Sunday, July 8, 2018

“another place and story that is disappearing”: Driving through Dorchester into a Mystery

Will Shepard at the Stono-Baptist-Church-Cemetery.

The Shepard boys on Shepard Street, in Summerville, in Dorchester County SC.
“You can trace your heritage from Dorchester England to Dorchester Mass, where there is an actual Shepard Street, to Dorchester, South Carolina, where people were dying in a fever swamp to Moultrie, Georgia.  It’s all in the records at Midway Church,” Dad repeated over and over again before he died. And that was it.  That’s the myth.  But its certainly short on details?  Which Dorchester England?  As we found out on a trip a few years ago, there are several.  Why did they leave England?  Was it the Civil War?  Were they persecuted by Judge Jeffries, running for their lives during the Civil War?  Why else would someone get on a boat, leaving everything they know for an unknown land?  What happened in Massachusetts?  Why’d they leave for South Carolina?   What church did they start in Dorchester?  How many perished in the fever swamp?  Dad’s nothing but ashes, strewn through Louisiana and Texas.   His files got thrown out during a particularly acrimonious divorce.  Mama, who lived to 99, shuffled off three and a half decades ago.  She leaves us a few clues in her “Notes: by Mrs J B Shepard, (ORA IRENE HEWATT)”  In it, she writes:
“The history of the Shepard family in Georgia is tied in with the history of Liberty County and Old Midway Church.  We feel certain that the first Shepard in Liberty was sent to old Midway from Boston as a minister to that church.  Many ministers to old Midway  were asked down from Boston, as members of the Midway were careful of the selection of their ministers and would have nothing but trained educated men.  The name as we spell it (with one p) was the same of the old Puritan preacher who had to slip out of England, incognito, and who made such a name for himself in Boston and New England.  The name is still well known in New England.  There is a street in Cambridge by the name of Shepard….”
Mamas records go on to tell stories about Shepards in the Crusades, distant relations in Jamestown.  “We also know, from research, that the first John Bowles to see America, came over as a helper, to help bring the first Jamestown Colony… The first Bowles to come to Georgia was John Bowles, who rose horse-back, from – me think – Charleston, SC as among the few things he left were two  law books, on the fly  of which was written in a beautiful  Spencerian hand, the name, “John Bowles, Charleston, SC January 1800… That section of the state was at that time, one of the most malarial infested in the world. John Bowles and his young wife, both died of soon after they were married, leaving these two small children…”

Dad, John Bowles Shepard, the third, refers to Mama, who live 99 years, in the fist lines of a narrative he wrote about his life at the Chicago Theological Seminary in the mid-1990s:

“It seems best to begin with a small paragraph about my background.  On my father’s side of the family, I trace a rich Georgia heritage which goes back to colonial days.  The original Shepards moved to Georgia in 1752 with the Midway community, which was a group of Puritans from New Dorchester, Massachusetts. During its heyday, the church was pulpified by a success of Harvard trained clerics, on Eliot among them if memory serves me right.  Since those days, the Shepards have remained staunchly Calvinistic in attitude if not theology.  My grandfather was a very successful businessman who dealt primarily  in farmland, livestock and fertilizer.  My grandmother is a brilliant, extremely powerful woman who bore five sons.   One died early, three she sent to Harvard; one to West Point.  The entire group, my uncles and my father among them, were a rigid, doctrinaire and severe group.”

“Dorchester is just a marker on the map,” noted Mom, in Edisto.
“Well, lets go see it…”
Will and I got in the car on Friday to check it out.
“Childhood was dangerous then,” noted our tour guide the day before in Charleston, the malaria consumed our relatives, during their stop here between Massachusetts and Georgia.
“Should we look for a cemetery or a street?”
“Try a street first…”
“There is a Shepard Street in Dorchester County.”
Lets do it.
So, Will and I drove, exploring the mystery, making our way past Edisto State Park, birds flying in the distance, the Spanish moss, stretching from the tree branches lunging over the room. Past Hollywood we drive, where the ghosts and stories about the civil rights movement dovetail with horrific tales of democracy’s demise.
“After Lincoln was shot, the democrats supported national unity.  Reconstruction failed.  The South lost the war and won the peace.  You feel it every time you drive here.”

 “If you see the blue house, try to get a shot.”
Will snapped pictures, as we drove past old shacks, dilapidated homes.
“Did you see that church?”
“Lets turn around.”
And so we stopped at the sight of the Stono Babtist Church Cemetery, a congregation that that was active from the mid-19th century until World War II in Ravenel, Charleston County.  The old white structure was destroyed by time, maybe a storm, graves in the distance.  I walked up to look inside.  An old organ sat in the middle, walls blown out.
“Probably ended by a storm.”  Will bent down looking at an old grave.
“She died in 1919, her husband four years later,” Will  surveyed the stones.
“Probably from the influenza outbreak.”
We got back in the car.
“Shepard street is twenty minutes away.”
Parking along a tree lined street, we snapped some photos.
“Do you know about the family this street was named for?” I asked a woman walking her dog when we finally found Shepard Street in Summersville SC in Dorchester Country.
“The Shepards…. They were one of the five families here.  They all inbred with each other.”
“Do you know where they went to Church?”
“Beheny just down the street.”
So we wound our way down the windy street to the Methodist Church.
“I’m one of the Shepards,” noted a man inside the Church, when I asked.
“Spelled with two Ps.  You should ask the rector here.”
“I’m not smart enough to answer that question.  I know nothing about that.  But you could look at the town records. And there is a town of Dorchester  just  few miles away.”
So we drove away, delving further and further into the mystery.
There was nothing much in Dorchester but railroad tracks, an old gas station, and a church, no cemetery.
“Welcome to Dorchester,” a sign declared.
“I can see why they left,” noted Will. “Its another place and story that is disappearing.”
It was time to go back to the beach.  So will and I drove and talked about grandad and dad, uncle kirk’s early demise and all the stories. There’s a bittersweet feeling to these explorations.  Dad rarely wrote down a word of that memoir he was going to write. And his journals incomprehensible.

Back to Edisto we drove, stopping at Pigley Wigley for collard greens and ham hocks for dinner.
“You didn’t get a hamhock,” noted a young woman at store. 
‘Let me go get you one.”
“You know how to make Southern collard greens?” volunteered another woman standing there. “Don’t forget to put in baking soda and a pinch of sugar?”
People take their collard greens seriously here.
They also believe in their myths.

Edisto is a gem, noted a man on the beach later that night, fishing as the sun went down.
It really is, even with the mysteries surrounding it. 

Helena Hooper Shepard caught a few snapshots from the trip.

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