Beginning with the first peoples to visit what we now know as Bennett Spring, faith and religious beliefs have long been a part of this strikingly beautiful valley.
The original Native American tribes to come through the area were the Osage, the Delaware and the Kickapoo. According to those who have studied their histories, it is believed they camped, fished and passed through the area but never actually lived here, believing the valley to be too sacred a place for day-to-day living.
According to their legends, the first water source where today’s Bennett Spring is found was a small but very deep pool. Their best divers could not reach its original source but it produced only a small amount of water. According to their oral traditions, members of those ancient tribes, began to forget their daily prayers and neglected their responsibilities as stewards of the land that had been entrusted to them. They killed members of other tribes, taking their scalps and in general, acted in ways that made them unworthy.
One night, after they had returned from yet another shameful raid, the Sacred One’s wrath erupted and was felt by all as the ground shook, nearby trees tumbled and the earth as they knew it was changed forever. The quiet pool became a boiling spring, as ceaseless tears began to flow from the eye of the Sacred One, creating a full, flowing stream that followed the valley floor all the way to the Niangua River, over a mile away. What we would come to know as Bennett Spring many years later, was born and now produces 100 million gallons of fresh spring water on a daily basis.
By the 1830s, stories of forced evacuations of several tribes, mostly notably the Cherokee by the US Army in other parts of the country, began to reach this area. Local indigenous peoples left the Bennett Spring valley voluntarily for the new Indian Territory in what is modern day Oklahoma.
In 1837, James Brice and his wife, Jane, of Kentucky, became the first white settlers to settle in the valley. They built a series of mills, as did the Bennett family, one of the next families to move into the area. The village of Brice sprang up in approximately the same location as the current Bennett Spring Park Store and included a mill for grinding area farmers’ corn, a blacksmith shop, a carding mill for processing wool from local sheep, a general store and, eventually, a small hotel known as the Brice Inn.
The town of Brice survived the Civil War, in part, no doubt, due to its remote location and its significant distance from the nearest railroad station, located in Lebanon, more than 10 miles away. While the tiny community held onto the name Brice, over the years, mills in the area were destroyed more than once by either floods or fire. By the early 1860s, the primary mill belonged to Peter Bennett, who was known for dealing with both the Union and Confederate forces. While some saw this as traitorous activity, it was undoubtedly a pragmatic approach since the area was not only isolated from any significant form of law enforcement, but like other parts of Missouri as a border state, the area often changed hands during the war, from North to South and back again.
Years later, in 1917, the Rev. George Bolds and his family arrived in Brice and held a week-long tent revival, saving and baptizing a couple dozen area residents. Amongst the new Christians was William Sherman Bennett, Peter Bennett’s son, whose family owned the land on which the village of Brice set. At the end of the revival, the Bolds became permanent area residents and built a church, the Bennett Spring Church of God. George Bolds’ 17-year-old daughter Louie married William Sherman Bennett. Over the years, she and her son, Paul became well-known local preachers. The church, which celebrated its 100th anniversary just a few years ago, is the only building remaining from the town of Brice. It sits on a single acre that is actually owned by the church.
In 1924 and 1925, Josephine “Josie” Bennett-Smith and her brother, William Sherman Bennett, the only two surviving children of Peter Bennett sold their acreage to the state of Missouri, to establish Missouri’s first state park. In doing so, they deeded a single acre to the church, making it the only church in the nation, located in the center of a state park.
Two decades later, other Christians began to recognize the power of Bennett Spring’s beauty to inspire an appreciation of God’s natural creation. A Christian camp that was first established in Christian County, not far from Springfield, in 1937 was moved to eastern Dallas County, a few years later. Located just a mile or so west of the now famous park, overlooking a part of the Niangua River valley, Bennett Spring Christian Church Camp’s exquisite Vesper Point features a small outdoor chapel, a part of which can be seen from the river down below and the farm on the far side. Sharp-eyed canoeists passing below can catch a glimpse of the chapel’s concrete cross situated on a cliff at the edge of the church camp, high above.
In the early 1970s, Father Clem Ilmberger of Lebanon’s St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church began hosting Mass on Saturday afternoons along the Spring Branch, bringing the weekly sacrament to visiting fishermen, so that they would not have to choose between the few hours they had available in a weekend of fishing or their required attendance at weekly worship. Within just a couple of years, devoted Catholics, both locals and others from outside the area, had collected enough donations to build a chapel of their own on donated land, next to the park. For nearly fifty years, the Sportsman’s Chapel has welcomed Catholics to a Saturday afternoon Mass, performed by the local Lebanon priest, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, each year. Both locals and visitors are welcomed to a come-as-you-are worship, including those who choose to attend in their fishing waders.
From the Native Americans who once trod this land in moccasins to fishermen who now tramp through in hip boots and waders, with many a child in sandals and tennis shoes in between, Bennett Spring has long been a place of faith and worship, appreciation of nature, relaxation and most of all, of peace.
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