African-American churches vital to county's heritage
McMinn County is home to several historic African-American churches that served as important pieces of the historical fabric of the county.
The oldest is Beth Salem Presbyterian Church, located just off Highway 30 about halfway between Athens and Etowah.
Organized in 1866 by the Rev. George Waterhouse and Jake Armstrong, it was the first African-American church in McMinn, Meigs and Polk counties.
The Rev. Fate Sloop, a local white minister, held meetings under a tree at Beth Salem to assist the founders with establishing a church and school for the community.
The early church services were held under a brush harbor until a log meeting house was constructed which served as a church on Sunday and a school during the week.
In the 1920s, a wooden frame building was constructed to replace the log house that was destroyed in a fire. That building is still standing and open once a year, the last Sunday in August, for August Meeting.
In the summer of 1928, under the leadership of Rev. Ellington and Rev. H.A. Sheller, churches from Athens, Sweetwater and Loudon united and held a great tent revival at Beth Salem.
Cabins were built and people came from the surrounding area to camp and worship for two weeks. It was the dream of Mrs. Hattie Buchanan that there should be a place to prepare food on the grounds. She purchased the materials, and the men of the church donated their time to build the kitchen. Thus, Hattie's Kitchen was born.
For decades, camp meetings and August Meeting continued to attract people from surrounding communities. With the decline of small farms and the growth of factory jobs, the old community of Beth Salem faded as people left family farms for work in nearby towns of Athens and Etowah.
Regular church services at Beth Salem ceased in the 1950s, about a decade after classroom instruction ended.
In the 1950s, dedicated people with fond memories of Beth Salem began a drive to restore the building.
Several years ago, Beth Salem was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. And every August, people return for August Meeting to remember ancestors and celebrate Beth Salem's history with preaching, singing and dinner on the grounds at Hattie's Kitchen.