Woodworking discovery uncovered in Galestown

When workmen began making repairs to Wheatley’s Methodist Church, near Galestown, they discovered the almost intact interior walls of the original church built in 1784. It’s believed to be the oldest surviving wooden Methodist church in the nation. (Brice Stump Photo.)

What workmen found inside a one-room church near Galestown was so improbable that it took some church members a little time to comprehend what had been discovered.

Wheatley’s Methodist Protestant Church needed major repairs after termites had snacked on its timbers for years. The decision was made to pull off the thin sheets of wood paneling on the lower part of the walls inside, as well as the pressed-tin panels above it up to the ceiling.

The wood panels were installed in the early 1970s after termite damage was revealed and repaired.

Using decorative tin panels had been the church decorating fad of the late 1800s and yet they both covered woodwork that carpenters needed to examine to determine what timbers had to be replaced.

Then the aluminum siding and weatherboard had to be stripped off the church’s exterior walls, that revealed morel termite damage, to permit access for repairs. The colored glass windows were also removed was work continued.

“We ran into more damage that we expected,” said Bevery Wheatley whose family built and owns the church. “A lot more.”

Sills had to be replaced, corner posts, bracing members, but much of the original interior boards of the 18th century remained intact. No one expected the extent of termite damage and no one had any idea of the original woodwork waiting to be discovered.

It wasn’t long, said member and pianist-organist  Suellen Wilkins, when it was evident that there was something extraordinarily just under the interior veneer of panels and tin.

As more and more sheets were removed, the original interior of a church built in 1784 was revealed.

All four walls were paneled with wide boards, some 18-inches wide, and retained their original now olive green paint.

There is is much of the interior still intact that repairmen have literally revealed a church within a church. “We never knew the original woodwork was here,” Wheatley said. “It’s beautiful.”

“It’s truly remarkable,” said Bill Wilson of near Salisbury. “This is the earliest oldest known original Methodist church building existing on the Shore.”

Wilson, known for his decades of work restoring historic Pemberton Hall, also near Salisbury, and as a member of the Green Hill Church Preservation Committee, is well versed on 18th century architecture of the Eastern Shore. Wilkins invited him to have a look at the wooden time capsule.

Wilson, in turn, contacted architect Barton Ross, whose company in Chestertown specializes in restoration of period structures.

Beverley Wheatley watches as her friend Suellen Wilkins makes sure the antique pump organ in Wheatley’s Methodist Church is still in working order as the church near Galestown undergoes extensive restoration work. Doing recent repair work much of the original church of 1784 was found hidden beneath century-old tin panels. The wide, horizontal, 18th century boards, left and right in the photo, retain their original colors. It’s believed Wheatley’s is the oldest surviving wooden Methodist Church on Delmarva. (Brice Stump Photo.)

“Barton Ross also said our church was a late 18th-century building,” Wilkins added.

“I’ve been checking into this,” Wilkins said, “and our church is the oldest surviving Methodist church building that has been in continual use in the nation.”

Wheatley and Wilkins are excited about the discoveries at the quaint country church. 

There is also a puzzling architectural feature inside, too. There are indications that there was a “loft” just above the entrance when entering the sanctuary. Often referred to a “slave loft,” such structures may have also been built to provide addition family “boxes.” 

“In my research I found where the Wheatley family was freeing their slaves just before the Revolutionary War, which suggest this could have been the worship area for freed slaves,” Wilkins said. “At about the same time there were more freed blacks prior to the Civil War in Maryland than slaves.

“So many people for so many years have worshipped here,” Wilkins said. When it was built it was Wheatley’s Methodist Episcopal Church

The congregation, of about a dozen, worship here weekly, in a picturesque church in the quiet countryside. There were window air conditioners, there is no plumbing, and an upright piano supported congregational singing.

The cherished turn-of-the 20-century-old pump organ, at home in a corner, is still in perfect working condition should the piano develop a glitch.

“My ancestors started this church,” said Wheatley, who has been worshipping here since she was a child. “But we never knew the original church was always here.”

Wilkins and Wheatley remembers an incident at the church decades ago that suggested there might be serious structural problems with the building.

In the late ’60s, one of the church members “fell through the floor,” Wilkins said, and consequently all the original wide, thick floor boards were removed and replaced with plywood. 

