I moved here from a town in east Atlanta where things were fairly boring, contemporary and suburban. Aging strip malls set back from the clogged roads in a desert of crocodile-skinned asphalt. But it wasn’t always that way. I watched the pastures give way to the emptiness of suburban retail, to McMansions, to a sort of ubiquitous landscape that was indistinguishable from so many towns in the south, a sleepy bedroom community in the rolling hills of the piedmont.
When I moved to Brownsville a couple of years ago, I became interested in local history because it took little effort to see it connected to a much larger, national history. Upon hearing I had gone to the Youghiogheny River at Perryopolis, someone I knew told me to go to the Quaker Church there, west of town off 51. She said it was haunted. I didn’t go. I closed the door on that part of my life nearly twenty years ago.
And then, on an outing with my boys, the two of them asleep, slumped over in the back of the SUV – docked and charging, as I call it, strapped in their booster chairs – after a trip to a park, I found myself outside Perryopolis and decided to turn onto Quaker Church Road and see if I could see the ruins of the spooky chapel.
I drove a mile up through pastoral farmland and found myself on a hilltop at a sharp bend in the road. There it was. I had a little shoulder off the bend, so I quickly pulled over, behind a neck of trees. Kids were snoring. I put my hazard light on and walked a few yards back up to the gate surrounding the property. The hills faded off into slate pastures and dusty blue forests. I saw the squat stone building framed against the sky, one narrow window on either side of a doorway deep in shadow, a blackened hole, the door missing. The windows appeared barred, without glass. At either end of the block structure rose two stout chimneys, bookends for the ribbed tin roof, seemingly rusted a dark red.
Honeysuckles drenched the breeze coursing over the hilltop with its perfume. I wanted a closer look, but I didn’t want to leave the kids. I lingered by the gate, drawn to the old church. I was curious now.
I came home and got online and found scads of stories about paranormal activity at the site. Glowing orbs, luminescent gravestones, voices, figures, robed groups of Satanic worshippers, animal sacrifices, and worse. Different paranormal researchers had visited the site to gather readings, do tests, probe the ephemera. One woman said arms had forced her to the ground. One group, upon hastily retreating after they heard what sounded like spectral figures walking and muttering through the church room, stated they were chased by an animal that threw itself at their car. There were rumors of burning witches, lights in the sky, a circus of ghoulish capering.
I found the list of the interred in the cemetery acre and found to my surprise some people who shared a family name, Pages, buried there. I wanted to take photos of their graves in relation to the building and send them off to a relative who researches our family genealogy.
I saw shaky cam video footage of the interior, chipped remnants of plaster painted blue, a dirt floor, and the low apertures of the fireplaces, not much else. Also, I read about a caretaker that had denied a request from one paranormal researcher to conduct tests there, fairly recently. The researcher had showed up anyways, and the cops did, too, followed by the caretaker. The caretaker told them to keep away, but didn’t press charges. Who was this guy?
I made a few phone calls and finally caught up him. I asked if I could do a photo shoot there for a magazine. I had a Saturday morning in mind, and wanted to do shots at first light. The mist of the morning, the dew, maybe some rabbits in the clover. He loved it, wanted to know if I had any questions. He just wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to publish any “voodoo bullshit” stories about the place or go digging in the walls of the church.
I assured him I didn’t even need to go inside the structure. I just wanted the light falling on the hilltop, the deep reds catching the bleached stone, and so on. I told him about the Page graves, wanted to send the shots off to North Carolina to my uncle. I asked him if he was a Quaker. He said I could call it something like that. How mysterious, I thought.
He told me, as if he had been peering over my shoulder, about all the recent occasions people had visited the church to look for spirits. He said geocachers also came, but in their search for their devices and whatnot, they dug holes right through the wall of the east chimney. Drunken kids would go up there and tear the place up, leave trash all over, stuff he had to clean up. He’d received some help from the Perryopolis Area heritage Society. They had agreed to help keep the grass cut and do work to maintain the property, but after they cut the ribbon on their project and made the paper, the grass grew tall, and he got annoyed and started taking care of the place again himself. He removed gravestones and took them off the site. The place was vandalized routinely. He was worried the ghost hunters and drunken kids brazen enough would go there to tear the place up, to defy what they feared. And he’d have to clean up the mess.
