Updated: Apr 17, 2022
** The History of Zionsville's Butternut Church is coming soon! Explore the complete history of the Little Brick Church through photographs, first hand accounts, and archived documents. Click HERE to be notified when the book is available! **
When I started researching the old Christian Union Church in Zionsville I had no idea of the history I was about to uncover. Despite its short time as a church, it functioned as a backdrop for some of the most tumultuous times in American history.
The church was built in 1867 by Ratliff Baird, Daniel Lewis, and Madison Small-- trustees of the Christian Union Church. Although most sources agree it was built in 1870, an 1884 article from The Indianapolis Journal claims the 1867 build date at the insistence of a southern sympathizer named Reverend Oliver Hazzard Perry Abbett.
The Christian Union Church was initially called the Butternut Church. The term "butternut" originated during the time of the Civil War and often referred to Confederate soldiers. As the war raged on, the Confederacy began to lack necessary supplies-- this included mandated brown or gray uniforms. To substitute, soldiers would wear whatever they had at home and even went as far as using the uniforms of captured Union soldiers. To get the brown color, they would dye these clothes using walnut hulls, butternuts, acorns, and lye; thus the name "Butternuts."
The term also referred to transplanted southerners living in the Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana area at the start of the 19th century up through the Civil War. Staunchly Democrat and pro-slavery, they lived rural lives-- growing corn, raising pigs, and drinking whiskey. The Butternut name for these people likely was in reference to the coloring of their homespun clothing.
Some Southern transplants were also referred to as "Copperheads." Like Butternuts, they opposed the Union government and lived typical rural lives. However, they opposed the Civil War entirely and believed that winning was not worth the cost. They became the target of Republicans beginning in 1860, named after the venomous Copperhead snake. Copperheads accepted the label, reinterpreting the copper head as a likeness to liberty and even pinning Liberty Head large cent coins to their clothing as badges. This term died out by 1870.
As a denomination, The Christian Union came to be in early 1864 in Columbia, Ohio after Methodist Episcopal Church Reverend James Fowler Given refused to take a political stance on the Civil War. Christian Union churches then spread quickly throughout the United States-- as far north as New England, as far south as Florida, and as far west as Colorado. Most membership, however, was concentrated in the Butternut States. By 1870 there were 48 churches in the United States with 4,920 members total. Membership peaked in 1916 with 13,692 members then fell rapidly. The Christian Union Church at Zionsville reached a peak membership of 55 people in 1874 and held services regularly, led by a hired reverend. By 1878, membership began to dwindle, with speakers hired from other towns occasionally but no hired reverend on hand.
Reverend Oliver Hazzard Perry Abbett-- the man who might have been responsible for the building of the Christian Union Church-- was a well-known religious leader in Indiana. Born to a prominent family in Kentucky in 1819, he received his license to preach in the Methodist church in 1849 after moving to Bartholomew County, Indiana, He withdrew from the M.E. Church after they swore allegiance to the Union government during the Civil War, claiming: "... the Democrats had but two rights, i.e., first to die, second to be dead." Upon leaving the M.E. church he heavily preached Christian Union principles. He moved to Indianapolis in 1870 and continued preaching and traveling-- sometimes even speaking at the Christian Union Church in Zionsville. He and his wife Emeline had ten children. After a sickness lasting two years, Abbett died in 1898 at the age of 78.
Dr. Reverend Samuel Bollard Chamberlain was the regular pastor at the church from 1867 until about 1878. Born in Northhamptonshire, England in 1824, he immigrated with his uncle-- Benjamin Bollard-- to Ohio in 1835 and was educated at the Kingsville Academy. In 1848 he moved to Marion County, Indiana and began teaching school. Here, he married Esther Moore and together they had five children. The family moved to Greenwood, Indiana in 1853 where Chamberlain became licensed to preach in the Methodist Episcopal Church there. After six years he earned his medical license and began his own practice in 1861. Chamberlain moved to Moore's Hill, Indiana in 1884 where he lived out the remainder of his life until his death in 1897.
During the time that church meetings were dwindling, Revered Levi Rees was occasionally hired to speak in Zionsville. Rees was raised as a member of the Religious Society of Friends-- otherwise known as the Quakers. He served in the Union army as a Private in the 135th Illinois infantry from June 1864-September 1864. Four years after returning from the war, Rees married Rebecca Alice Parker and together they adopted Cora May Rees. For several years he worked as an insurance salesman until he became ordained around 1881 in Marion County, Indiana. He was a regular minister at Sugar Plain Friend Church in Thorntown Indiana from 1887-1888, again from 1893-1895, and once again from 1899-1901. In 1903 he moved with his wife and daughter to Whittier, California where he accepted a position as a Friend Minister and Chaplain for the State Industrial School for Boys-- a reformatory school just outside of Los Angeles. Rees died suddenly in November 1904 from heart disease at his home in Whittier.
In 1898, the building was purchased by the Boone Post No. 202, Department of Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. The GAR was an organization of American Civil War Veterans who served in the Union forces. Local organizations popped up in communities across the nation but predominantly in the northern US. They were honored in a number of ways, including through parades and conventions. Indianapolis became known as the home to the most popular of "encampments"-- the first in 1866 and the last in 1949. Each year Civil War veterans would wear their uniforms while marching in a large parade. It is noted that spectators were often moved to tears. The Grand Army of the Republic dissolved in 1956 after the death of its last member. Boone Post No. 202 occupied the building until they disbanded in 1926. Irvin T. Huckleberry was the last surviving member. He died on January 24, 1937 at the age of 92.
Between 1890 and 1923 the Little Brick Church was used for a number of miscellaneous things. During the 1890's, Zionsville had not hall or auditorium. Because of this, many plays, meetings, and celebrations were held in the Little Brick Church-- utilizing the platform in the back as a stage. This remained the case until 1902 when the town hall was built.
Cal Gault, the editor of the Zionsville Times, used the building as his printing office in 1894 until his permanent office was built.
During the school years of 1922 and 1923, the structure was leased to Eagle Township and used as a makeshift schoolhouse for several grade-levels while repairs and additions were completed on the Academy building up the street.
In September 1919, the Francis Neidlinger Post No. 79 of the American Legion was organized. The namesake, a young man named Francis Neidlinger, was a Zionsville resident who was killed in action in World War I during a battle in France, just four days before the signing of the Armistice ending the war. The GAR deed a one-half interest in the property on which their hall sat to the American Legion in 1920. In return the legion reparied the hall by adding a new floor, painting the walls, and repairing the two large stoves used to heat the hall. When Boone Post No. 202 dissolved in 1926, the Legion was given the remaining half interest in the property. They held meetings, dinners, and celebrations there until moving to their current location in 1977. During their ownership, the Legion made a number of improvements and repairs. A new kitchen and two restrooms were built, along with a small vestibule (which has since been removed) added at the north entrance.
Today, this historic building is being converted into a single-family home. It has been an absolute honor to research this structure and I hope its story continues to be told for years to come.
If you would like to know more about your home or a building in your community, please send an inquiry through our website!