An Island of Wilderness

After turning off Highway 64, I drove less than a quarter of a mile down the road until it turned to dirt. I pulled over on a sandy spot and cut the engine.  Stepping out of the car into the cool winter air, I felt the sun hit my face as I closed the door.  It was dead quiet, except for the birds and the wind stirring the endless vista of pine trees all around.  It would have felt more remote if it hadn’t been for the KV line running alongside the road, both running as straight as a crow flies towards the nearby Edisto River.

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Parker’s Ferry Road and Pon Pon Chapel (courtesy of google maps)

Standing there with nothing much around, you would never believe that a couple of centuries ago this was the main stagecoach route between Charleston and Savannah.  In fact, this lonely road was once traveled by George Washington himself during his tour of the South in 1791.  Back then there was a tavern nearby called the Blue House, as well as several plantations up and down the Edisto River.  Apparently Washington stopped at the Blue House to dine before proceeding to the home of Congressman O’Brien Smith for the night.  Smith’s plantation was called Duharra – an inspiration from the Irishman’s homeland and nothing of it but the land exists today.

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Nearby was also a post office called Godfrey’s Savannah, a site that witnessed a failed ambush during the Revolutionary War.  None of these landmarks survive.  The only evidence of the history of this place is the name of the road I now stood on and a nearby church ruin.  To this day named Parker’s Ferry Road, this dusty track leads down to the river where a man named John Parker once ran a ferry….back in 1736.

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Along this backroad is a ruin. It’s sightless eyes stared out at me as I approached as if in shock that a visitor was here.  All around, tombstones jutted from the ground amidst the knee high late winter grass. The arched doorway that once led to the interior, now frames the back ruins of the structure.  The remaining brick walls still have evidence of their Flemish bond construction despite being held up by steel bracers from behind.  This is all that remains of the Pon Pon Chapel of Ease.

Originally established in 1725, it was the first Anglican church in South Carolina. The settlers in the area had just survived a bloody Indian conflict (Yemassee War) that had resulted in seven percent of the European population being slaughtered.  Just imagine being an early settler in this area, trying to carve a life out of this pine wilderness, only to live in fear of marauding Indian war parties.  Many had fled to Charles Town and almost starved when the rations began to run out.  In their first real test, the colonial militia took up arms to try to protect the settlers.  After several hand to hand conflicts, there was a lucky shift in fortune when the Cherokee sided with the settlers against their traditional enemy the Creek.  Finally the conflict came to an end.

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In the aftermath, the General Assembly established this place as a chapel of ease – a place of worship for those living to remotely to attend the parish church.  “Pon pon” is supposedly an Indian term that means “big bends.”  This might have once been a reference to an early settlement along the Edisto River.  The church itself was one of two churches that served what was once St Bartholomew’s Parish. St Bartholomew’s was one of the original ten parishes established in South Carolina during the colonial period.

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The first brick structure was built in 1754, replacing an even earlier wooden structure.  In April 1737, the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, actually preached two sermons in one day at this church.  Supposedly Washington stopped to worship at the church as he traveled the Parker’s Ferry Road in 1791.  A couple of years after Washington passed through, the church burned.  It sat in ruin for about eighteen years before it was once again raised from the ground in 1822.  Unfortunately, about ten years later, the church was again destroyed, perhaps by fire. Settlers referred to it as the Old Burnt Church from that point forward.  The ruins today are all that is left of the 1822 church.

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Although the church itself never saw another sermon, the churchyard continued to be used by the local population for burials.  There are two members of Congress buried here, including O’Brien Smith.  Besides the graveyard, only a couple of walls and the remains of the cistern are left, thanks to a hurricane in the 1950’s that brought most of the ruins to the ground.

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Standing by the rusty gates of the chapel, it struck me that history has come full circle.  What was once an island of civilization in the wild, now is an island of wilderness in the middle of civilization. Coming here from the nearby modern world, it is as if there are two parallel realities existing side by side – one being the nearby town of Walterboro, with all its modern conveniences, and the other being this place.  They co-habit the same countryside, but are centuries apart.  If that isn’t the physical representation of the passage of time, I’m not sure what is….

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