I had permission. I had the idea to fulfill the requirements of an EVP test there using an old cassette recorder, a new Type II cassette with poor noise filtering, or possibly a distressed tape and a simple copper bowl to amplify sound. I’d place the cassette recorder on a stick, the mike in the hollow of the bowl which would be painted with a glued double spiral wound tightly in concentric arcs across the interior of the bowl. The glue would be a mixed with ferrofluid and would be sensitive to fluctuations in EM resonance. The bowl would be mounted on the frame of a “house for sale” sign with a hole cut in it, the bowl shoved through it and secured with tape from the back. I thought if I moved the tape recorder at different distances from the bowl antenna, I might pick up something weird, but I figured if things were already weird up there I could just turn on the recorder and dispense with the bowl gimmick entirely. I would recite the names of the dead, take a few pictures, and leave. That was the plan. There’s no science behind it.
The only problem was I felt sort of bad about doing something like that when I had already promised the caretaker I would not engage the voodoo bullshit. I decided instead to look into the deeper history of the Quakers, do an honest photo shoot, and be done with it.
I found that the Religious Society of Friends shared a history deeply intertwined in the founding of Pennsylvania. William Penn’s dad was a wild Naval Admiral who captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, an incident that lead to the casus belli, the act of aggression that formally signaled the commercial war over colonial interests had begun. Owing a debt to his dad, King Charles II of England gave William Penn the land of Sylvania. Strange choice, indeed, was Charles II choice to bequeath some largesse upon young William, a member of the Society of Friends, who had been jailed for attending Meeting House gatherings, where women were allowed to worship, where religious gatherings were passed in relative silence, without liturgy, without clerics, without structure, egalitarian and simple. In fact, everyone who joined was clergy, and anyone could join as long as they followed the rules regarding dancing and drinking and cussing and the like. Namely, they had to do all their smiling on the inside. They also refused to take oaths, to fight under any flag. William engaged in non-violent civil disobedience when confronted with violence and threatening forces from the King.
So, upon making the Pennsylvania scene, the Quakers got in good with the Native Americans. None of this is good for haunting business. They helped widen trails used by Native Americans. They built bridges, schools, and turned Brownsville into an essential gateway to the western territories. Pittsburgh is the new Brownsville. They bought loads of land and pooled their resources, intent upon having resources sufficient enough to not need anything from the government, from the outside world.
People heading west from Pittsburgh, “The Forks of Ohio” often stopped at Brownsville to get things they’d left behind or things they thought they needed on their journey westward. The pioneers loaded up on supplies at Redstone Old Fort, present-day Nemacolin Castle located on a high bluff in Brownsville , before heading west. The Quakers were very industrious and prosperous.
Colonists called the giant, prehistoric mounds “Old Forts”. Digging into the mound revealed it was full of oyster and mussel shells, junk, compost, a look-out on a bluff used as a trading post for millennia. And it was also the site of a Quaker Meeting House associated with the Perryopolis Quaker Church (Called Providence Meeting House), which, after the Revolutionary War, welcomed freed African slaves and everyone else. Quakers were champions of the abolition of slavery. If there were any ghosts in that church, they were probably pretty awesome.
In a controversial fifteen minute battle, George Washington or someone in his party killed a French diplomat sent to tell him to stay out of Pittsburgh, a sort of “This Is Sparta” moment. GW fled to Fort Necessity, where he signed a confession stating he assassinated the diplomat. Bringo! This was the casus belli that set off Seven Year War’s theater in America. Up until this point, the Quakers held a majority in the Pennsylvania parliament. Since they refused to support the war, they quit their government offices. They abdicated power of representation in the state and decided to double-down on social programs aimed at building social support networks. They didn’t want to fight French or Native Americans. I’ve never wanted to fight them, either.
But they circled the wagons a bit too tightly when it came to frivolity and contemporary mores on dating and courtship. From what I read from Meeting House minutes, the introduction of outsiders through marriage and in-laws from other sects was a problem. I can see why they didn’t do well in the 20th century. I also discovered in Himshaw’s Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy that some of the Pages at Providence Meeting House were kicked out for fighting wars, cussing, drinking, dancing, and having casual sex. And many of them were forgiven and came back. That seemed to be a pattern. The Quakers didn’t seem to exile so much as ground people.
