Bootlegger Valley Baptism
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4. Bootlegger Valley Baptism

Hillbilly House

Hillbilly HouseWe waited patiently to begin our baptism down by the riverside near the power station, where we held our first open-air more than a year before. Archdeacon Roy Mason of Charlottesville, despite a bad case of piles, stepped gingerly into the icy cold waters, his cassock and white surplice billowing out as he did so. Suddenly, I noticed two fellows looking down upon us from the low suspension bridge that spanned the river. "I wonder what mischief they are planning," I thought. Roy continued, "I baptize you in the name of the Father . . . " To my horror, they climbed the handrail and yelled, "Hallelujah," leaping into the air and crashing into the stream below. For a moment, waves, spray, and wet bodies were all I could see in the confusion. Nothing distinguished the Critics from the Saints. A group of Hillbilly country boys and girls ventured out and baptized later in the river under the bridge in Schuyler, Virginia. Five miles down the railway track in hillbilly country, live another group of people in rough timber shacks up in the hills. Their main occupation in those Prohibition days was the distilling and bootlegging of illicit or bootleg whiskey. Our dark-gray Church Army uniforms and peaked caps made their lookouts jumpy. Hillbilly Country boys scampered around barefoot. A concerned Christian lady from Schuyler tried to teach them, but their parents did not care. These children had not even heard the Lord's Prayer before. I decided to try to bring new hope into these sad lives somehow. So, a group of young people from Schuyler, Virginia, and I held a series of outdoor services in "bootlegging valley" near an old brick powerhouse.

Episcopalian Baptism

Schuyler RiverWe quickly assembled and began to sing to the accompaniment of a lone saxophone. Little groups of people in their tartan shirts and denim slowly ventured into our riverside auditorium, overcome by curiosity. A hot dog roast provided a treat, much to the delight of the gangs of children. After a year, twenty boys and girls with no Christian backgrounds asked for baptism. Somehow, word leaked out to a nearby Baptist Church that an Episcopalian was to baptize these youngsters. The Elders sent a message to our candidates, "The only real baptism is by immersion, which the Episcopalians do not hold with at all." Undeterred, we went ahead with a public baptism anyway.

Saint Elizabeth House

TennesseeCaptain Ray Lewis has a misunderstanding about Saint Elizabeth House and in White Bluff, Tennessee. After some four years with the people of Schuyler, Virginia, where Earl Hamner wrote "The Waltons," the bishop sent me to the little town of White Bluff, Tennessee. Nestling amid rolling hills and wooded valleys, it's sawmills were closed, and hard times had descended on the community. My accommodation was in a rambling mansion given to the church in memory of a certain lady named Elizabeth. Pausing at the front gate, I read the peeling sign over the door. "Elizabeth House White Bluff." "Are the people here that ignorant?" I grunted to myself. "Don't they realize that the mother of John the Baptist was called Saint Elizabeth?" Without mentioning it, I changed the wording to "Saint Elizabeth House White Bluff." Some elderly folk who remembered the real Elizabeth told me with a grin, "If you had met her, you wouldn't have called grumpy old Elizabeth a saint!"

Self Help Sarcasm

Tennessee WildlifeWe organized a self-help program offering work with dignity instead of charity. From my second-story window one sweltering day, I watched five women laboring in the church garden below. One of their husbands happened to be strolling by, and seeing his wife digging in vegetables with her sleeves rolled up, and me sitting at the upstairs window, cracked, "You've got the right idea, Cap! Let the women do all the work!"

Hatties Indian Treasures

White Bluff TennesseeHatties Indian treasures, including her collection of Indian beadwork, go up in flames in a tragic fire at her shop in White Bluff, Tennessee. One of our best confidence builders in White Bluff, Tennessee, which had a small population of 2,142 in the 2000 Census, was affectionately known as Hattie. Built as wide as she was tall, her whole appearance radiated happiness. The revolving doors of a city department store had once trapped her! Her hearty laugh echoed through the dusty streets. Hattie proudly exhibited her Indian treasures of valuable Indian beads, headdresses, and other tribal relics in her little store-front cafe.

Late Night Fire

House on FireLate one night, the tinder-dry timber building, containing Hattie's treasures, caught fire. Hattie's bedroom door was open, and as she turned in her sleep, the crackling of burning timbers and leaping flames suddenly woke her. Terrified, she ran through the approaching inferno in her long nightdress, and as she passed the cash register by the door, grabbed a handful of dollars. As she looked back through the curtain of flames, her face and arms smarting from the heat, she saw her life's work and prized collection burning up before her eyes.

Start Afresh in Life

Nashville TennesseeAlone in the darkness, a remarkable thing suddenly happened. Hattie decided to make a clean break with the past. Taking her purse with the handful of dollars, she hurled them back into the flames, saying, "There goes the whole past! God willing, I'm going to start again in life." Hattie became a beautiful, new, zesty person from that point onwards. She went to the city of Nashville, Tennessee, to become a qualified teacher. Rising above the flames of tragedy, White Bluff's cheery Hattie had become a new person too!

