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Holiday gathering at Mount Zion Church highlights ongoing restoration effort

Native stone landmark within Ozark National Scenic Riverways links history with present and future

Nonprofit partners

Ozark Riverways Foundation raising funds for repair work

In a small stone church atop a hill, folks gathered on Dec. 11 for songs and stories — but really, to continue a legacy. It was the eighth annual Christmas service at Mount Zion Church, a landmark inside Ozark National Scenic Riverways that links generations.

In the 1930s, locals transported rocks uphill to build the church in rural Shannon County, which held its first service by the end of that decade. It was in use until the ‘50s, when the National Park Service acquired the property with the development of ONSR. Despite the passage of time, the building and what it represents — hard work, families and community — remains personal for people like Judy Maggard Stewart, who has ties with its start through her grandmother, Jane Purcell.

“I’d like to think she was the beginning. She had a vision for this building,” said Stewart at the Christmas service.

“She did not live to see this building built, but she went to church here at Akers,” Stewart said. “She and my grandfather donated this acre of land and the community of Akers, all the people came together — a great team — to build this beautiful cobblestone building.”

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Mount Zion Church, located in rural Shannon County, is a landmark in Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

Progress on the church was gradual: In September 1938, people met to clear the grounds. In 1939, the Bluff School District donated $2.20 for a heating stove. The ceiling was installed in 1940. Two years later, the hardwood floors were added. In 1948, a church in nearby Birch Tree donated the bell, which cost $6.45. The steeple was finished and it was installed on Nov. 15, 1948.

Those steps didn’t keep them from having their first service, which took place in 1939.

More than 80 years later, between Christmas carols and inspirational messages, attendees shared introductions and connections — and care for the building, which is in need of improvement.

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Attendees, representing connections with Mount Zion and Akers, gathered at the church on Dec. 11 for an annual Christmas service.

Efforts to repair the church are led by the Ozark Riverways Foundation. Founded in 2020, ORF is a nonprofit partner of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and the Dent County Community Foundation.

ORF serves as the friends group to ONSR, which protects 134 miles of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers as they flow through south-central Missouri. Established through congressional legislation in 1964, ONSR was the first national park to protect a river system. The park also serves to protect the cultural history of the area.

“The historic Mount Zion Church is a physical example of that culture, a community icon that is still revered today even though the communities have dispersed,” says Barbara Ostmann, president of ORF. “The church's church’s cobblestone exterior is a good example of typical Ozark construction techniques. Its history illustrates how people in the river communities came together to build something for the common good.”

While the building remains beloved by those from families who once called Akers home, the list of issues is significant. There are large cracks in the north, south and west walls. Upgrades to the electrical system are needed, as are repairs to the roof and steeple. The ceiling requires replacement, and the floor refurbished. In addition to the building itself, other needs include outdoor toilet facilities, outside lighting, safety provisions, and improving the parking lot.

In 2020, at least $60,000 was necessary to stabilize the building and help prepare it for the future. ORF established a separate fund for the work at Mount Zion.

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Ornament were sold at the celebration to support renovation work at the church.

In addition to its work with Mount Zion, ORF supports a variety of initiatives in ONSR. In 2022, and in partnership with other organizations, this included support of cultural events tied to Akers and Alley Spring, guided hikes, float clinics and a managed hunt for disabled veterans.

“The National Park Service is very pleased to partner with Ozark Riverways Foundation for a variety of joint projects and programs that will help enhance and preserve the cultural, natural and recreational features that are unique and special at Ozark National Scenic Riverways,” says Dena Matteson, chief of Interpretation, Planning and Partnerships with ONSR.

“Upcoming plans include working together to accomplish restoration and stabilization of key historic structures like Mount Zion Church and some of the park’s historic cemeteries, amongst many other goals. Funds raised by ORF for the Mount Zion Church will help expand our ability to accomplish a more complete restoration with the addition of historic fixtures, furnishings and exhibits.”

By Kaitlyn McConnell, writer in residence for the Community Foundation of the Ozarks

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