Brice Stump: Nanticoke Road’s pyramid in the woods

Wicomico Presbyterian Church historian, Pat Taylor, shows Wicomico County historian Robert Adkins the site of the third meeting house of the church, built on the site in 1767. It is now marked with a “brick pulpit” erected in 1918. A cemetery that dates to at least 1823 is also located here.

There’s no doubt about it, the pyramid in the woods is a peculiar sight.

Each year thousands of motorists whiz by the wooded patch along Nanticoke Road where this marker stands. Some have traveled the road for years and have yet to see it.

While there are tombstones by the brick structure, about 6 feet tall, it isn’t a grave marker as some think. The large marble inset panel on one side is not a rescued tombstone.

Built more than a century ago, the pyramid marks the site of the third “meeting house” of the Wicomico Presbyterian Church.

This is just one of two such markers on the Shore, and both are related directly to the history of the church. Here generations gathered to worship in a rural setting.

There is no church now. 

According to Pat Taylor, church historian, in 1709 members had their first meeting house for those “of the Presbyterian persuasion,” near where the Upper Ferry operates today on the Wicomico River. It was called “What You Please,” and built in what was then Somerset County.

“The second meeting house, built in 1742, was located away from the river, inward near Rockawalkin Creek. It was about about a mile and a half up Rockawalkin Creek from its mouth,” Taylor said. 

“In 1767 the church acquired property along what is now Nanticoke Road and constructed the third meeting house, known as “Newberry,” the same name as the tract of land on which it was built,” Taylor explained.

Even though his estate, Weston, 8 miles south of Vienna, was on the west side of the Nanticoke River, Gov. John Henry and his family came here by boat.

The three-acre property was acquired on behalf of the church by Isaac Handy (son of the builder of nearby historic Pemberton Hall), William Venables and John Henry. 

When the new meeting house was built here, Taylor said, builders recycled woodwork — sills, framing, rafters and sleepers — from the second meeting house, about a  mile away.

With Salisbury growing in population and economic importance, there were more congregation members living in the urban area.

By 1830 it was decided a new wooden church would be built in Salisbury .

“Sarah, widow of Dr. John Huston, Salisbury’s first surgeon, lived in what is now Poplar Hill Mansion, donates land for the new church right smack in the middle of what is now Route 50. A stipulation was that a cemetery could not be put on the property. 

The Makemie Monument at Makemie Park.

“Later, members wanted a cemetery and purchased a small piece of adjoining property from a neighbor,” she said.

The present brick church was constructed in 1859.  The wood they were using was sold to the Old School Baptist Church for $1,100. Eventually that congregation built the brick building which remains along Route 50 east, almost across the street from the Presbyterian church.

As for the third meeting house near Rockawalkin, it continued to be used by the dwindling congregation. It may have closed for routine services by the end of the Civil War.

Then it was decided by the early 1900s that the old decaying church in the woods should be torn down.

To mark its location, the “pyramid in the woods” was built.

Constructed in 1918 by the “ushers of the church,.” under the supervision of committee chairman Ralph Dreer. Because the meeting house was almost in ruins, the men tore down the church and recycled bricks from its foundation into the pyramid.

Also called a “brick pulpit,” the monument contains a marble tablet that reads:

This tablet is to commemorate

 ROCK-A-WALKIN 

PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

Organised by

FRANCIS MAKEMIE

1684

Built at the Upper Ferry

Rebuilt at this place

May 18, 1767

Merged into Wicomico

Church about 1830

Erected by Ushers Association

of

WICOMICO PRESBYTERIAN

CHURCH

May 18, 1918

This memorial is built with the 

brick from the old church

foundation

The “brick pulpit” was erected within feet of tombstones in the church cemetery.

There were a number of burials here, and older photographs show several tombstones. By 1970, only two  stones could be found. William Anderson, 9, was buried there in 1871. Wealthy landowner James Richie, church trustee, remembered as a “truly charitable man,” was born in Scotland in 1765, and died at 57, in 1823.

What may be members of the Wicomico Presbyterian Church Ushers Association are shown next to the completed “brick pulpit,” erected on the site of the third meeting house of the church, built in 1767.

The tablet also honors the church roots as being one of the five churches (which began as “preaching stations”) established by Rev. Francis Makemie, “Father of American Presbyterianism.”

His churches, organized about 1683 near rivers, were located in Snow Hill, Pitts Creek near Pocomoke City, Upper Ferry, Manokin in Princess Anne and Rehobeth, near Shelltown.

About the same time the monument was built, a pavilion was constructed nearby. Picnics and social events were held here. The old church was gone, but the pyramid made sure it was not forgotten.

But forgotten it became. When the custom of large picnics at church sites fell out of favor, the pavilion was no longer used. Soon weeds and saplings claimed the three-acre site.

“What makes this piece of property also unique is that it is not owned by the Presbytery in New Castle. Our church predates the forming of the Presbytery in 1706. The Wicomico Presbyterian Church owns the lot.”

By the time the “brick pulpit” was built, the third meeting house was almost collapsing from neglect.

By the time of World War II, it appears the pavilion was no longer used for picnics or special events. Grass, weeds and trees started to reclaim the lot.

While church volunteers used to keep the lot clear, that chore has now been taken over by local Boy Scouts of America troops.

In 2016, Mitchell Clark of Boy Scout Troop 149 of Bethesda United Methodist Troop organized the rebuilding of the brick pulpit to get his Eagle Scout badge.

Clark, along with his brother, Brett, along with five others from the troop, as well as parental help, worked to repoint and restore missing and loose bricks from the structure as well as replacing the original slate top that was broken, probably by falling trees. 

“The place was overgrown. No one had been in there for years, and all of us cleaned it up,” said Clark’s mother, Rebecca.

With donations from Salisbury Brick, and mason Eddie Bailey, the “new and improved” pyramid is prepared for another century of weathering the elements..

 “We do not use this site at all. Most of our younger and newer members don’t even know it exists,” Taylor said. She said the new pastor, Dr. Rev. Maggie Gillespie, would like to see it.

 It’s now a historical curiosity.

“With congregations getting smaller, it’s difficult to see how we could use this site again. It would be nice to have picnics and special services there from time to time.”

There is also a problem with access. The property is landlocked which limits its use.

“We have had people ask us to allow them to use metal detectors, and we absolutely, positively said ‘no’ in a nice way,” Taylor said. “This is private property and we’ve had it since 1767.” 

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