Willis Chapel celebrates not one, but two milestones on Sunday

Two centuries of fascinating history surround Huntly church

Willis Chapel United Methodist Church in Huntly is celebrating 100 years of faith and fellowship this Sunday, although the historic chapel could justifiably be observing its bicentennial.

After all, it was 200 years ago, in 1817 — “away up in the Blue Ridge Mountains” in Riley Hollow — that a Methodist Episcopal church named “Shiloh” was built next to a small one-room schoolhouse where Sunday school was taught.

The grounds of Willis Chapel are shaded by a magnificent if not historic 300-plus year old white oak tree. By John McCaslin

In 1914, Methodist preachers of the so-called Rappahannock circuit ordered the church be moved from its original site — “as there had been quite an exodus of people from that section” — to its present location “on the pike,” better known today as Zachary Taylor Highway.

It so happened that the church was rebuilt in 1917 — exactly 100 years after its 1817 deeded founding as Shiloh Methodist Episcopal Church South — and renamed Willis Chapel.

And who was Willis?

The chapel, according to church history, was placed “as a monument” in the location when on Oct. 14, 1864, a young preacher named Albert G. Willis volunteered to give up his life so that one of his fellow Confederate soldiers — one of Mosby’s Rangers — could live.

It so happened that a deserter from the Union army was in the vicinity of Huntly and came upon some of Mosby’s men, who were described as “intoxicated” from whisky. The rowdy rebels eventually killed the deserter and threw his body into a nearby grove, which was owned by Col. Thomas Settle of Flint Hill.

Learning of the deserter’s death, Col. Settle and his wife quickly retrieved the body, which they wrapped in a blanket and buried (the remains were later moved to the Flint Hill Baptist Church cemetery).

A short time later, a detachment of federal troops investigating the deserter’s death came upon a pair of Confederate soldiers near Huntly, one of them Rev. Albert Willis. In retaliation for the deserter’s demise, the Union soldiers declared that one of the Confederates would hang — to be decided by drawing straws.

The Mosby Ranger, a father of five, drew the fatal straw and immediately pleaded for his life. At which time the chaplain Willis stepped forward, explained that he had no dependents, and therefore he should be the one to hang instead.

History doesn’t reveal where the dastardly deed was done, but consider this: In February 1991 — a century-and-a-quarter after the preacher’s hanging — Lyttelton “Lyt” Wood, of the Washington-based tree-care company Tree Works, was asked by church elders to examine the health of a magnificent white oak tree that still stands today in front of Willis Chapel.

Following his thorough inspection, Wood submitted two pages of findings: “This is a very beautiful tree, with one of the largest crown spreads I have seen,” he wrote. “I would estimate the tree to be about 275 years old.”

Which means the tree, by all accounts, been around for 300 years or more. Which also means that at the time of the hanging the giant white oak, with its tremendous limbs, was already 150 years old. Strong enough, no doubt, to hang a chaplain or anybody else by the neck.

As a place of worship, the interior of Willis Chapel also has its own rich history, starting with the rebuilding efforts of Joe and Molly Reid. In the 100 years the church has been in Huntly, generations of families have been baptized, married, and buried there.

Parishioner Judi Burke, a Rappahannock County real estate agent, knows of at least five generations of her family who were christened in the chapel.

Another intriguing chapter of Willis Chapel history surrounds the bell tower. Without the knowledge of her husband, Mrs. Reid sat down and wrote “in graceful terms” a letter to Iowa-born President Herbert Hoover, knowing of his “great interest in the mountain people” who resided near the nation’s capital.

“She gave a brief history of the church, the reason for its construction, and presumed to ask him for a contribution,” the church history continues. “By return mail came a contribution of twenty-five dollars from the president, with a most gracious letter in which he said that as soon as he could have one of his secretaries do so he would have him look around Washington, D.C., for a [church] bell.

“In ten days, the bell arrived at Front Royal, expressed prepaid.”

To show his deep appreciation, Mr. Reid, a woodcarver of “great artistic skill and merit,” sent President Hoover a beautiful hand-crafted walking cane that he had “cut from the woods” surrounding Rapidan Camp, the president’s summer retreat in nearby Madison County.

Intricately engraved into the cane, running from the handle to the ferrule, is the following verse:

Late afternoon yet the day’s not ended,

The western sun shines brightly as of yore.

Not yet upon the worker has descended

The night that gently whispers, ‘work no more’

Still, let us labor, tho with strength diminished

Until the tasks assigned us, one by one

Are faithfully performed, the lesson finished,

And resting we may hear the words, ‘Well done’.

Today, a beautiful replica of the “Hoover Cane” hangs in a glass case to the left side of chapel’s altar — a gift to the church in 2001 from the Reid family.

The historic “Hoover Cane” is displayed behind protective glass on the wall of Willis Chapel. By John McCaslin

The congregation of Willis Chapel might be small in number, but they are tight-knit and welcoming to all.

Rev. Sara Keeling, minister of Willis Chapel United Methodist Church in Huntly. By John McCaslin

Rev. Sara Keeling, the chapel’s minister who has just begun her seventh year as pastor of the Rappahannock Charge United Methodist Church, recalls her family’s first-ever visit to the chapel, when the parishioners “swarmed around us” and “handed us hams and pies.”

“There’s a lot of home cooking here,” Rev. Keeling says with a smile.

“But there is a tremendous sense of community here,” she stresses. “After all, the people have been here for generations.”

Everybody is invited to this Sunday’s 11 a.m. worship, which will celebrate Willis Chapel’s centennial anniversary, 1917-2017. The worship will be followed by a bountiful covered dish luncheon. Please bring a dish to share.

About John McCaslin 447 Articles
John McCaslin is the editor of the Rappahannock News. Email him at editor@rappnews.com.