Religion Across the River

Written by Rodger McLane.

A family tradition

Faith and religious devotion have long intertwined themselves within the dense forests of Deadwood and have spurred numerous religious revivals during the community’s 177 year existence. Today, Christian devotees have two religious options in Deadwood – the 143-year-old United Methodist Church or the 77-year-old United Pentecostal Church, both of which act as an anchor on either end of County Road 445. 

The Methodist congregation began late in the 19th Century after a community-wide religious conversion while the Pentecostal church’s roots go back to a mid-1920s cotton field. Both churches had strong leaders who held the institutions together during tumultuous times. The Rev. Charles LaGrone, or Preacher Charlie as he was known, led the Methodist church for more than 30 years until his death in 1939. Charlie was a Methodist circuit rider who established the Logan Methodist Church and pastored churches throughout the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in East Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma during the height of the Great Awakening of Frontier Revivals. 

Charlie and his brother Jefferson Bragg LaGrone were early Holiness Methodists whose grandfather Adam LaGrone settled Deadwood. Charles, or Charlie as he was known, preached at the Methodist church from the turn of the century until his death in 1939. Typically, descendants of Charlie are Methodist while the descendants of Jefferson Bragg are either Methodist or Pentecostal, and in turn constitute most of the population that lives in Deadwood. These brothers’ grandparents, Adam and Christeena LaGrone were the Presbyterian pioneer settlers of Deadwood, according to the inscription on their tombstone. Adam’s ancestors fled France as Huguenots during the French Wars of Religion and somewhere between the shores of South Carolina and the jungle of pines surrounding Deadwood became adherents of Presbyterianism.

Both the Deadwood Methodist Church and the Deadwood Cemetery sit on the 1837 headrights of Adam LaGrone and his son-in-law Willis Vaughan. The first burial at Deadwood Cemetery was that of Christeena Dominic LaGrone, who was born in 1785 and died in 1847. A community burying ground developed around Christeena’s grave and seven acres were set aside for public use by those LaGrones living in Deadwood by Adam and Christeena’s grandson Hiram Clark LaGrone, a Civil War veteran and the oldest son of Andrew Jackson, the youngest son of Adam and Christeena.

The first church in Deadwood, founded sometime between October and November 1871, was called the Pilgrim School and Church, but it was noted as Pilgrim Hill in Hiram Clark’s diary. The original church, a frame building, 24 feet wide and 30 feet long, two stories high, was replaced in 1890 by a one story boxed frame building, which was used until 1911. Here, Baptists and Methodists alternated Sundays at the pulpit.

By 1911 the church changed its name to the Pilgrim Hill Methodist Episcopal Church, Northern Methodist, and still had two denominations sharing the sanctuary.  The Methodist preacher was the Rev. Charles Horace “Charlie” LaGrone and the Baptist pastor was the Rev. Jeremiah Robinson “J.R.” Alexander. Charlie’s oldest brother Hiram had met J.R. while the men were Yankee prisoners of war in New Orleans. The materials for the church built in 1911 were furnished by Rev. Charlie who had his brother Hiram saw and plane the timber at his sawmill. From the beginning, religion in Deadwood was a family affair.

Mervin Scott, the current pastor of Deadwood Methodist, said he learned many things about Rev. Charlie from the country preacher’s third child of thirteen, Cammie LaGrone Alexander. “Her father was a very independent person who preached holiness,” the Rev. Scott said. “To hear the stories that were told he was a loving person with a different point of view.  He traveled to Oklahoma on horseback and pastored a circuit up there. He never tried to go into the well-to-do communities even though he had that background, instead he ministered to the poor.” The third Sunday of 1939 was the last time Preacher Charlie would lead a sermon. That day, after delivering a powerful message to his congregants, and a hearty meal at his son Joyce’s home, Charlie sat down for a peaceful afternoon at home on present day County Road 445. Around 3 p.m. that evening Charlie suffered a stroke and was found on his bedroom floor by his granddaughter, Kathlyn. He suffered for four days before dying on Thursday, Jan. 19, 1939 at his home in Deadwood

Retha LaGrone Whiddon, a lifelong resident of Deadwood and direct descendent of Adam LaGrone, said she remembers Preacher Charlie’s funeral. “He was a Woodsman of the World and they when they carried him out in his coffin they crossed swords above him,” Whiddon said. “That sticks in my mind.” Whiddon is the oldest member of Deadwood UMC and currently has the longest membership. To her, Deadwood Methodist is about family. “The thing about a small church is that we’re all just a family,” Whiddon said. “We’re happy for each other when something good happens and sad when something sad happens. When you pray you pray for the church family. You love them like family.” During her lifetime attending Deadwood Methodist, Whiddon said church attendance spiked around roughly 70 regular attendees, but during the late 1930s and early 1940s times were tough because so many regular adherents moved away from rural Deadwood to larger cities in search of work “I remember daddy was superintendent for Sunday school, and it got to where he had to go collect money for us to pay our dues,” Whiddon said. “Money was scarce, very few people had any. We had some very sparse years there. People couldn’t give.” The first pastor sent to Deadwood by the Methodist conference arrived in 1946 fresh from Stewart College in Tennessee. “Bro. Carl Beadles and his wife thought they were coming to some uninhabited place so they brought toothbrushes to pass out to us,” Whiddon said. “Needless to say they never unpacked them.”

