Turkey Branch United Methodist, tucked away in rural Effingham County, looks crafted from the tropes of Southern Gothic fiction: A small, cream-colored wooden building, nestled between two cemeteries on a quiet road, its white steeple barely taller than than the pines and live oaks that flank the property.
On an afternoon in late April, Kim Floyd and Cynthia Arnsdorff walked through the cemetery immediately south of the church, pointing toward several rows of small, pink flags jutting up from the grass. The flags, while in stark contrast to the fenced-in field’s gray and white tombstones, are not as out of place as they appear.
Each represents a possible unmarked grave — findings recently uncovered by archaeologists and college students.
Floyd, the church’s historian, says the discovery — 44 possible sites — confirmed rumors, passed down through Turkey Branch’s congregants over the years, that some of the cemeteries’ oldest graves had been forgotten.
“Everyone had heard about it, and it makes sense,” Floyd said.
The property has served as a place of worship since the late 1780s, when Gideon Mallette, a Lowcountry man who fought under Gen. Francis Marion in the American Revolution, was gifted the land and established a meetinghouse for Methodists.
“It’s really rather exciting when you think these people were lost to history,” said Arnsdorff, whose late husband introduced her to the church and left money for the cemeteries’ upkeep in his will.
Arnsdorff and Floyd, who both serve on Turkey Branch’s cemetery committee, had been looking into the rumors of unmarked graves for several years. Oral history indicated that wooden tombstones were used for some early graves by congregants whose families couldn’t afford stonework. Over time, the markers could have fallen into disrepair. Stone markers in the two cemeteries document interments dating back to the early 1800s.
According to an account of the church by the Historic Effingham Society, Mallette moved into the area in 1785, building a log meetinghouse about 300 feet south of where the church stands today. Within the year, it was organized as part of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1790, Mallette and another man, George Powledge, built a campground nearby that served as one of the oldest sites for camp-meeting worship services in the country, according to the Society. A second church was built in the early 1800s on the site, and construction of a third — the one that stands today — started in 1858, with several revisions over the years.
In an effort to solve the mystery, Arnsdorff reached out to Georgia Southern University’s Anthropology and Sociology Department. Her request for help reached the desk of professor Jared Wood.
It’s not unusual for Wood’s department to get requests for help from the community. He says such projects are welcome opportunities for students to get hands-on learning experience
On Feb. 17, Wood and two of his students, anthropology majors Drew Antonisse and Justin Morales, joined Atlanta geophysical specialist Dan Bigman at Turkey Branch to scan the cemeteries with ground-penetrating radar. He called it a prime opportunity to do “shallow geophysics” — the use of tools such as magnetometers and even metal detectors to avoid excavation.
“Archaeology is by nature a destructive science, so we have to be very careful about how we investigate places,” Wood said. “Cemetery projects and burial sites have a heightened level of sensitivity to them. In cases like this, we very rarely disturb the ground and only if necessary.”
Discovery and preservation
Radar found 33 possible sites in the cemetery south of the church and 11 — which Floyd says may mark the graves of children — in the cemetery to the north, which is where Mallette and his family are buried.
Histories kept by the congregation and documents from the county courthouse don’t shed much light on the earliest burials.
“We know we can’t ever name these people,” Floyd said. “We know they’re here, but we can’t name them.”
Still, efforts to document and memorialize the graves are underway.
It is believed that the first church — the meetinghouse — stood roughly where the southeast corner of the larger cemetery is located. That, Floyd says, accounts for many of the newly discovered plots being lined up differently than the rest of the graves — they would have been facing the original church.
Wood says the university will provide the church with a digital map of the cemeteries, including the unmarked graves that were located. He plans other trips with students to the church, and one of their goals will be to put together a report that can help Turkey Branch tell its story.
Elberton Granite Association in northeast Georgia is helping the church find permanent markers for the graves.
“Our first step is bringing back these lost people,” Arnsdorff said.
From an anthropology standpoint, there are a wealth of those stories in smaller communities like Springfield. While Savannah is known nationally for its historic preservation efforts, the communities that surround it are not lacking in history, either.
“You find these wonderful stories that need to be told that are really part of that larger fabric of our society and our culture that don’t get the exposure that larger cities do, but are just as relevant,” Wood said.