December 2015

History for Sale:Church turned antique shop a local treasure

Author: Steve Nichols

The last time she saw him was at a funeral. He drove up in a long white car, and was dressed entirely in white, all six feet and four inches of him. He wore a white hat with a single eagle’s feather, which added to his height and his charismatic nature. He had celebrity status in the Ridgeland community, and the crowd’s energy changed palpably when he arrived. The towering man, with the personality to match, was the Reverend Alonzo Alston. It was indeed the last time Ruthie Edwards saw him, and it became a fitting remembrance to the bigger-than-life character she first met in 1973.

This story actually begins before Ruthie Edwards and her husband, Berry, ever met the pastor. In the early 1970s, the Edwards vacationed on Hilton Head, fell in love with the Lowcountry, packed up their two young children, and moved from North Carolina. As Ruthie tells it, “When we got here, we needed something to do, so we bought a landscaping company.”

Hillside Landscape Nursery had a staff of six employees, a few push mowers, a couple of old pickup trucks, and a metal Quonset hut with a single lightbulb and a phone line. They grew the business into The Greenery, Inc., one of the premier landscaping companies in the entire country—but that’s another tale. When the business started growing, Ruthie, in her wisdom, made another important declaration; “If we’re going to do this landscaping business, then we need a place to do it.”

Enter The Reverend Alonzo Alston
In early 1973, Ruthie and her family were driving through coastal South Carolina, on their way to their new home on the island. Construction on Interstate 95 had only begun in 1967, so the favored route from the North to Hilton Head took them through small towns like Walterboro, Yemassee, and Ridgeland, the home of Bethlehem Baptist Church. There, Alston tended his loyal faithful flock.

Alston and his congregation were enjoying their new digs, a recently completed “modern” brick church that stood a stone’s throw from their old, wooden sanctuary. The old church structure had obviously seen better days. Still, the carved woodwork on the belfry and its hand-hewn charm caught Ruthie’s eye like the smile on your grandma’s face, shining through the wrinkles, hinting at the beauty and wisdom inside. One more thing caught her eye: the sign in a window that simply said, “For Sale.”

Church for sale
Reverend Alston gave the Edwards a tour of the church that had been home for his congregation and many generations. Built sometime around 1873, it consisted of robust heart pine lumber, enabling it to withstand 100 years of what nature threw at it (which surely included a hurricane or two.) It was heated in the winter by two wood stoves, and the only cooling it saw in the summer would have been the worshippers fanning themselves or an occasional coastal breeze. There were still old benches and pews scattered throughout, and a U-shaped balcony that wrapped around the back of the church and up the sides toward the pulpit area, creating a second story where the choir would sing, or the women of the church might sit. You see, even though the congregation was African-American, the church had been modeled after white churches, which typically included a balcony where the slaves were required to sit (if they were allowed to worship.) The balcony was most likely reserved for the choir and the women of the church, while the menfolk sat on the first level.

Even with its magnanimous history, it wasn’t cost effective to restore the old sanctuary, and the best hopes that Reverend Alston and his church leaders had was that someone might want to salvage the lumber. The selling price was just $600.

Don’t rock the boat
Now the Edwards had a suitable building from which to run their business… a business located some 30 miles away. With the money they had saved by purchasing the church, a price astonishingly low, even for the ’70s, they decided to move the building to Hilton Head Island. The steeple, belfry, and the entire roof had to be removed for the church and the flatbed truck on which it rode to pass safely below power lines and tree branches. Even with the reduction in height, one of the men from the moving company rode inside the church as it creeped down two-lane roads, using a hooked pole to raise slackened power lines and phone cables so they would clear the building as it passed. That, however, was the easiest part of the trip. In 1973, access to the island was by drawbridge or boat. Since the building would not fit through the drawbridge, it was trucked to Buckingham Landing and loaded onto a barge. The most perilous part of the church’s week long trip, a boat ride on Skull Creek, went flawlessly, and it was loaded back on a truck at Hudson’s Landing for the rest of the journey. However, the move ended with a degree of disappointment.

