November 7, 2013

The Denmark Presbyterian Church: A Corner of Tennessee History

  • By: David Weible

The exterior of the church after restoration was completed. Credit: Big Black Creek Historical Association
The exterior of the Denmark Presbyterian Church after restoration was completed.

With a current population of seven (yes, just seven), you’d think there wouldn’t be much to the town of Denmark in west Tennessee. But the little crossroads just 70-odd miles northeast of Memphis is a place with some oversized history.

Denmark is said to be the oldest Anglo town in West Tennessee, dating roughly to the 1818 treaty that Andrew Jackson signed for the land with the Chickasaw tribe. And contrary to the belief of the 40 or so Danish nationals that visit the town each year, the name is believed to come from the Chickasaw term for their hunting ground.

Most of the area was settled on land grants during the 1820s at three cents an acre. An estimated 50 to 60 percent of those grants remain in the families of their original owners. The town was the largest in the region until the railroads boosted neighbors like the city of Jackson.

And today, the little town’s crown jewel is the Denmark Presbyterian Church.

The Denmark Presbyterian Church before restoration. Its western wall was beginning to lean outward. Credit: Big Black Creek Historical Association
The Denmark Presbyterian Church before restoration. Its western wall was beginning to lean outward.

Though the congregation dates to 1820, the two-story church that stands today was completed in 1854. Built with slave labor that hand-hewed the lumber and even fashioned the nails on site, the structure took roughly five years to build. But much of the church’s early history remains a bit hazy.

"We have the records from 1868 forward, but the records prior to that were destroyed during the Civil War," says Bill King of the Big Black Creek Historical Association. "We went through the old Presbyterian Synod records to find other history."

But while the Civil War destroyed much of its recorded history, it created plenty of its own.

The Battle of Britton’s Lane took place just five miles from the Church, and Ulysses S. Grant made headquarters in Jackson, just ten miles up the road. Even the church itself was a point of contention.

"There’s a real good story too," says King with the knowledge that he’s about to impart a tall tale. "Confederate troops were in the church on a Sunday morning and Fielding Hurst [a staunch southern Unionist] stormed the church. He saw the horses. And the boys got up under the hoop skirts of the girlfriends… Likely story."

Workers sand the yellow poplar floors of the church where Civil War soldiers walked 150 years ago. Credit: Big Black Creek Historical Association
Workers sand the yellow poplar floors of the church where Civil War soldiers walked 150 years ago.

The church was finally abandoned around 1990. Tow local women who were determined to save it managed to do so, but some of the ensuing work on the structure resulted in the accumulation of water damage. By 2007, the old church was in bad shape.

That’s when King’s Big Black Creek Historical Association stepped in. With the help of a small grant from the National Trust, the group stabilized the building and then set about applying for additional financing to completely restore the structure. In the end, they managed to secure roughly $600,000 from the Tennessee Department of Transportation, Madison County -- where the church is located -- and other organizations.

The project included reinforcing the church with steel beams hidden on the interior and adding additional support underneath with a concrete pad supported by wooden pilings. The structure was also re-insulated and rewired, and original windows were reinstalled after they were discovered on the second floor. Finally, termite damage to the church’s original poplar wood construction was remedied.

"Home Depot doesn’t have clapboards of yellow poplar," says King. "So the Mennonites cut all the lumber for us, [and] we put it back in yellow poplar just like it was."

The view from the pulpit of the Denmark Presbyterian Church after the restoration work was completed this fall. Credit: Big Black Creek Historical Association
The view from the pulpit of the Denmark Presbyterian Church after the restoration work was completed this fall.

During the process, the crew found buckshot in the church from Civil War muskets, and a musket ball came out of a crack in the floor when King was vacuuming up the sawdust. On the second floor, which had served as a Masonic Lodge since the church’s completion as well as a Confederate prison during the war, King discovered parts of the Masons' history scratched into the walls and names of numerous Union Soldiers scratched into the baseboards. Those names, most of which came from the 30th Illinois, which was stationed in the region for most of the war, were sent to reenactment groups and University of Illinois scholars for further research.

The church finally hosted its first services after the restoration was completed in the last weekend of October, and though it won’t regularly host services for the foreseeable future, if history is any indication, it’ll sure get its fair share of use.

Special thanks to Bill King and for his copies of Big Black Creek Vols. I. and II.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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