Secrets of the Blue Ridge: The Crossroads at Mountain Plain
by Phil James
It is no ordinary intersection where Old Three Notch’d Road and Brown’s Gap Turnpike come together near Mechum’s River. Neither is that an ordinary red brick church building facing the junction in its familiar way. For ages, many have paused at this place to rest and reassess.
The shakers and movers of the Virginia Colony desired an overland route between settlements in the Tidewater region and the fertile but still dangerous frontier of the Great (Shenandoah) Valley. So, in 1733, the Goochland County court ordered that a mountain road be cleared.
Peter Jefferson, father of Thomas Jefferson, was hired in 1734 to survey the “Road from the Mountains to Lickinghole Creek.” That same year, Michael Woods, his son-in-law William Wallace, and their party of Pennsylvanians entered what is now known as Albemarle County, heading east from the Valley through the mountain gap that, for generations, would be identified by Woods’ name. In 1737, Woods entered a patent for 1,300 acres of land on Mechum’s River and Lickinghole, and was given the task to “Clear a road from the Blew Ledge of Mountains down to Ivy Creek.”
By the early 1740s, many sections of primitive road, often following old Indian trails, had been cleared and widened to allow wheeled passage. Markings blazed into roadside trees along this stretch of highway lent the name “Three Notch’d.”
Michael Woods named his plantation Mountain Plains. Its acreage extended nearly six miles from Woods’ Gap to Mechum’s River. The families who followed Woods and Wallace over the mountain into the Piedmont were devout Scots-Irish Presbyterians. With the oversight of a circuit clergyman from the Shenandoah Valley, they built Mountain Plains Meeting House on Mechum’s River, “about a mile upstream” from the present railroad trestle at the intersection of Routes 240 and 250.
As other hardy souls discovered the region’s opportunities via Three Notch’d Road, the area became more settled and prosperous. That early church building was eventually superseded by a more substantial brick building, built a short distance to the north, where the growing Presbyterian congregation was sheltered for several more generations.
More people and commerce naturally required more and better roads. By 1806, Brown’s Gap Turnpike had picked up the traffic that was passing through White Hall by way of Turk’s Gap, and funneled it into Three Notch’d at Mountain Plains Church. Mechum’s River was becoming a prominent crossroads.
Members of the Baptist faith began meeting near Earlysville in the 1770s. Twenty-four of their number reorganized at Mechum’s River in 1812 to form the Eschol Baptist Church. They called Benjamin Ficklin as their first pastor; he would serve the congregation for over 20 years.
Ficklin lived at Pleasant Green, his farm estate a few miles to the west. The Pleasant Green house, several decades later, would welcome Col. Claudius Crozet as he surveyed and later engineered a railroad through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ficklin’s son Ben, born at Pleasant Green in 1827, would be instrumental in establishing the legendary Pony Express.After the Presbyterians’ decision to relocate to Brownsville, the Eschol Baptists rented and subsequently purchased the brick church building. Traffic through the Mechum’s River village continued to increase. The grist mill there was joined by several stores and, following the arrival of the railroad in the mid-1800s, a depot, hotel, post office, cannery and bark mill were added to the community.
In 1856 the Eschol congregation was officially recognized as Mountain Plain Baptist Church.
As the lingering Civil War years cast a pall across the countryside, both sides in the conflict were engaged in troop movements, reconnoitering and reconnaissance activities through the gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains. During movements associated with Hunter’s Raid in 1864, a Confederate telegrapher serving in the Valley was sent to Mechum’s River Depot to pass along vital information to General John Breckenridge who was paused there on a troop train. After their brief meeting (held inside a baggage car when a sudden hail storm caused everyone to seek shelter), the telegrapher and another soldier heading toward Harrisonburg set out together when they were pressed upon by a friendly villager to linger long enough for a meal. Decades later, the soldier still recalled the excellent dessert of a light-roll with butter, apple butter and milk served up by his host.
His reminiscences from that day were summed up in these words: “Further on towards Brown’s Gap we pass Mountain Plain Church—Baptist—brick, and in passing find the Rev. John E. Massey in the act of tying his horse to a swinging limb. He had just arrived … He had an appointment at 3 o’clock to preach there though not a hearer was then visible. It was mighty lonesome-like in the country districts ‘them days’. And I remember [my companion] observed to him he didn’t think there were enough people about to scare up a congregation. At any rate, we rode on, and never found out how many hearers he had on that June day in 1864.”
The country church exited those war years virtually unscathed by that sad conflict that at times had camped on its very doorstep. Nearly a century later in 1959, the resiliency of its people again was put to the test when a tornado utterly destroyed the front wall and roof of the building. A busy season followed while the congregation held Sunday Services in the basement of their then-recently constructed Sunday School building, and volunteer workers from communities near and far labored to restore the venerable building.
For 200 years Mountain Plain Baptist Church has been nurtured by the faithfullness of pastor-shepherds such as Benjamin Ficklin and John Massey, and by congregants who have been equally faithful in providing the means and energies to keep the facilities in good repair and the doors open to all who might pass by.
Across a span of nearly three centuries, Presbyterian and Baptist congregations with spiritual roots in this place have established other churches near Brownsville, Crozet, Greenwood, Hillsboro and Mechum’s River. Those enslaved by weaknesses in spirit and in the flesh, and even by the physical shackles of ill-conceived laws of society, have passed through the doors of the church with the newfound hope declared in the Holy Scriptures to all who find themselves standing at a lonesome-like crossroads on a mountain plain.