Summertown is a small community of approximately 160 people, not much changed from a population of 168 in 1900. Originally named Summerville, it was settled by people who lived in nearby towns located near swamps. People came to Summertown to escape the deadly malaria associated with such low-lying areas. They sought out higher ground and built fine summer homes. Eventually Summertown had an academy, post office and a church. The Midville, Swainsboro and Red Bluff rail line that made a stop in Summertown made life there more convenient for travel and shopping. The railroad began operations around 1890. Many of the early settlers of the Summertown area came from Burke County, which was a prosperous county but plagued with malaria because of the swamps and marshes of the Ogeechee River. The town was quite active as early as 1856 when the General Assembly of Georgia approved the incorporation of the Summerville Male and Female Academies.
Summerville is mentioned several times in the diaries and records of Gen. William Sherman’s army, the southern (right) wing of which camped very near Summerville on November 29, 1864 while on their march to Savannah. Major General Osterhaus, commander of the 15th Corps of the right wing commented on the general area and noted that it “was a perfect wilderness where long leaf pines covered poor or sandy soil worthless for agricultural purposes”. He also noted that the land was interspersed with marshes and was sparsely settled. In his diary, Lt. Platter of the 81st Ohio wrote, “we passed through Summerville, a country town which presented a rather pleasing appearance.”
In a Thomas County deed dated March 5, 1881, Lewis B. Bouchelle sold to George Garbutt of Emanuel County for $120 “that parcel of tract of land lying and situated in Emanuel County, 57th District GM, joining land of said George Garbutt and others, 2 acres more or less whereon the Methodist Episcopal Church now stands.” In November of 1887, George Garbutt assigned the deed “for a valuable consideration” to the five trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Mr. Garbutt noted on the deed that the said premises shall be” used, kept, and maintained as a place of divine worship of the Methodist Episcopal Church” subject to the discipline and usage as declared by the general conference of the said church. The deed was recorded in Emanuel County on November 15, 1881. Lewis B. Bouchelle was a local physician, schoolteacher, and minister. He is listed as all three in various records. His child, James Duncan Bouchelle, is the first recorded burial in the Summertown Methodist Church – July 1879. George Garbutt was a leading citizen who was active in the lumber business. He founded the Garbuts Baptist Church (later known as Summertown Baptist Church) in 1798, not far from the Summertown Methodist. In the Summertown Methodist Cemetery, five of his grandchildren are buried, including the second recorded burial in 1882. There is a fenced enclosure around three of their graves. A sign on the fence says “Garbutt Family”.
In 1881 the Methodists established the Summertown Church. Early ministers were I. F. Carey and H. L. Pearson. By 1919 it was one of four churches on the Midville Circuit in the Dublin District, sometimes sharing a minister with Union Grove Methodist Church. By 1995, its congregation had become too small to support the church and it was discontinued by the Methodist Conference. Maintenance by the Conference ended in 2002. A few years later, the church was showing its age. It was no longer weather-tight and some of the woodwork needed replacing. The paint was peeling. Some of the windows were broken and covered in plastic to keep out the weather. Steve Head, originally from Millen GA, is now a commercial contractor in Alpharetta, GA. His company, as a service to communities around the state, has restored other old churches. On a visit to his mother in south Georgia, Head saw the church and decided to make it part of his company’s restoration project. Today, the church and its graveyard are owned by five trustees who bought it from the Methodist Conference in 2002. The cemetery is still active.
Summertown Methodist is located in what was the heart of the Georgia wire grass country. Here the environment was dominated by the great long leaf forests, the home of ancient pine trees. These trees provided the heart pine lumber sought after throughout the US as the very best, wooden building material available. The building framing, skeletal structure, roof decking and siding were all made of heart pine lumber and remain standing and sound until today. The interior of this restored meeting house reveals that the entire church, inside and out was built using heart pine as well. From the flooring to the wainscoting, the window frames, altar, pulpit walls and horizontal ceiling this versatile product is in evidence. Look at the width of the lumber used in the pews; single wooden boards as wide as these have not been available since the early 20th century. We are grateful that primitive sanctuaries such as this remain standing so we and future generations can view and appreciate how people lived and worshiped hundreds of years ago.
In this close up we can appreciate what a wonderful job Steve Head and others have done in restoring and preserving Summertown Methodist. You can see that water damage to the floors was arrested and repaired. Notice the beautifully restored wainscoting, a task not easily accomplished by most builders. Water damage still remains on the window frame but the leaking has been repaired curtailing further damage to the wood. Interior repairs are ongoing and total restoration will come in the future.
Singing and music is an integral element of the Methodist worship service. The old Hadden and Bates piano above was bought in Savannah in the late 19th century and remains ready today to join congregants in song. We also see examples of the ongoing restoration work being overseen by Mr. Head. What a pleasure to see this authentic old structure returned to use and restored for the enjoyment of others for years to come.
Here lies Sergeant Henry C. Kirkland, of the 54th Ga. Infantry. He enlisted as a private at age 22 in May of 1862 and made it all the way through the war. Going in as a private and coming out as a sergeant is a testimony to survival. We are sure the mortality rate within the 54th was very high. Henry's grave is the oldest Kirkland interment, there are a total of 22. The other two large families are the Davis clan , 14, and the Underwoods, 23.
Here lies Orpha Jane Davis, the oldest interment in the cemetery, she was buried in 1890. She must have been a fairly wealthy matriarch of a large family judging from the massive and expensive headstone. Monuments such as this one marking the graves of a married couple became popular in the late 19th century. Available through national retailers such as Sears and Montgomery Ward, they began to become common in that era. There are fourteen Davis interments in the cemetery. For a complete documentation of Summertown Methodist interments click here.
The board and batten exterior of Summertown Methodist indicates it is of late 19th century construction. Rural church buildings began to become more decorative in this late Victorian era with Carpenter Gothic becoming extremely popular. Board and batten was a more expensive external treatment than in earlier church designs. This congregation was feeling the pleasure of post-reconstruction, good economic times coming in with the railroads and timber industry and therefore willing to spend extra money to "dress up" their church. Summerville's meeting house did not incorporate some of the more fanciful styles and decorations of this era, but it does represent a movement in that direction. Georgia and the south were about to enter a new century. Who could have predicted its course and its impact on small rural communities such as Summertown.
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