The Deadwood Methodists built their first parsonage in 1946 on land given by Oscar and Cammie LaGrone Alexander. The parsonage, made of used lumber and used nails that were straightened by hand, lasted until 1960 when it burned and a new parsonage was built to replace it on present day Farm-to-Market 31 South between the northern and southern ends of County Road 445.  Other religious leaders at Deadwood Methodist since 1945 have included Claude Adams, Bro. Beadles, William Helpinstell, W.H. Wieting, Gerald Vickers, Carl Haffits, Dee Johnson, J. Brett Kenna, C.T. Wallace, Norman Garrett, and Mervin Scott.

In 1978, Whiddon said the Deadwood Methodists decided it was time to replace their 67-year-old church house after a tornado extensively damaged the building and uprooted 38 pine trees that had littered the churchyard for as long as she could remember. “At a church board meeting, my husband Kenneth said, ‘I’ll build the church if you’ll furnish materials and pay my men, I’ll take no pay for myself,’” Whiddon said. The late Thomas Dickerson drew up the plans for the building while church members began preparing for a building project. “When we built the church people who weren’t even members came and worked,” Whiddon said. “They brought tools and tractors, too.  The women cooked meals and men worked. It was an old fashioned community get together.” The new brick building, which the church still uses, was dedicated in a community celebration Sept. 28, 1980. The 1911 church building was moved to Highway 59 South where it sits, painted red and serves as the home of Kyle’s Red Barn.  “I know someone was saying that mother was their Sunday school teacher, and when you went to Mrs. Ludie Mae’s Sunday school you didn’t go color and play, you learned about God, you had Bible stories,” Whiddon said. Early Methodists whose names are recorded in church history include Tom H. LaGrone, Will Alexander, Sam Colburn, Oscar Alexander, Ina LaGrone, Mrs. E.C. Holland, Mr and Mrs. O.A. Roberts, Emmett LaGrone, Kenneth Whiddon, Joyce LaGrone, and Conway McMillan.

Another group of Deadwoodians whose dedication to God’s word has been historically important to the rural community are the Pentecostals of Deadwood. Kate Turk first preached the Holiness doctrine in Western Lousiana and Eastern Texas during 1897 when her vigor caused many Baptists in Deadwood to convert. One of those early converts was Sally Fedelia Carrington, born in 1867 in nearby Spring Ridge, La. Sally married Jefferson Bragg LaGrone on Jan. 8, 1884 while her sister Mollie was the first wife of her brother-in-law, Charlie LaGrone, who became her double-brother-in-law on Nov. 1, 1885.

The late James LaGrone was the grandson of Jefferson Bragg and Sally LaGrone. James died Dec. 28, 2012 at the age of 91, and his first memories of Pentecostals took him back to a cotton field near the banks of the Socagee Creek in 1928 when he was 6-years-old. “I can remember we were working in the cotton field when a Pentecostal preacher came by wanting us to come to his revival,” James said. “We didn't go, but my grandpa and some others did.” His great-uncle, Charlie, made a lasting impression in James’ mind because as a child, James and his family attended the Methodist church. “I was just a kid, but I can remember going to the Methodist church,” James said. “It was really nice place. We would go and momma would put a quilt down on the saw dust floor and we would lie down during the service and not bother anyone.”

Someone who did attend the revival was Sarah Ray Anderson who died just shy of 101 on Dec. 12, 2012. Sarah said the brush arbor served as a place for religious devotion and socializing. “The first Apostolic church in Deadwood that I went to was in about 1928 across from Will Buck Dickerson’s place on 31,” Anderson said. “They would preach and pray sometimes all night long. Some people came to poke fun, others came for church.” Early Deadwood converts to Pentecostalism included Jefferson Bragg LaGrone; Edd Sartor and his wife, Justin Sartor; Ellen Sartor, Edd’s mother; Mellie Dickerson, Joe Aaron and his wife; Eula B. Dickerson Farmer; Laurence Rodney Dickerson; and Berdie Carter and her parents, Lloyd and Lucy Cameron. “I saw him when he was baptized in the Socagee Creek,” James said of his grandfather, Jefferson Bragg. “Grandpa was a good man, but you better not fool with him because of his temper.” Nine years later in August of 1937, James was 15-years-old when Bro. Gilbert Mabry and Bro. Ediwen Frames came from Louisiana and held a Pentecostal open-air revival at the corner of FM 31 South and the southern end of County Road 445, the same place of the first revival. James said there was a great outpouring of faith during that time when life was particularly hard. The Great Depression showed no signs of weakening or ending anytime soon. “There were so many at the alter the first night I couldn’t have gone if I wanted to, but I went the second night and received the spirit of God kneeling at that alter,” James said. “I prayed and asked for forgiveness.”

