“Historic places help people connect with the experiences of people in the past” (Heady, 19)
Tracing family history is often a journey of self-discovery. Unfortunately, data comprised of trees and lists of names, dates and places without the benefit of context does not create meaning. Generating a narrative that resonates and offers insights into family history requires access to artifacts and relics, photographs, or letters to “put flesh on the bones” (Carmack, n.d.). Another avenue to create meaning is via “historic places” that facilitate connections with the “experiences of people in the past (Heady, 19).”
In my own family, the tradition of the Baptist faith is like a weight bearing beam in an old house, it holds it up and keeps it strong. I recall my mother saying that my grandfather (her father-in-law) often proudly noted that the Ballards were the “church builders” of Kentucky. Another saying passed down from my grandfather’s John Ballard’s grandfather (incorrectly attributed to his father) is, “I’m a mason by vocation but a preacher by avocation.” These two-family traditions (craftsmanship in carpentry and masonry and ministry in the Baptist tradition) are physically manifested in two places in Owen County Kentucky: Beech Grove Baptist Church, and Poplar Grove Baptist Church. Beech Grove is the church my grandfather John Ballard attended as a child, its where his grandfather (the mason) preached, and his father (the carpenter) James Hiram Ballard acted as clerk (Jones, 1952).
James Hiram and his first wife and young son Henry are also buried in the Beech Grove Cemetery, with many related families. Poplar Grove Baptist Church is the place the Rev. Johnson Larkin Ballard was ordained as a minster of the gospel, according to the history of Beech Grove Baptist Church written by O.V. Jones. I know these things by following the leads provided by family lore and seeking concrete evidence of their veracity. The leads were based on personal experience and oral history knowledge about the family’s religious traditions and practices.
Recently I visited these churches on a beautiful May afternoon in 2017. Beech Grove’s original log edifice has long since gone and its first replacement burned down. The modern and frankly uninspiring brick building stands on a rise on a little hill above a winding country road, surrounded by woods. The original church was located where the “new” cemetery (which contains many dead relatives from related families) is now. With our backs to the new building, walking the cemetery, it took only a little effort to image what it was like to be there in the past. This is where Johnson Larkin Ballard preached and his son James Hiram Ballard acted as clerk. Later his son, my grandfather, returned frequently as an adult and brought his own children to visit. In the 1980’s he took me to the local Baptist church in Charlestown Indiana. Though now that I am an adult and do not share his beliefs, the memories of pride watching him perform his Deacon duties and the pleasant morning rides with him to church are treasured.
Visiting nearby Poplar Grove Baptist Church was satisfying in a different way. On the sunny quiet afternoon, it was easy to imagine congregants arriving by horse and buggy and walking into the classic country church, which is largely unchanged, except by the growth of the Poplar trees it is named for. It was such a pleasure to see the peaceful simple building and the surrounding countryside on the beautiful Kentucky day. It was here Johnson Larkin Ballard was ordained as a “minister of the gospel”.