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.

George Barnes Bank of Girdletree

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.

Girdletree Methodist Church

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.

Side View of Belltower & Steeple

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.

Belltower & Steeple

“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.

Front Window of the Old Store

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.

Girdletree Methodist Church Cornerstone
Girdletree Methodist Church Sign (unusual to have stained glass tokens on a church sign)

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.


Grace BaptistI am sitting in the sanctuary at the church waiting. It is during that short break between Sunday School and the morning service. I usually take this time to check out the program for the day, the weekly announcements & birthdays and to place bits of paper in the hymnal marking the songs we’ll be singing during the service. As the noise levels around me would indicate, it’s a time for smiles and hugs and catching up on what’s been going on all week, greeting visitors, making them welcome, and doing all sorts of odds and ends that need to be done before the service gets started.

I sit quietly listening to the pleasant hum of all this activity while pondering the morning’s Sunday School lesson and wondering what topic the pastor will choose for today’s sermon. It’s Missionary Month and I read that today we’ll have a guest speaker from the Prison Missions Program.  Thinking of missionaries, I notice Eric chatting with Kim over on the “Hallelujah” side about the latest news he has received from Mlachivka. For the past ten years or so, he has led a missionary group over to this small community in the Ukraine to help out a church and an orphanage there. A staff housing building was lost in a fire recently and funds are being raised to try to help re-build it.  He is deep into details about buildings and children and already making plans for leading another team next summer.

“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we you hungered, and fed you? or thirsty, and gave you drink? When saw we you a stranger, and took you in? or naked, and clothed you? Or when saw we you sick, or in prison, and came to you? And the King shall answer and say to them, Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-39)

Little Kelly comes running up to Pastor Mark with something important to tell him. He sweeps her up into his arms…up to his level… and she chatters away, using every one of her ten fingers to emphasize the information that she needs to tell him…probably some wonderful thing she might have heard in Sunday school this morning that the Pastor should know.  Just as quickly as she arrived, she is out of his arms and chasing down the aisle after Sammy and Delia who are most assuredly trying not to see their mama’s stern look reminding them that it is time to settle down and find their seats for church. But they’re off…totally ignoring mom……streaking by the Pastor’s wife, Sarah, who comes in loaded down with two oversized tote bags filled to overflowing with pencils and crayons and books and construction paper and hand sanitizer and crackers and all the other bit and pieces she’ll need at one point or another throughout the day. Three more little ones trail behind her like wayward ducklings first going this way and that before heading to their seats up on the second row with the other kids where James is waiting patiently for them and handing out quarters and dimes so that they too will have coins for the offering plates. I find myself thinking about the special memories children will have who are raised in church…how all their lives they will remember the stories about Jesus being born and the verses they’ve memorized….. and they will know that overall feeling of acceptance that every father and mother, grandmother and grandfather, uncle and aunt in the whole congregation somehow also belonged to each of them.

“But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said to them, Suffer the little children to come to me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:14)

More and more people are starting to drift into the sanctuary and the noise level, though still pleasant, increases…..lots of talking and catching up going on today.  A rousing rendition of “Power in the Blood” is coming from Michele at the organ over on the “Hallelujah” side of the sanctuary. In the meantime, Marlene sits over by the piano over on the “Amen” side silently fingering the notes on her flute for the special song she will play for us right after the morning’s announcements. She studies the music sheet in front of her and nods her head in rhythm and as she mentally practices at getting everything just right. Karen moves past her and sits down at  the piano so she can spend just a few minutes going over the hymns for the songs the congregation will sing today. She stops for a moment to smile and wave at someone at the back and then gets right back to the task at hand. The music I hear provides a lovely backdrop to all the chaos and I find myself humming along as Michele changes to Because He Lives”.

“I will praise the LORD according to his righteousness: and will sing praise to the name of the LORD most high.” (Psalm 7:17)

I see one of the deacons heading up front to check to make sure the offering plates are where they’re supposed to be. His wife stops by the communion table to straighten up the autumn floral arrangement making sure all the yellow, orange, and golden chrysanthemums are arranged just so and looking their best. Her hand lightly moves across the linen table runner pulling out any wrinkles and then settles on the open Bible to smooth down the pages that have curled up in the breeze of someone just passing by. She gives the flowers one last smoosh and heads back to her seat towards the back. She stops on the way to say hello and get hug from Inez who has made a double-sized batch of cranberry conserve for Thanksgiving dinner and is busy passing out pint-sized jars of the sweet tangy relish so that others might also enjoy it with their turkey and dressing this year.

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus…”  (Philippians 2:3-5)

Steve heads up towards the pulpit with a hymnal in hand and I know we must be very close to the time to get things started.  As I look around at all the activity going on, I am filled with thankfulness for this joy, this love, this congregation, and above all, the shared beliefs that have brought us together on this Sunday to this place. I bow my head and reach for that still quiet place deep down inside that I know will always be there and I whisper a little prayer that all these ordinary but wonderful things going on around me, all the chaos, all the noise, all the hugging and smiling and chattering…will always be the same and that we will always come together like this in thanksgiving to remember the gift that was given and the price that was paid. And I am thankful for this grace….this very ordinary but amazing grace.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…..was blind but now I see.”

  1. Victory in Jesus”, Words and Music by E.M. Bartlett, © 1939 – Administrated by Integrated Copyright Group, Inc., All rights reserved; Lyrics –
  2. Amazing Grace”; Words by John Newton; 1779; Music by Virginia Harmony; Lyrics –
  3. Because He Lives”; Songwriters – Matt Maher, Jason Ingram, Ed Cash, Chris Tomlin, Daniel Carson, Bill Gaither, Gloria Gaither; © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Essential Music Publishing, Capitol Christian Music Group;1971; Lyrics –