Red Bird Mission was founded in 1921 in the southeastern corner of Kentucky to provide education and Christian evangelism ministries to residents of the area. The Mission was started by the Evangelical Church on a small piece of property, at the confluence of Cow Fork and the Red Bird River.
The story of Red Bird is one of deep faith in God. Red Bird Mission was born in answer to prayer. It is a story of gracious outpouring of prayer and means by the church. (1)
As early as 1913 the women of the Evangelical Church became aware of the needs of the people of the Southern Highlands. In 1919 the Illinois Branch Women’s Missionary Society was the first of three branches to request that the church begin work here. After much prayer and study the Women’s Board established the Faith Fund, named thus as they said, “in the faith that money would flow into it and that God will show us where to invest it.” (2)
Meanwhile, God-fearing people in the mountains of Southeastern Kentucky were praying that someone would “come over and help us.” Miss Zelphia Roberts, a Presbyterian girl from near Hyden, was one of those who prayed. She taught in a little school at Phillip’s Fork across the mountain from Beverly. Once a week she walked to Beverly for the mail. There she saw intelligent boys doing nothing and receiving no training. She also heard that Uncle Millard and Aunt Myrtle Knuckles, a local couple, were wanting a school for the youth. So, as she crossed the mountain each week she regularly stopped at a certain rock to pray that a Christian school would be built at Red Bird. She said that God had assured her that her prayers offered at this wayside altar would be answered. (3)
Aunt Carrie Knuckles also prayed that her children would have a chance to attend a school and Sunday School near their home. Years later, when her children did have this opportunity and later grew up into fine, useful citizens, she said, “I cannot express in words my appreciation for this school. Sometimes we can’t see our prayers answered for a long time, but we must never give up for God is before us leading us gently over.” (4)
So it was that God answered these prayers and sent the Evangelical Church into the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky into the area called Red Bird. The first workers, Miss Myra Bowman and Miss Emeline Welsh, arrived to teach elementary grades on July 1, 1921. Rev. J. J. DeWall was the first pastor appointed to the Mission and served as superintendent from 1921 until his death in 1928. Under his leadership a pattern was set that continues today. Led by the Holy Spirit, Rev. & Mrs. DeWall demonstrated the purpose of Red Bird – to bring Jesus Christ into every heart and to bring life abundant to all. (5)
The first school building was completed at Beverly in January 1922. As the school grew, a nearby dormitory was established for boarding high school students. Rev. DeWall visited other communities to preach on a regular basis. These preaching points evolved into school communities as well with missionaries establishing church and school centers in Jack’s Creek, Beech Fork, Greasy Creek, Mill Creek and Phillip’s Fork.
Since its early days Red Bird Mission has worked to meet the health care needs of people in the Red Bird River Valley. Soon after teachers came, nurses and doctors arrived. Red Bird medical work began in 1922 with Miss Lydia Rice, RN as the first medical worker. Dr. Harlan Heim joined the staff in 1926. The first hospital was built at Beverly in 1928 but for many years, calls to mountain homes were made by medical staff on horseback. In 1959, a larger, modern hospital and outpatient clinic (1960) were constructed seven miles down Red Bird River in Clay County on property that had been obtained from Ford Motor Company in the 1940’s for food production for the Mission.
The educational, health and spiritual outreach through the churches and schools of Red Bird Mission prospered as its denomination grew through mergers. The Evangelical Church and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ merged in 1946 to become the Evangelical United Brethren. In 1968 the Evangelical United Brethren Church united with the Methodist Church to become the United Methodist Church. Local churches in the area were reorganized under the name of the Red Bird Missionary Conference in 1973. Red Bird Mission was recognized as an agency in the Red Bird Missionary Conference, and in 1975 Red Bird Hospital (later to be renamed Red Bird Mountain Medical Center) was incorporated separately and recognized as a separate agency.
The hospital operated until 1986 when in-patient services were discontinued for economic reasons. In 2000, Red Bird Mountain Medical Center was renamed Red Bird Clinic, Inc. to more correctly reflect its primary focus as an out-patient clinic. The activities of Red Bird Clinic, Inc., included a medical clinic, dental clinic and community nurse outreach until 2011 when the operation of the medical clinic was transferred to Memorial Hospital of Manchester. The medical clinic is now a satellite clinic of Memorial Hospital.
In 1981 the school and gymnasium on the Beverly Campus were destroyed by fire. For two years school was held in temporary facilities on the Queendale Campus in Clay County. The present school building was dedicated in 1983. The school continued to operate as a Settlement school until 1988 when it became a Christian school funded by Red Bird Mission and income-based tuition. Red Bird Christian School, grades K-12, is fully accredited by Christian Schools International, AdvancedEd, Kentucky Department of Education, and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. A preschool program established in the early 1970’s now serves 3- and 4-year old children at two different sites in Clay County.
The community outreach ministries to the elderly and families of our community have grown to be a significant part of the overall ministries since the 1990’s. The DeWall Senior Citizens Center started operations in 1991 and the Red Bird Elderly Housing apartments were opened in 1996. Emphasis on encouraging family food production led to the establishment of a farmers market in 2010 and a commercial food kitchen in 2017. A permanent pavilion for the farmers market was constructed in 2015 as part of a project to provide a potable water-dispensing kiosk for area residents without a clean drinking water source.
The clothing and thrift shop ministries increased in scope after moving into the enlarged facilities on Queendale Center in 2000-2001. The craft marketing program has grown in recent years through in-church craft fairs as well as consignment and online sales.
The Work Camp program that enlisted volunteers to maintain mission facilities decades ago now involves approximately 2500 participants annually and expanded its purpose to include community home repair and improvement in 1984. The first new home was built in 2016 in the community by volunteers.
(1) Roberta Schaeffer, The Story of Red Bird Mission (1980), 1
(2) Ibid., 3
(3) Ibid., 3
(4) Ibid., 4
(5) Ibid., 4, 5, 10