Historical Notes on the
Riverside United Methodist Church
Oxford, Connecticut

By Joyce A. Hummel
January, 1990

    In 1942 my family moved to Coppermine Road, Oxford, where my father had obtained work on Mr. Martin Witzler’s chicken farm. A little church was within walking distance of where we lived. The Stevenson Union Church or Riverside Methodist Church had reopened in 1940 for year-round services after being closed most of the time for a number of years. As a child I remember standing in front of the church sanctuary with my family and being baptized. I remember attending Sunday School and the playing of the piano in back of the sanctuary to accompany us as we learned songs. I remember having Children’s Day and Christmas programs with parts to say. The Christmas program ended with a visit from Santa and a box of hard candy for each child to take home. Other activities included church suppers with hymn sings or other programs following. I also remember Sunday School picnics. Of course the ringing of the church bell was special to me as a child. When I got older, the church program included junior and senior choir of which I went from one to the other. My faith grew in the fellowship of this little church.

Early Beginnings
    Many names can be associated with this church and this area of Oxford. Among the names which were used at different times are Stevenson, Zoar and Zoar Bridge, Pleasant Vale, Punkups, Riverside, and the Ousatonic or Housatonic River. The Punkups is believed to have come from the name of an indian settlement and we still have Punkup and Little Punkup Roads today.
    In or around 1810 a meeting house was built in the valley of Pleasant Vale in Oxford, between the Housatonic River and the road. This building was open for meetings and to anyone who wished to preach there. It was a two-story structure with a gallery in the back and sides of the second story where people could sit. It had three windows along each side of the building which went from the lower level to the upper level. It had a center entry door with a window on each side and three windows above. On the farther wall where the preacher stood were three plain windows. The center one was later replaced with a stained glass window of the Prodigal Son. The building was illuminated by eighteen oil lamps hung in a chandelier and single lamps on side posts of the galleries. To care for the chandelier a six foot ladder had to be used: this meant when cleaning, filling, and lighting the lamps. A large stove heated the building.
    On August 19, 1834 Josiah Smith, for $10.00 released the land on which the meeting house had been erected to The Methodist Episcopal society at Pleasant Vale in Oxford.

The Early Neighborhood and Bridges
    Families from both sides of the river were served by this meeting house or church; for this to be possible a bridge had to cross the river in the vicinity. The first bridge, of wood, is said to have been built before 1800. It was known as the Ezekiel Curtiss Bridge. It was carried away by an ice freshet in 1835. It was followed in 1837, by a covered bridge which was damaged by floods and ice a number of times and had to be repaired. In 1876 a suspension bridge of wrought iron was built. These later bridges were known as Zoar Bridge.
    The map of Oxford from the 1868 Atlas of New Haven County by F.W. Beers shows the M.E. (Methodist Episcopal) Church with an adjoining cemetery. Not far away was the school for Joint District Number 12. North of the church along the same road the church was on, was Zoar Bridge with a Toll House on the Oxford Side of the river. South of the church was a post office, a wool cleaning factory and the abutment of an old bridge. Nearby, the map shows a number of homes and a stocking & yarn factory.

Neighborhood Church Was Open To All
    The Methodist Episcopal Church of Pleasant Vale was open for anyone to preach and on different occasions it was said to have been occupied by Quakers, Mormon Apostles, Second Adventists, but mostly Methodists. In one case it was said a man spoke in an unknown tongue. The Methodist clergy were the only group with a regular circuit, forming the Stratford Circuit in 1813. Early Pleasant Vale was served by clergy of this circuit, later it was served by East Village and Great Hill. One popular minister, Henry Sutton, arrived each Friday on the 5:15 p.m. train at Stevenson from New Haven. He spent the week-end at the homes of members of the congregation. Rev. Asa Fuller, the last minister to serve the old Pleasant Vale Church, walked from East Village to the church.

The Coming of the Stevenson Dam
    In 1897, when it was learned that the Stevenson Dam was to be built and the area where the church stood would be flooded, The Stevenson Union Church Association was formed. Their main objective was to watch out for the interests of the church.
    At the April 1918 meeting of the Stevenson Union Church Association specifications for the church to be built were voted on. The chapel size was to be 25' by 35' with a vestibule protruding from the front of the church 6 feet by 8 feet. Also included were specification for excavation, basement, framing, outside trim and chimney. Included in the interior trim is the following list: floors of “first grade Georgia Pine....The windows at the sides and front will have Gothic heads.. (a pointed arch)...Present window frames and glass to be used in the new building Alterations to be made to same to form the Gothic heads. The windows at the back of the preacher is to be a three-part Gothic Head window, to be glazed with cathedral glass.” Also included were specifications for painting, which included two good coats of lead paint and hard oil for false truss work and wainscoting. A bell tower was also proposed.

