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History of First Presbyterian Church

The first religious service in Onida was held at the Onida Hotel on May 27, 1883, with 42 people present, including the minister and the babies. Mrs. Brigham played the organ in the lobby of the hotel, and the Rev. N. H. Axtell from the Methodist Church in Kankahee, Illinois, preached the sermon.


        The following Sunday, the Rev. William G. Poor conducted the service with 77 people in attendance. A Sunday School was organized following the service with Wallace Lilly chosen as superintendent. Five classes were formed with the following teachers: Rev. Poor, young men's class; J. M. Moore, Bible class; Mrs. Brigham, ladies' class; Mrs. Lilly, young girls' class, and Mrs. Allen Starke, young boys' class.


        In the spring of 1884, when the Onida schoolhouse was completed, church services were conducted in the school building for several years. The

schoolhouse stood about where the Frank Erp Filling Station is now located.

Ministers from various denominations conducted the services for several years, as there was no formal church organization until 1889.


        On October 27, 1889, Dr. H. P. Carson, Synodical Missionary of the

Presbyterian Church, came to Onida in response to a petition presented to the

Presbytery of Central Dakota, requesting the organization of a Presbyterian

Church in Onida. The Rev. T. J. Gray was empowered by the Presbytery to organize the church. He invited Elder William C. Grier of the Presbyterian Church of Blunt, and the Rev. Carson to assist. These three men met with the congregation in the schoolhouse and at this meeting the First Presbyterian Church of Onida, Sully County, Dakota Territory, was organized. Elders for the newly organized church were Levans Livingstone, Edward Barber and Nathan Porter. The Onida and Blunt churches shared the same pastor.


        In 1897, the Rev. J. P. Williamson, who had graduated that year from the Theological Seminary of Princeton University, began his ministry in Onida and remained here about three years. Arrangements were made in 1898 to meet in the Baptist Church. In 1900, Rev. Williamson and his wife, Addie, left Onida to take over the pastorate at Kimball, South Dakota.


        From 1900 to 1916, the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches operated on a federated basis, with Presbyterian and Methodist ministers alternating every two years. Several Baptist families had moved into the area and the services of a Baptist minister had been procured, so the Presbyterians and Methodists held their services in the Methodist Church, which is today the Open Bible Church. Besides morning and evening services, there were Sunday School, Missionary Societies, Young Peoples meeting and mid-week prayer services.


        Both churches had their choirs and the church program was quite complete, but Mrs. Edward Barber thought there should be something more for the children. So with the help of Minnie Livingstone and several teenage girls, she inaugurated a program in 1922 far ahead of its time in scope and effectiveness. Steps were taken to organize a Young People's Society and more than 30 enthusiastic young people attended the first meeting. There was no restriction on creed and the children loved it. They listened to Bible stories, learned Bible verses, sang songs, played games and made hand work. Officers of this group were Wright McConnell, president; Marjorie Brown, vice president; Margaret Johnson, secretary, and Anna M. Courtney, treasurer. The little red chairs used in the Presbyterian Church today were purchased for this group and financed by candy sales and ice cream socials. Nobody had heard of a church budget in those days.


        From October 1911, to November 1913, the Rev. Williamson worked here

again, and from 1913 to 1915, the church was served by a Methodist minister, the Rev. George Quayle, an uncle of Earl Hardwick. By 1914, the Baptists had given up, this time for good, and some time later the Presbyterians started having services in their building. The Methodist organization also disbanded and the Social Circle purchased the Methodist building for $500.00 for a Primary Sunday School and Community building.


        Rev. William Bullock and his family moved to Onida in 1916, and served the church for two years, followed by the Rev. S. Brise Cook from 1918 until 1922.


        A Women's Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church was organized in January, 1921, which was an outgrowth of an increased interest in missionary study among the ladies. Officers elected were Mrs. E. E. Brooking, president; Mrs. C. H. Gall, vice president; Mrs. C. D. Jack, secretary; Mrs. W. W. Warner, treasurer, and Mrs. S. B. Cook, secretary of literature and missionary classes.


