There is a picturesque white chapel standing alone on a beautiful country road in the middle of Stokes County. It has become the haunt of many a photographer, artist or sightseer.
They come in the spring when the mighty oaks are budding, in the summer when greenery frames the lovely old church, in the fall when vivid colors surround it and in winter when the occasional snowfall creates a vision of white from ground to steeple.
But Davis Chapel, on Davis Chapel Road just off Dodgetown Road, wasn’t always just a historic landmark or photographer’s dream. Although it stands unused now for much of the year, there was a time when it was an active church, full to overflowing with local folks who desired a place to worship, a church to call their own. . .
Stokes County of the 1700s was a primarily a region of small family farms. Scattered less frequently were plantations, larger farming operations with slaves.
One such plantation was carved out on the banks of the Dan River above what is now Meadows, stretching even toward present-day Danbury. It was called the Davis Plantation and was owned by James Davis Sr.
Life on the plantation was busy, but Davis made sure a portion of each day was dedicated to God. His family held a time of worship before breakfast and at bedtime in what was called the “Mansion-house.” Slaves were “called in for prayer” with their white owners.
At these early services, which were the seeds for what later became the full-grown Davis Chapel, a tutor or family member would read Scripture and pray. After that, one or more people would comment on the Bible reading or other Christian matters.
On rare occasions, a traveling preacher would pass through and hold a service on the Davis plantation. Again, this was a multi-racial affair.
With the access of easier travel in the summer months, services were held more frequently. To allow for more community participation, a brush arbor-style camp meeting ground was set up on the Davis plantation. The furnishings were primitive; the congregation sat on split logs with no backs.
Soon, a regular camp meeting schedule developed. The meetings would begin on the fourth Sunday in August and often continued for a week or more. Families came from all around, often building small log cabins to serve as temporary homes during the camp meeting. Those who did not have slaves to carry on their farmwork back home would travel to and fro throughout the meetings.
Participants would abandon regular life during this week or more to enjoy an interval of Christian fellowship with friends and neighbors. At dawn, even before nourishment was taken, they would hold the first service, followed by another at 11 a.m. and the final one at 3 p.m.
But that wasn’t the end of the religious fervor for the day. After supper, the campers would gather more informally to talk, testify and even sing about what the Lord was doing.
According to Davis family members, services were full of testimonies and calls for repentance. Many slaves and servants attended along with their owners. They were sent home early in the day to bring back fresh food for a large, shared midday meal.
Whatever was left over was put into the cold spring nearby to be kept for supper. The interval between the hearty lunch and the afternoon service was a time for rest.
Periodically, the summer camp meetings were relocated to different sites on the Davis plantation. The last known location was in a grove of mountain laurel on the side of the Dan River nearest the McAnnally plantation. Nearby was a flowing spring; thus, the gathering place was christened “Laurel Springs.”
The infant stages of Davis Chapel began when camp meeting participants began to call for a permanent building, due to frequent inclement weather during the annual camp meetings. Organizers, such as the Davis, McAnally, Martin and Lasley families, built a wooden structure on the very spot where the little white church stands today.
Some of the families involved in the summer meetings didn’t want to have to cross the Dan River—often a daunting proposition in bad weather—every time there was a worship service. They built their own church which became Clear Springs Primitive Baptist Church.
By 1866, Davis Chapel (not officially named that until 1886) claimed 172 members, both black and white. Just seven years later, membership had increased to 358. For a time, it was the most well-attended church in all of Stokes County. Davis family members testified that the inside of the church would be full to bursting with believers, with an equal number standing outside.
Originally, Davis Chapel was an interdenominational gathering. In the 1880s, Hiram Washington Adkins, a Methodist preacher who had married James Davis’ daughter Emily, made some changes. In 1886, the land and church were deeded over to the Methodist conference.
That partnership lasted for nearly 100 years before ending in 1980 when the church and property were sold back to a member of the Davis family, Kathleen Adkins Blackwell. She held two-thirds interest, with Paul and Nellie Sykes holding the other third. Membership at the Chapel had declined to the extent that fewer than 10 people attended. The Methodist conference discontinued services there as of January 1, 1979.
