On Saturday, June 25, at 9 a.m., a ground-breaking ceremony will be held at Mountain Lake Park to commemorate what Mayor Don Sincell calls “a truly historic event.” According to Sincell, the Apostolics of Oakland Church, who currently own the Assembly Hall, located at G Street and Maryland Highway (Route 135), will be joined by the Diversity and Engagement Employee Group of First United Bank & Trust.
“We will be breaking ground on the new site for the church building that once served as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, originally located at the corner of High and Fifth streets in Oakland,” Sincell said. “The building was built by the Bethel AME congregation in the late 1890s and served local African Americans for nearly three decades. A general atmosphere of racism, coupled with economic hard times in the late 1920s, resulted in a major exodus of many people of color from the county, leading to the demise of the Bethel AME congregation. The empty building was ultimately purchased by Simon Swartzentruber of the Amish community and moved by Mr. Swartzentruber in 1935 to his farm in Pleasant Valley, where it was utilized as a blacksmith and harness shop for many decades.”
According to Samuel Yoder, a Swartzentruber descendant and current owner of the farm, out of respect for the former congregation of Bethel AME, his grandfather never wanted the building to be moved from Garrett County; however, time and weather conditions have had a negative impact on it, and it has been used only minimally by Yoder in recent years. Upon hearing of its presence, Mayor and town council members of Mountain Lake Park proposed to buy the structure in order to dismantle, improve, and relocate it to a permanent location. The Maryland Historic Trust and Community Legacy Program have provided significant grants to fund the project.
“So many pieces of history surrounding African Americans and other people of color have been either forgotten or intentionally erased over many decades throughout our nation, and that is certainly true for Garrett County,” Sincell said. “Many people who have lived here all their lives are totally unaware that the Oakland area once had a significant, thriving population of Black residents who helped develop the county in its earlier years. Many were employed in the resort hotels in Oakland, Mountain Lake Park, and Deer Park, but several were in business for themselves in downtown Oakland, including at least one blacksmith, a tailor, and a livery operator. We believe that the completion of the Bethel AME Project will restore and preserve that extremely important lost history, will provide excellent, ongoing educational opportunities for local residents and visitors, will make a strong statement to people of color that they are welcome in Garrett County, and will be a fitting, lasting way to honor the lives of those people of color who contributed much to our community so many years ago.”
Sincell added that current plans are to make the building an extension of the Mountain Lake Park museum and to utilize it primarily for educational programming and special events. While the current goal is not to reestablish an active congregation, he said that the once-restored building could certainly be used for occasional special services, weddings, and baptisms.
Volunteers of First United’s Diversity and Engagement Employee Group, will provide doughnuts and beverages beginning at 9 a.m. on June 25. The ground-breaking ceremony will begin at approximately 9:30, with brief remarks made by Sincell, Garrett County NAACP Chapter president Daphne Gooding, and Allegany County NAACP Chapter president Tifani Fisher, among others. An opening prayer will be provided by Pascal Crites, pastor of the Apostolics of Oakland congregation.