In the often neon proselytization of modern evangelical and Protestant denominations, the Religious Society of friends has endured, quietly, seeking personal affirmation with their maker without any methods of contrivance other than plain rooms with people having a moment to chill out. There’s something very Zen about them, so guileless and solid.
So, they were egalitarian, inclusive, non-aggressive, informal and practical, industrious. And made good furniture and oats. How the heck am I supposed find ghosts in my oatmeal, in a sturdy chair? They acted like the Zapatistas in Mexico, like the Freedom Marchers of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, like Gandhi’s push against the colonial empire in India. They weathered power by not acknowledging it. Their power was in their commitment to each other, to being friends. They favored trade with the Native Americans, who in turn respected their inward search for meaning and their love of connection to the land. They liberated their oppressors in England not by returning the violence and aggression that the state could use to control them by escalating forces, but instead, by focusing on building communities and a future on the smallest scale possible, building on the number of people who could fit in a room who could manage to deal with their own thoughts and be quiet. They just wanted a piece of land for themselves and each of their kids. So, quiet, non-aggressive ghosts who would probably be haunting me politely, perhaps asking me to give them a hand with a sack of barleycorn or something.
I rode my bike to Quaker Church at dawn on the solstice of June 21, 2014. I arrived at 6 am, about a half hour late owing to a wrong turn I took. The bike ride was a hard 20 miles. I had a backpack with a camera in a plastic back, a bottle of water, no tape recorder, no tape or bowls or anything. The weather called for rain, and I didn’t want to wreck the cassette player. Neither did I want to pay for something to give me non-linear noise distortion on an analog recording device. I had returned the equipment the previous day.
Instead, I had traveled to a couple of libraries and read accounts of the ruins of the Providence Meeting House, thumbed through an old encyclopedia of Quaker members, checked references from 20th century written material against stuff written in the 19th century. I was making the place solid in my mind, irreducible by the passage of time, the only possession I can say I truly have. And, since its 19th century reconstruction from Meeting House to cemetery chapel, the blocks have been reset upon one another, a much smaller building, stronger, simpler, and more elemental, something like a monolith.
The gloaming held the dew upon every blade of glass like the quicksilver of a million mirrors. The clover was in bloom. The mists were retreating before the ripening dawn. Overhead, the sky was heavy with clouds, and I stood in the faintest of drizzles, refreshing after the ride. I parked my bike behind the church so as to not attract attention from passers-by. I had a compass and checked the position of the church. It faced due south. I toured the cemetery.
I rolled footage of the outside of the chapel. Light was stealing in through the broken windows and gaping doorway. I took photos, went inside the building. Someone had thrown coins in through the door. They lay shining on the dirt, warding off evil. I never thought to bribe a ghost, but I guess coffee is expensive no matter where you go.
In the eastern fireplace someone had placed a Bible open to a page about halfway through it. It lay on the rubble of the rocks pulled from the flue by the geocache hunters. I couldn’t make out the page and I didn’t want to stick my head in a chimney to read it. There was trash on the dirt floor, a penis spray-painted on a wall. Some of the roofing slats had been ripped away, though under the ribbed tin roof, the room was pretty dark. It was just a squat, rectangular room with two fireplaces that looked unused for long time.
I took these photos and left. It was a peaceful shoot, although as soon as I reached 51, I got a flat tire on my bike and I had to push it ten miles to Uniontown to catch a ride. When I checked it later, I found a small slit on the inside of the tubing, a “snakebite” rip caused by under-inflating the tire, and voodoo. [EDIT] My attempts to save this article in my computer as a Microsoft Word document failed miserably. I finally gave up. While I toiled for hours trying to find a solution, I kept hearing things bumping around in my kitchen. When I arose from my desk to go to bed, defeated by software, I found the fridge door wide open. Weirdness. I felt like something was hovering over me.
See you on the flip-flop. I’m hoping this article nourishes the notion that a relic from the distant past is sometimes worth researching, and not something to serve as an embodiment of fear and superstition. After all, when I’m dead and gone, this will likely be still standing beneath the blue sky, and it will be I that is forgotten. And I don’t want to haunt this place nor any other. If I did, I’d probably tell you you had nice hair or some such pleasantry before returning to my eternal repose.