If the sound woke residents from their sleep, it was a call for volunteer firemen to go immediately to wherever the fire truck was parked — or to the site of a fire, which might be visible throughout the town. In some villages, bells would ring to remind townspeople to halt activity for vespers, one of the specified worship hours in the late afternoon every day. For many years in Woodstock, our days would wind down to the accompaniment of chimes, ringing out old hymns from speakers atop the Woodstock Methodist Church. The familiar melodies could be heard throughout the town. There was little traffic. Air conditioning had not arrived on the scene, so windows in houses and cars were open. Sometimes the sound of the tinkling chimes would mingle with the laughter of children, or a train whistle in the distance. We took the chimes for granted for who could have imagined that modern amenities would take away this one small segment of our day, a few moments of rest from a busy day, a time to meditate before the evening meal, a brief, peaceful, calm respite filled with Thanksgiving. As with most unrecognized blessings taken for granted, this one has disappeared.
I thought about the chimes on Saturday, as those of us on the Steeples, Bells and Pews walking tour of the old churches dropped by the Methodist Church. The congregation there holds the distinction of being Woodstock’s oldest church to have worshipped continuously and, up to today, in its original building at its original site. We also visited the Cherokee Seventh Day Adventist Church, whose members meet on Saturdays, their Sabbath, and who occupy the structure originally built by Woodstock Presbyterians. The sanctuary has been well-preserved, and the few changes that have been made do not distract from the beauty that marked the original design, said to have been modeled for a New York City church, where founding member John Dorn attended before moving to Georgia.
Our walk also took us to Mt. Olive Baptist Church, the oldest congregation in the old town still at its initial location. Members say the church was organized in 1866, soon after the end of the Civil War, by African-Americans. Their Methodist counterparts had organized earlier a short distance from Main Street on Arnold Mill Road. That church, Allen Temple A.M.E., was not on the tour since the walk was limited to churches within easy walking distance.
Mt. Olive members greeted us warmly and shared some entertaining and informative anecdotes from their history. They had constructed a small brush arbor as an example of their beginnings.
We paid a short visit to the 1913 Woodstock Baptist sanctuary, now The Chambers at City Center, owned by the city of Woodstock and used primarily as the City Council meeting chambers. Like the other three churches on the tour, the outside appearance seems mostly unchanged.
During the recent renovation to the interior, a few changes were necessary. The absence of the old wooden pews spoke sad volumes, but the stained glass windows were restored, and the ambience created by the presence of at least part of the original floor and the restored wainscoting and lighting similar to the 1954 renovation lighting brought back many precious memories.
As rewarding as the tour was, it could not compare with the Steeples, Bells and Pews exhibit at the Woodstock Visitors Center at Dean’s Store. Preservation Woodstock, Inc. member Patti Brady assembled a display, including photos and memorabilia from the four in-town churches and Allen Temple as well. The exhibit captures the spirit of each congregation and tells the history of their birth and growth throughout the decades, spanning more than one-and-a-half centuries. It will be on display through Nov. 19, closing with a special storytelling session featuring Woodstock old-timers and their churchgoing memories.
Come in between now and then to browse. Pick up an old-fashioned church fan, compliments of Woodstock Funeral Home, and a lapel pin featuring The Chambers (while they last). Mark your calendar for Nov. 19 and kick off your Thanksgiving holiday with this very special event. Dean’s Store is at 8588 Main Street. Call Kyle at (770) 924.0406. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Juanita Hughes is Woodstock’s official historian and former director of the Woodstock Public Library.