Working with Historic Rural Churches of Georgia

On September 17th, 2019, I had the opportunity to tag along with two of the founders of Historic Rural Churches of Georgia as they headed to visit a church down in Pike County. The day would turn into an adventure unlike any I’ve had before.

In 2012, after an unexpected discovery in a small cemetery during a back road trip through rural Georgia, Sonny Seals and George Hart founded the HRCGA with the mission “to research, document and ultimately preserve historic rural churches across the state.” You can read the fascinating origins of the project on their website. Their efforts have produced an elegant digital record of 262 churches on their website and a 432-page book with amazing photographs and histories of 47 churches.

A white church seen distant across a field, backed by a forest
Photograph by Gail Des Jardin

On the Tuesday that I rode along with them, Sonny and George were headed down to Pike County for a couple different reasons. Our first goal was to stop at a rural cemetery that Sonny had passed a while back. He wasn’t sure exactly where it was, but thought we might be able to stumble across it again. Sonny’s view is that these often-forgotten cemeteries provide a unique connection to the histories of Georgia’s many counties. Unfortunately, our route didn’t take us past anything that Sonny recognized, so we continued on to our primary goal.

The main purpose of the trip was to visit New Hebron Baptist Church to deliver a couple dozen printed photographs of historical rural churches. We would meet with Vicar Dwain Penn to plan how the prints would be hung on the walls of the church, which was built in 1908. The exhibit would be one of the stops on the Slow Exposures photography festival over the weekend of September 20-22. Photographers from around the country descend on Pike County to explore and photograph rural scenes, buildings, and people.

New Hebron was on the list of churches to be photographed for the HRCGA, but the professional scheduled to do the pro-bono shoot had not been out to the church yet. Our library had recently purchased a Matterport virtual tour camera, so I brought it along on the trip to test out whether 360 virtual tours of these churches could be useful for the project.

New Hebron Baptist Church, Pike County, Georgia

We turned off the pavement onto New Hebron Church Road, a one-lane gravel track leading off between the trees and fields. A mile down the road, we found the church sitting under the towering water oaks, an empty field on one side and a forest on the other. As the dust settled, we climbed out of the van and took in the church.

As we walked up to the porch, cicadas buzzed in the long grass. Vicar Penn stepped out into the 90 degree heat to welcome us. After introductions, conversation turned to the history of the church. Sonny and George have collected more histories of rural churches in Georgia than anyone else.

Penn talked about his church as we explored the two main rooms. Although it was built as a one-room church, New Hebron was later renovated to create three rooms at the back. Today, there is a washroom, office, and room between them that serves as an ad-hoc museum. Penn has hung newspaper clippings, photographs, and artifacts from the church’s past. He has worked to assemble a history of the church and was able to have it placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.

White painted wall covered with newspaper clippings, photographs, and other documents
The “museum” room at the rear of the church
wooden pulpit in an old church, tools and a book on the table in the foreground
The pulpit made from the boards of a crate that once held snuff

Eventually, our discussion turned to the purpose of our visit. We began to bring in the prints from the van, setting them between the pews to start planning where they will hang. Although George brought all the hardware and tools to hang the prints, Penn insisted that he’d have them all up in time for the exhibit on Saturday.

Since we were not going to hang the prints, we sat down and talked more about the church. We asked about the missing wood stove that once heated the whole church, the oil lamps that were converted to electric, and the elaborately-carved pulpit. Penn told us that the pulpit was made by a member of the church and on closer inspection, we found that it was made of recycled crates that once held snuff. Inside the pulpit, the stamp of the company was still visible on the boards.

While the others talked, I set up the Matterport and captured some 360 images of the interior and exterior of the church. As a first test case, I think they turned out pretty well.

old upright piano in the corner of an old church
The upright piano at New Hebron is at least 60 years old and sounds that way

Later, Sonny asked about the piano in the corner with a mirror above the music rest. The keys are snaggled-toothed and worn. Penn said that the piano was brought on a log truck back in the 1950s and was rarely tuned. He sat down to show us.

Playing from memory, Penn began to plunk out a melody. The notes were warbled and off-key, but the song became recognizable. Sonny and George began to sing along. It was a surreal moment, sitting in a small country church, listening to an off-key rendering of an old hymn while the cicadas outside provided backing vocals.

Since that visit to New Hebron, Sonny and I have taken multiple trips on the back roads of Georgia to visit rural churches and produce virtual tours using the Matterport. To date, we’ve created 28 tours, all of which are now embedded on the HRCGA website page for each location. Visitors to the website can explore such places as Locust Grove, the oldest Catholic church in Georgia, from the comfort of their own homes through a browser window.

The HRCGA mission to document the historic rural churches of Georgia and their communities, whether past or present, continues each day through the tireless efforts of Sonny Seals, Kelly Gomez, and an ever-growing team of volunteers. I’m happy to say that I’ve had a small part to play in the swirling galaxy of projects that all stemmed from a single moment in a forgotten cemetery.