By John Hassell Yeatts © 1984
Issue: January, 1984
“Conceived in Hope; Dedicated in Faith; Nurtured by Love.”
It’s not uncommon on a pretty day to see people photographing, sketching and painting the little rock Presbyterian Church in Old Mayberry. It’s a church that is loved by many, usually attended by few, and can claim little more than a handful of members. Yet at homecoming services during the summer of 1983 it was filled to overflowing with people who came - some for several hundred miles - to hear Robert W. Childress, Jr. deliver another of his eminent sermons of love and forgiveness. It’s a church with history of hard times, diminishing membership, because of old age, death and economic pursuit elsewhere. Yet the steadfast devotion of a few has kept the lights burning, the welcome hand extended and its message of love going forth. Those same few believe it is a church with a future as well as a past.
It was a chilly spring night in 1925 when the winds of winter just wouldn’t go away. But the millponds and creek banks were alive with faithful frogs proclaiming their optimism of a new birth. In the little graceless two-room school house in Mayberry, Robert Childress, Sr. had just delivered one of his moving sermons to the little group of housewives, farmers, miners and timber men. The closing hymn, Blessed Be The Tie That Binds was ended, and the house was coming discomfortingly silent. Then Mr. Childress said, “Every good community needs a good church, and I believe that Mayberry is just as good as any community in Patrick County. Don’t you?” There was a stirring and a murmur. Suddenly one of Mayberry’s handsome and best liked young men, Ernest Cockram exclaimed, “I’ll give you $25.00 toward the building of a church.” In those days that was equal to a month’s farm wages. Lumberman, O.A. Yeatts, soon to be Ernest’s father-in-law, called “I’ll give $50 and an acre of ground for its location at the crossroads.” Another citizen expressed appreciation but thought if there was to be a church it should be closer to the school house. Several people glanced at Ceph Scott who owned all the surrounding land. In less than the ticking of the clock, Mr. Ceph had pledged an acre of ground, and then the other pledges began to roll. It was like the breaking of a log jam. Abe Webb, Burton Scott, Austin Light, Frank and Wolford Spangler, Ed Marshall, Asa and Babe Spangler, Dump Yeatts, Volney Reynolds, and on and on they came. Some pledged small amounts of cash and hours and days of work. No written records were kept. None were immediately needed. Preacher Childress had kept a mental tally, “We have $500 or its equivalent. That’s enough to start.” One timid boy squeaked out a pledge to carry water for the workmen. The people laughed and Mr. Childress gave his big friendly laugh and assured the boy that his pledge was important and would be collected. The spirited crowd prayed together, lighted their kerosene lanterns and began to wind their ways homeward. Before the leaves were fully grown that spring, most of those same men were back clearing ground and driving stakes. In one short afternoon the outline of a church building was visible.
And then the unthinkable happened. Ernest Cockram who had made the first pledge was now married to Wilma Yeatts had his young life crushed away in a mine in West Virginia. They brought his body back for services in the school house which barely held all the mourners. The children gave up their worn benches to their elders and stood sobbing around the walls. Rev. Roy Smith who was an inspirational influence upon Bob Childress, talked of the promise of life beyond death and of knowing Ernest as a “consecrated young man.” The people were comforted and became more resolute to accelerate the work of the church. Everyone wanted to help. Much of the material was teamed and trucked in by volunteers.
Coy Yeatts and Frank Spagler attempting to haul a load of long material from Mt. Airy found that they could not negotiate the steep and sharp curves of Squirrel Spur and took their Model T Ford truck up the Orchard Gap, through Gladesboro and down the Danville and Wytheville Turnpike. A fifty mile, low gear trip, for an 18 mile crow flight distance. If Mayberry had any skilled carpenters in those days they were “working away.” John Banks of Laurel Fork and Mr. Willard of Dugspur were imported. The church began to take shape. It wasn’t long before you could see the outline of a steeple, and the school kids were enlivened. Weekly Sunday School had already started at the school house. Pretty young ladies, some in bobbed hair and short skirts, came from Central Academy in big touring cars to tell the children about a very human-like Jesus who had forgiven His enemies even when they tried to kill Him. They brought visual aids, posters and cards that helped the children know that Jesus was in fact still alive.
