“You know you’re headed in the right direction if the street sign says the church name.” Bill Segars said to me with a grin. “Other times, its just about wandering around looking, sometimes there’s a historical marker, but you have to really look for these signs. Some of these churches are remembered by only the people that are proud of them.”
Darlington County native and pioneer in South Carolina historic preservation, Bill Segars knows of a church or two in our great state. By two, I mean over 800 across the Palmetto state that he has personally tracked down, photographed and documented for the sake of historic preservation. It seems hard to imagine how one person could individually recall different features, construction, and architectural significance to such a quantity of structures, but Bill certainly excels at it. With such a mass quantity of work, Bill is documenting pieces of SC history that might otherwise only remain to a few families or church communities to tend to and keep alive.
It’s never been about the number of churches to Bill. Sure, when he began his journey in 2003 with the copy of The Old Churches of South Carolina, by Larry S. Nix, a book on 185 historic churches across the state, he started out of hobby and for a little localized adventure. For Bill, this book helped lay the path for his journey to find, locate and document the listed churches even if finding some would be like searching for a needle in a haystack. It helped in shining light on the significance of all that needed to be documented before time, repair, or native could no longer save or restore them. Bill is clear that in finding this book, he found a little adventure he didn’t know he needed. Starting with locating the earliest church in Nix’s book, St. Andrews Episcopalian Church built in 1706. Many others were not so well known or even partially marked by historical marker to find. Some may have given up at this point, others not so much. Bill kept going and the number grew to much greater than the 185 he started with.
You could even say Bill Segars was born to develop a passion for local, state church history. His family’s farm of more than 3,000 acres in Darlington County fell under control of Union troops of the Civil War (or as Bill refers to as The War Between the States, because there wasn’t anything “civil” about it) in 1865. A 5th back maternal grandfather of Bill by the name of Jacob Kelley believed, after the brief takeover of troops during the war, that it was important to give back to the local community and donated land for a church and burial ground to be built. The church and burial ground came about in 1926 and the church was given the name of Kelleytown Baptist Church in the Kelleytown community of Darlington.
As an important contributor to Roots and Recall, Mr. Segars is bringing greater emphasis through detailed historical and architectural documentation to these South Carolina churches with specific interest between those built during the 1700’s to late 1920’s. According to Bill, this time period is when he believes architectural construction was at its strongest and most unique. He believes the better made structures ranging in materials such as brick and long leaf pine, better resist weathered age as the wood contains a higher resin content and doesn’t rot as easily. These native pines still surround most of the land located around many of the visited churches like Oak Grove Methodist Church in Manning, S.C.
Some churches grand in appearance with their Greek revival style columns, stained glass of many colors, or intricate layered brick walls, contrast to the beautiful simplicity of Oak Grove Methodist. In further investigation and a closer look at the details of this meeting house style structure built in 1838, you’ll begin to see the beauty still standing sturdy today from the durable long leaf pine, painted white siding and the rain flare roof that naturally shoots water farther off the siding of the church to prevent water logged decay.
Walking around the property of Oak Grove Methodist and inside the church with Bill, I am also able to see up close the protruding annex off the back of the building, common for Methodist churches in our state. I also take notice of the two entrance doors to the church – the left door for men and the right door for women. Also, near by the church’s session house still stands once as a place for addressing “trials of members who had fallen from grace”. In other words, the session house would have helped give church members discussing business some outward privacy while also providing onsite guidance to other members who had fallen down on tithing promises to the church or had found themselves faced with their ill behavior outside of the congregation.
When I think about places or sights that I’ve seen in the state of South Carolina that have left me awe-struck, I remember back to visiting St. Andrews Lutheran Church in downtown Charleston, the ruins of Sheldon Baptist Church in Beaufort amongst giant oak trees draped in Spanish moss, or the ornate beauty of the Newberry Opera House. I’ve quickly come to realize as my own interests in historic preservation have shaped over the years, that beauty is revealed in the making and longevity of a structure. So, when you find yourself on your hands and knees crawling underneath a structure built in 1838 on a hot and humid day in Manning, SC with Bill Segars to examine a little more closely the hand hewn timbers and examine the hew marks along each square timber, I consider myself lucky. I learn, for Bill Segars, a man with decades of professional construction experience, a closer look at the details is essential. A gander underneath the church could reveal exactly how the church was constructed, how the timbers were cut and arranged, as well as provide evidential support to whom a church’s builder could have been. As you can imagine, once architects of early times became skilled or known for their craftsmanship, word spread to other smaller communities in the state for the building of future churches. Bill is eager to point out the details of the hand-hewn timbers underneath Oak Grove Methodist Church as well as show me up close a still in tact earthquake rod underneath, installed after the massive South Carolina earthquake in 1886.
Even with his own professional skills and interests in architectural design and construction, Bill Segars still stands by that in documenting over 800 state churches built between the late 1700’s to the late 1920’s, he has always been lead by the story of the people that built them. When I met Bill, I asked typical questions one might ask someone with greater knowledge and expertise in historic preservation about a favorite architectural style or which area of the state has the better county archive, but I soon realized it was true that Bill’s quest has always been about the people across the state that came together to plan, build, and work together to construct a meeting place, a safe place, and a place of worship. When you ask Bill, why he chose churches to document, he’ll most likely grin and reply that they tend to be the easiest structures to locate.
Through the preservation of images and research on Roots and Recall, South Carolina’s own online resource depositary, Bill Segar’s documentation of churches is making a strong case for the importance of tracing our own South Carolina heritage and seeking to help in the preservation of those people and places that compose our heritage. Roots and Recall and Bill Segars help someone like myself realize the responsibility we all have in continuing to search for further documentation in our historical research and sharing it with other preservation enthusiasts. Bill assures me that he’s not suggesting for anyone else to go out trekking for the 800 churches he has documented but instead to use resources through local archives or sites like Roots and Recall to “see about the people and understand the history.” Bill’s wife, Debbie sums up my experience best as to why I feel Bill was the right person to feature first as part of this new Roots and Recall site feature. She says, “This tiny book (The Old Churches of South Carolina) found in a market bulletin helped in changing his life and in it, he found his passion…in history.” No matter how small a start in working towards preserving our family and state history, any step is worthy if it is helping to trace roots back to the people that started with their own story and built a piece of history for each and every one of us.
Austin and Chris Lange are a creative husband and wife duo living in Rock Hill, SC. They are excited to offer a photojournalistic approach to Roots and Recall and to the many people around our state that are working hard to preserve pieces of architectural history everyday. The Langes can be reached for any artistic inquiries at email@example.com
Interested in becoming a contributing author, contact R&R at firstname.lastname@example.org
Feature Article August – Sept., 2017