Fair Haven Church may be the most remarkable and well maintained sanctuary in all of rural Georgia. The more we learn about it, the more remarkable it becomes. While the construction, architecture and craftsmanship are front and center, the story of Fair Haven Methodist can’t be told without including some of the history of the Jones family. Early pioneer Francis Jones, Sr. arrived in Georgia from North Carolina prior to the Revolutionary War and settled on the east side of the Ogeechee River in what was then St. Mathew Parish, now Screven County. Francis had two sons, Francis Jr. and Phillip and from this humble pre-Revolutionary War beginning, the Jones family legacy and the little Fair Haven church had its roots.
It was the second son, Philip, who settled at the place known today as Birdsville in Jenkins County on land granted for his services in the Revolutionary War. Philip died at the age of 30 leaving his wife and a single heir, his eighteen month old son, Henry Philip Jones. What later became known as the Birdsville Plantation came to fruition under his tutelage. He began the construction of the manor house that was completed by his son, William Beaman Jones in 1847. Under Henry Phillip’s administration, Birdsville emerged as one of the great plantations of the South. According to one account, when he died his estate was valued at $350,000 – which would be in excess of ten million dollars in today’s currency. The name Birdsville came about in 1813, when a post office was established at the plantation and named after the first postmaster, Samuel Bird. Prior to that, it was simply known as the Jones Plantation.
Henry Philip was the father of four Jones brothers – Henry, William, Joseph and James. They are credited with the construction of the beautiful Fair Haven Church that was built on land donated by Henry. One of the brothers is buried at Fair Haven, one in Atlanta and the other two in the older family cemetery. We are not sure when the original congregation was organized, but we are told that the present church is the third one to house the congregation. The oldest Methodist church in the state (Liberty Methodist in Richmond County) was organized in 1775 and there are two Baptist Churches (Bark Camp and Big Buckhead) that were organized in the 1770’s and 80’s and are located only a few miles away. Our best guess is that this church would have been organized around 1785, possibly earlier. If there are any sources out there with some better documentation, we would love to see it.
Fair Haven Church and Birdsville Plantation lay in the path of Sherman’s army during his March to the Sea, and there were instances of pillage and violence as his forces moved through the area. According to the church history, Union troops came to the church and removed a drop leaf table. It is unknown why or how, but the table ended up at a nearby tenant farm. The resident promptly returned it to the church, complete and unharmed, except for a missing drawer. The table with the missing drawer now occupies a prominent place on the chancel as you will see in one of the subsequent photos.
Fair Haven Methodist, in what is now rural Jenkins County, stands proudly as a shining example of our Georgia history. It is remarkable that the family legacy spans almost the entire length of Georgia history, from a decade prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the present. Jones family roots have been tied to this land for 250 years now, and the little church has been standing for 170 of those years. The original land was just a spot in a vast, virgin wilderness on what was then the western frontier of Georgia. The church still has services every week and visitors are welcome. We are so grateful to the many congregants of Fair Haven for their loving stewardship. Quite a story and quite a church. Come inside and see for yourself.
When we stumbled across this remarkable chapel in the woods, we realized that we were viewing a one-of-a-kind, 19th century architectural achievement that had been protected and preserved for posterity as if it had been encased in amber for over 150 years. Fair Haven is almost domestic in character and elegant in form and use of materials. In this view, as well as in the frontal photo introducing this church, we can see that it is composed of classical elements… gabled roof with detailed rake and cornice accentuated with pairs of curved wood brackets all around creating a dentil motif. The introductory photo provided a view of the fanlight over the entry door, semicircular vent in the gable and entry pediment all classical in form. Above we see the paired wood brackets supporting the eave and reinforcing the the cornice. This helps create a pleasing transition to the elegant wood siding. Articulated wood pilasters support the cornice and define the corners of the structure while the handsome windows harken back to the Romanesque style. Our architectural consultant opined that, “Fair Haven’s design and construction seem to create an ecclesiastical period of its own, recalling the Colonial, Romanesque and Renaissance Revival periods.”
We were struck by the pristine condition, attention to detail and the quality of the workmanship found in the small niches of the entry to Fair Haven. The wide board, 19th century pews with sinuous arm rests are perfectly fitted into the space to provide a comfortable place to sit and wait. Each pew is placed in front of a centered, shuttered, Romanesque opening within an elegant, though heavy, molded frame. Horizontal, wide white painted boards provide an appropriate back drop for this vignette.
This view appropriately displays the elegant but intentionally plain interior of the sanctuary. With the exception of the modern chandeliers, chancel chairs, communion table and pulpit, all interior decorative elements are architectural. The walls are painted a shade of beige while the ceiling and pew ends are white. At the same time, the eight tall windows are nestled into beautifully moulded, white wooden frames and the wide board ceiling is embraced by heavy, deep crown molding painted white as well. This is an exhibition of taste and quality, not ostentation. The fact that it still exists in such pristine condition is mind boggling… and a tribute to the owners.
