The Childress Rock Churches are located in the relatively isolated counties of Floyd, Carroll, and Patrick in the Blue Ridge Province. Built between 1919 and the early 1950s by Presbyterian minister Robert “Bob” W. Childress, Sr. (1890 -1956), the six churches are significant in their embodiment of Appalachian patterns of Presbyterian worship and Presbyterian social activism in western Virginia. The churches also tell the story of the remarkable ministry of Reverend Childress, who is often credited for bringing spiritual faith and social awakening to the people of the area. Based on their significance in the areas of Religion, Social History, and Architecture, the churches were nominated to the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places in a 2006 multiple property document.
Photographs and captions by Michael Pulice, DHR architectural historian, Western Region Preservation Office.
The Bluemont Presbyterian Church and Cemetery occupy two acres on the south side of the Blue Ridge Parkway in northern Patrick County. Bluemont Church is among the more modest in scale and design of the churches associated with Reverend Childress. In addition to the natural quartz and quartzite stone facing, the main character element of the church is the Gothic-style, semi-hexagonal bell tower on the north (rear) elevation. A white marble cornerstone reads, “Bluemont Presbyterian Church, 1919.”
Bluemont Church was built as a frame structure and was rock-faced shortly after Bob Childress assumed the pastorate there at the close of World War II. In 1918, the Abingdon Presbytery promised $500 for a church building, provided that worshipers would raise an equal amount. The church was organized in September 1920 with G. E. Willis as elder and James A. Vass as deacon. Granville “Ernest” Willis owned the first automobile in the region and traveled to Presbytery sessions in southwest Virginia and to Richmond to represent the Bluemont membership.
The Bluemont Church Cemetery, located just south of the church, is notable for its enclosure of coursed-stone pillars and its granite memorials.
Located in a sparsely populated area of Patrick County, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Mayberry Presbyterian Church is perhaps the most modest of the six rock churches, and is the only Childress church without a cemetery. The frame church was erected in 1925, with Bob Childress serving as pastor while still a student at Union Theological Seminary, and the quartzite & quartz fieldstone veneer was added by the congregation in 1948.
The Buffalo Mountain Presbyterian Church and Cemetery are located on the Carroll/Floyd county line, a short distance from the Buffalo Mission School where Rev. Childress preached for three years after arriving in the Buffalo community in 1926, following his graduation from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. He had visited fieldstone churches in Tennessee, and learned that they were not expensive to build with donated manpower.
Construction of Buffalo Mountain Church took place during the summer of 1929. Men from the community cut trees and skidded them to the church site with oxen. They sawed oak for beams and poplar for siding, dug out the basement, and laid the foundation. Rev. Childress announced a contest to bring the prettiest quartz stone for the church walls. Buffalo Church elder J. M. Sutphin supervised the stonework. The beautiful stained glass windows were soon installed, and the new building was dedicated September 19, 1929. Rev. Childress’s pastorate there would last more than twenty years.
The Buffalo Mountain Cemetery is notable for its extensive quartz-fieldstone walls and its outstanding view of Buffalo Mountain in the distance, to the northeast.
Founded in 1932, Slate Mountain Presbyterian Church and Cemetery are prominently sited at Rock Castle Gap in Floyd County, at about 3,200 feet above sea level. The church began as a mission of Buffalo Mountain Church around 1930 when Rev. Childress began holding services and Sunday school at a one-room school in the Slate community, five miles southeast of Buffalo Mountain Church. Soon thereafter, community members began excavating sand from Burks Fork for delivery at the church site.
Beautiful crystal quartz rocks were brought from family farms and were placed on both sides of the Slate Mountain Church front entrance.
In addition to its unusually beautiful setting, the Slate Mountain Church is perhaps most notable for and its lovely stained-glass windows.
Situated at the highest point in the area, above 2,636 feet in elevation, the Dinwiddie Presbyterian Church and Cemetery in Carroll County are the farthest, about thirteen miles, from the mother church at Buffalo Mountain. From the church grounds, far-off mountain peaks are visible in all directions. Closer by are cleared pasturelands and a few residences along the roadways. Work on the church foundation began in July 1946 without architects or plans. Rev. Childress and Richard P. Slate laid out the building footprint. Most of the fieldstone facing came from Buffalo Mountain, hauled in a World War II Weapons Carrier Childress had purchased from army surplus.
Rev. Childress personally directed construction of the Dinwiddie Church fieldstone altar and pulpit, which remain unchanged today. The first service was held in September 1948. In 1953 Childress purchased an acre of adjoining property at auction for $2,000, a price far beyond the church’s budget. He paid for the purchase with a personal loan from the Bank of Floyd.
The former Willis Presbyterian Church (now Grace Baptist Church) and associated cemetery are located in southwestern Floyd County, at more than 2,800 feet above sea level. Completed in 1954, it was the last of the rock churches to be constructed. From 1939 until 1953 Willis Presbyterian Church services were held in the Willis Bank building, which had ceased to be used as a bank during the Depression.
In 1953 church elder Troy Weeks reported that the building committee had contracted with Lyle Stanley to build the Willis church, with materials furnished by the congregation. The fieldstone facing came from many different nearby farms.
The Willis church cemetery contains the oldest graves of any of the rock-church cemeteries. Many gravestones date to the mid-19th century, a number of them hand-carved carved from local soapstone.