowed chairs and boxes for seats. A year later, a local adventurer made a discovery that would transform Dunnellon into a boom town.

In 1889, Albertus Vogt found phosphate in Dunnellon. It might as well have been gold. In the succeeding years, the towns of Dunnellon, Hernando and Floral City _ which sat on top of a narrow strip of phosphate running north and south _ prospered as mining towns.

Mine owners recruited blacks from around the Southeast as workers. The constant activity and growth soon had Second Bethel Baptist Church on the move.

The first move was from the east to the west side of old U.S. 41. Then the building was moved farther west by a mule team to its current location on Test Court to clear a path for the new U.S. 41. No one around today seems to remember when those moves took place.

Julia Williams does remember a storm _ some years after those moves, perhaps 1926 or 1928 _ that knocked the church down. While the church was being rebuilt, services were held on the long porch of her mother's house, the 86-year-old woman recalled.

Her mother, Rosa Alexander, would serve a big New Year's dinner at her house for the congregation. "She was the mother of the church," said Mrs. Williams, whose membership, dating back to 1918, is the oldest in the church.

Mrs. Williams also attended school at the church, which was used as a schoolroom for black children four months a year. It was the first school for south Dunnellon native Annie Johnson.

Mrs. Johnson become a Citrus County schoolteacher. After her retirement from Hernando Elementary School in the mid-1970s, she founded the Annie Johnson Center that now is in the church building.

The center provides assistance to the elderly and others in need. The church building has been restored with the help of a $20,000 grant received in 1987.

Today it's easy to miss the turnoff from U.S. 41 for south Dunnellon on the Citrus County side of the Withlacoochee River. The boom town days are long gone. Walking down quiet Test Court to the old church building is like taking a step back in time.

The road is paved now, but the single-story wooden homes that line both sides of the street still have tin roofs and sit up on cinder blocks. At the end of the street stands the cream-colored wooden church, with a tin roof and a short wood-shingled steeple.

"I don't think too many people live here now, because there aren't too many jobs," said Mrs. Williams, who picked beans, peas, okra, watermelon and tomatoes for a living over the years. "They don't plant crops around here like they used to."

_ Information from Back Home, a history of Citrus County by Hampton Dunn, was used in this report.