John Kirkland and Richard Hillman will sometimes get in the car on a Saturday and head to an unknown destination. The two history buffs are on a mission to locate old, rural churches in Georgia and preserve their memories.
“He and I started doing this because we loved it. We have the same tastes and love old buildings, especially old churches,” said Kirkland, who along with Hillman, volunteer to take photographs and write church histories for a website called Historic Rural Churches of Georgia, hrcga.org.
Both are members of Warren Baptist Church and knew each other before they found the website. Kirkland had emailed its founder, Sonny Seals, and the two were enlisted into the volunteer ranks about four years ago.
Now they look on main highways and scour dirt roads to find nuggets of Georgia’s history that are sometimes decaying and on their way to being lost forever.
Most of the churches are at least a century old. Many of them are from the late 1800s or earlier. Few exist from the 1700s.
“Two things were plentiful in the 1800s. Georgia heart pine and tin roofs,” said Hillman. “Most of the churches are built like this.”
And as long as the tin roof holds out, the structure tends to stand, said Hillman. Once it goes, however, the walls and rest of the building are quick to follow.
Some of these rural churches only have a handful of members, if the church is still used for that purpose. Buildings are often abandoned and, in some cases, Mother Nature has reclaimed them.
Hillman recalled going to a small church with only six members. The church had been founded in 1847 and one of the members had a ledger with all of the original information of the church’s founding.
Another church was located at the end of a dirt road. It had started as a two-room schoolhouse, but it was turned into a church. Although it was abandoned, it still had the pews and pulpit.
They’ve also found small family chapels.
One of the churches they researched for the website was in Jenkins County. The African-American congregation was meeting in an updated building, but they were trying to raise money to save the older structure.
Sadly, the older church building was destroyed in a fire before the renovation was complete, but the record still exists.
On one trip, Hillman and Kirkland were searching for a church that supposedly had a cemetery with a Civil War veteran in it. They couldn’t find any marker or record the church even existed. Hillman surmised it was in the middle of the country surrounded only by pine trees.
On their journey, the two have met a variety of people who know the history of their church. Once people find out what the two are doing, they often open up the church and let the two of them in. They provide any information they have.
Hillman and Kirkland feel it’s important to record this information because many of these congregations have only handfuls of members and most of them are up in age, and it wouldn’t take much for the history to be wiped out forever, Hillman said.
It’s not just people like Hillman and Kirkland who find the work of value.
Kirkland was out taking photos once and a car drove up to the church. The couple inside the car had searched the website and were taking their own tour of the churches chronicled there.
Some of the churches from the site were compiled into a book, Historic Rural Churches of Georgia, published by the University of Georgia Press last fall.
The two said they’d like input to find other churches. Churches need to meet a few criteria before they can be included. The current building must be at least 100 years old, have some historic significance and be located in a small town of less than 2,000 residents. Having a church cemetery is a plus.
This particular project is specific to Georgia, said Hillman, but he knows there are plenty of churches in South Carolina that also fit this.
If anyone knows of a church that meets those criteria, send a picture to firstname.lastname@example.org.