The Cemetery is Saved
    Probably a larger task than building a replacement church was the cemetery relocation. All of the monuments of the cemetery at Pleasant Vale faced towards the church. The oldest monuments are two dated 1805. The first contract between the power company and the Riverside Cemetery Association was May 5, 1889. Mr. John Downs, husband of Elsie Downs, the father of Larry Downs, supervised the removal of the bodies and monuments to the new location. The removal also included the relocation of bodies from the Paupers’ Corner. The first burial in the new location was that of Cornelia Peck, the little girl of Ralph and Bertha Peck. Bertha’s parents, George and Agnes Smith, ran a store for many years in the area now flooded by the building of the Stevenson Dam.

Reconstruction and Dedication
    The following notice appeared on the front page of “The Seymour Record,” a local newspaper on Thursday, August 28, 1919:

Dedication at Stevenson
    The new church at Stevenson will be dedicated Sunday afternoon, Aug. 31st at 2 o’clock.
    The Zoar Bridge Methodist Episcopal church which was one of the oldest in the state, was taken by the Connecticut Light & Power Co. which is building the immense dam across the Housatonic was replaced by a beautiful new church edifice on the hillside overlooking the river. Rev. Asa Fuller, pastor of the Great Hill, East Village and Stevenson churches, assisted by the Rev. E. F. Piper, pastor of the Seymour episcopal church, will have charge of the dedicatory services/ Rev. Arthur J. Smith, D.D., pastor of the First Methodist Episcopal Church, Astoria, N. Y., will in the absence of the superintendent of the New Haven District, Dr. Elmer A. Dent, preach the dedicatory sermon. Other visiting clergymen are expecting to be present. It is expected that there will be a large representation of methodists from adjacent towns..

    On August 31, 1919 the new church was dedicated at a special service. The furnace was given and installed by Mr. Radcliff of Shelton and the bell was given by Mr. Stephen B. Church of Seymour. This church, our present church building, was dedicated free of debt.

    The deed to the present church building and land of the Stevenson Union Church Association was recorded with the town of Oxford on December 25 at 9:30 a.m. The ownership of the church, to this day, remains the Stevenson  Union Church Association.
    Eight-tenths of an acre is the size of the land on which the old church was located, so the present church was also built on 8/10th of an acre.
    The old church was sold to the Connecticut Light and Power Company for $1.00 and after the new one was built, it was purchased for $1.00 and an exchange of real estate.

Members Support of the Church
    Over the years the backbone of the church has been the women’s group. The groups first organized soon after the present church was built. They were known as The Friendly Club, later the Zoar Club, then the Women’s Society and now The Women’s Society of Christian Service. The group has worked to raise money a number of ways, having dinners, card parties, bake sales, rummage sales and more recently The Holly Fair. The money has been used to help support the church and the Sunday School, to make necessary church repairs, to help send youth to camp and many other projects.
    At a meeting on October 29, 1938, plans were made to repair the church inside and out, sand and varnish the floors, and repair the chimney.
    On February 10, 1939, a meeting was held and the newly decorated church was inspected.
    On November 10, 1939, it was decided to dispose of the shed and do other repairs to the church.
    On June 16, 1940, the first service was held at the newly decorated Stevenson Union church. The collection of $4.35 was given to the minister. Twenty eight people attended. After this date services were held on a regular basis the year around.
    During 1941 and 1942 a number of card parties and church suppers were held at the church and card parties were held in homes to make money for the church.
    In the fall of 1942, Mrs. Franklyn Sanford was appointed Sunday School Superintendent.
    On December 12, 1943, a cord of wood was purchased from Mrs. Hunihan, a nearby resident, for the church at a price of $14.00. Most of the time, wood for the furnace was donated by church members when it was needed.
    A Church Supper was held May 9, 1944 in the church basement; Admission was 50 ¢ for adults, 35 ¢ for children. It must have been well attended, for $29.00 was received.
    At the June 20, 1947 meeting of The Stevenson Union Church Association, a motion was made and accepted to buy an oil burner for the furnace.
    Until some time in the 1940’s the seats in the church were fold-down movable wooden seats with iron legs that were made in attached rows. When an area church was closing, the pews were added. These pews had to be adjusted to fit.

