New Hope Presbyterian Church | Columbia County, FL | founded c. 1850s
This simple church sits quietly at a rural crossroads in North Florida, and while it doesn’t look like much now, it holds the stories of one family and the community they built within its walls. And while today, the church is all that remains of the place, the legacy they left behind is still remembered fondly by locals and descendants.
The Hawthorne Family Arrives from South Carolina
The year was 1857 when William Andrew Jackson Hawthorne and his wife, Jane Hagan Hawthorne, packed up their things in Abbeville South Carolina, and headed to the new frontier that was Florida. Florida was new to the union and still mostly unsettled so, beginning in the 1840s, government programs like the Armed Occupation Act were created to draw a new wave of settlers to the state. During this era, many families who were looking for more land came from Georgia and the Carolinas, where it was increasingly difficult to establish new, large farms.
But that opportunity came at high costs and the migration into Florida wasn’t for the weak of heart. Although some of the coastal cities had been developed, roads into the interior part of Florida were few and far between. In many cases, these early settlers had to clear their own paths to their land claims, taking down trees and overgrowth before they could proceed. When they arrived in Columbia County, Florida, William and Jane already had 2 young sons, and since they were expecting another, William immediately set out to build a cabin to shelter his family on the land they settled.
According to a family letter dated August 25, 1857, Jane wrote back to her mother in South Carolina about her anxieties about living on the Florida frontier and providing for their family. Her mother would always remind her that she could come back to South Carolina anytime although eventually, her mother would come with other members of the Hagan to join her in Florida.
A Family And Community Grows
The original Hawthorne Family cabin, which was destroyed in a hurricane, sat near the current-day Myrtis Road intersection with 441. And while it no longer stands, another interesting piece of the Hawthorne Family legacy is still holding on to the past. As his family grew, William wanted to give his children the opportunity to make friends and establish relationships. So he decided to build a church near his property where others were welcomed to attend services. William and his family built every piece of the church, from the walls to the roof, pews, and the pulpit. The church and community roots that they began to foster back then still hold ties throughout Columbia County today.
The Civil War
But things were interrupted dramatically as war approached and this family was prepared to contribute to the efforts of the southern cause. In February of 1863, William Andrew Hawthorne mustered into service with Company E of the 9th Florida Infantry at age 39. His discharge papers from later that year indicate that he was a shoemaker during his service.
But another interesting story emerged while researching this church from the war years. As fighting pushed into the 3rd year, resources across the South had become strained. The Confederate Army asked for support from its states in a variety of ways and in this case, churches in the area were called to support the cause, too. Along with a handful of other churches in the Lake City area, the Hawthorne Church donated their church bell, which was then driven by wagon more than 200 miles to Macon, GA where the metal was melted down to make weaponry at the Macon arsenal.
The bell in the Hawthorne Chapel was never replaced and when the steeple blew down in a hurricane, the church put on a slat wood shingle roof. The shingles were later covered in tin, which is the roof that remains today. Evidence of the earlier steeple can still be seen in the attic.
New Era, New Hope
After the war, the Hawthorne family, which now included 7 children, decided to continue on with their community building. But to mark this new era, they decided to re-establish the church in 1868 under a new name that helped to capture their feelings for the future: New Hope Presbyterian Church.
But the church and community would need a proper burial ground and an interesting story emerged about that too. According to family tradition, 19 confederate soldiers’ bodies were returned to this community and buried in graves that were marked by simple wooden markers. So in 1876 when William needed to select a site for the church’s burial ground, he purchased the lot where the confederate burials were for use as the family and church cemetery. Today, the burial ground holds the remains of at least 34 people in addition to the confederate burials believed to be there as well. Unfortunately, no formal records exist of the confederate burials and their markers have been lost to time so we will likely never know who is buried there.
In 1877, New Hope Church officially began reporting to the Florida Presbytery and from then on, was served by a circuit-riding preacher who would stay at the parsonage that they built on site. For many years, Reverend Leonard H. Eikel would come down to preach once a month from his usual charge nearby at Mikesville. The church has never had electricity or indoor plumbing so they met in the early afternoon during Summer services and congregants would try to keep cool with hand fans.
Myrtis and Miller Hawthorne
In 1885, William Andrew Hawthorne passed away, he was buried at the cemetery that he helped to found. His estate was divided amongst his wife and children and his sons, namely Alexander “Miller” Hawthorne who would carry on the torch for the following generation. When Miller was a young man, he married a local woman named Fannie Silas who died in 1881 during childbirth. When their infant son died a few weeks later, Miller had a hard time moving on and spent the next 20 years as a widower.
But as time went on, a striking young woman names Myrtis Alethia Farmer caught Miller’s eye. And while she reportedly had many suitors, none was able to capture her attention like Miller. So, on March 25, 1900, Myrtis and Miller married in the home of her parents in neighboring Alachua County. Miller proved to be a good choice of husband, according to the family stories about their wedding day. After leaving her parents home, Myrtis and Miller loaded all of her things and set out for their home in Columbia County.
The home, constructed of trees that fell in a hurricane, was built by Miller himself for his new bride after the original Hawthorne cabin was destroyed. The land where it stood was cleared from the storm and as they approached, Myrtis remarked more than once at how beautiful and grand the house was, set upon the dramatic landscape of the cleared forest. Being that she had never visited his property before, Myrtis didn’t yet realize that the lovely home was hers now. Just one year after they wed, Myrtis and Miller welcomed their first child, Mabel. Over the following years, they would have 4 more daughters, and 1 son, all born inside the house that Miller built.