It was a tough enough job moving her family hundreds of miles, but moving the old church at roughly the exact same time kept Ruthie on the go. She was out of town, wrapping up loose ends for her family’s move, when the church was being transported. Despite her instructions to place the steeple and belfry inside the church during its trip, it was left behind. She returned to the empty lot in Ridgeland where the century-old church had once stood, only to discover that the steeple—the very feature of the building that had charmed Ruthie from first sight—wasn’t there. After some hurried investigation, a church sexton told her that it had been left behind in the field and it was assumed that the Edwards’s didn’t want the old belfry. It had been chopped up for firewood!

Crestfallen, Ruthie moved on with relocation of her family and the church, and she and her husband grew a successful business using the old church as their headquarters.

142 years later
By 2005, their landscaping company had outgrown the old church building, so they made a few modernizations to the structure and opened the Antiques & Garden Collectibles Shop at The Greenery. The shop is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in the church building, which is believed to be 142 years old. Although he has since passed away, The Reverend Alston and some of his followers visited the church from time to time, approving of the tender loving care it had received. Ruthie and other staffers listened intently as the visiting church women spoke about singing old Negro spirituals from the U-shaped choir loft and warming themselves by one of the wood stoves.

Over the years, Ruthie has attempted to recover historic details about the church. Since the vast majority of first-hand witnesses have passed on, the details of its history can only be surmised. There are no official records, or at least none that can be easily located. When built, Ridgeland was a part of Beaufort County, which later became Jasper County, and the land records from before the split are rare, at best.

At the heart of American history
If the church was indeed built in 1873, then it was constructed only eight years after slavery was abolished—less than a decade. Churches became the first source of land ownership for slaves in America. It’s well documented that many of this area’s slaves remained on or near their plantations after being freed, which implies the church was probably constructed by newly freed slaves. From there, it’s easy to surmise that the wood was likely salvaged from some of the nearby plantation buildings, many of which had been abandoned, dismantled, even burned after the Civil War.

The first known African-American church in the United States was a Baptist church founded at Silver Bluff, South Carolina, in 1775, just outside of Augusta, Georgia. At nearly the same time, Baptist congregations were formed in Savannah at the First African Baptist Church, which still stands today. Given that The Savannah River Basin, an arc stretching from Augusta to the Lowcountry, was the cradle of the African-American church in the United States, you can easily deduce that the unassuming little wooden church was among the first African-American churches in the South, and even the nation.

While Ruthie Edwards would be thrilled to find documentation of the old church’s historic significance, she’s quite content with the tidbits of history passed on by Alston, the charismatic preacher who was once its keeper.
Tranquility sweeps over you

In a community where so much of the vista is only decades old, this old wooden building is a hidden and unrecognized historical treasure. The historical significance is not lost for Ruthie or any of the people who work at The Greenery. Although the likelihood of it ever being on the Register of National Historic Places basically ended the day the Reverend Alston hung a for sale sign in its window and earmarked it for scrap, the grace and beauty of the old church live on, thanks to its new purpose. As a newspaper article from 1973 described the move, the little church seems “content in its new location” even if its rafters will no longer ring to the tune of “The Old Rugged Cross.”

Now celebrating its tenth anniversary, thousands of tourists and locals visit the shop and are inexplicably beguiled by the old building’s charm. Without the belfry and steeple, most people are unaware that it was an old church, much less a historic one. Even so, it’s common for visitors to remark about the serenity and tranquility that sweeps over them once they’re inside. Skeptics might attribute that sense of calm to the air conditioned respite it provides from the Lowcountry heat and humidity. Perhaps it’s really the gentle, welcoming embrace of the souls whose lives played out in the unassuming little wooden church, from christening to baptism, to marriage, to funeral.

Is it possible that feeling of tranquility comes from intense joy embedded deep in the hand-hewn rafters as they reverberated with the fervent songs of recently freed slaves? Is it because the little church knows it will be loved for many years to come, giving it a chance to share the humble story of its origins with future generations?
Step inside, step back in time, and decide for yourself. 

The Antiques and Garden Collectibles Shop at The Greenery is located at 960 William Hilton Pkwy, Hilton Head Island. Hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Read the full history of the Greenery, Inc. at thegreeneryinc.com/our-history.

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