I started driving and exploring the area around where I lived during my senior year of high school. I remember the impetus clearly: I asked my mom if I could take the girl I was dating to a soccer game at Delta High School, just northeast of town near where two highways intersected. Mom responded with a key question that got right to the point: “Do you even know the way to get there?”
Oof. I didn’t.
We ended up not going. But the promise of that random interaction set about my long-standing compunction to go explore whatever there was to see in East Central Indiana: the years that followed my high school have led a drive up or down Eaton-Wheeling Pike to be a favorite jaunt of mine. I’ve been infatuated with the old Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church, which has stood on the road since 1867, ever since.
I whipped out my drone, a DJI Mavic Mini, for this trip. Mt. Zion is the oldest remaining church building in Delaware County. The Richwood Evangelical Lutheran Church at Cross Roads in Salem Township was built the following year, and the oldest sanctuary in Muncie proper -the former Wesleyan Chapel Church at 600 West Jackson Street- was erected in 1875 as Muncie’s First Christian Church.
Mt. Zion was founded in 1840 as a combination of Methodist Episcopal classes held in the homes of Tristan Starbuck and John Ginn- early Union Township settlers. With larger quarters necessary upon their merger, the combined group built a log church and set aside land for a cemetery along Eaton-Wheeling Pike, part of a main road between Ohio and the Wabash Canal in those days. Today, the original 1.55 acre plot of land originally donated by Richard Craw and William Adist is evident from the air, as you’ll see in the photos I took.
The extant structure was built 155 years ago at a cost of around $2000. As for the building itself, the one-room replacement for the old log structure measures 46 by 36 feet. Its foundation is rough Indiana limestone that reaches a foot above the surrounding land, while the rest of the church was constructed in common-bond brick.
Common -or American- bond brick coursing features a row of centered header bricks every five or six layers.
The structure’s modern, asphalt roof is a replacement supported by timber framing and topped with an exact duplicate of the original cupola, which features the original brackets and bell.
This building looks like a schoolhouse! At least I always thought it did until I got more savvy: For starters, the church -at 1656 square feet- is substantially larger and taller than most of the old schoolhouses, which tend to be between 12- and 1300 square feet. Furthermore, a graveyard surrounding an old schoolhouse is atypical, though it does happen if the building’s been repurposed or was proximate to a church that’s been demolished. A similarly-named church, Zion Chapel, once stood adjacent to a schoolhouse and graveyard in Washington Township. The bright-red school, now a home, is visible to the west from I-69 just as you pass the Pipe Creek Rest Area five miles north of Exit 245.
The Mt. Zion M.E. church near Eaton served the spiritual, social, and political needs of rural Union Township residents until 1926, when its congregation consolidated with that of the Eaton Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1930, the church and cemetery were awarded to the Mount Zion Cemetery Association. Several decades later, a renovation that was paid for by the family members of its earliest congregants ensured that the building would remain viable despite its disuse.
Those efforts eventually seem to have dropped off, and so 1996 saw several of the boosters form the Mount Zion Foundation, Incorporated group with the goal of restoring the structure.
In its present configuration, the interior of the church features an exposed pone floor in the main aisle, which separates fifteen remaining poplar pews with walnut crests. Two iron stoves once stood near an axial cross-aisle, but one was stolen over the years. The walls of the sanctuary are bare plaster, and the 14-foot roof is covered by drywall. A rope dangles through the church’s single entrance, by which the bell can be rung.
In addition to the church itself, the cemetery is notable for being the final resting place of many of Union Township’s earliest settlers, including seven veterans of the Civil War! Many Nixons, Craws, Ervins, Kirkwoods, and other families are buried there, but the earliest stone I found was that of Julia A. Craw, a seven-year-old who died in 1839.
If you hop on Eaton-Wheeling Pike at the village of Wheeling and travel to Highway 3 at Eaton, you’ll find this old church, the remains of three old schoolhouses, an exit towards a ghost town, several important houses, and a historic dairy and elk farm now owned by the family behind one of Muncie’s most storied groceries. For all of its history the Mt. Zion Methodist Episcopal Church is just one of the tales this road has to tell.