Historic Churches: A Glimpse into the Past
by Tammy Grey
When most people think of Georgia, they envision Atlanta, peaches, and peanuts. Once you get away from the bright lights of the capital city, however, you will find there are dozens of small country towns all over the state, each with its own unique treasures. You can easily lose yourself in the winding roads, where trees sometimes form canopies that shade the blacktop. In the southeastern counties of Camden and Brantley, there are several historic churches waiting to be discovered. Most are off the beaten path and require traveling on dirt or sand roads. Nevertheless, they are worth the extra effort and planning. The churches all have cemeteries on their grounds. In addition to their historical significance (most predate the Civil War), the cemeteries could also help genealogists track down southern ancestors. It would certainly be a pleasant surprise to come here for the beautiful old churches and leave with a new branch on the family tree.
At the end of a one-lane sand path in Camden County, Georgia, you will find one of the area’s most beautiful churches. The current Chapel at Burnt Fort was originally built in the 1890s. It was used until the mid-1940s, when low attendance forced the doors closed. The building collapsed in the 1960s, but a decade later local residents (including some descendants of the original settlers of the area) formed a committee to restore the church to its former glory. They used local lumber, including logs reclaimed from the Satilla River. The chapel is now often used for weddings and community events, including an occasional “dinner on the ground,” where residents bring a blanket and picnic basket and enjoy the afternoon. The property also houses the only one-room schoolhouse left in Camden County, Georgia. A short stroll away, there is a cemetery with marked graves dating back to the 1850s, and numerous unmarked graves as well. According to legend, the town was settled in 1755 by a group of debtors and outlaws and was originally called “New Hanover.” The town was supposedly in a “neutral” territory, but the nearby English, Spanish, and Native Americans weren’t pleased. They all planned to remove the settlers. Ultimately most of the outpost was burned. A few buildings remained, however, so the town’s name was changed to Burnt Fort. The church is not used regularly for services any longer—and the schoolhouse is long abandoned—but both still offer a glimpse into life as it used to be for our ancestors.
Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church was organized in 1904 in Brantley County, Georgia. It had humble beginnings, with only eight members. It is considered one of the “Wiregrass Primitives” (a subset of the Baptist churches in the area). Most of the Wiregrass Primitive churches look similar, both on the exterior and inside. The Wiregrass region extends from Georgia’s southeastern coast into parts of northeastern Florida and southeastern Alabama. The area is known for pines and scrub oaks, and of course the wiregrass that adapted to survive in that environment. The church, which was always part of the Alabaha River Association, saw two splits in its short history. It first joined the Primitive Churches (who were anti-missions) and later sided with the Crawfordites (who were pro-homesteaders). Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church closed its doors for the last time in 1964, but the cemetery is still well-kept and operational.
Another Georgia Wiregrass Primitive Baptist Church is Brantley County’s High Bluff Primitive Baptist. The church, originally located on the banks of the Satilla River, was founded in 1819 by Isham Peacock and started with nine members. Most of the congregation moved to Big Creek Church after an outbreak of cholera in the area. In 1842, the church joined the Alabaha Association and sided with the Crawfordites after the split over homesteading. In the late 1870s, the church at Big Creek was renamed High Bluff Baptist. The cemetery on the grounds is the final resting place of many former Brantley County residents, including the self-made millionaire Lydia Stone, “The Queen of the Okefenokee.”
Whether you are a history buff, looking for some information on your southern ancestors, or just a fan of rustic historic buildings, these beautiful old churches found in southeast Georgia won’t disappoint you. The journey to find them is an adventure in itself, and there is beauty to be found around every turn of the quiet country roads. Seeing these churches is like taking a step back in time and seeing things as our parents, grandparents, and ancestors saw them. If you’re ever in beautiful southeast Georgia, be sure to see them for yourself. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Photo by author.
Tammy has been a freelance writer for several years, and has been published on national and regional platforms, including USAToday.com. She currently lives in SE Georgia, just north of Jacksonville, FL. You can read her blog at TammysTravelTales.com, and find her on Twitter @TsTravelTales.