Updated: Aug 7, 2019
I was driving down a lonely stretch of Highway 176 on an oppressively hot July day; the air conditioner was on full blast along with the 1970s music from my radio. I had about five more miles to go before reaching my parents’ home on East Main Street. I live about an hour and twenty minutes drive from them, and I was running late for the lunch we had scheduled. Approaching a side road, I had this inexplicable calling to turn left. I didn’t want to turn. I knew where it would take me; it was too hot and I was too late. I told myself that I would go down that road on my return trip, when the temperatures were cooler and I had more time. My arguments didn’t convince the force that was urgently directing me, so I made a hard left onto Deepwater Road, followed by a soft left onto a side road. Within a half a mile, I found myself at a dead end, both literally and figuratively. The road ran out at the old Mt. Vernon Cemetery that is surrounded by the Sumter National Forest. Next to the cemetery sits an 1850s meeting house style Presbyterian church.
I knew this place, which made me one of the few people in the county aware of its existence. A few years ago, a friend of mine who has spent his entire life in Union County, agreed to speak at the burial of a revered school teacher who was interred at Mt. Vernon. This teacher taught multiple generations, and was a legend. The students taught English by Ms. Beaty were prepared for a world beyond our small town. My friend, a brilliant writer and a student of Ms. Beaty’s, became so lost trying to find the cemetery, that he didn’t make it to the graveside in time to speak. He tried to call, but cell phone service does not extend to this remote area.
It was also in this area, deep in the national forest, that my friends and I would come on dark nights looking for the Hound of Goshen. As the tale went, in the 1850s, at the same time this church was built, a traveling peddler was going house to house in the remote area. A huge white dog accompanied the peddler. Someone in the area was murdered, and the itinerant salesperson was wrongfully accused. A party of local men hanged the innocent man, leaving the dog to howl in grief at the feet of his lynched owner. Eventually the dog was shot, but according to legend, the hound continues to haunt these backwoods roads.
These stories matter because they help to explain why I was so surprised about what was about to happen. First, I need to rewind a few years to around 2012. In a search for my own family history, I drove to Mt. Vernon, where two sets of great-great grandparents buried along with numerous other members of my mom’s family, the Crockers. I was saddened by the condition of the graveyard and the church. It was clear that the building, made in its entirety from old pines cut from the property, did not have long to stand. There were holes in the walls and the entire structure tilted to one side. My father was the treasurer of the First Presbyterian Church in town that had been entrusted with the care of this country church, but the larger church was in too much financial distress to repair a building no longer in use. This led me to write a long letter to the ruling regional Presbytery pleading for the resources to preserve the church. At the same time, I looked up the name of the local historical society president and determined to contact him to see if the society might be interested in helping to restore the building. I was even willing to buy the property, if necessary.
Back to that sweltering July day and my unshakeable compulsion to visit the cemetery: as I reached the end of the road, I saw another car parked in front of the wooden Mt. Vernon sign. This was the first time I had ever seen another car there. I stepped out of my car and introduced myself to the other two visitors. One was a man named Ray Robbins, who despite not having a family connection to the site, loved it anyway. Ray brought with him the president of the historical society, a name I recognized right away from my research. Even though the president lived only a few miles away, he had never been to the little church or known of its existence. For me, it is too much of a coincidence that without any planning, we all ended up at this remote place.
Within a year, the Presbytery relinquished the property to the historical society. In addition, Ms. Neely Beaty, and her brother, T.C. Beaty, left an endowment to preserve the property. The inheritance was entrusted to the management of their goddaughter, Sarah Parker. Ray, Sarah, and I spent several years preserving the church with its original wooden altar, floor, pews, and communion tables. Ray died before we were able to host our first event.
Just two weeks ago, 50 to 60 people ventured to the church to hear about its history and tour its grounds. They drank homemade lemonade and ate off of a quilt made by one of my grandmothers buried in the cemetery. In addition, there were Mason jars full of wildflowers filling the long communion tables and adorning the altar. I still can’t explain the unrelenting need to visit the church that hot July day. Was it the ghosts of my mother’s family, my great uncles who would clean the graves and leave their own Mason jars of wildflowers to honor their parents and their grandparents? I guess it will remain a mystery.
~ Kim Winslow