        The Rev. F. W. Thompson served the church from 1922 until 1927. A manse was purchased in 1923. The Rev. J. P. Williamson commenced work here again in June of 1927 and continued to serve the church for 10 years until he retired from the ministry in June, 1937. In that year, the Rev. George Clarke, a bachelor from Ireland, took up his duties as pastor and served four years. During the summer of 1941, Rollyn Morison, a student from McCormick Seminary, served as minister. The Rev. and Mrs. Brough came the fall of 1942, and were here two years.


        The Rev. Edwin Walter, who was minister of the Mennonite Church, six miles east of town, agreed to take over the preaching services until such time a regular pastor could be obtained. He served until May, 1946, when the Rev. and Mrs. Denley Ganfield came. The manse, which had been rented for several years, was vacated for a short time and during that time was repaired and redecorated.


        Almost immediately a church building program was launched. An unused

Presbyterian church building from Hitchcock was purchased and moved onto alot

on lower Main Street. The old Baptist church building was cut in half and moved on the same lot, one-half becoming the present annex and the other half the choir room. The building committe was composed of Frank Johnson, Ergo Hull and Luther Nelson. Much work remained yet to be done when services were resumed in the fall of 1947. Wanda Mauree Day was the first bride to be married in the new church.


        Impressive dedication services were held on March 30, 1948, in connection with Presbytery which met there the following day. Following a church supper, Dr. George F. McDougall, president of Huron College, presided at the ceremonies. The Rev. Joseph Andrew, of Miller, delivered the sermon, and several ministers of Huron Presbytery participated in the services. Music was furnished by the church choir with Mrs. Earl Hardwick as pianist. Soloists were Mrs. Minnie Zimnier and Miss Grace Haverly.


        In 1948, a beautiful stained glass window was installed in the east wall of the church as a memorial of Jesse P. Williamson. Some time later two smaller windows were installed, one on either side of the Williamson window. They were purchased with money donated as memorials and dedicated to those early pioneers who labored unceasingly to establish and maintain a church. Leo A. Temmey, prominent lawyer of Huron and son of a pioneer family in Sully County, was the speaker when they were dedicated. Since then three other stained glass windows have replaced the old ones on the north wall. These are personal memorials with the names of the individuals inscribed.


        Rev. Ganfield left in 1952, and the church was without a minister for

several months. However, the congregation was fortunate in obtaining the

services of Rev. L. Hume Ward, of the Miller church, who consented to conduct

services in Onida on Sunday evenings. This he did from 1952 until 1954, and

during that time the membership of the church increased from 133 to 190.


        Then the Rev. Sylvan K. Williams, of Philip, received a call from the

church and he and his wife, Laura, and daughter, Judy, came here for about three years, when they received a call from the Presbyterian Church in Lead where they are at the present time. During the time that the Williams were in Onida, many improvements were made, the most important being the new manse. Open house was held on February 27, 1955. Also, an annex was built in the basement of the church and a new furnace installed. The membership increased from 190 to 247 during that time.


        The present minister is the Rev. Charles Ray Freuden, of Milwaukee,

Wisconsin. He and his wife, Joyce, and young son, Carl, are now very much at

home in Onida. The membership at the close of 1958 was 270.


        The Missionary Society and the Young Women's Guild united and the church now has an organized Association and five Circles, with a memberhip of about 70.


        In 1954, the General Assembly of the church met in Los Angeles,

California, and at that time Elder Luther Nelson represented the church and

Presbytery. In June of that year, Mrs. Luther Nelson represented the church at the National Presbyterian Women's Convention held at Purdue University in

Indianapolis, Indiana. Again in 1958, Mrs. Henry Smith and Mrs. John Sutton,

Sr., attended the convention as delegates from the Onida church. In 1956, John Sutton, Jr., was delegated to attend the National Council of Presbyterian Men held in Chicago, and upon his return he, with the assistance of Rev. Williams, organized a Men's Club.


        Each summer the church sends a good percentage of its young people to

church camps. A Bible school is held each spring shortly after school closes,

with the minister's wife, several adult teachers and young girls carrying out

the school's planned curriculum.


