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Local History

Small Church In Rader, Missouri Keeps Family Legacy Alive For 150 years—So Far

Kaitlyn McConnell
Ozarks Alive

Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a website that is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of local culture and history. To visit the site, click here. Listen to the audio essay below.

A small, red hardback book tells us that around March 11, 1871, brothers Joseph and Andrew Rader packed up their families, left Tennessee and headed towards a new life in the Ozarks. For those watching the calendar, that day of departure may stand out. As of this month, it was 150 years ago.

The Raders traveled by train and wagon to reach their new home among the gentle, rolling hills of Webster County. There, a small town called Rader came to be alongside the river.

In the 150 years since, the town has nearly disappeared. But even though the stores are gone, and the blacksmith closed up shop, and the mill doesn’t turn any longer, and the birds once in the goose house have flown the coop, a landmark remains: The Rader Immanuel Lutheran Church.

“I was baptized in this church, I was confirmed in this church, and I was married in this church,” says one attendee.

Every Sunday, as attendees crunch through the gravel parking lot, up the steps, and into the church, they continue a legacy. On a recent Sunday, a few more than 30 people fill the sanctuary before it’s time to start. It’s a tight-knit church where everybody knows everyone else, to the points that visitors are encouraged to introduce themselves.

For an hour, another chapter of history is made with the next service in its story.

"This is just home," says Leona Medlock, soon to be 88 years old, and has lived around Rader nearly her entire life. "We used to have big dinners. They’d take boards and put them on sawhorses, or even take a door. We’d usually have five or six of them. Why, church was full!"

Such connections are special, but not unusual, at the Rader church. Joseph and Andrew Rader had more than 30 children between them, resulting in hundreds — if not thousands — of descendants. I am one of them. My great-great-great-great grandfather was Joseph Rader, making me the seventh-generation of my family to have lived in Webster County.

Many of those family connections are preserved in the aforementioned red book, which is officially titled “Centennial of Immanuel Lutheran Church and the Rader Families.” The book shares what is perhaps the most extensive history about the town and church, and their founders. It also tells how the church was led by Andrew Rader, who was a minister.

“This church planted all of the Lutheran churches around here,” says Kathy McGovern. “This is the first one. So Lebanon, Marshfield, Springfield, all those churches came from people from this church. And they founded those churches.”

History is present everywhere in the church. The bell that signals the start of services was salvaged from the previous building, which was destroyed in a tornado in 1936.  In the basement, locals gather multiple times each week to quilt, continuing an Ozarks tradition, with any funds raised helping others. Even the fieldstones that make up the church’s walls are natives of Rader, pulled from the nearby river.

That legacy and more will be celebrated on June 20, when the church holds its sesquicentennial celebration. While the event will be officially recognized on that particular day, other activities will take place leading up to it. 

After the recent Sunday service I attended ended for the week, I was left alone with my thoughts as I wandered the cemetery and took photos outside the church and around the remnants of the town.

Little is left nowadays of the town, which sees far more wheels rolling by than slowing to stop. Some, though, are still powered by the clip-clop of hooves, as Amish residents live in the vicinity. Their wagons travel past the small rock store on the main road, which closed up shop a few years ago.

Yet history lives on in the town. Years ago, wooden signs were erected around Rader to identity where landmarks used to be. For example, one shows the site of Joseph Rader’s home, and another tells of when the store began in 1937.

The majority of these mark places that have faded into the past. But not the church. No historical records or red book will tell me this, but I bet the Raders would be pleased that it’s this part of their legacy that continues on.

“This is where my family started,” says Mary Rader, another longtime attendee. "So a lot of that is the Rader family. But also, all of the families we have come to know and love, we all want to stay together and keep worshiping together.”