Along old Route 66, a congregation celebrates the Methodist roots of the Ozarks
Thirteen miles west of downtown Springfield, along the now-quiet Historic Route 66 in rural Greene County, congregants gathered Sunday at the
old Yeakley Chapel for a service and tour. They were there to honor the legacy of Methodists, and Route 66, in the Ozarks.
Yeakley Chapel was built in the 1860s by John Yeakley and five other families who settled in Greene County in the 1830s. The current chapel was rebuilt in 1887 after a fire. Yeakley Chapel is the oldest active congregation in Greene County that rests along what would become Route 66.
Susan Schmalzbauer, pastor at Yeakley Chapel and the nearby Bois D’Arc United Methodist church, highlighted the significance of Methodists in Springfield’s history. She said they built communities along the road that would eventually take the form of Route 66.
Schmalzbauer says in the autumn of 1831, Methodist minister James Slavens led the first Christian religious service in Springfield on what is now College Street.
“The first sermon, the first service, the first congregation—all three happened on a stretch that would later be part of Route 66. Springfield’s Christian community was born on the Mother Road," Schmalzbauer said.
Founder John Yeakley’s parents came from a staunchly abolitionist community in Greene County, Tennessee. Family stories indicate Yeakley’s mother, Susanna, made her home a stop on the Underground Railroad, hiding enslaved people on their escape routes.
Schmalzbauer mentioned other notable Methodists, including Alberta Ellis, who opened a hotel along Route 66 in 1953 with lodging for Black travelers during the height of segregation in Springfield. She was helped by fellow Methodists at Pitts Chapel.
Outside the church there’s a small cemetery, founded in 1852. Dr. John Schmalzbauer, who is the pastor's spouse and a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, gave a tour Sunday. He identified notable people buried here.
“There are hundreds of stories here," Schmalzbauer told the crowd. "Happy stories, sad stories. Joyful stories, inspiring stories. More stories than you could cover in hours.”
He said one grave belongs to Thomas Yeakley, who was a secret agent for the federal government during the Civil War. This area was vibrant, full of hardworking people who built up a community, he said. That includes the Squibb family, who helped build Route 66.
“There are all kinds of newspaper stories about clubs in this area that involve this family and people from Yeakley. 4-H clubs, other kind of gatherings. There was a rich social life. And hospitality above all. And so we want to remember that,” he said.
John Schmalzbauer said the richness of Greene County is worth celebrating, and its complexity will surprise anyone who digs deeper into its history. The event took place the same weekend as Springfield's Birthplace of Route 66 Festival, honoring the iconic roadway.