Almost Gone But Not Forgotten
Here is another sad entry into the AGBNF category of historic churches that will soon be lost to the ages. The origin of Travelers Rest Methodist dates back to the 1830’s when this part of Georgia was just getting settled. The property was then deeded to a local CME African American church in 1884, but was then abandoned sometime in the mid 20th century. Please note that, in addition to the church itself, there are two graveyards (one white and one black) that have been totally taken over by the vegetation. The church will soon disappear, but the graveyards are permanent legacies of our early pioneers and they deserve a better fate. We have given the graveyard more space in the gallery photos than we usually do because it deserves it. The local community, in our opinion, should be better stewards of the great Travelers Rest history. Please click and scroll the photos to read the brief stories of some of these prominent builders of our state.
Note the more detailed history below by one of our historians, Clay Ramsey. There will be a forthcoming article on Travelers Rest in the coming months in Georgia Backroads magazine by Mr. Ramsey.
For years, Native Americans used a path that ran from what would become Columbus to coastal St. Marys. This path crossed the Flint River, known to these native peoples as the Thronateeska, at a site later called Barnard’s Crossing, named for Timothy Barnard, the first white resident of Macon County, descendant of English nobility and Chief Counselor and Interpreter to Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins. The Crossing was an important site for travelers moving along the width of the state and for those traders who used the river to access the Gulf.
After the expulsion of many of the Creeks and their confederates in 1821 from the area, a state land lottery attracted a group of settlers from Orangeburg District in South Carolina. Legend records that some of these families, traveling west through the territory, paused on the eastern bank of the Flint because the river was swollen and prevented passage. They felt so comfortable there that they called it Travelers Rest.
By 1830 there was a stagecoach stop there. A settler from Newberry, South Carolina, David Jones, started buying land in the area that same year. A post office was established three years later. A year after that, a general merchandise store, a confectionery business, and a “doctor shop” emerged as indications of developing commerce. In 1836, the year of the Second Creek War in Alabama and the western part of the state, Jones gave some land from his extensive holdings for the establishment of a Methodist church and cemetery in Travelers Rest. Poplar Springs Baptist Church, established in September 1832, moved to become Travelers Rest Baptist. They shared the same sanctuary and cemetery on Twin Churches Road, until the Baptists built a new church in 1867 next to the site of the Methodist church, the two only yards from each other.
In 1838, the little community was incorporated as the “Town of Bristol.” That same year, the first interment occurred in the Methodist cemetery, that of Mary Mendenhall Jones, wife of David Jones, the benefactor of the church. Two years later, the Rev. Elias Jordan, arguably the first pastor of the church, was laid to rest nearby. The village grew, business expanded, and an academy was established. Even the Masons and Odd Fellows found meeting space in Travelers Rest. In 1844, the Methodist congregation became affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, following a split in the denomination over the issue of slavery.
Travelers Rest thrived until 1851, when the Central Railroad, Southwestern Branch, chose Oglethorpe, a little township on the other side of the Flint, as a rail stop, rather than Travelers Rest. In a small village named after the Aztec emperor, the Montezuma Methodist Church was organized in February 1867 a few miles north of Travelers Rest. Most of the members were from Travelers Rest who had moved for the business brought by the railroads. Later that same year, the congregation merged with another to become the Oglethorpe Methodist Church. The area was changing and Travelers Rest, once such an important site on the Flint, was being nudged from relevance.
On May 4, 1884, the Travelers Rest Methodist Episcopal Church, South, deeded the church building and property to the Travelers Rest Colored (later Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church, an act that was officially recorded on October 29, 1889. One history claims a new church was built after this date with materials from an earlier structure. Given that the double tower architecture was popular in South Georgia from the 1890s through the 1930s among African-American congregations, we can assume this was the case. The last services were held in June of 1994. The Mt. Pleasant C.M.E. Church in Montezuma would emerge later as members of the Travelers Rest congregation drifted away to join the other community.
The shell of the church, as well as marked and unmarked graves, still stands on property overrun with a thick bramble of underbrush. The brick First Salem Baptist Church is an active congregation a hundred yards from the site, maintaining the legacy of the Travelers Rest Baptists. The well-tended Champ Waters cemetery abuts a smaller graveyard next to First Salem. Unless you look carefully, you could easily miss the building and cemetery of the historic property nearby.
There is much we don’t know about the Travelers Rest Methodist congregation: specifics of its membership and financial records, its social impact, details of its transition. But what we do know should encourage us all. In a period of profound cultural change, when racial tension was high, white Methodists gave their African-American fellow believers their beloved place of worship and land to bury their departed faithful. If this is all we know, and in many ways it is, for now, then we know enough to find a measure of light in those dark days and a glimmer of hope for our own.