According to one article, many of the floorboards were more than 22 inches wide, and Miller operated a foot-powered lathe to carve the fanciful victorian details that adorned both the interior and exterior of the home. One wooden mantel inside the home was especially remarkable because he hand-carved the delicate flower embellishments.
New Road, New Location
As the years went on, a new road (present-day 441) was constructed through the area, although it just bypassed the community of Myrtis. So in 1923, Miller came up with the idea to relocate so that they wouldn’t be removed from the new traffic in the area.
At the original church locations, they cut down trees and loaded their home onto the logs to roll down the road. The quarter-mile move, pulled by oxen, took a few days, and after their home had been relocated, they moved the church as well. A Sunday fell during the process so the congregation halted work and built temporary steps so that they could hold services while the church was on logs en route to its new site. At its new location, the church building was set up on limestone pillars and a new parsonage was built to accommodate a traveling pastor. With its proximity to the new road, the community hoped that the church would be able to attract more members.
The Hawthorne House Was Always Full
Throughout the years, the Hawthorne Family remained at the center of this church and community and their house was always full. Because of its location on the road between Lake City and Ellisville, the Hawthorne Home was regularly opened to boarders who could trade work on the farm for room and a meal cooked by Myrtis.
Never one to turn down someone in need, she is remembered for opening her home to many, strangers and kin alike. Myrtis’ mother and Miller’s brother eventually lived here, as well as her nephew, and grandsons when each of their mothers died unexpectedly.
Described by one local as a social worker before there was such a thing, the stories of Myrtis’ generosity are almost too many to mention here. According to one local family, she regularly took in families who couldn’t feed their children and every Sunday, she would cook a large meal after church, open to anyone who was hungry.
She would prepare meat and supplement it with homemade canned goods, for which she was also legendary. She was also famous for her coconut cake, fresh biscuits she made daily, and fried chicken. Having been a farmer’s wife her whole life, Myrtis had no pause when it came to killing and preparing her own chickens and it wasn’t unusual for her to go out back and shoot a squirrel to prepare for dinner that night.
She cooked on a wood-burning stove and was proud to share the contents of her pie safe, which she kept well-stocked at all times. Her pantry was always full of canned goods like beans, vegetables, and mayhaw jelly. Her children and grandchildren shared memories of shelling peas in rocking chairs on the front porch with Myrtis. Myrtis and her daughter Mabel went on to enter the county fair for canning, winning nearly every competition they entered. So much so that they were barred by county fair officials from competing anymore. Not that it stopped these two ladies, they entered under others’ names instead. When all was said and done, the two had won more than 500 blue and red ribbons that they had earned over the years. Myrtis also loved to sew, making all of her children’s clothes and many quilts that she passed on to her family as heirlooms.
Myrtis loved to sing and was often heard humming or whistling her favorite tunes, Little Brown Jug and The Frog Went a Courtin while she worked on mending clothes. When it was time to bathe the children, Bathwater would have to be heated on the wood stove, so Myrtis would chop the wood once a week for the children’s baths in a galvanized tub.
A Family Affair
As they got older, the Hawthorne children helped as farmhands on the family land, which spanned 500 acres. Using a team of horses to till the soil, Miller grew corn, beans, sugar cane, and cotton. They used one of four wells on the property to water the crops with buckets by hand until pumps were added later. Miller was also one of the first advocates in the area for using fertilizer and in the family photo below, he stands proudly with two of his daughters showing off the result of his fertilized crops of corn, nearly 10 feet tall.
Corn was stored in a corn crib to be used as feed and meal throughout the year and they also kept pigs and chickens, from whom Myrtis would gather eggs daily. The Hawthorne farm also produced income by selling timber, the evidence of which can still be seen on the property where tram tracks used to run to pick up logs to haul to the area lumber mills. This tram line, also used to haul turpentine, was substantial enough that telegraph lines were installed to connect the house with the lumber operators.
Myrtis and her family remained active in the community and church for the rest of her life and in later years, her daughter, Rosalie Hawthorne, played the pump organ for the church congregation.
On January 28, 1929, Alexander ‘Miller’ Hawthorne died, leaving each of his daughters 100 acres from the original 500-acre tract of land, and Myrtis assumed the role of the family matriarch. When the Great Depression took hold, rural communities like this one were hit especially hard and it fell on neighbors to help one another, Myrtis stepped in time and time again to help in any way she could. A generous, kind, loyal friend to all, Myrtis was so beloved here that the community where the Hawthorne family lived took on her name.
In the 1950s, the community of Myrtis was named Watermelon Park because of all of the watermelon truckers who loaded watermelons here. You could also get an ice-cold slice for $0.25. The church remained active until 1966 when it was decommissioned and returned back to the Hawthorne Family descendants who still look after it today. Myrtis died in her home on January 12, 1962.
Following her death, her eldest daughter Mabel Hawthorne Butler moved into the Hawthorne house until she passed away there on January 16, 1988. According to her family, the home fell apart soon after. It was eventually torn down, leaving the church and cemetery as all that remains of the community of Myrtis.
Thank you to Christopher Mark Esing for his research, which contributed significantly to this piece. You can read his article about the community of Myrtis HERE.