The Patchwork Church - Windowsill Restoration at Pleasant Green Methodist Episcopal Church in Hillsboro, WV
Hillsboro, WV, is a small town that packs a big historical punch. It’s home to the Pearl S. Buck House, Watoga State Park, and another lesser known gem – the Pleasant Green Methodist Episcopal Church. This historic African American church is so modest and unassuming that most passersby probably barely even realize that it’s there, but I’ve been fortunate enough to learn its heartwarming history and assist in its restoration during my time as an AmeriCorps Member here in West Virginia.
I was first introduced to Pleasant Green in October 2019 while serving with the Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area’s Hands On Preservation Team. It was the first month of our service term and my first time doing official preservation work in the field, so I knew almost nothing about what I was doing and even less about the site itself. We were greeted by Ruth Taylor, Secretary of the Pocahontas County Historic Landmarks Commission and the church’s next-door neighbor, who told us all about Pleasant Green’s history.
Built in 1888, the site was specifically designated at the time of sale for use as a church and school for the growing number of black families in and around Hillsboro. Pleasant Green was a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, an African American-based denomination founded in Philadelphia in the late 1700s that grew popular throughout West Virginia following the Civil War. The congregation built and maintained the structure themselves with any materials they could scrape together, making Pleasant Green a true testament to people doing the best they could with what they had.
The church remained a cornerstone for the local black community all the way up through the 1970s, acting as a place of social gathering and of education as well as one of worship. The adjacent cemetery became the final resting place for most of the congregation as well, with approximately 50 marked graves and many more unmarked ones suspected. Two of the people buried there were not just beloved community members but notable historical figures: “Miz Eddy” Washington, a well-known cook at Watoga State Park and former employee of the family of WV Governor Wallace Barron, and Gordon Scott, the first African American to become Superintendent of a WV State Park.
Over the years, as families moved and the once-thriving congregation dwindled away, the church unfortunately fell into disrepair. On top of the chipped paint, rotting wood, pest damage, and other woes that typically plague old buildings, a fierce hailstorm in 2016 broke the glass in almost every one of the windows. The hail damage was especially disheartening, as it left the interior extremely vulnerable and destroyed multiple panes of rippled, amber-tinted “rootbeer glass” – a simple but beautiful decorative element that would have been very costly for the congregation and a point of pride on the otherwise unadorned structure.
Luckily, Ruth was able to have the Hands On Team come in to repair and reglaze the historic wooden window sashes (saving and reusing all the surviving rootbeer glass in the process). At that time, however, the team and I were not able to carry out some additional work that we realized needed to be done to the windowsills. So, when I finished that service year and began my current one with the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, I already had a plan in place to return to Hillsboro for my upcoming civic service project.
There are four large windows on the body of the church and two very small windows on either side of a vestibule that was added to the front façade at a later date. Because the larger windows were paired with equally large sills cut from single pieces of old growth hardwood, those four sills all remained in relatively good condition. These simply needed to be scraped, treated with consolidant to reharden the “punky” (or softened) wood, and repainted. The sills for the smaller windows, on the other hand, were much worse. The vestibule was a poorly constructed addition using lower quality materials and has not aged well as a result. Nearly one third of each of these two sills had completely rotted away, making a full replacement necessary for both. Fortunately, these sills were only 1-inch thick boards inserted very simply into the overall frame, so replacing them wouldn’t be very difficult (I hoped).
After visiting the church to make this assessment in Fall of 2020, Ruth and I planned for me to come back and complete the project in conjunction with a cemetery cleanup event to be held on Earth Day of 2021. I then spent the rest of the Winter being anxious and concerned that I might have committed to a project too big for one novice preservationist to successfully complete solo (since, as anyone who has ever worked on an old building can tell you, you never know what you’re going to find when you start poking around and even the simplest-seeming projects can quickly turn more complicated). Thankfully, Ruth helped put my mind at ease by reminding me that Pleasant Green has always been what she lovingly calls a “patchwork church” – it’s not all perfect, and it doesn’t all match, but everybody doing their small part to keep it stitched together over the years is what the true spirit of this place is all about.
So, with that reassurance in mind, I returned to Hillsboro this past April and got to work. Everything miraculously went according to plan, and I was even lucky enough to be joined by another volunteer who was a master carpenter and could help me make the cuts on the new replacement sills. As I worked on the sills, other folks cleared away the overgrown brush from the cemetery or cleaned up the inside of the church to turn it into a community space once again. At the end of the day, as I stood back and looked around at all the progress that had been made, I couldn’t help but remember how the site looked when I first arrived to work on the windows two years before. The church’s restoration and continuing survival is truly a product of 130 years of collaboration and faith, and I’m so proud to have been a part of it.
Kelsey Romer is the Preserve WV AmeriCorps member serving with the West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center's BAD Buildings Program during the 2021-2022 service term.
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