WELLSBURG - The Stone Chapel Church has stood between the unincorporated communities of McKinleyville and Franklin near the bank of Pierce's Run for more than 200 years.
The bell that once called children to school and the community to worship is still in working order, and services are still held at 2 p.m. Sundays - a tradition begun so farmers could finish their morning chores before church. However, the humble church, which lays claim to the title of the oldest stone church west of the Allegheny mountains, may soon be history.
One of its 200-year-old walls, on the building's north west side, has been water damaged beyond the tiny congregation's ability to repair and also threatens the electrical connection. The congregation, which now numbers less than 30, hopes to repair the damage and install a modern electrical connection. The repairs are beyond the scope of what the congregation's volunteer handymen have become accustomed to - painting, sealing cracks, installing installation, changing pumps and replacing valves.
Terry Stewart, left, and Donny Eaton stand outside Stone Chapel Church, where Eaton has attended church since his childhood. The Eaton family has been the voluntary caretakers of the church for generations.
-- Summer Wallace-Minger
"There are no blueprints or anything," said Terry Stewart, congregation member. "Who knows what you'll get into once you get into that wall. We'd like to have someone who specializes in restoring historical buildings to take a look at it."
Hunter, Cotey and Garey Wallace and Chad Biggs, the sons of Garey Wallace of Wellsburg, recently assisted in renovations to the church, repairing and painting the tin roof. The family is part of the congregation.
"We added the cross and crown, representing Christ as king, to honor our forefathers, the Revolutionary War veterans who built this stone temple by hand as a monument to this country's heritage and their belief in the hand of God," said Hunter Wallace. "To be a small part of preserving that history, a torch-bearer, a keeper of God's house, is a blessing in itself."
In an effort to preserve the church and its history, several congregation members have organized the Historical Stone Chapel Preservation Society, soliciting information, stories, documents, records or photographs in relation to the church's more than 200 years of local history. The society's stated purpose is to maintain and preserve the historical building and the memory of the men who built it, gather and preserve the historical record and ensure that the building and records are passed on to future generations.
The society meets at 1 p.m. the first Sunday of each month at the church, and, in addition to collecting information on the church's history, the group also hopes to somehow preserve the building. The group next meets today.
"We're trying to restore and preserve it for future generations," said Stewart. "It's a landmark of its own."
The group has sought the assistance of Brooke County Commissioner Tim Ennis and state Sen. Jack Yost, D-Wellsburg, in seeking the church's history and preserving the building.
"They were very interested and willing to help," said Stewart.
Stewart said the group would like to work with local colleges in exploring the Stone Chapel's significance to the early settlements in the area. West Liberty University professors have expressed an interest, and Madeline Jackson, a former pastor's daughter, has some documents she is willing to share with the group. At some later point, the preservation society may explore having the building placed on a list of historical structures, but stabilizing the building is the group's priority.
Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists have shared the building, and several Washington Pike churches have their roots in the little stone church, moving on to their own buildings as their congregation numbers surpassed its capacity.
Stone Chapel Church remains a nondemoninational church. The church once boasted more than 200 congregants, and, to accommodate those numbers, the building's square footage was more than doubled in 1964, using stones from the Wabash Bridge.
The church has never kept membership rolls, but Donny Eaton has been a member of the the church since childhood. He remembered several pastors, including Dewey Kemp and Marvin Platter Sr., both of whom served for more than 40 years, and Doradeen Perdue, who served for nearly a decade. Russell Buchanan is now the pastor.
Eaton, whose family has been the voluntary caretakers of the church for generations, inherited his caretaker duties from his uncle and aunt, Luther and Dora Wells.
"My aunt Dora went to school here," he said, adding she lived near Pierce's Run her entire life.
Eaton remembered one of his first jobs at the church as an 8-year-old was to arrive early on cold days and build a fire in the wood-burning stove that provided all the heat in the building as late as the mid-1950s.
Following Platter's retirement, Eaton and his wife Jan went to the Stone Chapel every Sunday and read the Bible to ensure the deed - which specified the building must be in use as a meeting house, house of worship or school - would not revert back to the original granters' heirs, meaning the church would be lost to the community.
The Stone Chapel was built around 1794 by Revolutionary War veterans who came west from Maryland. It was built to serve as a church, meeting house and school and replaced a log cabin erected at the site in 1791, which subsequently burned down.
The building was built by several prominent Brooke County families of the late 1700s and early 1800s, including the William Smith family, Edward Bozman family and Thomas Newton family, all of whom deeded the land on which the building stands in 1835 to be held in trust as long as it is in use by the public. William Smith originally came to the area, then called "West Augusta," as part of surveying party in the late 1780s or early 1790s led by Christopher Gist with the intention of founding a "14th colony."
Gist was recruited for his familiarity with the French language, because the earliest European settlers in the area were French or French-Canadian, according to Stewart.
William Smith later married and relocated to the area from Baltimore, accompanied by the forementioned and also the Green, McCreary and Hunter families. William Smith settled on what is now Genteel Ridge, and around the same time, the families of Thomas Cook, Nathaniel Fleming, James Barrah, William McClane, Benjamin Reed and the Rev. Dr. Joseph Doddridge and his brother Phillip Doddridge also settled in the Franklin area, according to an area history by Cornelius G. Reeves.
The Doddridge brothers were the sons of John Doddridge, who built Doddridge's Fort near Cross Creek in Independence, Pa., and of Mary Wells. Joseph Doddridge wrote a history of the area, "Notes on the Settlement and Indian Wars," and helped found Wellsburg's Christ Episcopal Church in 1792, according to the Brooke County Genealogy Society.
William Smith also helped build Wellsburg's Methodist Episcopal Church, and his son, Dr. Edward "Eddie" Smith, donated the land for the Franklin Methodist Church and Franklin Cemetery, where both men are buried.
Patrick Gass, a member of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition, lived on Pierces Run and may have occasionally attended services there when the weather was too inclement to reach Wellsburg and his children may have attended school there. Gass published the first account of the expedition in 1807, "Gass's Journal of the Lewis and Clark Expedition." Congregation members are in contact with Gass' great-great-grandson, Eugene Gass, to better determine how Patrick Gass may have been involved with the building.
Other area families who possibly would have utilized the chapel as a meeting house, school and church included Hervey, Gist, Applegate, Ralston, Jamison, Rare, Amspoker, McAdoo, Wells, Marsh, Zogg, Churchman, Magee, Fowler, Glover, Hudson, McGuyre, Jones, Carman, Douglass, Herdner, Merryman, Scott, Carter, Cree, Miller, Buckley, Reeves, Green, Gregsby, Fisher, McConnell, George, Henderson, Hanna, Creacraft, McGee, Lee, Beall, Hinkson and Clayton, according to Reeves' history.
Pierce's Run was once a busy road, when Washington Pike was known as Baltimore Pike in the late 1700s and early 1800s, before the construction of the National Road, when those traveling to the Ohio Country in the West or to the then-bustling port town of Wellsburg would take Pierce's Run as an alternative to Painter's Hill, which was too steep for loaded wagons.
Anyone with information on the church they would like to share is asked to either attend a preservation society meeting, held at 1 p.m. the first Sunday of each month at the church, or to call Stewart at (304) 639-8021. The preservation society will meet today.
(Wallace-Minger can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)