We do not know when the congregation of Ridgeway Baptist was formed but we know that the church was originally called New Bethel. It was built in 1865 by a handful of Confederate veterans after returning from the war. According to the local history, these builders were Wiley Pankey, J. C. Worley, Frank Nelson and Leander Corbin. The old log church was a one room structure with a dirt floor – a plank floor was added added at some point. There were two doors and three windows with shutters. An extension was added in 1940 and electricity was added in 1949. A new church, built in 1982, is located across the street from the log church.
Early rural churches were built of local materials and reflected what the community could afford. A normal evolution of the church structure would be a brush arbor, then a log church and finally a framed sanctuary. Many of the early church records in Georgia reflect this progression but very few of these early log churches have survived. This is one of them. Built at the end of the Civil War, it reflects the hard times these rugged mountain people faced at a time when relative prosperity had touched most of Georgia. When you think of church services being held in the 1940’s in this small, sparsely furnished sanctuary with no electricity you get some sense of just how difficult the life must have been for this small group of hardy families. Of the 170 documented interments in the cemetery, 29 of them carry the surname Quarles, 21 were Pankeys and lots of them were descended from the early Scots Irish who moved into these highlands right after the Cherokees were expelled…names like McArthur, McClure, McElrath and McPherson are well represented.
In the graveyard lie tales of the Civil War, moonshiners and murder. This was not plantation country and there were few African Americans in this part of Georgia. Cash crops, such as cotton, were just not an option. However, there was another opportunity for a cash crop and that was making liquor. There is a lot of history available regarding the federal decision to tax all whiskey sales and enforce this decision with federal agents, charged with putting the local stills out of business. This was the cause of much conflict in northwest Georgia, and that is reflected in the Ridgeway cemetery and the grave of Henry Worley – seen below in the final cemetery photo.
It turns out that Gilmer County was one of several Georgia counties that was home to a self styled band of bootleggers that were known as the “Whitecaps”. They were modeled on the KKK but their purpose was to enforce their version of the mountain lifestyle and the proper way to live it. Part of the Whitecaps code was an adherence to the support of making moonshine, and making sure that a strict code of conduct was enforced. Apparently Mr. Worley was deemed to be a source of information to the despised Federal Revenue Agents. For this violation of the code, a large group of Whitecaps took him a few miles away and tried to hang him, but somehow he was able to escape and made his way back home to the Ridgeway Community. A few days later a smaller number of the Whitecaps returned and he was gunned down in his cornfield. Several of the Whitecaps were indicted but ultimately two of them, John Quarles Sr. and David Butler, were sent to prison with five year sentences. The judge reportedly reduced the original ten year sentences because of the poverty of the defendants and the fact that Quarles had fourteen children and Butler had eight. Mr. Quarles, however, died while incarcerated in the Columbus, Ohio prison and is buried there.
The Atlanta papers covering the trial were full of front page tales of plain mountain folks being terrorized by this gang of vigilantes and how their power was now broken. It is quite a story, and here are a few links that contain more information. In the graveyard, Henry Worley’s daughter, Kemmie, is buried a few feet from her parents alongside her husband, Henry Quarles, whose uncle was the same John Quarles that was convicted and died in prison. All is peaceful now in the lee of the little log church they all called home.