John the Baptist
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.