Virginia Fiddle Dance

Square DanceCaptain Ray Lewis enjoys a country-style Schuyler Virginia fiddle dance in his Christian ministry in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The lilting drift of a Virginia fiddle dance floated on the warm evening air from the old timber schoolhouse in Schuyler, Virginia, with a population in the 2010 Census of 298. I was new in town and curious about this foot-tapping "ladies go round, gents don't go" country style Virginia fiddle dance music. Long flowing skirts billowed out as the men swung their partners. Cowboy boots rattled the timber floorboards to the pulsating beat. I paused in the doorway. "Should I go in?" "Wasn't this just the sort of place an evangelist should be?" The dancers suddenly called out to me from the floor, "Y'all join in!" Receding shyly from the doorway, I sought out a corner seat where I could sit and listen.

Episcopal Preacher

Fiddle and GuitarThe women skipped, and the men stomped to the fiddle and the guitar. Soon my feet were tapping out the rhythm, too! My heart raced as I waited for the music to start up again. Soon I was on my feet, swept along by the surge of new dancers. I eagerly launched into the swing of things. Changing partners, I cheekily introduced myself, "Hi, I'm the new preacher at the Episcopal Church in town!" Some raised their eyebrows as I whirled them around.

Schuyler Satan Ambassador

Church InteriorI was considered the Schuyler Satan ambassador at the morning church service in Virginia for my square dancing the previous evening. The following Sunday, I had to pay dearly for that evening. It was a bright sunny start to the day, a crisp fresh breeze stirring in the trees outside as I rose to begin the morning service. My smile quickly melted. There before me were row upon row of worn, brooding, stony faces, eyes turned disapprovingly away. The stronger I pressed out the versicles, the weaker grew their whispered response. At the end of the service, I mechanically shook "wet fish" hands and exchanged facial muscle movements intended to look like smiles.

Blue Ridge Mountains

WaltonsOne kindly lady, who had taken pity on me, drew me aside gently. "Going to that Square Dance is the cause of all this, you know!" Then she added, "They consider you the ambassador of Satan but don't worry, they'll get over it!" I was considered "Satan's Ambassador" for what I had done. Having a northern accent was terrible enough, but spoiling my copybook in the eyes of my parishioners was unforgivable. Little did I realize, when I traveled down from the North to these beautiful "Blue Ridge Mountains," what problems I would face. My accommodations there were at the luxurious Schuyler Hotel. The next morning, I went for a walk to find out about the community. The Soap Stone Mining Company, its only employer, dominated the town. As I strolled, it gradually dawned that there were two quite distinct classes of people here.

Walton Family Virginia

Walton FamilyCaptain Ray Lewis goes to work with Sister Sherman near Earl Hamner's Walton family in Schuyler in Virginia's beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. In Schuyler, Virginia, famous for the Walton family, the hotel and a few very palatial mansions belonged to mine executives, but the workers' families occupied ramshackle little houses. If I was to reach the people, I had to get out of the hotel. Someone offered a small timber shack in a natural hollow on the edge of town, and I set aside one room for myself. A group of church folk and I turned the rest of the building into a community center and a small library for young people. We christened it "Friendship Corner." We had our problems. Local people kept on objecting to particular books and novels because of the bawdy language. Many children called in on their way home from school, and mums stopped by with their shopping. Earl Hamner Jr (1923-2016), who wrote "the Walton Family books," grew up at Friendship Corners. A thoughtful boy and an avid reader, he was always thrilled to see the latest titles as Sister Sherman unpacked them from the publishers. He was also well aware of the great poverty and hardships of the mining families. Even the most straightforward medical treatment was too expensive, so we decided to run our mission automobile the thirty miles to Charlottesville hospital as a free ambulance every week. Some people became a problem for others. A group of poor women started coming for special injections every two weeks, but certain others gossiped, "I'm not going in that car again. It's infected!" Despite the mudslinging, our ambulance kept running!

Virginia Chicken Dinner

Open BibleWe enjoy a Virginia chicken dinner followed by a Bible story in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Away from the problematic relationships in town, I visited the wooded mountain passes. As poor as they were, they always insisted I stay for a home-cooked "lip-smacking" Virginia chicken dinner. As we sat and talked, cackling noises erupted from the hen house outside as a chicken made the supreme sacrifice in my honor. The laid-out dinner table heaving with steaming vegetables made me welcome indeed. After our Virginia chicken dinner, someone started strumming a guitar and someone else a violin. Fits of hearty laughter punctuated our singing, "The old grey mare she ain't what she used to be." The echo hauntingly sped back from the pine trees across the valley. Later, by the light of a flickering oil lamp, I opened the Bible and read a well-known story. The next day, we played Gospel hymns on our squeaky pump organ at the mine to hundreds of brawny workers during their lunch break. The heartfelt testimonies of Christians who were also their work-mates moved many to tears.

"Bootlegger Valley Baptism"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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