Resting in its serene location just off of Belfast Keller Road, the Bryan Neck Presbyterian Church holds the distinction of being the oldest public building in Bryan County, dating back to 1885. Within is also the oldest existing religious congregation in Bryan County, with documented history dating back to 1830. With picturesque views of the marsh and 100-yearold oaks nestled around the tiny white building, the sight is nothing less than breathtaking on a sunny, warm afternoon in October.
Walking up to the front steps of the church, I found myself wondering what grand history might lie behind the massive wooden doors. Almost a century and a half of history overwhelmed me as I stepped inside the building. Pine covers almost every inch of the interior, all original and all spectacular. Looking up, huge wooden beams frame the sanctuary, secured by dowels – appropriately, the beams are in the shape of a cross. Small burn indentations mark wooden planks on the ceiling where oil lamps once hung below, used
long before electricity was a plausible option. A 100-year-old organ and a clock dating back to the 1890s rest at the front of the room while three large, tethered silk scrolls hang on the walls of the church, citing the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Ten Commandments. The craftsmanship and careful preservation of this church make it every bit as beautiful today as it was in1885.
Behind the current upkeep of the Bryan Neck Presbyterian Church are two sisters (and their husbands) who have called Richmond Hill home for their entire lives. Rosie Martin Donnelly and Betsy Martin Wilson, children of Aimar and Rose Martin and the younger siblings of Mary Lou Martin (pictured in a wheelchair in many books about the history of Richmond Hill), commuted to the church from Richmond Hill for years as children before their parents decided to finally build a home just behind it in 1950. Aimar worked for Henry Ford as the bookkeeper for the Richmond Hill Plantation. He also served as a deacon, an elder, and a clerk of session for Bryan Neck Presbyterian Church. His wife Rose also served as an elder and a clerk of session, as well as the pianist. Over the course of four decades, they helped to keep the doors open with the aid of a few other local families including the Mahaffey, the Jones, the Harden, the Eidson,
the Moore, and the Smith families. “It’s so important to mention
the names of these other families,” Betsy explains. “We wouldn’t be standing here today
Henry Ford played a special role in the life of the Martin family, as well as the history of Bryan Neck Presbyterian Church. The eldest
of the four Martin siblings, Mary Lou, who passed away in 2007, was stricken with polio at a very young age. “Dad would always carry her
around due to the fact that she couldn’t walk,” recalls Betsy, “and I think Mr. Ford took interest in her because of that.” Ford sent Mary Lou to his hospital in Michigan for almost a year of free treatment. Upon her return, Mr. Ford built the Martin family a home near the school with a ramp and wheelchair house to store the very special wheelchair for Mary Lou, which can be seen today in the Richmond Hill History Museum.
“We never saw anything but good in that man,” Betsy tells me. “He was so very good to our family.” Both Betsy and Rosie show me storybooks from their childhood that were given to them and signed by Ford himself. “I was sometimes frightened by Mr. Ford,” Betsy remembers. “I remember him coming to my house, sitting on the edge of the sofa, and wanting to read these books to me,” she says as she runs her fingers across the paper. “I remember my dad telling me over
and over ‘It’s alright, you can sit on his lap.’”
“He could be very intimidating,” adds Rosie. “Always dressed in a suit with those prominent features.”
It was because of Ford that Mary Lou was able to do all that she did at an early age. The closeness to the school was extremely beneficial, enabling Rosie to push Mary Lou in her wheelchair to class every day. “Because she spent so much time in the hospital as a child, she got behind in school and from second grade on, we were in the same grade,” Rosie smiles. “People used to call us twins – we were always together.” After graduating from high school, Mary Lou went on to attend Young Harris College, eventually transferring to Valdosta State University and receiving a degree in teaching. She
married an Air Force man, traveled the world, maintained a career, and had four children. Throughout her life, she never let her disease define her. “She truly was an amazing girl,” Rosie says proudly. “You could never tell her that she couldn’t do something because she would prove you wrong.”
Henry Ford’s connection to the history of the church is in the story of how the manse was built. Habersham Clay, a very wealthy landowner in Bryan Neck, owned some valuable property near the Tivoli River, which he eventually gave to the church. As Henry Ford made his way through town, he stumbled across the land and decided he was going to purchase it from the owner. Unfortunately, “there was one small
problem – the church wasn’t willing to sell it to him!” recalls
Rosie. After a great amount of bargaining and negotiation, Henry Ford ended up building the manse for the Presbyterian Church around 1940 as his payment for the Tivoli land.
Throughout the 50s, families and youth of all ages utilized both the church and the manse to the greatest extent. “Celebrating Easter and Christmas as a young child at the little historic church are still vivid and happy memories for me,” Rosie says. “I remember the Easter egg hunts behind the church, and the excitement on Christmas Eve with the large, live Christmas tree in front of the sanctuary. Each child received a small present – a bag of hard candy, fruit and nuts.
My dad would usually play Santa Claus.” The church often welcomed students of Armstrong to their fellowship meetings where everyone would gather in the manse for Bible study, prayer, games, and food. “I’ll never forget the first time I played spin the bottle,” Betsy says with a big smile. “We’d sit in the middle of the floor and spin it and that’s when I got my first kiss – right here in the manse!” In addition, they hosted old-fashioned revivals and an action-packed Bible school every summer that would draw in young people from all over the community.
Though the new, much larger, Presbyterian church was built within the city limits of Richmond Hill in the early 1990s, the Belfast Keller location still acts as a campus to the church and gathering area for the community. The Martin siblings still open the doors every Sunday morning for an 8 am service, where anywhere from 12 to 25 members show up. For many years their father did the same thing. The girls recall coming with him to light the stove so that the sanctuary would be nice and cozy before the members arrived. And just
like her mother, Rosie plays the piano for the congregation. She plays a quick hymn from memory. “I’ve left my glasses in the car,” she jokes, but it is beautiful.
Her sister and brother-in-law listen and reflect on a few more stories from their childhood and the present. You can almost feel the love in their hearts for this historic building. Bob rubs the wall and Betsy tells me of the time he and others tongue-oiled every single plank by hand to bring back the luster.
There are endless stories of what has been done with the upkeep of the building. Volunteers, such as local Boy Scout troops and other history lovers, have also put forth time, energy, and funding to preserve this treasure of the past. But like any historic landmark, many more hours of dedication are needed. The Martin sisters hope to keep both buildings open to the public as a cultural community center, where youth can come to learn and play, just as they once
did as children. The dedication and immense appreciation for this historic landmark is so evident in their accounts of the past. There is no doubt that the story of the Bryan Neck Presbyterian Church will continue to grow and thrive in this community.