By Jessica Brodie
The first time Nancy Platt laid eyes on Eccles United Methodist Church, it was love at first sight.
Platt and her husband moved a few years ago to the rural community surrounding Eccles, northwest of Mount Pleasant, and they were immediately taken with the historic structure.
“It’s the cutest thing—it just sings to you,” Platt said, describing the exterior, which she says is essentially one great piece of longleaf pine.
The Platts soon joined the church and began worshipping each week with the tiny congregation, which comprises about 15-18 people, most of them in their 70s. An elementary school teacher, Platt was intrigued with the history, and soon she started to learn more and more about the quaint church. Founded in 1881 and situated in the Francis Marion National Forest, it’s located at the end of Eccles Church Road, which turns into clay roads that eventually take you way back into forest.
“It would be a lovely wedding venue,” Platt said. “It’s such a charming, sweet little building.”
Fellow church members would regale her with stories of their own history growing up doing Sunday school under the trees by the church, or their annual Mother’s Day homecoming, when families would gather from far off, camping out at the church for a huge weekend banquet.
But there’s one problem: While beautiful, the old church is now dilapidated and “needs serious TLC,” Platt said.
“I asked, ‘What are you guys doing with this beautiful building,’ and they said, ‘We’re stuck.’”
They didn’t have the needed funds or expertise to undertake the needed repairs.
That’s when Platt stepped up. As a teacher, she’s well accustomed to grant-writing and offered to look into securing a grant to fund a renovation or restoration project.
She approached Christina Rae Butler, professor of historic preservation American College of Building Arts in Charleston, whose interest in the project quickly piqued.
In the spring, Butler took her sophomore group to the Eccles site and put them to work.
At the end of their time at Eccles, they provided a detailed report of what they felt was needed to get the church back to where it used to be.
The students spent much of the spring semester working at the church, ultimately producing a master-plan document in June complete with historical research, condition assessments and remediation suggestions for the church.
By digging through historical records and working with the structure itself, the students soon discovered the church had been constructed in 1881 or 1882 and then moved to its present location in the 1920s.
A modern church was built on the site in the 1960s where parishioners worship today, but after a long period of disuse and disrepair, the original structure simply sits there, with no current function.
Student Andrew Pankratz heavily researched the beginnings of the church, which he reported was “part of the Irishtown Plantation, whose 6,488 acres was the primary residence of Revolutionary War hero Major Isaac Harleston, who worked with Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox.”
Pankratz noted that Benjamin Gregg (spelled also as Greig) donated the land for the original meeting house on Aug. 1, 1881, and the church was officially started in 1882, probably as a church plant that grew out of a nearby church.
The circuit rider preacher at the time was reportedly Daniel Archibald Patrick, who would have been between 26 and 30 at the time he pastored at Eccles.
The area was thought to be a center for bootlegging in the 1920s, and since the construction of the new church in the 1960s, the historic building wasn’t regularly used.
A plan with priorities
As the conclusion of their report, the students noted that Eccles “is an important vernacular rural church building with many original character defining features and a high level of integrity, having had few modernizations and alterations during its life.”
Because it is so intact, and based on the intended use and goals for the building as expressed by the congregation, they recommended not over-restoring the building or modernizing it heavily with new electricity and climate control. Instead, they suggested the church be repaired as needed and preserved overall. This is also a much cheaper option that complete restoration and modernization.
As immediate priority the students listed: Repair the compromised corner post; remove siding on front wall (end well with entry doors) and sister brace stud walls as needed to address slight bow in the wall; and add collar tie or ceiling joists to this end of the building if needed, to help strengthen end wall.
Second steps, as part of overall building preservation: Remove siding from entire façade to allow structural repairs; add flashing and repair cornices as needed; salvage as much original siding as possible and reinstall, beginning with most viewed façade of the building; install new replace-in-kind siding as needed to supplement the salvaged original material; repair historic windows where possible/as funding allows; replace other windows as necessary; repoint brick piers as needed; repair metal roof cladding or replace existing; limewash or use an opaque stain to coat the exterior siding; and repair the exterior doors where possible.
Cosmetic/last steps: Sand and refinish the pine flooring; limewash or paint the interior paneling if desired; and remove concrete steps.
Students reported issues such as extensive rot, heavy wood deterioration, weathering damage and some biogrowth.
Now armed with a master plan, they are doing what they can to secure funding for a preservation contractor, including private opportunities via GoFundMe and DonorChoose, as well as a grant from the South Carolina Conference and a recent $10,000 donation from MacArthur Lodge 427.
The Rev. James Lewis Sr. said he loves being Eccles’ pastor during this important time.
“I just can't wait till we can have a ribbon cutting for the church,” Lewis said. “I can see how the congregation is so happy about this, too. It has been years since they have used the old church.”
He said one of the biggest things he is enjoying is the history of this church, the stories of the families and functions that were there.
“I would love to stay here as the pastor during this preservation of the church and to be able to preach in it, also,” he said.
Platt, as well as Lewis, said the congregation is enthused about the preservation project and have started a Facebook group to stay organized and foster encouragement and support (www.facebook.com/groups/266805578870292).
For more photos of the historic church, visit SC Picture Project at https://www.scpictureproject.org/berkeley-county/eccles-united-methodist-church.html.