The church at New River wasn’t always at its present location. It wasn’t always in New River, for that matter — nor even in Scott County.
Thought to be Scott County’s oldest congregation, New River Missionary Baptist Church will honor its 200th anniversary at homecoming this weekend, celebrating a history that predates just about everything in Scott County — and Scott County itself.
That the church wasn’t always in New River is because the congregation was originally deeded land in what would become Huntsville. That the church wasn’t always in Scott County is simply because Scott County hasn’t always been. In 1819, when Thomas Lawson deeded land in what would become Huntsville for the new church, the entire area was still a part of Campbell County. It wasn’t until 1849 — another 30 years — that the State of Tennessee created Scott County from parts of Campbell, Morgan and Fentress counties.
By that time, New River Baptist Church was well-established. In fact, it was such an integral part of the community that Scott County’s early courts convened in the church house until the county’s first courthouse was built. The first court was held on a Monday in July 1850.
In time, New River Baptist Church moved south to the river. And that’s where it’s been ever since. It isn’t clear where the services were first held in the New River community; a fire destroyed most of the church’s records. But the fledgling community’s first “meeting house” was built on the hill overlooking the town — above where the modern-day church is situated. That was perhaps symbolic, in a way. From that vantage-point, the church stood sentry over the fledgling town below it as New River grew into a bustling economic hub: the lumber mill, the railroad tower, and — of course — the river itself, which played such an integral role in New River’s status as one of Scott County’s earliest industrial settlements. That original church building saw the rise of the New River community, then saw it quietly dwindle after the mill closed.
Through it all, there has been one constant in New River: the church.
“For whatever reason, people came to the river (when Scott County was being settled),” said Gary Lowe, a deacon at New River Missionary Baptist. “Then, and still today, water was important. But spiritual water is important, too. And after the lumber mills and the coal mines and the saw mill, all of that is gone, the church is still there.”
Like the rest of New River’s older members, Lowe can recall when the community was still in its heyday. In fact, the church was largely made up of New River’s residents. Today, many members once lived in the company houses on Mudd Street and Rough Street, or are at least descended from the families who built the town.
By 1870, New River Baptist Church was a half-century old. It had seen Scott County carved out of Campbell County, and had made the move from the county seat to what was to become an even bigger town along the river.
In August 1870, New River joined the Clinton Association of the United Baptist Association. In 1886, several churches from the Clinton Association — churches at Jellico, Straight Fork, Smokey Creek, Sugar Grove, Winfield and Pleasant Grove, along with New River — formed the New River Baptist Association. Churches at Black Creek, Glenmary and Clear Creek left the Big Emory Association to join, as well. An organizational meeting was held at New River Baptist Church in 1885. Scott County had its own association of Baptist churches, and was primed to usher in the industrial era.
That industrial era came with the extraction of the county’s natural resources — coal, timber and oil. Soon, a saw mill was built at New River. The community was ideally situated — there was the Cincinnati-Southern Railroad, and there was the river, which was used to float logs from the logging camps to the railroad and the mill.
In 1928, just before the onset of the Great Depression, the mill at New River was purchased by the W.M. Ritter Co. of Columbus, Oh. The Thomas Hall Lumber Co. had entered bankruptcy, and business was waning. But the Ritter Co. still employed as many as 300 people. And when the original mill burned in 1946, it was replaced by a circular mill that turned out up to 20,000 board feet every day. Production increased to 28,000 board feet per day when the circular mill was replaced by a six-foot band mill in the late 1950s. In October 1960, the Ritter Co. merged with Georgia Pacific Corp., and the New River mill was closed about a year after that.
Slowly, the community begin to fade. The tower is gone. The mill is gone. The river bottomland where the mill was once located is today largely reforested. The original highway bridge that dated back to the early 20th century is gone. Even the railroad is gone, the main line having long since been moved further south and the Brimstone line that once passed through New River having been closed.
The church, though, remains.
The church’s role in the community
The original meeting house at New River was located on the hill above the present church. It was a building that was typical of its time — a one-room structure heated by a pot-bellied stove, with a tin roof and windows that had wooden shutters. Several denominations used the building, and as was also typical of the time, Sunday school was held jointly on Sunday mornings, followed by preaching that rotated among the denominations from week to week.
