The history below is contributed by Clay Ramsey, who frequently researches and writes interesting articles about various historic rural church stories across Georgia. This synopsis is from an article that will be published in the Winter 2020 issue of Georgia Backroads magazine. Be sure and read the full write up below to get a sense of the blood feud between the Stanleys and the Tilleys…… a tale of murder and witchcraft in the North Georgia mountains.
“According to courthouse records, on December 19, 1857, Martin Free offered a deed of gift on a three-acre lot in a gully near the Toccoa River to a group of believers who formed the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, the predecessor of Tilley Bend Baptist Church. By the next year, they had built a log church on the property from timber felled on the Isaac Davis farm across the road, and established a congregation, according to Missionary Baptist principles, just south of Morganton, then the Fannin county seat. A school was started in the church building by 1879. The school moved with the church once, then in 1903 built their own schoolhouse near the church. The teachers were dedicated and area lore preserves the memory of two who confronted moonshiners working a still nearby. The threat they posed to the virtue of the students was eliminated when the intrepid teachers chased them off. By 1926 the school was shuttered and its students were transferred to local alternatives.
On January 14, 1899, Benjamin M. Tilley provided a deed of gift to the Mount Pleasant Church. The members reorganized the congregation on January 17, 1921, according to church minutes. Between 1925 and 1931 the Toccoa Electric Power Company, a subsidiary of the Tennessee Electric Power Company, constructed a dam in the area and created Toccoa (later Blue Ridge) Lake. The meeting place for the original Tilley Church was submerged when the reservoir was created, forcing the congregation to move to Old Dial Road on higher ground. There they remain, though their building has gone through several iterations.
In 1950 there was a fire, and another in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Arson was proved, the latter one of three church fires in one 72-hour period. The pulpit Bible still has burn marks. But it, and the small band of believers, survived, and they rebuilt both times. The last time they used the occasion to add indoor plumbing. In the meantime, on September 28, 1958, they were reorganized as Tilley Bend Baptist Church, with the ordination of Paul Montgomery as pastor. In all likelihood, they had been known as the Tilley Bend Church for years, situated in a curve of the river on land deeded by a Tilley. In 1980 they came under the watch-care of the Morganton Association, and in two years they were accepted into full fellowship. They were affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention until 2006, when they became an independent Baptist congregation with no formal denominational affiliation. They continue to worship, meeting every Sunday and Wednesday, as a band of faithful few, a congregation of eight.
Some of the most interesting legends about the region emerged from a perennial family feud and its consequences. On the other side of the ridge from Tilley Bend, the Stanley family, originally from western North Carolina, formed a Settlement. Over the years, friction developed and then violently erupted at the turn of the twentieth century when a group of Stanleys shot into the Tilley Church during services, killing the minister and several of the congregants, among them a daughter belonging to Elizabeth Jane Tilley Bradley. In retaliation, a band of Tilleys invaded the Stanley Settlement, murdering several of their number, including the husband of another of Elizabeth Bradley’s daughters. Elizabeth, of Creek ancestry, reportedly put a curse on both families.
For a full year, no babies survived in either settlement. Every child was miscarried, stillborn or died in early infancy. Only a witch could have that power, they believed. So a mob strung her up in a tree at the center of the Tilley cemetery. Before she died, she promised to return. They buried her at the foot of the tree where she fell. She was supposedly buried facing west, not accorded an eastern orientation by Christian tradition. Another year passed with the same degree of infant mortality, so the same mob killed her sister-in-law Mary, believing Elizabeth’s dark soul had found a haven in Mary’s body and continued her vindictive project from beyond the grave. Mary was considered an innocent vessel and was given the honor of a sacred burial. Eventually the two communities healed, but not before the murder of two sisters and the digging of many small graves that are marked, if at all, only by rough stones. Because of these unholy deaths, many believe the site to be haunted. Some travel to see the tainted ground and hear the echoes of an horrific past. And in this way the church and cemetery coexist, each attracting different visitors for very different reasons.”