It was along about this time that the Pennsylvania Grit cranked up one of its periodical campaigns to sell papers by proclaiming the approaching end of time. With each issue the news became more sensational. People in white robes were shown waiting on a hillside in Ohio or some place hoping to meet Christ and possibly curry favor before the rank and file had the opportunity. Small groups of lads clustered on the playground to lament, “His coming before the new church was completed.” Finally, on “D” day, pretty Agnes Reynolds called up to Mr. Willard on the steeple, “Ya think the end of time’s coming tonight, Mr. Willard?” He shouted down, “I reckon it will for a heap of folks, Miss Agnes, but maybe it won’t for you and me.” She paused reflectively for one instant then she went skipping onto the school house. Surely a man that skilled and working so close to God knew more than the Grit. Many of the children however didn’t sleep very well that night, but they were all back at school the next day listening to the comforting sound of Banks’ and Willard’s hammers telling them the church would indeed, be finished before the “coming.”
Each piece of lumber, each nail almost, was counted by the boys of Mayberry School. Several were given scraps that would be converted to box traps that would in time, put stewed rabbit on the kitchen table. School ended that year before the lads were treated to the sight of the completed church. But they’d be back.
The dedication was held early in the summer of 1926. It was an impressive ceremony. Reverend Childress called it the fruition of many people’s dreams. It was Wolford Spangler who had expertly carved and engraved the corner stone and sang bass with such a verve that it could be heard almost to Mayberry store. It was a happy time but like much happiness, of short duration. Before the summer had passed, a heart attack claimed the life of Ceph Scott and his became the first funeral to be held in the little church in the grove. Mr. Wolford’s death was soon to follow. The community and church lost two important members, both of them too young to die. But time is a great healer.
Before long the congregation was laughing about young Allen Spangler (Wolford’s grandson) who was locked inside the dark church one Sunday night. Allen had reclined on a back pew during the closing moments of the services, fallen asleep and not discovered missing until the family arrived home and decided to cut a watermelon. His uncle, Ed Marshall was later quoted as saying, “It’s might hard to count noses by lightening bugs and smoked lanterns.” Anyway Allen was found, awake and slightly frightened, and released from the church in time for his slice of melon. The little church was not without other humorous incidents: like the time one crusty old timer was taking advantage of an open window to get a few last whacks on his cud of chewing tobacco before services began. Young Tazz Carrol, mischievously leaned across the pew and silently closed the window. Kersplat, the volley came against the window pane. And while the old man was explosively removing the stain with his best handkerchief, he was uttering threats with his cane to giggling Tazz following the services. Tazz silently departed during the benediction. Then there was the time that Eunice Yeatts injected some disquieting mirth into the solemn singing school by taking her seat on a front pew while she was clad in some of her mothers 1898 clothing. Everyone laughed but Eunice, who only appeared to look puzzled.
The school was allowed to utilize the church for plays and programs and it soon became a social as well as spiritual center. Reverend Childress made certain that each Christmas brought a large tree and a generous out-pouring of gifts for all the school and Sunday School children. This was about the time one native observed, “I declare that people are coming for 10 and 12 miles to hear that man preach.” Another replied, “Yes and I think they’d come even further iffin they could catch rides.” Well, better roads, a little more prosperity, and automobiles solved that for a while. But cars, and roads, job hunting, and World war II also took them away. The school was consolidated with Meadows of Dan and things were bound to change. Some say “for the better” and some say “for the worse.” It’s hard to evaluate that which didn’t happen.
Today as one who was there that first night stands leaning against the cemetery wall near the Childress plot at Buffalo Mountain Church, he wonders about it all and how it really came to be. To his left, the solemn, rugged and timeless old Buffalo looking down and across the quartet of rock churches that are part of Bob Childress’ legacy to the tri-county area. He looks at the three Childress’ graves in loving memory, remembering how they each played an important role. And he gazes across the road at surely one of the prettiest churches in rural America. He tries to remember the faces of some of the hard-fighting, hard-drinking, hating and stubborn men with whom Bob Childress grappled during two and a half decades. And he remembers that he probably won more than he lost. Then the frightening thought; what if it never had happened. How much worse might it really have become if the man from “The Hollow” hadn’t fixed his gaze upon the Buffalo and his heart upon the man from Galilee. He wonders, too if Robert Childress, Sr. might have turned in another direction - an easier direction - if that little group had turned their backs instead of opening their arms and minds in the little weathered school house in Mayberry that March night almost 60 years ago….