But the church was not to become merely a relic of a prosperous past. In the early 1990s, a group of citizens, including Blackwell, John Brown, Ellen Pepper Tilley and Adelle Tuttle, began to talk about how to preserve Davis Chapel. They formed the Davis Chapel Historical Association, Inc. (DCHA), complete with a charter.
The Chapel came alive again, with an overall restoration to the building completed in 2007, thanks to community donations and money left to the church by Blackwell upon her death in 2003. Other key players in the effort to resurrect Davis Chapel were Sara Jo Durham, Durwood and Patti Dunlap, W.T. Heath, Sarah Tucker and Debbie Dunlap Cummings. Tucker, Dunlap and Cummings are all descendants of the Davis family.
Those who now make up the DCHA have now begun a museum in a side wing of the church. A glass display case showcases important artifacts. Throughout the fall, memorabilia from the old Davis Mill was on display; now, cards and letters from the Davis family are available for viewing.
Cummings tells of more progress, “We have a partnership with the Dan River Basin Association to allow people to put canoes in.” The DCHA owns the church and 122 acres—all natural, wooded property on Linn Creek that also has Dan River frontage.
At this time, the DCHA is working to enter an agreement with the NC Wildlife Resource Commission to open up the river frontage for fishing and to make improvements. The group has also spoken with the Piedmont Land Conservancy. They are presently looking into getting a wildflower preservation group to plant wildflowers they have rescued from endangered areas.
A trail has been blazed on the property, thanks to the efforts of a local Boy Scout troop. It runs from Davis Chapel Road to Duggins Road, crossing a creek in its meanderings. The DCHA would like to build another trail soon.
Cummings remembers how she would ride out to Davis Chapel 30 years ago and just go in to meditate. “There’s a peacefulness about that place that just overtakes me when I go in,” she says.
Then she began attending DCHA meetings. Before she knew it, her cousin had nominated her to be a board member. “The next thing I know,” Cummings laughs, “I was on the board and then I was president!”
The preservation of Davis Chapel has become her passion. “It’s very satisfying,” she says. “It’s connected back to my roots. I can visualize my family being there.” Cummings is currently writing a book to preserve the history of the Chapel and hopes to have it completed in a couple of years.
Davis Chapel has suffered its share of tragedies. It burned in 1922, but the current building was then erected according to the original plan. That building was vandalized a few years ago while the renovation was going on—graffiti, broken windows and things Cummings calls “horrible vandalism.”
But still the little church stood the tests of time.
Those years of an active congregation at Davis Chapel may be part of a bygone era now, but people still gather at the church for special occasions periodically. Those who wish to rent it for weddings, funerals, reunions or other special events may do so by calling Cummings at 427-3279 or Davis Chapel at 871-2084.
The DCHA will even open the church at any time for interested parties. “We want people to take an interest in it,” Cummings stresses.
Four times a year, an actual church service is held there—in early spring, the second Sunday in June, the last Sunday in September and the first Sunday in December. This Sunday, December 6, will mark the fourth and final service of 2009.
For this 2 p.m. gathering—open to the public—a number of activities are already scheduled. As Cummings told the congregation at the September service, when it’s time to plan for one of these special services, “It all just falls into place.”
On December 6, there will be a reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” with traditional Christmas carols to follow. There will also be a reading of the Christmas story from the Scriptures. Christmas carols with a traditional Christian theme will then be sung.
Light refreshments will be served, such as apple cider and cookies. Treat bags will be given to those attending the service, reminiscent, Cummings says, of her childhood days at the Chapel.
When the day is done on Sunday and the sound of caroling fades into silence, the little church—arguably the oldest church in Stokes County—will stand alone once more, awaiting the next event. But for Cummings and others who have ties to the historic chapel, the church is never far from their thoughts. . .
“There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood
No lovelier spot in the dale
No place is so dear to my childhood
As the little ‘white’ church in the vale.”