A Visit to a Country Churchyard

Thomas Gray's immortal elegy, written after a visit to the churchyard at England, awakened a desire to make a similar pilgrimage, however, churchyards are rare in this section of Arkansas, so it was not until the early Fall of 1970 that I got to visit Richwoods which boasts a twin graveyard which in the pioneer days served two churches, Baptists and Methodists, and had a schoolhouse to boot. Elder Willie J. Mock furnished transportation for the pilgrimage in his flaming red sports car and covered the miles so quickly, despite his 80 years of age, that we were shortly at the Richwoods Graveyard marker which spans the turnoff from Highway 67 to the burial site. The first stop was at Shiloh Church, a stone edifice that replaced the one-room frame sanctuary built by pioneer Baptists in 1869 - one of the earliest church facilities in West Clay. The old school house which stood at the jog of the road, had vanished long since, as well as the Methodist Church which stood a bit South. The hailstorm of mid-June 1916 razed the church. T. W. Wynn had taken shelter from the storm in the building, had decided he had time to get home and had barely cleared the yard when the storm brought the sanctuary to a wrecking end. The Methodists did not rebuild so Old Shiloh carries on alone, and only lacks antiquity and ivy covered walls and an owl hooting in the tower to fill out the poetic picture.
The church yard is dominated by the twin oaks, photographed by Kenneth Harmon, which tower far above the gravestones sheltered by their shade. The scene instills an awesome sense of time and eternity, arboreal brothers, evidently scions of an early patriarchal oak, one can imagine them as tiny shoots of green bursting to the shot heard round the world in 1775 or catching the faraway peal of Liberty Bell as it proclaimed the birth of a new nation in 1776.
History has no record of the year the knoll became a burial ground and the first settlers in Northeast Arkansas were laid to rest beneath their shade. The combination provided mutual protection for the oaks were, rewarded for guarding the graves by being spared from the axe of woodsmen. The new nation had little impact on the area until the end of the War Between the States, when every increasing waves of migration settlers from the States of across the Mississippi River sought new homes in the State of Arkansas. The tempo accelerated in 1873 when the Cairo and Fulton Railroad let the Iron Horse replace the covered wagon. During all these years the oaks had waxed strong on the cast off garments of mortality lying beneath them and had provided a type of resurrection where the leaves of Spring greened at Easter-tide.
Elder Mock was an informative and entertaining tour director who knew the location of graves he had visited as a school boy at Richwoods. In the inset he is standing by the grave of Elder Arthur Conner, the beloved evangelist of West Clay who proclaimed the gospel from early age until his death near the centenarian goal in 1913. His popularity is attested by the number of weddings he performed, signing the records in the court house as Arthur Conner, M. G. Elders Conner, Powell and Belew were such patriarchs that Elder Mock was snubbed as a Willie Come Lately until he was in his thirties, when they decided they could let Kid Mock preach as well as fire the stove and pass the collection plate.
As in all graveyards, death was no respecter of age, so the dates ranged from infancy to senility, "Budded on earth to bloom in Heaven" + the epitaph on a small stone revealed in seven short words, the anguish of parents' grief by untimely death and the balm of hope. Other epitaphs warned the passerby to "prepare for death and follow me". Epitaphs are rarely carved on headstones today. We have become much too busy to spend our time strolling in a graveyard and are all the poorer for it. Richwoods has gravestones bearing such names as Day, Wynn, Tisdial, Smith, Wilson, Ermert, Gilbert, and many others who settled the area and were members of Old Shiloh.
The visit to Richwoods was completed by a tour of the community with a running commentary by Elder Mock on the history; characters like Celluloid Jones, who wore a celluloid collar daily for months on end; Thurman Post office in charge of Dr. C. H. Newkirk, whose barn had a roof that extended from the foundation to the gable; the meteor which fell around 1904 and rests on a lawn near where it landed . . . and much, much more! Elder Mock is recuperating in a rest home in Rockford, Ill, but plans to celebrate the 4th in Corning, so readers of this article have an opportunity to continue with his reminiscences then.