        The music department of the church has always been very active and for the past several years Mrs. Maynard Knox and son, Parker, have provided the music for church services. The church also has two choirs, the adult choir directed by Mrs. Jack Donahue, and the junior choir directed by Mrs. Freuden.


        The 1958 officers are Earl Baxter and John Sutton, Sr., elders; Harold

Currier and Albin Stahl, trustees, and Mrs. Earl Kinder and Mrs. Preston

Starbuck, deacons.





Dr. Jesse P. Williamson


        Dr. and Mrs. J. P. Williamson, whose lives are closely identified with the development and life of the First Presbyterian Church of Onida, have a definite place in the history of Sully County.


        Jesse P. Williamson was born at Greenwood, South Dakota, on March 19, 1872 and passed away on November 22, 1941. His father, Rev. John P. Williamson, had come to South Dakota as a missionary with the Indians when they were banished in 1863, and spent the rest of his life in missionary work with them.


        Jesse P. Williamson Jesse attended school near Greenwood, entering Pierre University in 1884. They found it difficult to classify this boy of 12 whose education had been so thorough in some fields and so sketchy in others. The later attended Yankton College, graduating in 1891. Somewhat later he attended the Theological Seminary of Princeton University, graduating in 1897. His first pastorate was Onida, which he served from November 1, 1897 to April 1, 1900, when he went to Kimball. In June of 1900, he was married to Addie Jordan, oldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. D. Q. Jordan, pioneers of Onida and Sully County.


        In 1911 they returned to serve the Federated Church of Onida for two

years. A daughter, Lois, was born during this time. She and an older brother,

Danforth, were their only children.


        In 1913 the family followed him to Santee, Nebraska, where he became

superintendent of the theological department of the Indian Training School of

that place. He resigned this position in the fall of 1917 to carry on his

father's work, the elder Williamson having died. Later he became General

Superintendent of the Indian work for the Presbyterian Church.


        In 1927 the Williamsons returned to Onida. Rev. Williamson served as

pastor of the Onida Community Church until January 1937, when he retired from

the ministry. Both of the Williamsons were musical and they showed their talents generously. Mrs. Williamson's frail health sometimes curtailed her activities, but her courageous spirit was an inspiration to all who came in contact with her. Sorrow came into the home with the death of daughter Lois. Honors came, too Yankton College conferred on Dr. Williamson the honorary title of Doctor of Divinity as part of their commencement services in June of 1934. Huron College offered him the same honor, but he modestly declined to accept the second honorary degree.


        From 1937 until his death in 1941, Dr. Williamson served the county as

clerk of courts. Ill health plagued him for several years and he suffered much from nervous disorder, brought on by hardening of the arteries. Death came at Yankton in November of 1941. His funeral was a memorable occasion. Dignitaries from Huron College, old family friends such as the Riggs, church officials from all over the state, and local friends filled the church to capacity and overflowed into the street where they sat in their cars during the service. The following is taken from the obituary in the November 22, 1941, issue of the Onida Watchman: "No man could have served a church more faithfully than did Dr. Williamson. His time and his energy were at the disposal of any who needed them. More than one older person has been cared for in the Williamson home, and more than one young senior has received help. There are in Sully County hundreds of people who remember with gratitude and appreciation the kindly services of Dr. Williamson. When death came into a home, he was never too occupied to go into the bereaved home and offer what comfort and help he was able to, whether that family's name appeared on his church roll or not."


        Dr. and Mrs. J. P. Williamson were invited as special guests at a

Centennial celebration at LacQuiParle, Minnesota. In 1835, Dr. Williamson's

grandparents landed there as the first white missionaries to the Sioux Indians. Closely connected with the Williamson family as benefactors to the Sioux were the Riggs families of Pierre and Oahe on the Missouri River. Dr. Riggs, Sr., and Dr. Williamson were the last survivors of the missionary children born in LacQuiParle. They were invited by the Presbyterian Missionary Society of Minnesota.

Thanks goes to contributor Sheila Ring

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