Church restored as memorial to those torn down by government

Posted: Friday, January 19, 2001

GOLDEN POND, Ky. (AP) -- Some of the churches were moved. Some were bulldozed and the piles of rubble burned.

When the federal government in the 1960s moved residents and demolished their homes and businesses to create the Land Between the Lakes recreational area, not even places of worship were allowed to remain.

Except St. Stephen, a century-old Catholic church nestled amongst hills and tall trees. It was saved during the demolition process -- most likely because it was forgotten. It had sat empty since the early 1940s.

Now a group of mostly former residents is preserving it as a memorial to the more than 40 area churches where residents once congregated for weddings, funerals and Sunday services.

''We all see our own church in this church here,'' said Ray Parish, president of Between the Rivers Inc., the organization that initiated the project.

''We don't feel much better about the government, but we feel better about ourselves by doing this project,'' said Parish, 49, of Grand Rivers.

The Land Between the Lakes is an inland peninsula in western Kentucky and Tennessee that was formed when the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers were impounded to create Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. It is about 90 miles north of Nashville.

Today, the 170,000-acre area, which contains a wildlife preserve, is visited by 2 million people annually for activities such as hunting, boating, camping and horseback riding, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

It was created in 1963 by President Kennedy as a federal demonstration project to show how a parcel of land could be converted into a recreational area to stimulate economic growth by returning it to a natural state and erasing evidence that people ever resided in the area.

To do so, about 700 families were moved, said Kathy Harper, spokeswoman for the Forest Service -- the agency that took control of the area from the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1999.

Houses were torn down or moved, along with businesses. Churches with names like Hematite Methodist, Jenny Ridge Holiness and Carmack Baptist were among those removed.

The decision wasn't without controversy.

Many in the area's close-knit communities objected to the use of eminent domain to build a recreation area.

Some residents' forbears had lived in the area since the Revolutionary War, and there were strong ties to the land, said David Nickell, a sociology professor at Paducah Community College who is a former resident of the Land Between the Lakes.

''We were native to the place and our sense of identity is tied to the place,'' Nickell said. ''We feel like we belong there as much as the rocks or trees or anything else.''

Some people asked that the churches be allowed to remain intact, but TVA officials objected, Nickell said. Only the area's 250 cemeteries were undisturbed.

Some residents accepted the compensation offered by the government and quietly left. Others were forced out, and remain bitter 35 years later.

Many families moved together in clusters. Some of their churches were moved. Other families joined an existing church of the same denomination.

Now, St. Stephen is starting to emerge as a symbol of the culture and people whose communities were erased, said Nickell, who helped volunteer on the restoration.

''It's one of the last things we have in there that's ours,'' he said. ''It's kind of an emblem of who we were.''

Last year, Parish's group, which works to restore and maintain the cemeteries in Land Between the Lakes, entered into an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to restore the church.

The forest service agreed to donate some materials and provide an archaeologist to ensure historic accuracy, and the group raised about $3,500 through donations.

When the group started July 8, the weathered building was leaning, it had broken windows, rotted flooring, holes in the walls and numerous leaks in the roof.

Now the 540-square-foot church has been refurbished by volunteers. The outside has been painted white, the flooring has been restored and the frame is solid.

By spring, volunteers hope to have a restored altar and to have repainted the inside, Parish said. They plan to have a nondenominational service in the spring to celebrate the restoration.

After that, it will likely be a place visitors can go to reflect or see how area churches once looked. Reunions and celebrations might also take place on the grounds.

St. Stephen, one of two Catholic churches in the area, was built in 1900 and later rebuilt for unknown reasons in 1917 and 1938, Parish said.

The small congregation was made up of German immigrants. Some walked or traveled by wagon or horseback up to 10 miles to get to church, said Homer Barnett, whose great-grandmother is buried in the churchyard.

Carl Heater, 65, of Grand Rivers, remembers walking by the church decades ago when it had a piano or organ and a small congregation.

That helps explain why he worked on the project, he said. ''My roots are here. I feel an obligation.''

Before Christmas, several former residents gathered in the unheated church with 10-degree temperatures outside to sing carols and to remember.

''Collectively, people can come back in and say I was a part of this, I have a connection to these things,'' Nickell said. ''The government may have paid for the land, but they didn't pay for those kinds of cultural meanings and significance, those are still ours.''


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