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Mt. Zion Primitive Baptist Church | Photo © Bullet 2016, www.abandonedfl.com

Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church

Location Class:
Built: 1926 | Abandoned: 2015
Historic Designation: African American Heritage Site
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: David Bulit

Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church

The Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church was founded in the late 1800s by pioneer African-American families from northern Florida and Georgia who settled in what would become the small community of Tangerine. These families included the Staling brothers who came to Florida around 1870, followed by the four Woodbury brothers, their parents and sister, in 1880. Prince Williams arrived from Georgia in 1885. Soon after, Ben Thomas, June Gamble, and John Terrell also arrived from Georgia. Jack Jackson, Thomp Jackson, Taylor Jackson, and Steve Holliday came to Tangerine from Tallahassee.

All received homestead land under the condition that they improve it. A small one-room school and church was built in 1896 along with a cemetery on a hilltop of orange trees across U.S. 441. Pioneers Julia and her husband Richard Woodbury and her brother Archie built the church, hauling lumber by wagon from Sanford located about 20 miles away. The first Sunday School teacher was a white pioneer, Preston Barnett. The Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church became a symbol of community unity since its beginning.

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Undated photograph of the church at its current location, near the entrance to Mount Dora.

Destroyed, Rebuilt, and Moved

Years later, the original church burned to the ground, but the community joined together to rebuild the quaint Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church in 1926. Since then, the church has been moved twice. In 1953, the church was dragged 400 feet to the north along what was then Wood Road. Due to it being located in the path of the construction of U.S. 441, it was moved again, this time to its current location on Old Highway 441, not far from its previous location.

In 1964, the Reverend Willie Johnson, pastor of the Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church, pleaded for assistance to members in restoring and modernizing “the little wooden church on the curve.” Norma Williams, whose father-in-law was pioneer Prince Williams and known for her civil efforts in the black community, met with local community leaders to make possible such improvements on the old landmark.

Western Auto and McCrory’s donated paint for both the interior and exterior and the roof, along with ladders, brushes, etc. Food Fair fed the congregation and sixty other volunteers who worked tirelessly one Saturday afternoon building restrooms, dressing rooms, and a septic tank.

Norma Williams painting the exterior of the Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church in Mount Dora.

Decline and Abandonment

At its peak, its membership was comprised of 23 families but as years went by, members either died or moved away. By 2015, only four members remained, one being Beaulah Babbs who currently owns the church.

Abandoned for over 10 years, time and the elements have taken their toll on the building. The tower was wrapped in sheets of corrugated metal to keep out the elements, birds had made nests inside of the hymnal racks, and vandals had stolen things, notably a kerosene lamp which had been part of the church for over 80 years. An effort was undertaken to preserve the church and with the help of community members, $7,200 was raised to secure the building from further vandalism.

On December 17, 2016, a service was held at the church, the first in over a decade. Continued updates on the Primitive Baptist Church’s preservation and restoration were posted on their Facebook page, Friends of Mount Zion, though their last update was in September 2017 following Hurricane Irma before the page was no longer accessible. The church has since been boarded up and remains vacant.

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David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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