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Culpeper Currents: Thoroughly charming trio (Part One)

Recently I was invited to accompany a group from the Culpeper Baptist Church for a tour of three of our area’s most historic places of worship. Our first stop was at Little Fork Episcopal Church. This architectural gem is tucked away off routes 726 and 624 north of Rixeyville. Little Fork has the distinction of being Culpeper County’s only surviving colonial era church.

Welcoming us to Little Fork was the Rev. Brad Jackson who presented a very entertaining history of the church. He pointed out that the places of worship for the Church of England were always named for geographical features, thus “Little Fork” for the fork of the Rappahannock and Hazel Rivers. And he informed us that at the beginning of its life, Little Fork Church would have been known as a “chapel of ease.” In each parish of the Church of England there was a main church and a series of chapels situated every 10 miles for the convenience of inhabitants, for during the colonial era, church attendance was mandatory.

There was a chapel at this location as early as 1730. A wooden structure, it burned in 1750; and its replacement, also wooden, burned in 1773. The vestry considered reconstructing another wooden chapel, but wisely decided on a brick one instead. The new brick church was 80 feet by 30 feet and was completed in 1776, the brick being laid in a Flemish bond pattern. The architect for Little Fork was John Ariss. He also designed Lamb’s Creek Church in King George County, a church that is a “twin” in design to Little Fork.

Little Fork did not have a minister at the very beginning, only lay readers. In 1733 the first minister, Rev. J. Becket, was hired. He served only a few years before he was asked to leave by the vestry. Apparently they did not feel he was a good moral example for the church as it was found he was cohabiting with a woman not his wife. A better relationship was had with the following minister, the Rev. John Thompson, perhaps best known as the builder of the Culpeper home Salubria. Rev. Thompson served Little Fork for 32 years and did much to build the congregation.

Unlike many other churches in the county, Little Fork was not burned to the ground during the Civil War. However, during the winter of 1863-1864, the Union Army used all the furniture and most of the interior woodwork for firewood for their camps. The only feature not touched was the reredos on the east wall. Later the army used the empty church as a stable for their horses. Rev. Jackson said that after the war, one of the soldiers sent the church $100 to help in replacing the pews.

Between 1976 and 1979, Little Fork underwent restoration. One of the features returned to its colonial glory was the high pulpit with sounding board. The pulpit area has three levels, the highest for the minister, the middle for use by readers, and the lowest was originally for the clerk who took attendance. The pulpit is situated in the middle of the north wall of the church, with box pews to both sides and across the aisle. All the woodwork is painted a vivid blue which Rev. Jackson described as “turkey blue.”

(I wondered about the color name “Turkey Blue.” I found it is named for the country, Turkey, which was an early exporter of the gemstone turquoise. Thus this color came to be known as “Turkish blue,” or “Turkey blue.”)

The box pews are a distinctive feature. The original purpose of them was for warmth, the design helping to eliminate drafts. Rev. Jackson noted that people would bring “their own warmth with them,” probably heated bricks that they would use at their feet. One of our group noted that the box pews would be a good way to contain children too! Rev. Jackson said that during services each group in a pew becomes almost like family, participating in worship together.

The beauty and atmosphere of Little Fork Church was an inspiring way to begin our day of touring. Many thanks to Rev. Jackson for his graciousness and hospitality.

Julie Bushong
Culpeper County Library

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