At the junction of Tennessee Highway 30 and Watson Road near Athens in McMinn County stands Beth Salem Presbyterian Church. The 1920s-era church, its adjoining cemetery, and kitchen pavilion are the lasting remnants of a long tradition of community building on this site. Organized in 1866, Beth Salem Presbyterian Church was the first African American church in McMinn, Meigs, and Polk counties and was the center of this integrated farming community.
The church’s establishment was due in part to the outreach of white missionaries following the Civil War. The church’s founders, African American ministers Rev. George Waterhouse and Rev. Jake Armstrong, received assistance from a white minister, Rev. Fate Sloop. The first worship services were held under a brush arbor until a local white woman donated land for a building. The congregation built a log meeting house that served as both a church and a public school until a fire destroyed it around 1920.
Built following the fire, the current building is a one-story, one-room, rectangular, weatherboard-covered building. It has a metal-covered gable roof and rests on brick piers. Simple and unadorned, the design ensured a nonthreatening African American presence in the era of Jim Crow segregation. At the same time, the construction of this new building was a result of neighborly cooperation and support. Ray Lessely, a white neighbor, donated the lumber and both white and black neighbors were responsible for hauling materials to the site and constructing the building.
In the summer of 1928, under the leadership of Rev. William Dorondo Edington and Rev. H. A. Sheller, Beth Salem hosted a two-week-long tent revival that attracted African Americans from churches in Athens, Sweetwater, and Loudon. To feed the crowds, it became clear to church member Hattie Buchanan that better cooking facilities on the church grounds were needed. With donated labor and materials from church members, “Hattie’s Kitchen,” became a reality. This outdoor cooking pavilion has since been rebuilt, but “Hattie’s Kitchen” remains a tradition at the camp meetings and annual homecomings that have taken place here for decades.
By the 1950s, the population of Beth Salem declined as the growth of factory jobs and the availability of automobiles attracted people to the nearby towns of Athens and Etowah. Regular church services eventually ceased, but those who grew up in the church and their descendants have continued to care for the church and return annually. On the last Sunday in August, close to one hundred people attend “August Meeting” to remember ancestors and celebrate their common heritage with preaching, singing, and dinner on the grounds at Hattie’s Kitchen. Beth Salem Presbyterian Church was placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.