“This must have been confusing because minutes in 1910 of the New River Baptist Association reflect that the pastor of the New River Baptist Church was to be investigated for baptizing members into the Methodist Church,” the church’s Anniversary Committee wrote in a 1994 article commemorating the church’s 175th anniversary.
In 1890, four years after its foundation, the New River Baptist Association voted to build a high school. It was called the New River Academy and, when it opened in 1893, it had an enrollment of 171 students. P.A. Owens was the principal and C.C. Cross was his assistant when the school first opened one mile east of the railroad depot. Willard Keen became principal in 1896, but the school’s days were numbered. It closed in 1900 due to a lack of funds.
The church building on the hill was itself originally a school house, but it served the religious congregations of New River throughout the first half of the 20th century. Church was important to the community, an integral part of life at New River. Early black-and-white photos show large crowds assembled at the river for baptizings — as if the entire community had turned out for the event.
There was a level of dedication to the church in those early days that has been lost with time. In 1994, the church’s Anniversary Committee recalled the story of Columbus Lowe, who would attend the Sunday evening worship service at Low Gap Baptist Church, “then run as hard as he could down the short cut through the woods to the New River Church to attend the later service there. Neighbors remember seeing Bro. Lowe’s flashlight swinging wildly as he ran…more often than on the ground, the flashlight was shining high in the tree limbs. They’d say, ‘There goes Bro. Lowe, trying not to miss any preaching at New River tonight.’”
The committee also wrote of other treasured members of the church, like Nelson Reed, who was paid 40 cents a week to serve as the church’s janitor. Among his duties: keep the fire going and ring the bell. “Another important and self-important duty for Bro. Nells was to noisily wind his loudly ticking pocket watch when he felt the preacher had preached long enough,” the committee wrote.
Moving into the modern era
In the late 1940s, the congregation at New River Baptist Church voted to build a new building. The one-room church on the hill had served its purpose, but was deteriorating. Construction began on a new church along U.S. Hwy. 27, on land donated by George Cecil. Later, Don Stansberry donated additional property to the church.
Sam Garrett was pastor at New River at the time, and was joined on the church’s building committee by R.S. Voiles, Clifford Potter and John Parton.
The building wasn’t quite completed in July 1950, when Potter died suddenly at a young age. He was only in his 40s. He had played an instrumental role in the building of the new church, and so it was decided that his funeral be held in the almost-finished building. For that to happen, the church pews had to be moved down the hill from the existing building.
“They brought down the pews from the old church for his funeral and they never took them back. We stayed there,” remembers Mary Sexton, who, along with her husband Jim, grew up in New River and has been a member of the church for most of her life.
There have been numerous additions and improvements to the church in the 69 years it has been in service. Much of the money — it was estimated at $200,000 in 1994 and has only increased in the 25 years since — was raised through fundraisers, like chicken-and-dumplin’ dinners and yard sales. The parking lot has been paved, classrooms added, new bathrooms built on, and new stained glass windows and carpeting.
When Clifford Potter’s funeral was held at the church in 1950, the exterior was just painted blocks. It was later that funding was raised to add brick.
“We put on the bricks in the 1980s and, just to show you how the forefathers had it planned out, when we got to the brick, we thought we would need to pour a footer for it,” Lowe said. “But when we looked at it, the footer was already there. They knew the brick would eventually be added.”
One can only speculate what it must’ve been like to stroll along the banks of New River in the late 1700s, before the arrival of permanent settlement. It’s a far cry today from what it was then, when the virgin timber awaited cutting and the seams of coal were still unearthed. But, in some ways, things have gone full circle. It’s much quieter in New River today than it once was. From U.S. 27, the only visible remnants of what used to be are what remains of the old train trestle over the river just upstream from the highway bridge. From where the highway begins its descent into the New River valley on the north side to where it reaches the “three-lane” towards Robbins on the south side, there are fewer than a dozen homes visible from the highway. It would be almost impossible for passersby to imagine that the residents of this place once voted — more than a century ago — to incorporate. But even now, the church remains.
And what the anniversary committee wrote in 1994 still rings true, a quarter of a century later, as that church celebrates its 200th: “The river still flows as it did then…The church is also alive and doing well. The original founders of 1819 would be proud to know that the church has prospered and grown through the years. The spiritual waters, even in a world filled with troubles, still offer the same eternal hope through Christ.”