Riverside Joins Methodist Conference
    In 1951 the congregation voted to join the Methodist Conference. The church had mostly hired Methodist pastors and been affiliated with other Methodist Churches, including Derby, Newtown, Shelton, and Great Hill.
Programs Continue
    On August 7, 1951, 21 1/2 yards of percale cloth were purchased by the women’s society for $9.46. Many women made one or more aprons and sold them. A profit of $10.79 was made for the group.
    On October 10, 1954, a Home Coming Day was held and John Emerson Zeiter, D.D. came to Riverside from Hanson Place Central Methodist Church, Brooklyn, New York, to preach. His father had his first church at Pleasant Vale in 1894-1895.
    At a May 16, 1955 church meeting it was noted that permission was received to hook to C.L.& P.s spring or well that supplied the company’s families so the church would have water running to a sink in the kitchen area. This, however, did not mean a toilet would be installed--the only facilities for that being a small house in back of the church.
    In March, 1957, a Ham Supper Reception was held for the new minister, William Hughes, and his wife. Fifty-nine people were present; a hymn sing was held after supper.
    In June of 1968, Miss Johanna Busk wrote “A History of the Pleasant Vale Church,” and turned some historical material over to the Derby Historical Society for preservation.
The Church Closes and Later Re-Opens
    In 1977 because of poor attendance and a dwindling membership, the church closed its doors with no definite plans for the future.
    In the fall of 1980, under the leadership of Rev. Roland Gray, the church was repaired and spruced up. The steeple was repaired, the church interior painted, the old cushions on the pews replaced with carpet and an oak cross was added above the alter. This cross was a gift of Mr. John Radovich.
    On November 23, 1980 the church reopened with a congregation that looked forward to a bright , positive future.
More Improvments in Facilities
    In 1983 a well was drilled and a 20 foot addition containing two lavatories and a kitchen on the lower level and on the upper level room for future expansion of the sanctuary.
    On November 19th, 1989, a dedication service for new hymnals was held during the regular Sunday morning service.
Discovery Returns Lost Piece of  Parish Heritage
    About 1956, Lake Zoar was drained so work could be done on the Stevenson Dam. Vivant Stowe and his wive Myrtle walked around where the Pleasant Vale Church had stood and they found a silver bowl which Vivant remembered as the bowl which had been used for baptisms. Myrtle gave this bowl to the church before her death in 1989. This bowl is the only item known to have come from the original Riverside Church.

Regular Pastors Who Served the Church at Pleasant Vale, Oxford, Connecticut
1894-5    Zeiter, John E.
Pleasant Vale Church
1896-98    Taylor, James
1899        Prindle
1900        Raymond, Royal W.
1901        Slight, W.E.
1902        Sparklin, J.K.
1903        Yaggi, J.H.
1905        Eastland, George W.
1906        Harris, E.J.
1907-10    Thayer, H.I.
1910-11    Noble, George
1911-12    Beebe, A.E.
1912-14    Sutton, Harry E.
1914-15    Williams, Charles E.
1916-18    Fuller, Asa

Regular Pastors Who Served Riverside Church, Oxford, Connecticut
Riverside United Methodist Church
1919    Fuller, Asa
No Records for a number of years
June, 1940 - April, 1946
    Severance, Cyrus W. (also served Derby)
April, 1946 - 1949
    Gates, Matthew H. (also served Derby)
Jan. 1949 to May, 1949
    Towle, Edwin (also served Derby)
    Bales, J. Russell
May, 1951 - Sept., 1951
    Griffin, William (student)
Sept., 1951 to June, 1952
    Hartzler, Omar
June, 1952 to Sept., 1955
    Rhodes, William E. (also served Derby)
Sept., 1955 to June, 1957
    Hughes, William J. (Yale Student)
June, 1957 to Jan. 1959
    Trew, James (also served Sandy Hook)
Jan., 1959 to Jan., 1960
    Dicken, Thomas (student)
June, 1960 to May, 1962
    Ranager, Walter (also served Shelton)
June, 1964 to 1968
    Hanson, G. Holger (also served Great Hill)
1968 to 1977
    Morrison, Kermit (also served Great Hill)
Nov. 1980 to 1990 and still serving
    Gray, Roland E. (serving only Riverside)