Secrets of the Blue Ridge: River Baptisms and the Conversion of Spot the Dog

Rev. George A. Maupin (1873–1958) of Free Union baptizing a convert. (Courtesy of Free Union Church of the Brethren.)

“I was baptized when I was ten years old in Ballard’s ice pond, which is now part of Mint Springs Lake,” said Edith Gentry Thurston in 1978, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the founding of Crozet Baptist Church. “One day I visited my cousin Junior Gentry across the street from the Crozet Baptist parsonage. We talked about the church and the many changes that had taken place in our lifetime. He smiled and said, ‘Did I ever tell you the baptistry story—about what happened at the church?’”

When the romance of earlier times drifts into the reminiscences of old friends, stories might include memories of Sundays at the old country church. Precious memories, and some humorous ones, too, often abound: Saturday night baths (whether you needed one or not), dressing up in your Sunday best, favorite Bible teachers, the length of the preachers’ sermons, that old deacon who nodded off on the front pew, the “amen corner,” and those special events with all-day-preaching-and-dinner-on-the-grounds.

This early-1900s baptism took place near the confluence of the Mechums and Moormans Rivers near Free Union. Congregants, including ladies with parasols, lined the riverbank. Families in horse-drawn buggies parked in the shallows for an unobstructed view. (Courtesy of the Larry Lamb Collection.)

Surprisingly, or not, depending on one’s church affiliation, baptism Sundays rate right up there with their own special memories imprinted on hearts for a lifetime.

Ruth Wayland Nelson (1892–1983) shared many memories of growing up in Crozet. She wrote, “Back in those horse and buggy days, Dr. Davis’s home and farm [Eaglehurst] was owned by Dr. Lafferty, the presiding elder of the Methodist Church, and his home was quite the most elaborate one in the village. The road to his home was over back of the present [Rock Gate] cemetery and it wound down the hill to the picturesque old [Lickinghole Creek] bridge and then up the hill, making almost a hairpin turn through the woods leading up to the house. The water was rather deep down by the bridge and several times I have witnessed baptizing there.” 

Frances Lelia Walker was baptized in Powell’s Creek between the C&O railroad and Jarmans Gap Road, near her home in downtown Crozet. She preserved this photo of another outdoor baptism that she attended in the area.

Brothers Emory (1911–2001) and Ellis (1919–2000) Wyant grew up in Sugar Hollow, where they attended the non-denominational Valley Bethel Church. “Isaac Bennett, a Brethren minister from West Virginia, was holding a revival meeting at that church, and he stayed at our house and met our sister Lottie,” said Ellis. “They got married and lived in Sugar Grove, West Virginia.” 

“Yes, he held a meeting there twice,” Emory recalled. “The second time he came back, I was baptized there in the river in a spot down there close to our house [near the first ford, or first bridge.] I tell people I should have been a Mormon—I was baptized in the Moormans River. But it’s spelled a little different. Ministers from the Valley would come over and preach on Sunday. Most of the time they would come over on Saturday and spend the night at our house. Preach there on Sunday and then ride back across the mountain. On horseback, of course. I can think of four or five of them from there. George Maupin and Jake Via from down near the Free Union section used to come up there and preach. They had Sunday School every Sunday. We used to go in a buggy to church.”

The Christian ordinance of baptism, performed by Pastor Duane “Chock” Johnson and assisted by Jesse Vandyke, in a river in western Albemarle County. (Photo by Phil James.)

“I can remember the revival meetings at Bluffdale Church [on Slam Gate Road] that we used to go to,” wrote Bettie Via Gochenour (1882–1957). “We neighbors would get together and go every night. We had to walk, but we could go through the fields and cut off a lot. It was while attending one of these meetings that I was converted. I was really born again. They were singing ‘Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?’ They were on the last verse, ‘But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe.’ I went to the altar and I had been born anew and I was so happy. A preacher by the name of Coffey was holding the meeting. I was immersed in the [Moormans] river [in Sugar Hollow] right in front of where brother John lives [above the second ford, or second bridge.] There was quite a crowd of us baptized that day. I guess I must have been about ten years old.”

Meanwhile, back at the old Baptist Church in Crozet, John W. “Junior” Gentry (1907–1990) continued to reveal the “baptistry story” to his Cousin Edith (1902-1993). “When Bill Ballard and I were very, very young, the churchyard was our favorite playground. Baptism was planned for one Sunday in August, and the men of the church had been busy hauling water in barrels from the millrace at Mechums River to fill the baptistry. They left the back door open, hoping that the air and sunshine would at least take the chill off the water. (The floor to the pulpit also served as a cover for the baptistry. It had hinges and was hooked up to the wall and covered with a sheet.)

Crozet Baptist Church was established in 1903. In early days, its indoor baptistry was filled from barrels of water drawn from the 1800s millrace at Mechums River, and hauled back to Crozet by horse and wagon. (Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images.)

“You know what great curiosity little boys have, so we went in to look around, and about that time Bill’s little dog came charging through the door and across the platform and couldn’t stop and jumped into the water. When we finally got him out, we sat down and tried to figure out what to do about it. We thought surely the water would have to be drained out, and that meant no baptizing the next day. We were afraid to go home and tell our parents because we just knew we’d get a whipping. The only solution was to not tell a soul.”

“And to this day,” said Edith to the 75th anniversary church gathering, “I’m sure that was the most guarded secret in Crozet. And if there is a dog heaven, Spot is there!”

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