Sometime around a hundred and fifty years ago, give or take a few, a farmer named Charles Bishop and his wife, Mary, broke ground on a farm in eastern Maryland about five miles south of Snow Hill. According to the old family stories, Charles girdled a beech tree while clearing the land for the farm. Now, that must have been a pretty big tree for the act to have gotten everyone’s attention and, ultimately, provided a name for the community that grew up around the farm. Girdling is a process of cutting bark away in a circle around the tree that pretty much results in the death of the tree; it just takes a little time for nature to take its course but, eventually, the tree dies and falls. Why he didn’t just cut it down, we will never know. But he didn’t and family and friends noticed, and the new village became known by as Girdletree.
Girdletree was and is a “crossroads” village. The particular roads being crossed are Maryland Route 12 and Onley & Boxiron Road. It started out as a sleepy little village until the Worcester Railroad came through in 1876 connecting Snow Hill and Franklin City. The railroad brought prosperity and the town grew becoming a shipping point for oysters, crab, and fish from Chincoteague Island just down the road in Virginia’s eastern neck. Chincoteague has the reputation of having the sweetest and best tasting oysters on the eastern seaboard of the United States…if not the world. Ask anyone who lives year-round on the island. They will be happy to tell you about their wonderful fish and seafood. It seemed that the world wanted those oysters and the good folks of Girdletree were right there to help by shipping it all out from Taylor’s Landing. At one point there were seven canneries processing seafood out of Girdletree…oysters were not only good business for Chincoteague, they helped feed the families around Girdletree too.
Things were going great economically…. good enough for George L. Barnes & Co to build a brand spanking new brick bank in 1902. Most every other building in town was “stick built” or primarily built of wood which was typical for homes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Unfortunately, prosperity didn’t last. In 1929, the Great Depression hit and the economy of Girdletree failed. People probably weren’t gonna buy fancy seafood when they couldn’t buy bread. Barnes Bank closed in 1930. I suppose the canneries closed too soon thereafter. The old bank building is still standing as a museum and historical building on MD 12 in what’s left of the town of Girdletree.
Fast forward that hundred and fifty or so years and we (my fellow wanderer and I) found ourselves on a road we hadn’t taken before. We’d been down to Chincoteague looking for birds. We try to go at least once each year in autumn or winter after the “summer people” have gone on back home and the island once again belongs to the locals. Things quiet down in winter and the beach clears and it’s a good time to go birding at the seashore and on the refuge (Assateague Island). We’d had a good day birding and were on the way home using a new GPS which directed us to make a turn we hadn’t taken before. It was a beautiful day, and we love nothing more than to meander around so we decided to just go with it.
We were heading up the road towards Snow Hill when we caught sight of a lovely old church by the side of the road. We passed it but then turned around and went back to get a couple photographs. I love taking pictures of old churches and this church was a bit unusual as the steeple was just to one side of the church and not in the front center like most other churches. It definitely needed to be photographed. Turns out we were in the once-again sleepy little community of Girdletree and the church was the Girdletree Methodist Church, one of two churches originally established in the town.
I got out of the car to take a few pictures of the church. I noticed the Barnes Bank across the highway and walked over to the roadside to get a photo of the bank. When I turned back, I was met by a nice older lady with a small can of paint in her hand. She wondered if I was from the paper because she had seen me taking pictures and thought maybe I was going to do an article on the fund-raising efforts to get a new roof for the church. So, across the street she came to see what exactly I was up to. I told her that I wasn’t from the local paper or anything and that I just liked old churches and this one was nice because the steeple was on the side and somewhat unusual to me.
“Well”, she says, “That’s not the original steeple, it burned in 1940 and it was replaced in 1960.”
She said that the church hadn’t had a steeple when it was first built, and it was added maybe around 1929. A bad storm caused the fire in 1940 and she remembered her granddaddy and grandmama talking in later years about when the steeple burned. (The church itself was built in the late 1800’s and enlarged with the bell tower (steeple) and front addition at the later date.)
She had noticed that I had noticed the small paint can she was carrying and told me she was painting her granddaddy’s store across the street. I had not wanted to be rude and ask why she was carrying that can of paint around. She pointed over at the old store front and said that she had painted the trim around the window a few days ago but she didn’t like the green paint she had used so was now painting over it with white.
I asked if she lived in the house by the old store and she said she didn’t; she lived in the large old faded yellow house that was two buildings up. She was born in 1938 and grew up around here as she circled her arm indicating right there around the old store. I asked if she had been born there but she said she hadn’t and she pointed somewhere off to the west and said she’d been born out at the family farm over there.
We continued to chat, and I finally got around to asking her name which was Sandra. She told me all about the church and her childhood repeating some things like those of us who are a little older are apt to do. The old church, while not abandoned completely, needs too many repairs and, no, they don’t have church there anymore.
Ms. Sandra said the church closed in 1969 and had been deeded to the Historical Foundation who was trying to raise the funds for the new roof. The congregation has moved on to another church in the area although the old fellowship hall out back which is newer and a bit more restored is rented out by another church for its services. The other folks from that other church had done a lots to fix it up…you just wouldn’t believe all they’d done and how nice it looked.
Ms. Sandra had to get back to her painting so she headed on back across the road and we had to get back on the road headed home but her shared memories left me with a warm feeling for the town and church and a little girl named Sandra who’d been born there and never left. I imagine her going to church with her granddaddy and grandmama way back when the steeple was newly built after the first one had burned. I see them there standing in the sanctuary singing hymns and bowing their heads to pray as the sunlight filters through the stained-glass windows painting the air with the beauty of the Lord’s love and goodness. All that remains now are the blessings and prayers that once filled the church and the memories of that young girl that have sustained her for all the days of her life.
Sources for Factual Information:
Maryland Historical Trust Inventory # WO-321: Girdletree, Maryland.