Daisy Kendrick, a community advocate for historic Santos, right, talks with Wayne Little, left, whose great, great grandfather, Charlie Little, donated the land for the church to be built on in 1889, as they reminisce about the time they spent at the original Little Chapel United Methodist Church on Southeast 80th Street south of Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, July 28, 2021. The two are part of a group that is trying to get a grant to restore the historic church from 1889, which was a central point of the predominately African American community of Santos. The community was dissolved to make way for the Cross Florida Barge Canal project. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.
Effort hopes to preserve historic church
The Little Chapel United Methodist Church was constructed more than 132 years ago and still stands today, a quiet reminder of a largely forgotten community that was sacrificed to make way for the future.
But that planned future, the grandiose Cross Florida Barge Canal, never happened and Santos became a cryptic reference to the area off of U.S. 441 north of Belleview.
On July 6, the Marion County Board of Commissioners approved sending a letter to the Florida Department of State asking for a Small Action Grant to help preserve the historic Santos church. The grant would be used to preserve and restore the site significant for its history and culture.
Santos was once a small, predominately Black community during the 1930s with a population of about 100. The church is the only known surviving building.
Daisy Kendrick, a native and Santos advocate, grew up across the street from the church. Her mother’s land was one of the last properties purchased by the federal government to make way for the canal.
“I grew up on 40 acres and our goal and struggle was to keep our land,” she said.
The canal, which would have created a shortcut for barges between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean through the middle of Florida, was set to run right through the center of the community.
Once the church was purchased, the original congregation was forced to relocate. The residents of Santos and its local businesses cleared out of the area.
But the project languished for decades and halted twice throughout the years before Congress officially abandoned it in 1971. But the vestiges, including the Rodman Dam and a series of locks and dams along other waterways, remain.
In the heavily wooded median on U.S. 441 near the Marion County Sheriff’s substation, several support columns still stand. The structures were part of a planned bridge that would have spanned over part of the canal under 441.
The property for the canal eventually became part of Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway. The greenway is home to hundreds of miles of trails for walking, running, cycling and horseback riding.
The Santos name is now prominent in the mountain biking community thanks to renowned bike paths and structures.
But the little Santos church continued to deteriorate even as a new congregation was using the church during the time.
Kendrick decided to reach out to Cross Florida Greenway Manager Mickey Thomason for help. The church is part of the greenway property.
“I said… we don’t want to end up seeing the building demolished,” she said.
Their conversations continued and spurred the request for the Small Action Grant. With letters of support from the community’s association and reminders of how their land was dismantled, the Board has now reached out for state funding for the church.
“We believe in protecting our cultural and historical resources,” said Marion County Parks and Recreation Director Jim Couillard. “And that doing so is an important step in educating our visitors, residents, and younger generations about how Marion County became what it is today.”
Plans have not yet been made as to the future for the building, which currently sits empty.
Members of the community have mentioned to Kendrick that the space would be ideal to use for meetings, educational classes, and current activities within the community that could connect with those happening throughout the county.
“Let’s duplicate something that is held in town, out in the country,” said Kendrick. “This would then draw in others from the Shady Oak and Belleview areas to join in because this really is a place for all of us.”