There’s a church in the wildwood

Published 10:45 am Thursday, September 7, 2017

Come Oct. 1, the public will be given the opportunity to soak up a significant piece of local history, as the Bell Tower Foundation celebrates the 220th birthday of the Davis Creek Primitive Baptist Church.

“The fact that this church is the oldest one, with continuing services for 220 years in Claiborne County and the whole state of Tennessee, is certainly noteworthy news to our special Powell Valley community, our county and our state,” said CF Bailey, member of the Bell Tower Foundation.

The ‘opening up’ of Cumberland Gap gave the early settlers the freedom to form the types of churches in which they desired to worship. The Henderson Land Grant gave those settlers the necessary acreage to locate their church on portions of two plots, alongside what is now Davis Creek Road.

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The historic church originally began in the homes of the settlers to the Speedwell area. Shortly after its constitution in 1797, the members built a log cabin as their first ‘meeting house.’

Somewhere near 1858, a newer building was constructed nearby, on about 2 1/2 acres of land, thought to have been deeded by Joseph Hunter.

The original church bell routinely pealed during those early days. Funerals, weddings and other services were announced, giving those in the surrounding communities advance notice that something big was about to happen.

“The bell is still there. However, the church is old and in need of repairs, so the bell no longer rings,” said Lil Jernigan, member of the Bell Tower Foundation and great-great granddaughter of Joseph Hunter.

The Bell Tower Foundation is hosting “Raising the Roof,” a birthday party for the primitive church. Just a few of the scheduled events are apple butter making demonstrations, an historic review of the church history, a bonfire, storytelling and plenty of old-time mountain music. Also on the agenda is the feeding of the crowd, with $5 per person plates ‘on the ground.’ And, apple butter made the old-fashioned way will be on sale for just $5 per jar.

State Representative Jerry Sexton and other officials are expected to attend, as well.

The Foundation encourages all musicians to bring along their stringed or other instruments, in order to join the impromptu ‘jam sessions’ that will likely break out during the birthday festivities.

The celebration is expected to commence shortly after service is over, and will continue as long as visitors remain.

Those unsure of the church location may follow the signs, which will be posted at the intersection of U.S. Hwy 25E and Hwy. 63 in Harrogate, and again nearby the church, located just off Old 63 in Speedwell.

Jernigan says she hopes the celebration will be the kick-off for raising funds to restore the old church, so that it may be listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

“Today, we are faced with the problem of restoring the building. It has been standing a long time without the ability to maintain the repairs and updates needed. We cannot allow this beautiful old lady to die.

“Currently, the roof is leaking badly. The building needs to be restored from the inside, out. The early construction used wood that is now shrinking away and becoming loose.

“Throughout the years, it has had ‘fixes’ and not repairs done, due to lack of finances and materials available,” said Jernigan.

The Foundation will need to raise about $10,000, during the first round of fundraising, to restore the metal roof and complete a new land survey. The wood siding and other concerns, such as the electrical, will be next on the list of repairs.

Anyone interested in assisting the restoration of the historic church may contact Connie Hopper via mail at: Davis Creek Primitive Baptist Church, 112 Cawood Road; Middlesboro, KY 40965.

For more information, contact Jernigan at: or by dialing 423-489-0857.

Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.