This Sunday Snapshot memory takes up a previous post from around April 2007 that was marked “to be continued”. It was the beginning of what was perhaps to become a book about growing up in the country after the great depression. I don’t know where it will go from here, indeed it may never be finished, but I decided to revive it and continue it until it’s finished or dies a natural death–whichever happens first.
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When we moved there around 1947, the nearest town in either direction of Ellisville was Lake City to the north, and High Springs to the south. Turn east on the hardtop road by Mrs. Leola Witt’s house, just a good hop and skip southward on U.S. 41, and you’ll find yourself in Providence after a few miles through rolling farmland. That’s where my other grandma lived and eventually if you kept going, you’d wind up in Jacksonville.
But this story is about Ellisville. One very small (1 pump) gas station, where you could also purchase a few staple grocery items, was the heart of Ellisville then. It was called Branch’s General Store because that was the name of the man who owned it. He’d come from somewhere northward sometime before we had and set up housekeeping in the side of the store with his wife. He was tall and awkward looking with a scruffy face and glasses and a way of staring that frightened me, but his wife had nicely curled black hair and pleasant demeanor. They had no children.
The store was the gathering place. Men like my father would leave their farm chores whenever they could find good reason–maybe to “fetch a part” or gas for the tractor. You could also get nails and hardware displayed in barrel kegs, and while you were there it didn’t hurt to buy a nickel Coca Cola from the ice-cooled case (I remember it was a faded red color and you had to open and close it real fast to keep the cold in) and sit around a spell swapping yarns, discussing the price of hogs and cattle and such. Mrs. Branch had the first Chia statue I ever saw, a head that grew green hair after she faithfully watered it for a couple of weeks. Fascinating stuff for a 5-year-old like me.
Since I was too young to really know this and don’t really know how it came to be, I fathom that Margie Bailey was driving north of U.S. 41, fresh out of Bible School in Lakeland, when she noticed that there weren’t many churches located on that long stretch after leaving High Springs. Almost 26 miles with only a church or two scattered in between, and not one holy roller among them!
So one fine day when Daddy decided to go fetchin’ in the middle of the day, he saw a huge tent set up in the yard north of Branch’s store. Signs advertised a Revival Night, a date, and an invitation to come and join the fellowship. One night not long after, the family dresses up in Sunday best and goes off to the tent revival to see the woman preacher.
There was a guest preacher that night, a boy really, that absolutely charmed everybody, including the five-year-old that was me. Not only could that kid preach with the cadence and rhythm and the best of the best holy roller, he could sing and play the guitar too. I could not have imagined a child with that much influence on grownups. Children in my world were seen and not heard and the parents would be proud to tell you that. And I’d never heard real live entertainment much up to that point in my life.
Here we were treated to the best singing and guitar and piano playing one could imagine, some of it fast “boogie” foot stomping style. Sister Margie had a booming voice for coming from such a small woman. When she sang “Mansion Over The Hilltop” and “Something Got A Hold of Me, her voice filled the whole church, and you’d swear your grandma in the next county could have heard her. Everybody went home feeling good, and before long, every man, woman and child in Ellisville seemed to be in love with her.
She soon had enough money to refurbish the mechanic’s shed on the south end of the store property, and turn it into a tin-roofed church. That tin church was such a hit, drawing so many people that, another revival and a year or so later, the congregation had outgrown it, so she built a modern, new concrete structure of 5000 or so square feet on a donated 5-acre-tract about a quarter-mile north up the road. It was set back a ways on a dirt road, but still within eyesight of the highway and the people kept a’coming and the church grew and grew. There seemed to be no stopping it.
And then one day, a young guest evangelist came to visit. Whether she’d known him from her bible school days, or–as she might have phrased it–God sent him to her, not long afterward Sister Margie Bailey became Sister Margie Patterson.
Her new husband looked, to me, like a 5’5″ Roy Rogers in a cream colored suit. They moved into the newly constructed parsonage adjacent to the church and for the next few years would form a gospel singing quartet that included my big brother who sang bass. They sang all around Florida at revivals and guest performances. They were famous–at least locally–through their 15-minute radio program from a local station in Lake City early on Sunday mornings.
What I remember best about the church is how terrified I was at the thought of having to “testify” in front the parishioners–which was a very popular thing to do–and how much I looked forward to going into the prayer room in the back every Sunday night at the invitational after the evening service, especially if I saw Edna go back first. You could count on somebody being overtaken by the holy ghost. It was especially satisfying watching Edna writhing on the floor in lowly-lit room because she was so young (probably 18 at the time) and so pretty, and really filled her clothes out in all the right places. Sister Margie would stand prayer over each person kneeling in the prayer room and rebuke the devil and pray in tongues before moving on to the next person.
Sometimes my friend Helen went with me and it was she who taught me what to say when it was my turn with Sister Margie. Usually by the time I’d said three “yes jesuses” or “thank you jesuses” she would have moved on to the next person and I could shut up, open my eyes and just watch. Someone in the family I later shared my observations with pointed out to me once that if I didn’t watch out, one of those Sunday nights the holy ghost was going to get a hold of me and I would be the one writhing around and talking in tongues for the entertainment of the others in the room. That was a sobering thought indeed.
Other strongest memories concern singing. In the tin church days, I remember a time when Sister Margie asked the congregation to shout out their favorite songs to sing after the formal service was finished. I shouted out something like Page 139, and it was a wonder to me then as now that she chose it! Even then I was on the edge of becoming a true feminist. The song, which I’d chosen strictly because its title was If Men Go To Hell Who Cares. (After I grew up and looked at it again, I saw it really wasn’t quite the statement I’d thought at the time.) It would take many years more before I would have completed the process of becoming if not one, then someone with a strong leaning toward feminism.
The second song incident was a Sunday night in the new church, when both I and my other friends at church conspired as often as possible to get Sister Margie to have the congregation sing another favorite song of ours, Hold The Fort For I Am Coming, after the service. We only did it, however, when our friend Maryann came to church and for a very good reason. Maryann had a way of saying her O’s as if they were A’s. I’m sure if you put your mind to it, you’ll understand the charm the song held for us. As the dedicated members of the church sang, we only cared about listening for Maryann’s voice to get to the “hold the fort for I am coming” line. Then we’d nearly roll in our seats giggling. I can see now that we weren’t the sweet angelic children we were expected to be. And I’m sure many a congregationalist went home and prayed for us.
Though hidden away in the woods off an obscure country tarmac road, there WAS another church less than 3-miles away to the southeast. Phillipi Baptist. In fact, it was the church my father had more or less abandoned for Sister Margie. She came along during the time he had estranged himself from the Baptist church over a practical joke one of his brothers had pulled on the minister, and the minister had blamed him.
But progress slows for no one, not even Mr. Branch. Several years later, his tiny little general store would succumb to the larger, more modern general store that moved in down the road about 500 feet away, with 4 gas pumps out front to catch the tourist trade down U.S. 41/441. The entrepreneur of the family, my uncle’s store would eventually cause Mr. Branch to close up shop, pack up the missus–no hard feelings–and move away. It was the end or the beginning of an era, depending on how you chose to look at it. I don’t know what happened to the Branches.
to be continued