Church of the Week: Salem Black River Presbyterian Church, Part 1
By Bill Segars
Several weeks ago I mentioned that when a local person finds out about my interest in old churches, they invariably will ask about two buildings: Pisgah in Florence County, and our church this week, Salem Black River Presbyterian in Sumter County. Both are very striking in appearance, and are located on well-traveled roads. After fielding questions about both buildings over the last 12 years, less seems to be known about Salem than Pisgah. It’s almost mystical in the unknown air of this building.
Salem, located at 1060 North Brick Church Road (Hwy 527) outside of Mayesville, is in a more remote area than Pisgah. It doesn’t have a church office or a regular preacher, so there is very seldom a car parked at the building. The church just sits beside the road all by its self, leaving everyone that sees it to wonder about its history. Does it have an active congregation? If so, when do they meet? The questions run from one end of the spectrum to the other, but all are interesting. There is a historical marker in the front yard and many people do stop by to read it; the marker only piques their interest for more information concerning this stately building.
The present building is old, built in 1846, but Salem Meeting House was established well before that, in 1759, as a daughter church of Williamsburg Presbyterian in Kingstree. David Anderson, a captain in the militia, donated a portion of his 300 acre 1753 land grant near the Black River for the construction of a log-meeting house. In 1768, that building was torn down; a wood framed building was erected on the same ground, facing the Kingstree to Camden Road. In 1780, it was around this building that Gen. Thomas Sumter’s militia and Lt. Col. Banastre “Bloody” Tarleton’s British regulars bivouacked under the trees at different times as they tracked each other in the American Revolutionary’s back woods battle. Luckily, Tarleton left without burning the church, which he had a habit of doing.
After the Revolutionary War, the Scots-Irish in the area felt the need for a larger, more substantial building that they built using brick in 1802, again on the same sacred ground. By now, the name of Salem Black River Presbyterian Church had been adopted. This brick building served the congregation well for 44 years; but the congregation may not have served the building well, because by the early 1840’s their building was determined to be “beyond repair”.
A committee of six men was established to begin the process of building a new building, what we would know today as “the building committee”. These men drew the basic plans for the present building on one sheet of paper. The plan was enough information for the J. Lomas & Company of Columbia to provide a price of $5,620 to build the designed building. It was also agreed that the thousands of brick needed to construct the exterior solid brick walls would be made from the clay that could be found locally.
The 2709 square foot building is truly a marvel of construction for any time frame, but particularly for 1846. Its Greek Revival style building measures 45’ 8” X 59’ 4” plus a 8’ X 45’ 8” front porch.
This article, and others, has mentioned “solid brick walls” which means that even as each brick is a solid unit (a brick unit not having holes, as we see today), but the entire wall is brick in its thickness, with no wood studs as most people we are accustomed to seeing today. A “solid brick wall” is a load-bearing wall, meaning the roof and floor load is carried and supported by these walls. Here at Salem, the foundation walls are 24” thick, and the main wall between the pilasters are 16” thick. The thinnest walls, at 8” thick, are the two gable walls in the attic. The pilasters, an extra thickness of brick, are positions in specific location due to extra load support needed at that location, rather than simply for appearance.
Entering the interior of Salem Black River seems as if you are stepping back in time. Repairs have been made due to Hurricane Hugo damage, but the interior maintains its original charm in many of the original elements. The pews are handmade of pine lumber that has been faux painted to resemble oak wood. The pews maintain the original doors, with numbers assigned to individual families that rented that particular pew. The pew rental rate depended on the location of that pew as it related to the pulpit. It is recorded in the early years of the church, that if all of the pews were rented, $945 per year could be raised; typically this money was assigned to pay the preacher. Mr. W. T. White of Charleston made the balcony railing for the cost of $148.41. The freight charge to have it delivered from Charleston was $3.88. That’s enough construction lesson for one session; let’s get back to the history of the building itself. Even though the building appears to be original, and in fact it has not changed in size or appearance, it has been maintained. Primarily its repairs have occurred due to natural disasters. Six large steel shields, which are attached to three steel earthquake rods running through the 45’ 8” width of the building, can be seen up high on the exterior walls. These were installed after August 31, 1886, when Charleston was struck by an approximate 7.0 on the moment magnitude scale earthquake which shook the east coast. Then the copper roof was replaced after September 22, 1989 due to Hugo. Other minor repairs, some helpful and some not as much, have been performed over the building’s 169 year life; all was done not to have a repeat of the 1802 building’s “beyond repair” condition.
There are many more interesting facts about this building, and the people that love it enough to make sacrifices. Next week you will be able to learn more about these facts, and most importantly how you can witness the feeling of worshiping in and serving in this historic jewel affectionately known as the Old Brick Church.
Bill Segars has a strong love and appreciation for history, having grown up on a farm in Kelleytown on land that has been in the family since 1821 . He uses his 39-year building career to combine with his love of history to develop a passion for historical restoration. Segars was able to find, photograph and research more than 700 religious edifices throughout the state.