Milligan church rises from the ashes after lightning strike, fire in 2019

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

MILLIGAN — By August, leaders of the First Baptist Church of Milligan hope to open the doors to their new church building, which will stand in the same location as the one that was struck by lightning and destroyed by fire 1½ years ago.

The fire occurred July 9, 2019, at the old structure, which had stood at 5238 Old River Road since 1953. This location is about four miles west of downtown Crestview and just west of the Yellow River.

Charles Smith (left), pastor of First Baptist Church of Milligan, and church member Willard Hipple talk about rebuilding the church, which was struck by lightning and destroyed by fire in July 2019. Church members held a groundbreaking ceremony last September and a construction crew is at work.

More:Milligan church ‘completely destroyed’ in fire

“I had left the church about a half hour before it happened,” the church’s pastor, the Rev. Charles Smith, said Friday about the fire. “I had been working on my Bible study. There was a bad storm coming in, so I was trying to get to my car before I got soaked. And then I’m sitting at my house, and I see a phone call from a number I don’t recognize. That happens a lot when you’re a pastor.”

Smith answered the call, which was from an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office deputy, who told the pastor the church was on fire.

“I ran out the door and got here as quick as I could,” said Smith, who began serving as the church’s pastor in September 2017. “There wasn’t much (firefighters) could do to save it.”

The rebuilding of the First Baptist Church of Milligan is beginning to take shape. The church was struck by lightning and destroyed by fire in July 2019.

Fortunately, no one was inside the building at the time, he said.

Smith said that as he watched his church burn down, he learned from his deacon chairman that Baker First United Methodist Church about five miles away had permanently closed.

Smith then called the superintendent of the Pensacola District of The United Methodist Church.

The First Baptist Church of Milligan was destroyed in July 2019 from a fire started by lightning. In September 2020, church members broke ground for a new church to be built at the same location.

“He said, ‘If you pay the utilities and you mow the lawn, you can stay (at the church building in Baker) rent-free as long as you need to,’” Smith said.

He said the Baker First United Methodist Church had ceased being a congregation two weeks before the fire.

The First Baptist Church of Milligan averages about 22 parishioners on a Sunday morning, and they have handled the overall transition in church services “as well as can be expected,” Smith said.

The cemetery across from the First Baptist Church of Milligan contains graves dating back to the late 1800s. A fire ignited by lightning destroyed the church in July 2019. A new church is being built at the same spot.

“They miss the old building that some of them had gotten married in and they laid their loved ones to rest in,” he said. “But people have had a good attitude of trying to make do with what we have right now and to soldier on until we can move into our new building.”

The First Baptist Church of Milligan was founded in 1864. The church building that was destroyed in 2019 had replaced a smaller one that had stood by the church’s cemetery on the opposite side of Old River Road. The cemetery includes a handful of graves of people who died in the late 1800s.

Church leaders led a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new church building this past September. While the old building was made of cinder block with a brick façade, the new one will be metal.

“We’re going with metal because it’s the most cost-effective way to rebuild,” Smith said.

The new building will stand on much of the same footprint as the old one. While the former structure encompassed about 8,500 square feet, the new one will be 7,439 square feet, said Willard Hipple, the church’s Rebuilding Committee chairman.

Plumbing and building-pad work is expected to be completed soon, and the metal sections of the new structure will be delivered later and connected together.

More:PHOTOS: Flooding in Milligan

The cost of the new church is about $675,000, Hipple said. Insurance money and donations from local residents and people from around the country are paying for the project.

“We want to thank everyone who has donated to our new building,” Smith said.

Campbell Construction & Development Inc. of Baker is the project’s general contractor.

Milligan served as the first seat of Okaloosa County when the county was created by the state Legislature in 1915. In 1917, the county seat was moved to Crestview, due in a small part to the flood-prone area around Milligan, according to information from the Baker Block Museum in Baker.