Volume 7, Number 6, Fall 1981
High on a hill overlooking the village of Ponce de Leon, in the northeast corner of Stone County, stands the ruins of a beautiful old stone church. For half a century it served the religious needs of the once prosperous and famous health resort, known locally as Poncy. Abandoned for about thirty years, it serves as a reminder of past glory.
The land on which it stands is a small lot, 40 by 100 feet, legally described as "Lot 5 in Block 3 of Steinards 2nd addition to the town of Ponce de Leon, as shown on the original plat on file in the Recorders office of Stone County Missouri." It is located at the southwest corner of Main Street and Broadway, now just a couple of unimproved country roads. The land was deeded to the Trustees of the Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, and Christian Churches in 1904. The building was constructed of native stone which was quarried nearby. The small but well built church was characterized by handsome windows with distinctive pointed arches. It was built by a capable stone mason named Darling, who lived "over on Bear Creek." Rudolph Hilton and Loma Hilton Schupbach, both W.R.V.H.S. members, recall that Mr. Darling was a Seventh Day Adventist, who stopped work on Friday afternoon, walked to Hilton home at Spokane, there he spent the night, then walked to his home on Saturday morning. On Sunday evening he walked back to the Hiltons, spent the night, and continued on to Ponce de Leon on Monday morning.
The Christian County was never organized. Occasionally, Christian preacher, James W. White, went from Highlandville and preached to the "Campbellites," as they were called. Eventually, the few Christian Church members were absorbed into the Methodist and Baptist denominations. These congregations worshipped together harmoniously, serving the Lord to the best of their abilities, singing together, sharing the same Union Sunday School literature, listening to each others ministers and respecting the beliefs and doctrines of the other. By 1950 all of the Methodists had either died or moved away and the Baptist built a new church. This left the Stone church to the ravages of time and the elements.
In the words of Mrs. Velta Steele, now Mrs. Vernon Davis of Nixa, long-time Postmaster at Ponce de Leon and new W.R.V.H.S. member, "Some of the best memories of Ponce are of the Stone Church on the hill. It should have been repaired and kept as the Landmark that it is because of good memories still hovering over the spot dedicated to God by our forefathers."
J. W. Hendrex of Ozark; Mrs. Clyde Little of Clever; Mrs. Mary Inmon of Springfield; my sister, Mary Ernst of Golden City and a W.R.V.H.S. member; and, Mrs. Davis have helped to recall the names of some of the ministers who served the Ponce Church. They are Tommy Hanks, Floyd Hanks, D. S. Frazier, O. A. Fortune, Paul Mayfield, Worth Caughron, Bruce Maples, Sid Lokey and his son, Gordon; Harry Bennett, Gordon Merritt, Lawrence Henry, Lynn & Geoffrey Swadley, Rev. Deavers, James Ellingsworth, Tom Baucom, Dillard Estep, Rev. Langston, Rev. Pine, W. O. Watson, Warren Prall and Charles _________ now pastor of the Lamar Methodist Church.
Many have been forgotten--perhaps readers will recall others. Mr. Hendrex says that the first church at Ponce was located in a small frame building and the first preacher was Jonah McReynolds.
The town of Ponce de Leon was founded
about 1870 at the time when numerous mineral springs and so called "health resorts" were being developed all over the country. In the census of 1880 Ponce de Leon township had 1710 residents, and town lots were platted in every direction. Although, according to Willie Hendrex, it was only a sort of "slab town" at best. At one time the town had a bank, at least one hotel, mercantile establishments, a distillery, a doctor, J. H. Wade, M. D., a drug store, blacksmith shop, several bath houses and a high school. Now there is only the post office and perhaps a filling station in operation.
The spring which gave rise to the idea that this was the "Fountain of Youth" sought by Ponce de Leon, hence the name of the town, is a medium sized spring so common to the Missouri Ozarks. It gushes from a hillside on the western side of the valley and has sufficient volume to furnish running water by gravity flow to several homes. There are three springs whose branches converge at Ponce; the Cook Spring on the north; Barrel Spring, a mile or so to the South; and "The Fountain of Youth." Another spring branch comes from the east, fed by the Lee Spring and other small springs which form Goff Creek and Ponce is regarded as the head of Goff Creek.
Fountain T. Welch is considered the founder of Ponce. He was born in 1842 and married Sallie J. McReynolds in Kentucky. It is thought that he came to Missouri about the time of the Civil War, since his tombstone shows that he was a member of Company G, 6th Missouri Volunteer Cavalry. My grandfather, Thomas H. Welch, was practically the same age as "Fount" Welch and they are buried on adjacent lots in the Ponce de Leon Cemetery. W.R.V.H.S. member Paul R. Welch, a genealogist, has made exhaustive research and discovered no relationship.
The Ponce de Leon Cemetery is located just at the Stone County line in Christian County, a mile east of the town. Willie Hendrex relates that the land for the cemetery was donated by Bill McGinnis, who lived nearby. The first grave was dug by Mrs. Marvel Mills and a small boy for a Dayton child in 1863 at the height of the Civil War. Marvel Mills and his father-in-law, Bill McGinnis, were away from home in the Army. Since bushwhackers and guerilla bands were prevalent the women had to perform all the duties ordinarily handled by the men. It was a time of terror and privation. The country was at the mercy of, not only the opposing armies, but of the outlaws who preyed on the helpless residents. The oldest persons with marked tombstones in the cemetery are Lewis Hendrex, born 1808, died 1882 and his wife Susannah, born 1811, died 1875.
The early families of Ponce were:
McReynolds, Wade, Hendrex, Welch, Cline, Steele, Rhea, Magers, Norman, Glossip, Earnhart, Turner, Bradford, Gibson, Watts, Solomon, Sechler, Little, Lathrop, Jackson, Schnell, Coin, Riley, Cox, Carver, Redman, Dunkle, Lee and many others who may have been unintentionally omitted. Many descendants of these early families still live in the neighborhood and share a proud heritage.
Copyright Ó White River Valley Historical Quarterly
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