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Little church by the river marks its 150th year

POSTED: May 23, 2010 1:00 a.m.

It's a Methodist church, but instead of sprinkling water on the heads of new members, they more likely will be baptized in the Chattahoochee River that flows just a stone's throw away.

And why not? Chattahoochee United Methodist Church, named after the renowned stream, is famous itself, playing a starring role in the 1950s movie "I'd Climb the Highest Mountain."

The little white church on Ga. Alt. 75 in Robertstown just north of Helen is celebrating its 150th year today with speakers from the past and recognition of early families and longtime members. The Rev. Jack Summers, pastor since 1995, will preach at 11 a.m. and receive a history compiled by Ron Hill, followed by homecoming and dinner-on-the-ground.

In March 1822, four Methodist ministers with 61 different families arrived in Nacoochee Valley and established four churches, the last one Chattahoochee. On May 18, 1860, John Trammell deeded 3 acres on a rise above the west bank of the Chattahoochee for use by the Methodist Episcopal Church South.

But a Methodist church and graveyard have stood on the site since 1850 and possibly earlier, according to Hill's history. The first log building used as a church and school was nearer the river than the present church.
Early families were the Westmorelands, Abernathys, Ashes, Simses and Vandivers. The present church was built in 1888-90 with a board shingle roof. Sunday school rooms were added in the late 1950s, and members renovated the sanctuary in 1984.

Lulu "Aunt Lou" Vandiver was the oldest church member for many years until her death at age 105. Juanita Abernathy is in her 70th year as the longest living member today. Her great-great-grandfather, the Rev. Miles Abernathy, was a founding member. Her grandfather, James E. Abernathy, and father Jess were members buried in the cemetery. She remembers her father talking about walking on the sills of the church when it was being built.

Juanita taught Sunday school for many years starting in 1941. Four generations of the Abernathy family are members of the congregation.

The church's cemetery for some time served as the community burial ground. The earliest marked grave has a flat rock headstone hand chiseled with the inscription, "T.J. Owens, dide (sic) July 21, 1862."

Harold McCay, 72, a longtime member and retired Department of Transportation employee, helped build Ga. Alt. 75 that runs in front of the church. Before that road, which connects Ga. 75 with U.S. 129 north of Cleveland, there was only a single-lane dirt road. Instead of the two-lane concrete bridge that crosses the river now, there was only a one-lane steel bridge with a wooden floor.

McCay was 13 years old when the movie was filmed. He remembers hearing that director Henry King had the church underpinned with rock out of safety concerns for cast, crew and church members who participated. Sunday church services went on as usual during the filming, which took place during the week.

Curt Taylor, a Towns County native who traveled the country teaching shaped note singing, was teaching a singing school at Chattahoochee Methodist when he was given a role in the movie. Louisa Turner, who lived near enough to the church to walk to services until she was in her late 80s, was among those in a sack race scene. Lillian McCay Mauldin also was in the movie. Members and other spectators would crowd around the church grounds in hopes of seeing such stars as Susan Hayward, William Lundigan, who played a circuit-riding preacher, or Rory Calhoun.

Not everybody was happy about the church being in a movie. Pastor at the time, the Rev. Harold Lewis, reported to the quarterly conference he thought it was a mistake because it fostered a "spirit of irreverence," offensive to some members because of drinking and obscenities among the movie crew.

Chattahoochee Methodist was an appropriate site for the movie, however, because at the time its minister was still somewhat of a circuit rider. In fact, Chattahoochee didn't have a full-time pastor until 1995 when Jack Summers of Cornelia came. Prior to that, a minister would preach at Mount Pleasant at 9:30 a.m. Sundays, Loudsville Methodist at 10:30 and Chattahoochee at 11:30.

And before that Chattahoochee had a Sunday morning service only on the second Sunday of the month.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.



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