By Stephen D. Bowling
It started slow at first. Then a little more and a little more. Then without warning, the hillside gave loose, and a torrent of mud slid down the hill against the side of the building. Water and mud poured in through the cracks. The church members and the community thought the worst was over, but they were wrong.
The Little Jerusalem Old Regular Baptist Church marked an important waypoint south of Jackson on the Kentucky-Virginia Highway near the community of Haddix. The church was founded at the end of the 19th century and moved several times to different locations. The first services were held in the Big Branch Schoolhouse about a quarter of a mile up Big Branch. After forty years, the Big Branch School closed, and the county school system physically moved the building to Fugate’s Fork. The Little Jerusalem Church, now without a building, relocated.
The community joined together and built a new church near the mouth of Butler’s Branch. In 1940, the new Little Jerusalem Church opened. The church served the Fish Trap, Big Branch, and Kragon communities well as a church, school, meeting place, and election house. In 1963, the widening of Highway 15 forced the church to sell the old building and move the church again to clear the right-of-way for the road project. The church moved back to Big Branch, and in the summer of 1971, the members built a new building.
The church and community members completed a modern concrete block building with beautiful stained-glass windows and a tall white steeple using donated labor and cash. Pastors T. G. Bates and Sanford Combs were pleased with the new building and held services there starting in the fall of 1971. After only a few months, tragedy struck the little white church.
Heavy rains fell across Breathitt County and the Kentucky River valley during the third week of March in 1972. The river rose the last week of February to more than 31.56 feet. Weeks of periodic showers followed, and many areas in the county reported road damage, downed trees, and massive mudslides.
Roy Butler, a resident of Big Branch, reported to the county sheriff on March 19 that a large slide had made its way down the hill near the mouth of Big Branch and slammed into the new church building. He reported that “several tons of rock and mud” were “pressing against the wall of the Church.” Butler, who lived near the church, discovered the slide after hearing the sounds of breaking glass and cracking blocks.
Butler told officials that the church’s interior wall had broken and that he feared the entire structure would collapse. He described the tragic scene with horror when Butler told of the six inches of mud that now covered the church floor and the water that continued to pour into the building and out the front door. Through the night, more dirt and debris flowed down the hillside against the side of the building. The concrete block walls popped and cracked from the pressure. By Friday afternoon, about five feet of mud pressed against the walls.
Butler told the local papers, The Breathitt County Enquirer, edited by Charles Hayes, and The Jackson Times, edited by Louise Hatmaker, that the church members wanted to save the church but feared more mud might entirely cover the building. He pleaded in the papers for any help they could get or anyone who could offer suggestions on saving the building.
Miraculously, the Little Jerusalem Church walls withstood the pressure for more than a month. The heavy rounds of rain that fell on April 21 and 22 overwhelmed the stressed outer walls of the church. Sometime during the night on Saturday, April 22, a heavy flow of mud crashed through the building and destroyed the sanctuary. Neighbors discovered the destruction shortly after daylight the following day.
The loss saddened many in the Kragon community. Members immediately started efforts to build another structure but soon understood that the church was not the building. During their times of adversary, they realized that the true church was and is the people who believed in Jesus and truly loved one another as commanded.
© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling
Sanford Combs is named in this ordainment document. [Image.jpeg] Its a piece of history. Anna Hardin
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