Be sure to click and scroll the photos below for more information on Tilley Bend Baptist. Also click HERE to read about the home church of the Stanley family located only a couple of miles away.
As you read in the preceding history, the congregation had to move to higher ground when the lake filled and inundated many structures and roads, including Tilly Bend Church. What we see here is this simple, single gable wood frame church built in the mid-1930’s after the lake filled. Though it is the original structure after Lake Blue Ridge filled, much restoration has been needed during the eighty years since its completion. After several fires in the 1950’s and 1990’s, the congregation doggedly rebuilt. The fact that, twice a week, worship services continue at Tilly Bend in 2020 is a tribute to past congregations… specially the small one that remains active today.
This is a photograph of the back of this charming sanctuary. We see that knotty pine boards were the choice of the congregation for all areas within the church. From ceiling to walls to wainscot, to chancel to window and door frames and flooring(we think), this indigenous wood was readily available and relatively inexpensive in this area Georgia at that time.
This view of the chancel and pulpit area reveals the simplicity and authenticity within the Tilly Bend sanctuary. The old style lectern faces a simple hand crafted pulpit. The beautiful wood ceilings, walls and wainscot wrap the room within a warm glow.
The sanctuary at Tilly Bend is inviting, cozy and welcoming. It exudes a quiet spiritual atmosphere. It is hard to believe that this immaculate space has withstood two fires and eighty years of wear and tear.
As we leave the sanctuary, it is interesting to note that the original manufactured pews remain in place. We can assume that the earlier Tilly Bend sanctuaries, now inundated by the lake, had provided only hard board benches. These pews were expensive when bought in the 1930’s. They could reflect the congregation’s pride and a desire to provide comfortable seating for all within their new church when they moved in.
A flat rock lies next to this cross with the name Keith Stanley hand carved on the rock. Keith Stanley is the only Stanley with a marker in this cemetery.
Falls Long was born July 8, 1818 and died July 13, 1888. She married George Ithel Long (1810-1864) and they had seven children. Her husband was a farmer. She is buried next to her father, Gilbert Falls (1794-1880).
Elizabeth Jane Tilley Bradley was born February 28, 1846 in Buncombe County, North Carolina and died October 26, 1906. She married Jason Riley Bradley (1849-1933) and they had eight children. In the early 1900s there was a feud between the Tilleys and their neighbors the Stanleys. According to legend this feud eventually led to the unfortunate circumstance of Elizabeth being hanged as a witch.
Gilbert Falls was born June 9, 1794 and died July 14, 1880. A letter dated January 18, 1863 from Gilbert E. Falls to Gov. Joseph E. Brown sought to determine if teachers in their area could be exempt from the conscription act for service in the Confederacy. He explained that he knew exemption required that teachers were teaching and had been teaching the previous ten months but in the mountain counties they were so poor they could only pay teachers to teach 2 or 3 months. He pled with the governor to leave teachers there to teach explaining that the children were needy and most had fathers in service. He also explained even if they could afford to pay teachers to teach longer the children were needed to work in the fields to help support the family. He explained if they could retain teachers that “would be sufficient to promote each child far enough in education to enable them to read the words of divine Truth.” Gilbert Falls served in the War of 1812.
Enoch Underwood was born in North Carolina in 1798 and died July 20, 1879. He was married to Mary Ann “Polly” Long Underwood (1799-1898). His occupation in census records is given as Wheelwright. He served in the War oif 1812. His son Peter Harry Underwood (1822-1895) served in the Civil War.
Many of these old mountain graveyards contain unmarked graves and those that are marked with fieldstones and other markers with no identification. Infant mortality was high and so was poverty. However, the old mountain graveyards are a poignant reminder of where we came from and how we got here.
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A beautiful church & setting, and an interesting history. Thanks for keeping us informed about our history.
I know this day & time it is unheard of for a sweet little church like this to be unlocked & open for visitors; but I just have to ask. Is it possible to go inside this little sanctuary? Tilley Bend Baptist , fannin co
Thank you. Margaret sisson [email protected]
We don’t know whether it is unlocked or not but we doubt it. You would have to contact the pastor directly.