Villages come and villages go, often leaving the church as the only thing left of what was once a vibrant community. Salem is a perfect example of this…….a noble church in a lovely rural location, surrounded by the graves of her past congregations. Old Salem was organized in 1820, shortly after the town of Salem was incorporated in November of 1818, and settled by mostly Scots Irish who migrated from Virginia and North Carolina. The original church was built on land consisting of nine-tenths of an acre deeded by Samuel and Elizabeth Hester for the sum of $1.00 to the trustees of the church. The present structure was built on the same site in 1896.
Salem’s economy was almost exclusively agriculture, and in the years prior to the Civil War this meant raising cotton under the plantation system requiring large numbers of slaves. One history states that eighty per cent of the increase in Oconee County’s population were slaves. Two events sealed Salem’s fate i.e. the railroad and the boll weevil. Both events were significant throughout rural Georgia. The railroads gave birth to many towns and ultimately cities, but they also sounded the death knell for others. The railroad line was placed fifteen miles to the south of Salem in the 1830’s and the town’s gradual demise began. After reconstruction, the boll weevil was an ecological disaster that by the early 20th Century brought the agricultural economy dependent on King Cotton to its knees. Salem was quite a village in its day, but the church now stands as virtually the only proof that it ever existed.
We are fortunate that the church has been well cared for. No regular services are held, we are told, but the 119 year old sanctuary is maintained and used for special occasions. We all owe a big “thank you” to the trustees of the church for their loving stewardship of this great example of one of Georgia’s historic rural treasures.
There is no vestibule at this meeting house. When a visitor steps in through one of the two doors at Salem, they find themselves immediately thrust into the clean, cheerful and welcoming sanctuary. The interior finish is simple in every respect. Unlike many more elaborate rural churches of the period, Salem had not enjoyed prosperity and could not afford the frills and finery found in nearby Victorian-style sanctuaries. Salem was a town and congregation in decline, but they were proud of their new church and insured that the structure met their needs.
In this view from the pulpit, we see two entrance doors into this meetinghouse. Even though the old tradition of women and children entering through one door while the men entered through the other was not still practiced in 1896, this congregation chose to build its new sanctuary with both doors as a courteous nod to their past.
When there is no viable congregation, we think the preservation and repurposing of an old sanctuary such as Salem is a grand idea. Keeping an historic building alive and making it into a useful facility is a perfectly acceptable way the save these structures for posterity. Salem church now contains all the creature comforts and amenities needed to provide a space useful for many different occasions. Those improvements along with the working piano insure that the music, sacred and secular need ever stop at this old landmark!
Citizens of Salem have answered the call for generations. In the foreground is the final resting place of James W. Graves who served in World War I. Behind is the grave of Thomas Hall who served with the 44th Ga. He enlisted as a private at the age of 38 and was wounded in battle at Ellison’s Mill, Virginia. He returned to Salem and died in 1905 at the age of eighty three.
The only other standing building in old Salem is a house across the street that once belonged to Dr. James Hester who lies here, born in 1840 and died in 1895. He graduated from Emory Medical school in 1867 and was listed as a practitioner of “Allopath”. Dr. Hester was fortunate to have avoided service in the Confederacy, having been born in 1840……..the prime age for soldiers in the early years of the civil war. We surmise he is descended from the Hesters who donated the original land for the church in 1820.
This is a lonely-looking but not forlorn place. It was once one of the cultural and spiritual centers of Salem, Georgia. Since agriculture was the prime industry, the mixed hardwood and pine forests that now envelop the site would have, at the end of the 19th Century when the building was raised, been replaced by vistas of furrowed fields, small wooden homesteads, frame structures housing stables, blacksmiths, dry goods shops, roads and all the other elements of a rural village. Though they are now gone, the Church stands guard over the cemetery and the memories that will not die… for so long as it and its history remains known and tangible for all who seek to know more of Salem in the years to come.
This is a 1951 photograph of Salem Methodist, Organized in 1820, 130 years after its founding date. Were it not for the stewardship and love for this historic church that has been provided during the ensueing 64 years, the church would be gone and forgotten…as many of its contemporaries are. But, it is not gone, it is still available to us. By saving the photos and history of this historic church and supporting those who know and love this institution… we at HRCGA fully expect that in 2120 A.D. the building will still stand, the history will be fully known and those wishing to visit and know more will have the opportunity to do so.
Your tax-deductible donation to Historic Rural Churches will help keep history alive through digital and physical preservation efforts for Georgia’s rural churches, their history and the communities that support them.
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They have services on Mother’s Day. It is their Homecoming, with dinner on the grounds.
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