Clinton County is dotted with little country churches, from Chester and Dover Friends to Jonah’s Run Baptist Church and many others. This story, though, is about one particular country church that stands at the crossroads of State Routes 350 and 730 in Vernon Township.
There was a community that needed a church and the crossroads seemed to be a great place to build one, and this one would be called Villars Chapel.
James Villars Sr. was from Green County, Pennsylvania. In 1806 he, his wife Rebecca and five children John, Mary, James, William and Rachel struck out on a flat boat down the Monongahela River. The boat was loaded with goods to help them on the trip, and he even brought two horses.
They wanted a home in the west, and the journey, like all far-away journeys then, was hard, and at one point the boat hit some rocks and a new boat had to be built, which would take two weeks to do. This unfortunate accident happened around Wheeling, West Virginia.
The only heat they had was a fire they built on the raft in a large iron kettle; this would be how they did all their cooking, too.
They would link up with the Ohio River and land in Cincinnati. The family would travel north to Deerfield where a little cabin was rented on the banks of Turtle Creek. The night they arrived in the cabin, the Villars family welcomed a son and named him George.
Soon after, James Villars rented a farm near Lebanon and took up growing corn. That fall after the crops came in the family moved again, near Clarksville. Villars would start out by buying 50 acres of land and soon after he bought 670 acres. Sadly, Villars would die in 1823; his wife would live until 1852.
James Villars Sr. would be the start of Villars Chapel; he and William Austin would each donate an acre of land and nine log poles for a log church that was sorely needed in the area. This early church was not much to look at but, it was a place to gather.
This would later be replaced with a much neater and cleaner wood-frame building, which would stand until after the Civil War. Then in the late 1860s it was decided a new building was to be built; a large, two-story church made of brick and mortar, something the congregation could be proud of.
The church would be recognized as Methodist, and Villars Chapel, as we know it today, was born.
But at the time, it was not named this, as no one could really agree on what to call it.
According to the records at the Clinton County History Center, people by the name of John Harden, Charlie Harden, John Huff, Alexander Kearns and J.S Kimbrough, who was a blacksmith in Clarksville and later became a judge, all helped lay the foundation. A Mr. Dibly of Blanchester helped lay brick — very little is known about him.
The church was opened in 1868 to much fanfare and people from all over the area came to see the newly completed building. It is not known who preached the first sermon that day, but it is presumed that many Villarses and Austins were in attendance.
The years rolled on and the church saw a thriving congregation. When the upstairs was completed, Isaiah Villars, son of the Rev. George Villars, would preach the first sermon held in that part of the building.
In January 1872, a revival was held along with the dedication of the church. It was declared that it should be called Villars Chapel from the people that donated the ground and preached one of the first sermons in the building. Then 1873 would be a big year for the church as it saw its first marriage — Frances S. Prichard would marry Alonzo Hadley.
In 1918 the ladies of Villars would form an aid society. Fannie Sewell would be named its first chair with Opal McCollister its Secretary, Vice President Clara Kearns, and Treasurer Abbie Hussy.
The ladies were well-organized; pins were made so they could be identified at church services. At a meeting of the aid society, failure to wear your pin was a fine of one cent, and if you missed a meeting, you were fined two cents.
Many money-making ideas were floated by the group. They were known for putting on plays and making wonderful quilts. The money would go all over the county and also help returning troops from World War I.
The 100-year anniversary celebration was one to behold. Wilmington News Journal accounts state that the Rev. Luther Villars of Chamois, Missouri — the great-great-grandson of James Villars — preached the morning sermon. Sunday school would then be held and a basket lunch.
A short history of the church would be read aloud so after there was time for folks to gather and visit. It was also written that many of the old families by the name of Brandenburg, Richardson and Sewell, along with many others, were invited by written invitation. These families helped settle the area. Pictures of the church were displayed and writings from long ago were put out.
Villars Chapel has certainly seen its share of ups and downs, just like any church, but it has stood the test of time. This year marks the 154th year in its current building, a true testament to the families long ago — many now forgotten, but the name Villars will stand forever in the township of Vernon.
Current Minister Scarlett Rowland keeps the congregation thriving and helps with the tradition of the church that helped build a community so long ago. Clinton County would not be what it is today without churches like this. Little country churches certainly do have a big impact.
Jonathan McKay is a Clinton County native and a current member of Wilmington City Council.