REEPSVILLE — The Old Thessalonica Baptist Church Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in the Catawba Valley area, has existed since approximately 1827, and for the last 30 years has been in the care of local historian Michael Huffman of Connelly Springs.
“I started going out with my great-aunt Martha Hoover Whisnant to help with the mowing of the cemetery,” Huffman said. “By that point, I had heard so much about it.”
Huffman’s family has been the designated caretakers of the cemetery for decades, spanning over his great-grandfather, parents, aunt and uncle and even siblings.
“All my great-grandfather, Perry A. Hoover, asked was to never let this cemetery grow up,” Huffman said.
Now, as a historian who specializes in local history, Huffman works to preserve the cemetery as part of the Catawba Valley’s past.
“We need to preserve our history, and this cemetery will be kept up for as long as I live,” Huffman said.
Huffman has compiled 30 years worth of historical background of the Thessalonica Baptist Church, which begins around the late 1820s when the church was established.
Huffman said before the church was built, many people would gather in homes, buildings and even trees to listen to traveling preachers.
Huffman has found and kept documents identifying the traveling preachers who visited the area from time to time in the 1800s.
David Yoder, an ancestor of Huffman, was heavily involved with Thessalonica Baptist Church.
Huffman has discovered that Yoder’s home included a small, “preacher’s room,” for the traveling preachers who frequented the area.
David Yoder, the grandson of Swiss-born pioneer Conrad Yoder, was born Sept. 22, 1799 — one of 10 children.
“David Yoder was a farmer and cooper,” Huffman explained. “He lived quietly with his family, somewhat remote from the main highways and off the beaten tracks.”
Yoder and wife, Ruth Wilson, had five children, all buried in the Thessalonica graveyard.
“The church no longer stands, but the cemetery remains,” Huffman said. “In 1990, I bought garden markers and placed them at the Yoder family resting spots.”
By 1856 the church had seen 38 baptisms in the 27 years of its existence, and on July 13, 1860 it was decided to dedicate land to construct an actual church.
Huffman’s research has found that the church was entirely made of lumber, and the timber had been donated by none other than Yoder. A total of $8 was spent on the construction.
“Interested people gave lumber and labor for the church,” Huffman said. “David Yoder and J.J. Hicks also were witnesses to the signing of the deed for the church.”
Huffman added that by 1900, Thessalonica still did not have a stable preacher, but routinely hosted traveling preachers, Sunday school and revivals from time to time.
The last burial in the church graveyard was that of Rachel Isabelle Leatherman Hoover in 1925.
Huffman has found that due to the construction of a new road, Thessalonica Baptist Church became remote and was never revived.
“The church was disbanded in 1939 after trying to keep services there, and at the end it was only used for revivals and funerals,” Huffman said. “The church building was later taken apart and the lumber used for other buildings in the community.”
Since then Huffman’s family has been caretakers of the graveyard of Thessalonica, the final resting place for nearly 50 early residents of the area who were devoted members of the church.
“This is one of the oldest cemeteries in the Catawba County area that not only has white people buried there, but slaves as well,” Huffman said.
The slave graves that can be found are marked with a simple field stone.
Preserve the past
As already mentioned, after the disbandment in 1939 Huffman’s family became the designated caretakers of the graveyard.
“After a few years, my aunt Martha’s health started getting bad and she wasn’t able to mow,” Huffman said. “In 1994, my parents, Mallie and Nellie Poovey Settlemyre, started helping me in the cleaning and mowing.”
Huffman said at first his father was not very interested in the upkeep of the cemetery, but as time marched on his father’s interest grew.
“As years passed, he worried about getting it mowed and taken care of just like us,” Huffman said. “Mom always brought flowers to place on every grave to keep it beautiful and peaceful for those who have lived and died.”
Huffman’s father passed away in 2009, and was buried in the cemetery he helped mow for years.
“My brother, William Settlemyre, then started going out with his equipment to clean and cut trees down,” Huffman said.
Tragedy struck a short four weeks later when William Settlemyre fell out of a tree at the property and was instantly killed.
“He was buried beside Dad in the cemetery,” Huffman explained.
The loss Huffman and his mother struggled through did not deter them from their work in the cemetery.
“In July 2009, my mother and I started a project cementing around the markers to preserve them and fix the broken ones,” Huffman said. “Plans are to fix the slave cemetery in the future and continue what my brother and father had started.”
Huffman said altogether there are over 100 graves in the cemetery, and he wishes to one day be able to highlight each one.
Unfortunately, Huffman’s mother passed away a short year ago and is now buried in the cemetery as well.
“She could remember growing up and her grandmother, Ada Propst Hoover, taking wild roses and cans with water to place on the graves,” Huffman said.
Although Huffman has had much to mourn in the past few years, he still plans to keep up his work at the Thessalonica Baptist Church cemetery.
“This cemetery will always be taken care of,” Huffman said. “These people lived and we can’t forget about them.
“Without a past, there is no future.”
Huffman wished to share this story in memory of his mother, Nellie.