Sunday, April 18, 2010
After 173 years, the Rocky Springs Methodist Church held its final homecoming on Sunday, as the few remaining congregants prepare to close and, for the first time, lock the doors. On June 30 the venerable brick church, the last building in the extinct town of Rocky Springs, will be shuttered, literally. Its motto, “Our doors are always open”, will no longer apply.
The closure is immeasurably sad for Jesse and Jane Regan, heirs to the church that Jesse’s ancestors helped found, and likewise for former members and families who attended the homecoming, including a group of my friends in Bolton who helped restore the church more than a decade ago. I rode down with Lee and Dick Harding in their T-Model Ford, which seemed an appropriate vehicle for the historic occasion.
As a standing-room-only crowd sang “Amazing Grace,” accompanied by Mrs. Regan on the piano, the view through the wavy-glass panes of the tall windows included the storied cemetery out back, which, as if to add insult to injury, had recently been vandalized. To my mind, cemetery vandals fall into the same category as child molesters, which is to say there should be a special spot for them in hell, and I have no desire to understand what drives them to attack those who are utterly defenseless. My friend Dick, who led the late nineties restoration, had enlisted his son’s Boy Scout troop to renovate and repair the cemetery following a previous vandalization, but its fate, like that of the historic church, is now unknown.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it? The church looks so great, and it’s closing,” observed Libby Hartfield, part of the Bolton contingent at Sunday’s service, which included music by a Vicksburg bluegrass band and a final dinner-on-the-grounds -- an epic southern repast laid out on antique wooden tables beneath the church’s old, moss-draped cedar trees.
It is tempting to blame the Methodist church organization for withdrawing its last itinerate minister, who travels to Rocky Springs once a month, but as Paul Hartfield, who also worked on the restoration, pointed out, “There’s a difference between ministering to a small congregation and providing what amounts to private lessons.” In recent years the congregation has dwindled to the point that on many Sundays the Regans are the only ones there. That said, the April 18 program offered a quiet rebuttal to the idea, quoting a passage from a past sermon that read, in part, “The church is not of spires or fancy choirs in tune; the church is built by Christ where two or three commune.”
The Rocky Springs church stands atop a knoll adjacent to an eponymous park on the Natchez Trace Parkway. The surrounding countryside is lush and sparsely populated, and has a particularly rich, conflicted history. Author Eudora Welty coined the phrase “sense of place” -- which unfortunately has been worked to death by southern writers -- to describe the abiding allure of the area in her essay “Some Notes on River Country”.
“Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure,” Welty wrote. “Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in its story live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things – regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads, and other vagrancies.”
Welty penned her piece in 1944; since then the river country has continued its inexorable economic and population decline to the point that even its sense of place is now easily overlooked. Entire communities have vanished, marked only by planted flowers that bloom, untended, each spring, and many others that survive are clearly on life support.
Rocky Springs had a comparatively brief heyday between the 1820s and the Civil War, when settlers flooded into the region from Europe and the Eastern Seaboard to build lavish plantation homes. At its height there were just under 5,000 people living in the town, almost half of whom were enslaved. After the Civil War Rocky Springs suffered a succession of misfortunes -- economic collapse, soil erosion, yellow fever epidemics and finally, the devastation wrought by the cotton boll weevil. The last store in closed in the 1930s, and eventually the springs that had brought the town into being ran dry. Aside from the church, all that’s left are two rusty bank safes resting in a vine-choked ravine, their doors long ago torn off, and a scattering of brick cisterns.
A few representative examples of the region’s historic architecture survive, mostly in towns such as Vicksburg, Port Gibson and Natchez, but the majority of the rural landmarks are going or already gone. By some estimates there are more than 250 abandoned cemeteries in Claiborne and Jefferson counties alone; the Regans’ family home, Vernalia Plantation, one of the last historic houses in the Rocky Springs area, burned in the nineties.
Churches are usually the last to go, and the Rocky Springs church managed to survive the long decline, with few alterations. The building went up in 1837 as a permanent home for a congregation that had previously been served by an itinerant Methodist minister, as its final congregation will be until June 30. Jane Regan said the congregation hopes to find someone to take over the church and cemetery, either for a church or for special events such as weddings, but so far no one has stepped up to the plate.
This is what I heard from the minister, Elizabeth Piazza, who drove down from Clinton, (heard, at least, before I gave up my seat in the back to late arrivals, then quietly backed out through the double paneled doors, across the deeply worn threshold, into the April sunshine to wander the graveyard, where I found, among others, the couple who had a little girl who lived a year before she died, presumably of yellow fever, but who had another child a month before the first died -- so there was that -- except that the second child lived only a year before dying, presumably, of yellow fever): That the Lord will provide; that a use for the building will be found.
This is what the children ate before scampering off to play among the toppled obelisks and crypts of the graveyard, to fashion Spanish moss into wigs and chase each other around, squealing; to climb into the two T-models and manically pretend they were driving; and to repeatedly climb the steep hillside between the men playing the banjo, fiddle, guitar and upright bass, singing, and the gullies of the abandoned town site, where they pulled themselves up by clinging to exposed tree roots: Butterbeans cooked in a crockpot, with bacon; crowder peas cooked in a crockpot, with bacon; homegrown snap beans; roasted potatoes; about 12 different kinds of pasta; multiple hams; pot roast with potatoes and carrots; sausage; corn casserole; fried chicken; glazed chicken; baked chicken; Mexican cornbread (three kinds); various other cornbreads; various casseroles; assorted “health food,” presumably for “heart patients” and possibly suburban visitors; other items that I forget or never saw because my plate was full and I didn’t even get to every table; plus coconut cake; lemon meringue pie; bread pudding; chess pie; pecan pie; chocolate pie; mousse; cheesecake; brownies (several varieties, large and small); puddings; cakes too numerous to mention; and I don’t know what all else for the reasons stated previously; with sweet tea. There were beautiful old folding wooden chairs, along with the usual kinds.
This is what the adults talked about, after they sang about Jesus and heard the preacher say something good will come of the collective loss, and listened to the band play “Salty Dog” (!): People they knew or had once known, whether dead or alive.
Then, without further ado, the tables were struck, the children begged to be allowed to play a little longer, and were disappointed, and the cars slowly started backing away, with little wisps of Spanish moss dangling from their antennas and other appurtenances. The word on everyone’s mind was: “Amen.”