Dorothy Dickerson Luman described the 1937 revival in her history of the Deadwood Pentecostal Church. “We had rough sawed planks over logs for seats and the lights were kerosene in a bottle with a cloth wick,” Luman wrote. “We were in a clearing in the edge of the woods across the road from where I was born and lived at that time. I shall never forget the mighty convicting power of God in that revival.” New members of the church after that two week long revival included Agnes and Geneva Sarton; David and Oleat LaGrone, and their second and third children, James and Claudia Lee LaGrone; Ovada Rinkle; Opal Sartor; and several member’s of Vernon Barkley’s family.

Soon, the people of newfound faith grew tired of housing prayer meetings in a new location each time and decided they wanted a church building of their own. Sam Colburn gave the plot of land on which the Deadwood Pentecostal Church sits today, and John Spradley’s sawmill was used to ready timber for construction. The first church’s floor was dirt covered with sawdust, no ceiling, but a solid roof, glass windows, and an oil drum that was converted into a wood-burning heater to ward off cooler temperatures. Luman wrote of remembering early Pentecostals enduring bullying from less-than understanding neighbors and family members. “We had many young people in our community, and like young people of today they were looking for excitement,” she wrote. “They did not have money or transportation to go into town; the Pentecostal church was enough excitement. Many people heard the word of God. For one soul won, all the fun-making could not mire.”

Bro. Mabry left Deadwood after about one year and was replaced by Bro. Bud Luman, and died in the early 40s after also leaving Deadwood. James LaGrone’s father, Jeff David LaGrone, held the church together during the years without a pastor. “After daddy prayed through he would go house to house having prayer meeting,” James said. “He’d have it in our house, too.” Jeff David would later suffer a stroke and die while behind the pulpit in Lufkin. Other pastors who led Deadwood through the years included Sister Beene; Bro. Gbison; Bro and Sis. Carouthers; Bro. and Sis. Arrington ;Bro. and Sis. Kay; Bro. Yileding; Bro. Homer Powell; Bro. Lewis; Bro. Llyod Cameron; Bro. John Wiles; Bro. Harold Gunstanson; and currently, David Daigle. What’s interesting about the Deadwood Pentecostals was the early willingness to allow women a role in the church. According to Luman, in addition to Sister Beene, many other traveling preachers, including Sister Owens, of Nacogdcohes, Sister Richards, of Center,  and Sister Crait Morman, of Logansport, would all preach at the church between the LaGrone and Beene ministries. The Deadwood Pentecostals, Luman wrote, were fundamentally helped either through labor or financial support by men of the community, including, Edd Sarton, Conway Spradley, Jeff David LaGrone, Jackie LaGrone, Willis LaGrone, Glen Godwin, John Dickerson, Earl Farmer, Earnum Rinkle, Neil Rinkle, John Spradley, Pokie Dot Baggett, Larence Rodney Dickerson, Lawrence C. Dickerson, Emory LaGrone, Bonnie Lane, Fred Portman, Vernon Luman, Noah Luman, James LaGrone, Jimmy LaGrone, Conway LaGrone, and Garvin Baker.

Regardless of religious denomination, the two churches of Deadwood have unique histories worthy of recognition. In 2008 the Deadwood Methodists celebrated the opening of the Rev. Charles C. and Clara Alexander LaGrone Family Life Center on property donated by the late Clayton LaGrone, grandson of the Rev. Charlie and Clara.  “There are people in this community who don’t go to either church, and we’ve done several things at our Family Life Center to get them to church,” Whiddon said. “If you can get kids to church you can get momma and daddy.” Juanita Dean LaGrone is the oldest member of Deadwood UPC, and along with her sister JoNell LaGrone, were the daughter-in-laws of Jeff David LaGrone. “The church means a lot to us. I’ve gone there since 1952 when JoNell married Jimmy and I married Conway. Our church has a great pastor and pastor’s wife. Deadwood is a special place to me; I love all the people there.”

Rodger McLane is a seventh generation resident of Deadwood and a descendant of Adam LaGrone, its founder. Rodger is a first year law student at Mississippi College in Jackson.