Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chapels in the History of Altamont Tennessee

On my way home from a long work assignment, I realized I would be driving "close" to Altamont, Tennessee. Altamont is the county seat of Grundy County and sits on top of the Cumberland Plateau. Grundy county also has the largest concentration of LDS members in the state of Tennessee.

I say I was on my way home, but Altamont isn't on the way to anywhere. Like Cane Creek, it is an hour from the nearest interstate. I left I-24 and followed Hwy 50 East. I passed through some small towns before the road begins the climb. Almost immediately it turns back on itself again and again in a series of switch backs. All told the elevation climbed 800+ feet in just 3 miles. Seven miles further was the town of Altamont; population 1,300.

It is here that the oldest LDS chapel in Tennessee is found. Dedicated in 1909, The Northcutts Cove Chapel certainly wasn't the first, but it has survived where the other have not. I kind of knew where the Chapel was, so I figured I wouldn't get lost. But there is another chapel I wanted to see, built in 1947 to replace the first. It is beautiful, built from colorful stone. It isn't being used anymore, so GPS would be of no use here. But I knew it was somewhere near the courthouse. As I turn from Hwy 50 left onto Hwy 56 I mentally look around for the court house. I hadn't driven a 1/8th of mile when I saw the stone chapel. It is closer to the road than I had imagined, but nothing is quite how you imagine it. The Church doesn't own it anymore. The last I heard the city was using it to store records.

I drove north on Hwy 56 and completely missed my turn, and had to drive quite a ways before I could turn around. The road I wanted was appropriately named Northcutts Cove Road. The Northcutts family figured prominently in local Church history. The Cove, known as Larsen when the chapel was first built, was the birthplace of the church in the area. A friend sent me a photo of the Chapel from 1913. The first thing I thought when I saw it was "I wonder if I could get a photo from the same vantage point."

What followed was some geometry based on the apparent angle at which the Chapel is seen in the old photo (14 degrees) off perpendicular. My math was rustier that I thought and I had to look up the formulas. Add in a Google Earth photo of the chapel to determine where the vantage point was. The best I could do was a line drawn across the map. Somewhere along that line the photographer stood. Further guessing that there was an elevation difference of about a hundred feet, I could pretty easily pinpoint on the map my destination.

Driving along Northcutts Cove Road, I notice road signs that let me know I am getting close to the right spot. I passed Ray Fults Drive and W. Smartt Road, both family names linked with the building of the Chapel in 1909. It was W. Smartt Road I was hoping to take to my destination. But the rusty iron gate padlocked across the chert gravel road, made me change my mind.

I drove on, down the hill to the cove far below. Almost immediately the small white chapel came into view. There were few things different from the photos I had already seen. Tall bushes hiding the front of the building had been cut down. And a new stone marker had been added to the grounds commemorating the 100th anniversary of its dedication.

Recently placed wreaths in the cemetery behind the church, remind me that people connected to the church still live nearby. A piece of me secretly hoped someone obviously connected to the chapel would see me drive up and come to introduce themselves. The land has since passed into private hands, but they are members of the church, I am told, and are proud of their connection to their piece of history. None of the homes in the distance are obviously connected to this property, and I'm not enough of an extrovert to just walk up to the homes of people I don't know. Yes, tracting was horrible.

I turn to the south and look up at the point I was hoping to get to, but couldn't. Part of me is consoled by the fact that today, the hillside is covered with trees. It is unlikely I would be able to get a clear shot roughly approximating the original.

As I get in my car to continue my trip home (two hours later than I was expected), I think of the narrow window of opportunity this community sat in during the turn of the last century. Had the missionary success happened a few years earlier, many of the converts would have emigrated to the west, leaving little lasting imprint of their proselyting efforts on the local community. A little later, and there would not have been enough time for the local church to grow as it has here.

[As I am nearly home I realize I didn't stop at the newest chapel, the one the saints in Altamont use today. The third would have rounded out the visit. Perhaps even have been a interesting way to mark the growth of the church. Architecture as a proxy for history. Mmmmmmm.]


Amy said...

Cool experience, Bruce.

Architecture as a proxy for history.

It looks like it can be done -- you turned a couple of old church buildings into quite an adventure.

Ardis E. Parshall said...

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!

Part of me is jealous of you that you have this whole field of church history wide open to you, almost without competition. You're certainly taking advantage of your opportunities as an historian, and I'm glad to be able to follow from a distance.

Did I say this was wonderful?

BruceCrow said...

Amy, It was a cool little adventure. Thanks.

Ardis, The lack of competition is why I stay away from the more traditional venues for Church History. It isn't that I don't find them interesting, just that I have so little to add. Here I can add something.

Anonymous said...

A decade ago I was an undergraduate at Sewanee, and attended the Altamont ward. When I clicked through from Kipaptichen it was a real delight to see the Altamont buildings (minus, of course, the early '80's building).

The saints in the ward very much retain a relationship to those buildings. At least through the time when I was there, every Easter there would be a sunrise service at 6 AM, held on alternating years at North Cutts Cove or the building on the square. {Unfortunately, lazy college student that I was, I only made it once, and then only to the one in town. The bats between the ceiling and the roof made their annoyance with our disturbance known, which made for an interesting meeting!}

Also, I seem to remember being told that both were owned by ward member families, that the land donated for the buildings originally had reverted back to the donor families when the church stopped using them.

Alta Mont is a special place, and the ward there is truly special. I really appreciate the sudden swell of feeling that accompanied seeing that name and those pictures.


BruceCrow said...

Thanks for posting Tom,
Sewanee? I've driven through there. I am a little surprised it was in the Altamont Ward area, but I can't think of a closer one. It must have taken you over 40 minutes to make the trip.

You are right about the ownership. I spoke with someone who knows the owners two days ago. Hopfully I can arrange a visit indoors.

I knew the Easter service at the Northcutts Cove chapel was on alternate years, but I didn't know the other years were at the other chapel. Thanks. (Bats! I love it)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it was about a 40 minute drive. Sometimes, when late, a little less...fortunately they held priesthood first...but the closest alternates weren't any closer--Tullahoma would have been about 40, too. And it's a wonderful ward, a great group of people. And, unlike most wards I've encountered since. Its differences from Sewanee (wonderful place that that is!), moreover, were enriching to my college experience.

One of the interesting things about the ward, so I was told, is that it is largely the descendents of 4 or so families who were converted near the turn of the last century. It would be interesting to know more about that.

Again, thanks for your work posting these.


alma shoemaker said...

I stopped by the old Northcutts cove Chapel today with 2 young Sisters I had taken to a meeting in Altamont. They were excited to see the building and take pictures. Both were from Utah. The building was open so we went inside. Both stood at the podium and recited verses. Before we left, WE RANG THE BELL!!

BruceCrow said...

That is awesome!!! Thanks for sharing.

Julie Goodin said...

My great-grandfather Lewis Fults built the church building. He also owned a furniture store in town that still bears his name :)

Julie Goodin said...

You can go to for more information, if still interested.

Alma Shoemaker said...

The Northcutts Cove building was damaged in the resent ice storms we had. Funds are being raised to make the repairs. Any one interested in making a donation can e-mail me at an I will send you the information.

BruceCrow said...

Thanks Alma. I'll spread the word around.

Robert Lindsay said...

morman people are trustworthy, devout, and neighborly. i served in the navy with a few. They were great sailors. can you imagine a sailor not drinking some alcohol. i knew some that did not.

Robert Lindsay said...

i was so impressed with the mormans i met while in the navy, i wrote my english theme
paper on the MORMAN movement west.