Storm topples historic Allendale County church

A tornado was part of the intense weather that swept through the region in the early hours of April 11. The tornado also claimed one victim - not human - but one of history.

The Cave Methodist Church, on U.S. 278 between Kline and Allendale, was destroyed by the tornado.

National Weather Service officials classified the tornado as an EF-2 or moderate storm, with winds between 120 and 130 mph.

The church is located near the intersection of Barnwell Highway (U.S. 278) and Appleton Road in Allendale County.

The tornado traveled about 5.6 miles through the Roberts Lane area, leaving a 500-yard wide path of destruction, said Gidget Stanley, the Allendale County emergency management director.

The tornado's landfall started at 12:30 a.m. and ended at 12:39 a.m., but only after it leveled the squarish, white wooden church, leaving only its main floor still supported by brick pillars. The rest of the church lies in a heap, either on top of the floor or scattered as debris in the cemetery behind the church.

The cemetery itself sustained heavy damage, with many of its tombstones having been toppled by the wind or flying debris.

The church was the most significant damage this area sustained other than some damage to a house and mobile home on Roberts Lane, Stanley said.

"What a sad way to bring in Easter Saturday," said Betty Jane Miller of Barnwell, who came to the church Saturday morning to survey its wreckage. Miller has ancestors buried at the cemetery.

The church hasn't had an active congregation since the 1970s but had been kept for historical purposes. There are 263 burial plots in the cemetery, said Gordon Kay.

Kay, of Sandy Springs, Ga., grew up in Allendale and attended Cave Methodist Church as a boy. Miller had called him about the church's destruction, he said.

"A lot of my people are buried there," he said.

Across the highway from the church, Amy Waltz, her husband Chuck Lucas and John Lee Sanders were busy nailing blue plastic tarps over the flat roof of a building.

Lucas and Waltz had recently bought the building and plan to turn it into a deer-processing station, Waltz said.
"We got power on Thursday (April 9)," she said.

The electricity was off now from the storm, which Waltz believes was a tornado, she said.

"I'm pretty sure that's what it was. I don't know anything else that could have knocked down that church," Waltz said.

The storm had peeled away portions of the tarpaper and damaged some of the roof, but hasn't altered the couple's business plans, she said.

Miller, a historian of the region, said that Cave Methodist Church had been named for William and Marian Cave, who had deeded the land to the Barnwell Methodist district as the site for the church April 5, 1847.

The current Cave Methodist Church was the second church built on the five acres the Caves had given to the Methodist district. An earlier church had been built near the railroad tracks on the backside of the property shortly after the land was acquired. Later that church burned, Kay said.

Kay said he believes the current church was built in the 1850s.

Kay and several people from the Allendale and Kline region had formed a group to keep the church site maintained. In the last nine months, the graveyard had been cleaned and plans were being discussed about focusing on renovating the church itself, he said.

"We were feeling good about it. We were heading toward fixing it up," he said.

The church walls are now splintered lumber on the ground, still giving off its distinctive scent that wood gains when heat-cured over years. An upright piano lay on its back, its black and white keys now pointing skyward. The ends of pews jutted from wooden rubble.

Miller moved through the cemetery, noting the names on the gravestones - names as recognizable in the community now as back then - Hewlett, Hogg, Creech.

Tree limbs had knocked down the iron rail fencing around the Riley family plot.

The Rileys buried here are relatives of former Gov. Dick Riley, she said.

"I have not seen the likes of this in my lifetime - and I'm 72," Miller said. "This is a heart-hurt."