Excerpted from History of the Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church
by Mark C. Curenton
(with apologies for any transcription errors)
In 1887, three lumber barons began building a rail line northwards from Crestview, through the longleaf pine forests that covered the area. By 1892 the line had reached the hilltop that became Laurel Hill. In Laurel Hill they built a depot, the railroad maintenance shop, and a commissary for their workers.
In 1895 the town of Laurel Hill was laid out and named for the large laurel tree that stood near the depot. A Post Office was established in 1896. The Baptists established the first church in town in July of the same year and the Masons organized a lodge and built a Masonic Hall.
The expanding community caught the attention of the Presbytery of Florida, and Presbytery’s evangelist, the Reverend Mr. L. H. Wilson, was dispatched to Laurel Hill. He preached in Laurel Hill during the summer of 1897, laying the groundwork for the organization of a Presbyterian church. Based on the response to his messages, the Home Missions Committee of the Presbytery of Florida appointed the Rev. Mr. E. E. Ervin, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in DeFuniak Springs, to visit Laurel Hill “to ascertain if the way be clear for the organization of a Presbyterian Church there.”
From Thursday, March 24, through Sunday, March 27, 1898 the Rev. Mr. Ervin conducted services in Laurel Hill…. By the end of the four days of worship, eleven people had come forward and signed a petition asking for a Presbyterian church to be organized. This was approved by Florida Presbytery on April 1, 1898, and the Rev. Mr. Ervin was endowed with evangelistic authority to organize the church.
The Rev. Mr. Ervin returned to Laurel Hill (after petitioning Florida Presbytery to charter a new church), and on Sunday, April 24, 1898, a Presbyterian Church was organized. The eleven signers of the original petition were all present, and they constituted the charter members of the new church. Many of these charter members were connected with the Yellow River Railroad.
Mr. Ervin’s inaugural sermon that Sunday was on the qualifications for the office of elder. Two people, Murdoch G. Morrison and Duncan T. Finlayson were elected and ordained as the church’s first elders. A large crowd of people from the town attended this first service, and after the worship service, shook hands with the new officers and expressed their hope for the success of the new church.
The initial services were held in the Masonic Hall, where the Baptist congregation also held their services. This building was located where the Baptist church is now located. Mr. Ervin would travel from DeFuniak Springs two Sundays a month to conduct the services. The little church began to grow, and in 1899, seven new members were added to the rolls.
One of the first concerns of the Laurel Hill church was the building of a sanctuary. In April of 1899 the delegate to the Presbytery reported on the progress the church building committee had made toward erecting a new building along with the amounts pledged for the purpose. The Yellow River Railroad promised two lots on Fourth Street to the new congregation. In April of 1900 the Home Mission Committee was able to report, “The Laurel Hill Church owns a good lot, and has about $300.00 in sight for building purposes not counting the $100.00 promised by the Presbytery. Plans have been adopted, and the building committee is ready to let out the contract as soon as a suitable contractor can be found.”
Work started that year on the thirty by forty foot rectangular sanctuary.
It was time to build the church. In 1899, work was started on the thirty by forty feet rectangular sanctuary. Raised off the ground on brick piers, the frame building was constructed of locally sawn heart pine. The walls were framed with 2 by 6 studs. The exterior was covered with beaded novelty siding while the interior was finished with beaded boards 1 5/8” wide.
The plan of the church was a simple rectangle. On the west wall the base of the steeple jutted out two feet where the entry was located. Inside, the sanctuary occupied the east end of the building. Flanking the entrance foyer were two rooms. Large hinged doors in these rooms allowed them to be opened up into the sanctuary, thereby increasing the seating for large crowds. Surrounding the entire building was a fence to keep out the livestock that roamed free in Florida before stock laws were enacted.
By April of 1901 the progress on the church was reported to Presbytery. “The Laurel Hill Church has been framed, floored, covered, and sealed, and so far completed, that it is now in use. The building, not counting the lot, has cost to date about $730.00 and no debt whatsoever rests upon the church. The Presbytery donated $100.00 to assist this church to build, and the remainder was raised by this little church of about 20 members, and a few friends of the church. The building still needs ceiling, painting, permanent lights, a bell, and organ, etc. When completed the cost will be fully $1,000.00 This is the only church building in the place.”
Church membership increased from 36 in 1915 to an all-time high of 60 in the early 1930s. Sunday School reached its highest enrollment during the mid 1930s when seventy-five members were enrolled
Today, the congregation has 15 members on its rolls with an average attendance of 14. Outreach into the community continues as the church maintains a vital witness to the residents of Laurel Hill and beyond.