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Saving Mt. Zion a labor of love

December 21, 1998

Mt. Zion Baptist ChurchBy BRYN MICKLE / Staff Writer, Martinsburg

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer




MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The holiday wreaths on the front doors of the one-room stone church a few miles east of Martinsburg are a small sign of victory for a group battling to hold onto their history.

In the 163 years since the doors were first opened on the Regular Baptist Church of Mount Zion, the small gray building off W.Va. 9 has had its share of troubles.

A dwindling number of worshipers left the Mt. Zion vacant around the turn of the century making it an attractive haven to hungry termites and cold snakes.

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In recent years, headstones in the church cemetery have been toppled by bored vandals and empty whiskey and beer bottles have been found littering the grounds.

While it would be easier to let the church succumb to the forces of nature or encroaching real estate development, an effort has been underway over the past few years to try and ensure the Mt. Zion church lasts well into the new millennium.

"It's a piece of history," said Hannah Fortney, a member of First Baptist Church of Martinsburg.

The third Baptist church in Berkeley County, Mt. Zion is the mother church to both the First Baptist Church in Martinsburg and Leetown Baptist.

Since losing its congregation to larger churches in the early 1900's, Mt. Zion received new life in 1946 when it became the site of a yearly Fall homecoming service.

The condition of the church continued to worsen, however, and in Fall 1997 deteriorated to the point where the threat of the floor collapsing forced the annual Mt. Zion homecoming service outside.

Tom Tatterson, a First Baptist member on the Mt. Zion renovation committee, said renovation plans that stalled in 1993 received new life last year and the church raised enough money to mount a serious renovation of Mt. Zion.

While $27,000 may be a lot to spend on a building that doesn't have a bathroom or electricity, Tatterson said the effort was well worth the money.

The first phase of the renovation was finished last Spring after workers replaced the floor - salvaging more than half of the original floor - and shored up the building's foundation. Rotten window and door sills were fixed as well as a balcony that once held slaves who were forced to worship from up top, Tatterson said.

Tatterson said there is still plenty of work to do inside the church but said he is confident the effort is headed in the right direction.

Fortney said Mt. Zion drew about 160 people for this year's inaugural Easter sunrise service and said about 145 people came out for the homecoming service in September.

Fortney said she hopes the church will stay alive but said she's not sure how much Mt. Zion means to the younger generations.

Tatterson, however, is confident those generations of twenty- and fortysomethings will eventually come around.

"It's like antiques," he said. "They don't mean as much when you're younger but that interest will develop."

Added Tatterson, "This work preserves the church for another 150 years. I hope it will continue."

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