The plain, shingled structure you see above looks unimpressive on its on – but when viewed in the context of Georgia history, hardworking early settlers, remote location and a focal point for this rural community on the banks of the Satilla River, it comes alive with stories of love, community, salvation, life and death. There are many of these across our state but the simplicity of Oak Grove is striking…..and we almost missed it. It has been here for over 125 years, on a remote sandy road, serving the local descendants of the tough settlers who moved into the wiregrass country to scratch out a living from the sandy soil. Camden County is the eighth oldest county in Georgia, created in 1777 where the early inhabitants created a legacy of rice, cotton, indigo and slavery – all focused on coastal plantations.
The collapse of this system after the Civil War left the county devastated, but soon the inland wiregrass region rose to prominence on a new legacy……timber and turpentine. The little church in the wiregrass was born within this ecosystem. Every church has many stories, mostly unrecorded and lost to the vagaries of time, but not Oak Grove. We are fortunate that one of the descendants of the early pioneer Drury family wrote a history of the church. Most of this information comes from A History of Oak Grove Baptist Church, Camden County, Georgia published in 1979 by Shirley J. Thompson. The church is located close to the Satilla River and a short distance from Beasley Lake, where Baptisms for new members took place (see the click here map at the bottom). Beasley Lake was also one of “launching sites” for the large logs that were sent to the mills and ships at Burnt Fort, a few miles downstream on the Satilla. It should also be mentioned that Oak Grove was one of first Baptist churches in the coastal wiregrass region, almost exclusively Methodist heretofore.
The church was constituted in 1890 but there are earlier graves in the cemetery, many of them unmarked, leading to the conclusion that there was probably an earlier meeting house or brush arbor on this site. The building, though now covered with siding, is original and is supported by vertical pine footings, an unusual construction feature for this part of Georgia. It has never had electricity, just kerosene lamps on the sidewalls and a wood burning stove. The history tells us that the Great Depression and the decline of the timber industry took its toll on the community and preachers became difficult to come by. The little church was abandoned for years until 1946 when one of the residents, Milton Drury, accepted the call and decided he wanted to be Baptized at the old church. He rallied support for it and the church became reborn with new life, a pastor and a congregation. The structure was in bad condition but the floors were soon repaired along with the chimney, and that is when the siding was applied. We are told that vandals removed the kerosene lamps, the original organ and the wood burning stove in 1974. Not only was this a terrible blow in the aftermath of the heartfelt fundraising campaign for the organ in the late 1890’s, it put the church into another period of serious decline.
There are still reunions and homecomings held at the church and she is still watertight and in good repair, though no longer served in the old style by a preacher who was required to travel by rail from Waycross to Atkinson on Saturday, where he was met by a member. After preaching on Sunday, he spent the night with one of the congregants and was then taken by wagon back to Atkinson for the return trip to Waycross. We are grateful for the stewardship of this rural heritage by the descendants of the early settlers in the cemetery, many in unmarked graves. We are hopeful that Oak Grove will be standing and telling her stories for many years to come.
This is a recent photograph of the sanctuary at Oak Grove sanctuary. This view is much as it would have been over 100 years ago with the exception of the kerosene lanterns on the walls which were stolen back in the 1970's. As we pointed our earlier, the sanctuary has never has electrical lighting. The severely plain interior design, finishes and furnishings are striking and reflect the morals, character and religious beliefs of Oak Grove's congregation in the late 19th century. It would be just a plain white box were it not for the trussed rafter roof design which creates an elevated ceiling and cathedral-like atmosphere. To us, this is a good an example of "less is more."
Here we are looking from within the sanctuary through the two over two, sashed clear glass windows into the cemetery. The window frame is composed of flat sawed, heart pine boards and is as simple a frame can be, no molded sills or mitered corners. Sitting on the original heart pine floorboards, the hand made pews are simple, of the period and charming. They also could be described as Spartan and probably quite uncomfortable as well!
These old doors have swung open thousands and thousands of times over the past 125 years. Through them have passed generations of families on their way to worship, celebrate births and weddings, grieve at funerals and countless other ceremonies dear to the congregations. It remains in service to this date due to the love, care and stewardship of church families like the Drury's who cherish the memories it holds for them. We hope it will be welcoming families for many generations to come.
We are not sure who lies here but this is the remnant of a wooden marker, which was common in older graves. It is also one of the reasons that the old burial grounds have so many unmarked graves. These were poor people in the late 19th century who worked hard and made do with what they had. Findagrave shows 71 interments in the cemetery with the oldest grave dating from 1893 and the most recent in 2011. However, the local history records burials as old as 1872.
Above are two infant graves surrounded by a wooden fence. One is the child of Simon Peter Drury and Annie Drury who died in 1893 and the other is the child of Simon Peter and Caroline Drury, who died in 1889. We believe the fence would have been placed there at the time of death. One side is now open which allowed the placement of a more recent headstone.
Of the 71 interments in the old cemetery, 25 of them are the Drury family who were original settlers in this community and founders of the church. This is Charles N. Drury who served with the 4th Ga Cavalry. However, notice he was born in 1811, which means he was 50 years old at the outbreak of the war. We suspected that he enlisted late in the war when recruits were hard to come by but we were wrong. His application for a Confederate Pension in 1910 states that he enlisted in August of 1861 and surrendered "between Screven and Oak Hill church" in Camden County in April of 1865. The federal census of 1860 shows Charles living with wife Eliza and seven children, the youngest being three and four, on a small farm in Camden County. The 4th Ga Cavalry did not see a great deal of combat during the war since their primary duties were within southeast Georgia.
We love to find little treasures like this that are so remote yet so important to connect us to our past. Truly.....where we came from, how we got here and who we are. Thank you Shirley Thompson for making us aware of another piece of our Georgia heritage.
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Does anyone know if this church is still active?
We think it is only used for special occasions. No regular services.