The history of John the Baptist is very scant, which is not unusual for a rural African American congregation formed not long after the Civil War. Over time, many of these old rural sanctuaries fell into disrepair and slowly disappeared as a result of declining membership and abandonment. We do not know when the church was organized or when it was built, but the fact that it even exists today, is because it is located on Ichauway Plantation in Baker County.
Ichauway was the quail hunting preserve of Mr. Robert Woodruff, the Chairman and leader of the Coca Cola company from 1926 to 1954. In 1954, he stepped down as president but remained on the board of directors until 1984. The plantation was assembled by purchases from several local landowners in 1929. It consisted of approximately 30,000 acres and was used for entertaining the many guests and friends of the Coca Cola company from all over the world. President Dwight Eisenhower, who loved quail hunting, was a frequent visitor to Ichauway. Mr. Woodruff died in 1985, leaving the plantation to his Robert W. Woodruff Foundation. The foundation trustees, after much study, then decided to transform Ichauway into an ecological research center with a focus on the ecology, restoration and management of the longleaf pine ecosystem and water resources. It is now known as the Joseph Jones Ecological Research Center, named for Joseph W. Jones, a longtime associate of Mr. Woodruff and Chairman Emeritus of the Woodruff Foundation.
The old church is in a remote location but close to the little town of Hoggards Mill on the banks of Ichauway-Notchaway Creek. The town was established in the 1870s and, in 1880, had a population of 150 according to the federal census. The name Hoggards Mill is rooted in the fact that several mills were located along the Creek…..including a saw mill, a cotton gin, and two grist mills. According to the local history “The primary exports from the town were lumber and cotton, like most other settlements in the area. The area first had a Methodist and Baptist church, which also served as public schools. In the 1800s Hoggards Mill had three general stores, three mills, two physicians, and two lawyers.” Today, there is not much left of Hoggards Mill except the old general store which is open to the public. For more background on Hoggard’s Mill and Ichauway, click here.
John the Baptist was a typical rural African American church established in this part of Georgia at the turn of the century. A look at Baker County historical demographics will put this into proper perspective. In the first half of the 19th century, this part of Georgia saw a dramatic increase in both cotton production and the use of slaves to achieve it. The total population of Baker County was 1,252 in 1830 and 78% of this total was white. In 1860 the total population had increased to 4,990 but the white population was only 30%. By 1880, the ratio of blacks to whites was approximately three to one, as south Georgia shifted from a plantation system using slave labor, to a patchwork of farms organized to support small landowners and emancipated African Americans as sharecroppers.
It was a hard life and the black community took refuge and spiritual comfort in their own churches that rapidly emerged to serve those congregants living nearby. John the Baptist was one of these. We can rest assured that many souls were saved, many hymns were sung and much praise to the Lord was given in this simple structure. We owe the stewards of the Ichauway legacy a debt of gratitude for their respect for this important aspect of our culture and heritage. The church is located on private property with selected access, but her continued preservation and maintenance seems assured. For more information on the work being done by the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center, click here.
Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to gather any significant tangible evidence such as minutes, letters, legal records, photos or other written documents concerning this little church and its history. But, what we see in this view from the church entryway is a rectangular meeting house with one wide aisle that leads to a raised chancel and pulpit area. The chancel is flanked left and right by pews for a choir and an “amen” corner. It is unknown if a piano or pump organ was ever in place. There are no architectural or other decorative elements. Even with no history, we know that this spare sanctuary would have been in keeping with traditional African American churches in this area of Georgia at the turn of the 20th century.
In this view from the pulpit, we get the opportunity to appreciate the charming simplicity and authenticity of this church. It is believed that after a period of low/no use in the 1920’s, the church was restored to its original state by Robert Woodruff when he purchased contiguous parcels in 1929 and assembled the huge plantation he named “Ichauway”. The hand crafted pulpit made of heart pine could have been original to the church as could have been the sturdy heart pine pews. In any case, these elements certainly would be considered authentic and of the period even if they were gathered from other local sources. The lovely heart pine floors could also be original to the church’s construction. The electric lighting channel and fixtures we see running down the center of the ceiling most certainly were the product of the restoration while the remaining ceiling could easily be original.
This closeup of the choir area allows us to more clearly see and examine the interior construction and finish within the John the Baptist sanctuary. Evident are the vertical ceiling boards, the horizontal wall boards, the floor boards, the window frames… all made of wood gathered from the heart pine forest that once dominated this area of Georgia. A sure addition during the restoration are the six over six, clear pane sashed windows throughout the sanctuary.
Here we get a detailed look at the massive, heavy heart pine pews at Saint John the Baptist. Look at the large width of the pew back and seat elements. There are no pine trees left from which to cut and plane such impressive lumber. It is a privilege just to be able to view such irreplaceable relics from the past!
This view from the interior of the sanctuary looks out into some of the few thousand remaining acres of long leaf pine forest in Georgia. We are told that at the beginning of the 19th century, over 3,000,000 acres of this noble pine tree spread throughout this area of Georgia and provided work and money for thousands of foresters.
We love this charming, two stage steeple and its pleasing proportions. It is board and batten and crudely constructed . This is an indication that it is most probably an original appendage, since such building techniques would not “fit” the time frame and tastes prevalent during the late 20’s restoration time period.
We salute the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Center and thank them for restoring and preserving this relic of the past. It is a monument to a significant period in the religious and social development of African American culture. Under their watch, John the Baptist Church will remain to serve as an available and authentic memorial and educational opportunity for all Georgians in the decades to come.
We find it intriguing that this formidable steel truss bridge links Ichauway Plantation and John the Baptist Church to Hoggards Mill on the opposite banks of Ichauway-Notchaway Creek. Although it looks like a “bridge to nowhere”, it is actually proof of the significant community that once settled here in this now deserted location. With its rural citizens continuing to flee their ancestral home territory and move to the city, Georgia is filled with such locations where deserted monuments to prior prosperity dot the landscape and hint of the better times that once were. The churches that once served these areas need to be documented and recognized before they and their history disappear as well. That is what we at HRCGA intend to do.
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