The heavy, ornate pulpit rests in the raised chancel and is flanked by two ornate Victorian chairs. The most intriguing element of this photo is the wooden, lovely early 19th century, drop leaf table. Remember the story of Sherman’s troops confiscating a table when they passed through? The absconding soldiers quickly tired of lugging around such a cumbersome trophy and abandoned it at a nearby farm whose tenant returned the artifact to the church… minus its fitted, end drawer. In this view, the space where the drawer was once located is… empty.
It is worthwhile to point out that all of the “openings”(windows, doors, entry alcove) at Fair Haven have rounded arches, allusions to the Romanesque style. This is an unusual design feature for the period. Even the elaborate belfry and steeple base openings are romanesque. In the window photo above we can see that the romanesque sanctuary windows are set in elaborate wooden frames and are even double hung so they can be opened to provide circulation. This is a lovely and expensive treatment not often found in the rural Georgia church of the mid-19th century.
Many physical changes have been made within this sanctuary during the last century and a half. Old pews have been made more comfortable, oil and kerosene lighting has been swept aside for electric chandeliers, carpeting has been installed to protect the old heart pine floors, the pot bellied stove and its flue have been removed and the vents we see in the floor above bring in cool air in the hot months and warm air during the colder months. But, the welcoming classical entryway remains as it was, the bell tower entry hole is visible in the ceiling as it has always been and the church bell above it was rung to call the congregation as it did for generations; the ambience of the sanctuary remains inviting… just as it has been since the first days of this church.
The small Jones – Law Cemetery behind Fair Haven Church contains only 67 graves, nearly half of them members of the Jones family. The oldest grave is that of an infant Jones who died in 1886. We found it curious that the church was built in 1846 yet there was not a burial at the church for the next forty years. But traditionally rural families maintained their own cemeteries near the family home and that tradition probably accounts for the later establishment of a cemetery at the church. Rural Georgia is dotted with small family cemeteries across the state.
Henry Wilkes Jones gave the land on which Fair Haven Church was built and is one of the four brothers credited with building the church. His family still owns land adjacent to the church property. Henry Wilkes’ headstone and several others were knocked askew or toppled by a tree limb which fell from a tree next to the cemetery, and we were told that plans for restoration are ongoing. Henry was a planter as were his three brothers. During the war he served the Confederacy in the capacity of Engineer. At the outbreak of the war the Confederacy established an Engineer Corps and an improvised organization of dedicated engineer troops gained the Confederacy numeric superiority with regard to its engineers. In 1863, the Confederate Congress passed legislation assigning a company of engineer troops to every division in the field. Each company consisted of 100 men commanded by a captain and three lieutenants. The engineer troops of the Confederacy were generally committed to constructing and improving field fortifications deployed to the coastal and interior defenses, and additionally engineers were used to maintain and improve the Confederate rail system.
Behind the ancestral family home, at rest among the live oak and magnolia trees, lie the remains of many generations of the Jones family. The builder of the house, one of four brothers who built Fair Haven Church, William Beaman Jones MD, and his wife Sidney are buried here. Of the many stories this cemetery could produce is one of infant twins. Traveling with the XVII Corps since leaving Sandersville, moving south along the railroad toward Savannah, Sherman arrived at Herndon and made his headquarters at the imposing home of Joseph B. Jones, just five miles distant from the home of William Beaman Jones. Federal troops not only took livestock and foodstuffs from the civilian population to sustain the Union Army, but also stole anything of value that came their way. Families whose homes lay in the path of the advancing army removed what property they could. In some cases valuables are said to have been hidden in wells or to have been buried to protect it from the scavangers. As a consequence, any disturbed ground might attract the attention of invading soldiers as it could hold a treasure trove of silver or other valuables. That may have been the case in the incident at the Jones Family Cemetery when Union troops dug up the graves of recently interred infant twins who, since they were unnamed, were probably stillborn. Family lore tells us the mother of the twins, Sidney Jones, wife of William Beaman Jones, watched from an upstairs window as the soldiers dug up her babies. The grave of one of William Beaman Jones’ brothers and a co-builder of Fair Haven Church, Joseph, is also in this cemetery. In the photo the row of three headstones are those of Joseph B. Jones in the center, his wife Sarah on his right side and son Wesley on his left. The brick vaults are those of children of a sister of William and Joseph, Melvina. Four of Melvina’s five children were taken by disease in 1847. The oldest of the Jones siblings, Harriet, lost three sons, one each year until 1843, the year of her own death at age 33. A fourth child died at age 10, a year after the death of her mother. It is unknown to us which disease was responsible for the deaths of Melvina’s children or the circumstances surrounding the death of Harriet’s children. There was little effective treatment for many lethal diseases which contributed to the high infant and child mortality, a sad reality of life in those days. The Birdsville Plantation is private property and you must have permission from the owner to enter. Please respect their privacy.
Fair Haven provides a striking example of why we think HRCGA’s mission is important, today and into the future. That the owners and congregations of this treasure have been conscientious and loving caretakers for over 150 years and insured its welfare has been and will always be their continuing gift to us….many thanks! By their actions, they have presented Historic Rural Churches of Georgia with the opportunity to document this unique chapel in its present pristine state in photos and words… forever in our archives… as our gift to future generations. Together, we will be part of the movement to insure that rural church structures, their social roles, their histories and legacies will be preserved and available for all citizens.
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