Saturday, July 22, 2017

SEARCHING FOR WATER, FINDING HISTORY

Tims Ford Reservoir
When temps soar to 90 degrees on The Mountain here in Sewanee, Tennessee, I long to see a body of water — a lake, a river, a bayou (?) nearby. In Louisiana, my residence during winter months, I live near the Bayou Teche, and the sight of its brown waters often gives me mental respite from summer heat.

Yesterday, during the hottest part of the day we decided to satisfy this longing for the sight of water by going over to Tims Ford State Park, which is on the Tims Ford Reservoir, by riding around parts of the 10,000-acre Tims Ford Lake. The Dam there was constructed at the headwaters of the Elk River, one of the first major dams built by the TVA. The State Park, established in 1969 was created with 1000 acres of land on the largest scenic part of the lake when it became a recreational resource. When I viewed the lake, I felt my body relax and a surge of energy within despite the heat.

We took refuge in the Tims Ford Park Visitor Center where a ranger talked with us about the history of the Park. If we had been outdoor sportswomen, we could have stayed in one of the Park’s air conditioned cabins and enjoyed boating, fishing, even golf, as Jack Nicholas designed a signature 18-hole golf course within the Park for golf enthusiasts. However, we were more interested in some of the historical structures left from the flooding of the lake, particularly the Marble Plains Baptist Church, originally organized as Marble Plains Methodist Church in 1857.

We began our search in the Park for the Marble Plains Baptist Church at the direction of an associate of St. Mary’s Convent, Sewanee, as he knows about my interest in the history of old churches, especially rural ones. The Marble Plains church was once part of the Methodist Conference but in 1993 was deeded to the Marble Plains Church and Masonic Lodge for $1 and became the Marble Plains Baptist Church. It’s now supported by the Duck River Baptist Association, the Tennessee Baptist Convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention. It was named for a marble bed on Elk River about five miles below Winchester, Tennessee that extends down the river ten miles on either side, and the Church actually owns some of the Elk riverbed marble.

Marble Plains Church and Masonic Lodge
Photographs show the pristine church that was built in 1913 after a fire destroyed the old structure constructed in 1857. I admire the zeal of the church goers in this 104-year old church because they raise money from 237 members to pay completely for additions and equipment when maintenance is required. Obviously, church members tithe! 

According to a history of this country church written by Verna Mae Weaver Ernst, church historian, baptisms no longer take place in Tims Ford Lake, and the 1913 bell still works (but requires a hefty, well-muscled person to ring it). Mrs. Ernst, a woman now in her late 80’s, is presently helping raise money for a large, well-kept cemetery next to the church. Brother Jack Hice has been the minister at the church for 27 years, and on Sundays, according to the church historian, “the crowds, the fellowship, the sermons, and lively music make the old hilltop come alive.”*

Mrs. Ernst relates a humorous story about a former minister (from the Methodist Conference) in her historical account of the Marble Plains Church. Rev. Samuel Jack Shasteen, “a large strong man” who preached at the Church fourteen years, arrived early for services one Sunday and found a man waiting for him. The man vowed he was going to whip the preacher [for reasons unknown] and the preacher agreed to the fight but said he wanted to stage this “whipping” in the woods. When the pair came to a log, the Rev. Jack asked that they take off their coats, lay them on a log, roll up their sleeves, then kneel by the log and pray. They joined hands, and the Rev. Jack launched into prayer: “Dear Lord forgive me for what I am about to do, this is being forced upon me and please, Lord, have mercy on any ignorant man who would challenge one of your servants who could crush him like an ant, if he wanted to. Lord, I remember at one of your churches, Will Jones challenged me; he only lived a few days. I really felt sorry for his good wife and those children. Then, at another of your churches, Jim Brown challenged me; he was never able to work again. So, Lord, please have mercy on this poor wreck.” The minister felt the man’s hand slip from his grip and heard the clatter of fast-moving feet. The man had run away leaving his coat on the log.

I looked around in the old church and spied a bulletin board typical of Baptist denominations that recorded the number of members who had attended last Sunday’s services, marveling at the number of congregants who gather there every Sunday and make “the hilltop come alive.”

Members of this country church feel that the structure, as well as the increase in attendance, constitute a “miracle” that occurred when the old church almost died with only ten members, ages ranging from 60’s - 80’s in attendance-- these sturdy believers kept the doors open while the Tims Ford State Park and Dam were being built.

*Historical information provided by writings of Verna Mae Weaver Ernst

Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan



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