According to Wilkins, Vincent Whaley, one of the workmen, found two large hand-hewn pine logs spanning the width of the building. Because of termite damage, they, too, were removed and replaced.

Inevitably, removing the tin on the lower part of the walls caused considerable damage to the panels, Wilkins said, and the decision was made to replace the tin with thin luan four foot high panels from the floor up on the interior walls.

Problem was, there was a time not so long ago when the congregation dipped to just three attendees. Taking on an expensive restoration project then was out of question.

Now the congregation numbers about 18 and the time had come to do the work in preparation of the 235th anniversary celebration of the church’s construction, Sept. 21-22.

Whether Roman numerals or characters of the alphabet, Colonial craftsmen used them to identify where custom-cut pieces of wood fit in the framework of a building. This indicates the building was first fitted and assembled at the site of the sawmill, disassembled and moved by wagon or boat to the building site and reassembled. Like many other 18th century structures, the framework was erected on site at the sawmill, fitted and numbered and loaded on wagons and moved to the site where the structure was to be rebuilt. (Brice Stump Photo.)

Wilkins wants to see the church restored to its original appearance.“It’s always been a dream of mine to have the floor put back the way it was as I remembered it as a child,” Wilkins said. “We have been saving pine floors boards from old houses that were set to be demolished,” she said, “to put down as the ‘new’ floor at the church.”

With enough money to cover floor replacements costs, the committee had a section of the floor removed, and discovered more termite damage. When the luan panels were removed, again, more termite damage. Even when aluminum was removed from the exterior, termite damage was discovered in original bracing and timbers, and the building had shifted on its brick piers.

Things were so precarious, she said, that the construction team felt that even removing more of the exterior side might cause a wall to fall outwards or collapse.

“We are still in the stabilization phase,” she said. With the windows removed and huge openings in the walls, there’s a good breeze indeed swirling through the sanctuary.

Their church is the church of song and tradition, a simple, quaint one-room building in the countryside and they want to save it.. 

“We maintained  an every other Sunday service since the days to the circuit riding preacher of the late 1700s and continued until about ten years ago,” Wilkins said. “We adopted a routine schedule of services being held the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month.”

“This church is of the ‘Episcopal persuasion,’ ”  Wilkins noted. “When the owner gave the land for the church site in 1784 it was stipulated in the deed that it was to be ‘a house of worship filled with a clergy of those people called Methodists or a friendly clergy of the Church of England and there is to be no other teachings than that of Charles and John Wesley.”

Besides being the oldest surviving wooden Methodist building on the Shore the church has another claim to a unique history — unlike almost all Methodist churches on the Shore, the building and land here was not deeded to the Methodist conference.

As with other restoration projects, it’s all about “the money.” Though the church does have a building fund and a special preservation fund, Wheatley explained,  bills coming are higher than money available in the piggy bank.

“You know, we are a really small church. There’s no way we can do all this without having to borrow money,” she said. “All this can be pretty again, but it’s going to take some doing.”

While the good news is that the discovery of the 18th-century church hidden under 19th and 20th century remodeling the little congregation is struggling to find the money to do what needs to be done. 

“We had a little bit of money, but this is a lot more work and money than we expected. I don’t know what we are going to do,” Wheatley said.

With wooden props securing the building, windows removed, as well as sections of the wall missing, workmen continue restoration on Wheatley’s Methodist Church. The tiny congregation is struggling to pay the almost $50,000 bill to save the structure built in 1784.

To bring in money, church members are hosted a two-day event, “Hog Yard Heritage Days,” this Saturday and Sunday at the site.

The name, Wilkins said, is drawn from the earliest land deeds of the church in which the property in the mid-1700s was identified as the Hog Yard tract.

The community house, a landmark onto itself, was a one-room school house. It  closed in 1936 and was sold to the church in November 1935 for $5. “We will have eight exhibitors to demonstrate what country folks did in the ‘olden days,’ at work and play,” Wilkins said. “We have a broom-maker, blacksmith, and there will be a calligrapher on hand to show examples of writing, using a quill pen.

Contributions to assist with the preservation of this unique landmark can be sent to Suellen Wilkins, 317 East Sixth Street, Seafood, DE, 19973. Make checks payable to the Wheatley Methodist Church Building Fund.

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