Tucked into a small clearing along Rockridge Road, about 25 miles north of downtown Lakeland, sits a white clapboard, one-room building called Little Flock Church.
It might seem simple enough, but it has served as the anchor and central gathering point for generations of families. The church was established north of the Little Withlacoochee River in July 1893 — when the U.S. only had 44 states, Grover Cleveland was president, and indoor plumbing, electric lights and automobiles were decades away from reaching regular Americans.
In 1906, the church moved to its present location around the southern edge of the Green Swamp Wildlife Management Area, where the original frame building still stands.
Look at a list of the first congregants and you might recognize the names of some of Lakeland’s earliest settlers – the Raulersons, Byrds, Carltons, Dukes, Hancocks, Osteens and Tilmans.
For 130 years, congregants have gathered to sing, pray, hear sermons, and wash each other’s feet, a Primitive Baptist tradition in Little Flock. For more than 100 years, things didn’t change at all – the people sang a cappella in the one room with no air-conditioning or heat. Calls of nature were tended to in two outhouses.
But after the arrival of — or really the return of — longtime interim lay pastor David Byrd, the church was blessed with a used air-conditioner and a bathroom was added to the back of the building.
“We have been living in style for the last 10 or 15 years,” joked Byrd, who taught agriculture for Polk County Public Schools for several decades.
On Saturday, July 29, the church will celebrate its 130th anniversary with a service and then a party.
Byrd’s links to the church stretch back to its beginnings on the north side of the Little Withlachoochee River along River Trails Ford, north of the Polk/Lake/Sumter County line.
His grandparents, Peter and Mary Azalene Byrd, were founding members. On his paternal grandmother’s side were the Raulersons, also founders and descendants of John Baggs Raulerson and Civility Frier Raulerson, who moved to Polk County in about 1845, the year Florida became a state.
By the time Byrd’s father came along, the church had had a split and the new Little Flock Church formed on what was then Rockledge Road and what is now Rockridge Road, well north of Deen Still Road. The little frame building they constructed in 1906 is the one that still remains.
Like Byrd, county historian Lois Sherrouse Murphy grew up in the area and attended family reunions on the church grounds, many organized by her mother, Joyce Goodman Sherrouse.
“The Rockledge community and Little Flock Church have always felt like a magical place to me,” Sherrouse Murphy said. “That’s due to personal family history, family reunions and its location off the beaten path.”
The Rutledge family reunions have been held for more than 60 years, with people gathering under a covered area and on the grounds.
“Always held in June and always hot!” Sherrouse Murphy said. “My father, Dalton Sherrouse, was the unofficial chaplain of the event, and he would always offer a prayer of grace and gratitude for family and kinship before we ate.”
She shared that one of her favorite memories was the operable pitcher pump, which sat toward the back of the church site.
“The pump was a constant reminder of simpler days and it delivered the best tasting and coldest water ever,” she said. “It was also interesting to watch the youngsters acquaint themselves with the water pump. They were all fascinated by it. I have a photo of my now 37-year-old nephew checking out the pump as a toddler.”
Sadly, she said, the pump is now gone.
Sherrouse Murphy’s great uncle Thomas Mitchell Hughes and his wife, Lena Rutledge Hughes, were early members of Little Flock. Hughes was a pastor at the church and served as a “messenger” for the church in 1929 to the Mt. Enon Primitive Baptist Association meeting.
The small structure was more than a church — it was also the school for children in the Green Pond area.
“My Dad went to school there — it was a school up until 1920s when they started building brick and mortar schools,” Byrd said. “When I was a kid growing up, we would go to church there every homecoming/foot washing. And then have a big feast. It was an all-day event.”
He said the congregants used a small black hymnal that contained only the words to songs. There were no musical notes in the book and no piano or organ to accompany them.
When a LkldNow reporter said it must have sounded beautiful, Byrd said, “It was for the people who could carry a tune.”
Byrd, 70, said at the end of the service, communion was served to members only, who would then participate in foot washing, emulating Jesus washing the feet of his disciples following The Last Supper.
“All the men sat on one side of the church and all the women on the other,” Byrd recalled. “The men washed the men’s feet and the women washed the women’s feet.”
He said that while the grown-ups worshipped, the children played outside in those days, back when kids could be unsupervised.
And when the service was over, it was time to eat — he remembers a lot of homemade chicken and dumplings, peas and greens, and lots of homemade vegetables — “more food than you could eat.”
After his father died when he was about 12, Byrd began attending an Assemblies of God church, but when he got older and married, he and his wife would take his mom back for homecoming and foot-washing each year until the mid-1990s.
“Most of the old timers had gone on, but they still did some good a cappella singing,” he said.
In 2008, Byrd and his wife began attending services there. About half a dozen people walked in the door each Sunday at 11 a.m. Someone who had preached twice a month decided he couldn’t attend anymore and the church members asked Byrd if he would fill in. He’s been “filling in” ever since.
“I’m not a preacher — I’m a teacher by training,” Byrd explained.
On Saturday, July 29, Little Flock Church will celebrate its 130th birthday. A 45-minute service will begin at 5 p.m., with a bluegrass group playing and his wife playing the autoharp and leading the singing.
“That would be reprehensible to my ancestors, who didn’t believe in musical instruments,” Byrd noted. He chuckled as he recalled telling a friend recently about his wife playing the autoharp and leading the singing. His friend replied, “Y’all must be progressive Primitive Baptists.”
Following the service, two members will serve up their barbecue, while the Byrds will bring baked beans and other church members will bring side dishes. There will also be a generous helping of socializing for people who haven’t seen each other in a year or more.
“Then a big gathering outside, supper, a time to sit around and talk and share stories and talk about our ancestors,” Byrd said.
Sherrouse Murphy said she still enjoys the drive through Rockledge up to Green Pond, and always makes it a point to stop at Little Flock and “pause to reminisce about the good times I experienced there with family.”
If you go
What: Little Flock Church’s 130th Anniversary
When: Saturday, July 29. Service begins at 5 p.m. Dinner is at 6 p.m.
Where: 16891 Rockridge Rd, Polk City, FL 33868
Directions: Take U.S. 98 North to Rockridge Road. Turn right to go north on Rockridge. Stay left to remain on Rockridge at the fork with Deen Still Road. The church will be on the left about a mile after the road makes a right curve.
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