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Norwalk's First Baptist celebrating 200 years

• Jun 7, 2019 at 12:00 PM

Norwalk’s First Baptist Church at 67 E. Main St. is celebrating its 200th birthday this year.

The actual founding of the Baptist Church of Ridgefield took place on Jan. 28, 1819, with 14 charter members. Membership was scattered for a few miles around, so meetings were held in those localities to convenience everyone. Very soon a log school house west of Norwalk about where the Rural King store is located was secured and became the site for central gatherings. Not long after a new school was built at Halfway Road and headquarters were established there.

As membership grew, some of the outlying communities such as Peru, North Fairfield and Milan broke off and formed their own congregation. In 1835 the remaining members voted to meet in the future in Norwalk, and to become the First Baptist Church and Society of Norwalk.

The following year they built their first church building at 67 E. Main St. and used it exactly 40 years. The last service was held June 28, 1876, after which the old church was razed and the present one built on the same spot. This building was completed and dedicated in March of 1880.

The Baptists always were interested in education, and a year after the first church was completed a Sunday school was formed, which has preserved through the years. At the time there was no public school system as we know it now, so the church formed a private school in 1837 for girls, to be known as the Huron Baptist Education Society. It met in the basement of the new 1836 church, but it’s not recorded how long this school lasted. There were several such private schools for girls attempted at the time, and most of them had a short life span due to financial problems.

That church basement must have been well arranged for public use, for it was used when very new as a temporary classroom for some of the Norwalk Seminary students. The Seminary served in lieu of a high school in a graded system as we have now. It stood on the site of the Main Street School, and was destroyed by the fire early in the year 1836. One of those “basement students” was Rutherford B. Hayes of Delaware, Ohio, a later President of the United States.

The Seminary was rebuilt and continued operation until 1846. In that year the Baptists purchased it and provided education there until 1855. Like most private schools at the time, it was a great educational success but never achieved the financial stability and high enrollment needed. The 1853 catalog lists 232 students. Ohio laws changed in 1850, establishing a 12-year tax-supported and graded system (no kindergarten), and the private schools faded away. In 1855 the Institute closed and its impressive brick building was sold to the public school system.

In the accompanying photo you can see the building in its later years, well decorated with students from front fence to tower. This photo may have been taken shortly before it was razed in 1883 to make way for the new high school known as the Central Building. The Central was torn down in 1938 to make way for the present building which was Norwalk High School to many of us superannuated graduates.

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REMEMBER: My “Just Like Old Times” books are on sale at New Directions Design, 20 W. Main St., in downtown Norwalk. These contain my earlier columns fully indexed and in permanent book form.

Henry Timman, an authority on Firelands history, resides in rural Norwalk.

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