Author/photographer Bill Fitzpatrick (right) joins Linda Reid, a direct descendent of Capt. James Frazier, to explore her ancestry in the cemetery of Cedar Springs ARP Church near Abbeville.
On a crisp autumn day in 2010, Bill Fitzpatrick grabbed his camera bag and headed out the door. An acquaintance of his at the photography shop over on Wade Hampton Boulevard in Greenville had tipped him off about an amazing old plantation house in Abbeville County — about an hour and a half drive away — that sat in the middle of nowhere. Fitzpatrick was eager to get on the road to discover that house and its history for himself.
Now that he and his business partner had sold their IT company to a Fortune 500 company, Fitzpatrick had been ambling about the first few weeks of a four-year non-compete agreement looking for something worthwhile to fill his days. Luckily for him, fate had a plan … one that would stretch long past those four years, pressing him further and further along an all-consuming path into South Carolina’s history, heritage and culture.
Clueless about what fate had in mind for him, Fitzpatrick enjoyed a pleasant drive along some of the state’s beautiful rural byways, a trip that soon turned to frustration as he struggled to find the exact location of his destination.
But finally there it was.
The Frazier-Pressley House, a three-story stuccoed brick mansion built by Captain James W. Frazier in the 1850s took Fitzpatrick’s breath away. Octagonal in shape, the structure is one of only a handful that survives in the Cedar Springs Historic District in Abbeville. As Fitzpatrick stared up at the “Impossible House,” astonished by its Charleston-esque grandeur that imposes itself on the vast nowhere-ness surrounding it, the man could not help but wonder, “What else is around me?”
After photographing the Frazier-Pressley House, Fitzpatrick drove back to Greenville not knowing the answer to his question was right over his shoulder, the Cedar Springs A.R.P. Church. Little did he know that eight years later he would be wandering that beautiful red church’s cemetery — one to which the Hearst family traced its American roots — with new friends he’d gathered along his journey.
Looking for historic structures of equal caliber to photograph, Fitzpatrick turned to the National Register of Historic Places and picked two landmarks in Spartanburg County for his next outing. One was Anderson’s Mill located in Moore, a water-powered gristmill that dates back to the late 18th century. The second was Shiloh Methodist Church located in Inman. The earliest surviving sanctuary in Spartanburg County, and one of the earliest in the state’s Upcountry, the small vernacular meetinghouse has survived more than 175 years. Driving between these two sites, both situated in the middle of different areas of nowhere, Fitzpatrick experienced the same frustration he did the week before trying to locate the Frazier-Pressley House.
Having lived in Charleston, Columbia and Greenville during his adult life, Fitzpatrick knew South Carolina’s history through the lens of big cities. But the towns and districts he’d passed travelling from one city to the next never registered with him … until now. On his drive home from Spartanburg County, a plan to occupy his immediate future began coming together in his head. He decided to travel across the Upcountry photographing sites that were either listed on the National Register of Historic Places or had an historic marker, capturing their GPS coordinates during his visits. Then he planned to publish the photos, along with descriptions of the sites, and link the GPS coordinates he’d collect to Google maps.
Upon completion of his first e-book and with more time on his hands, Fitzpatrick published a second e-book on the historic sites of the Midlands, and a third on the historic sites of the Lowcountry, photographing and compiling the histories of more that 1,000 sites statewide. Even as his travels unfolded, Fitzpatrick realized that what really resonated with him were the sacred spaces, the portals through which the voices of humankind resound in the ears of the Creator; where their greatest joys and deepest sorrows are laid bare before their God.
As the days passed, Fitzpatrick connected the dots. He found the common threads that bound the state as a whole through its ancestry, architectures, shared history and more. He came to believe that South Carolina’s sacred spaces transcend skin color and economic class to unite us a culture and as a citizenry.
Historic Cedar Springs ARP Church, Abbeville.
As Fitzpatrick transitioned back to his work life, he struggled with what to do with the photographs of the more than 600 sacred spaces he’d shot. It was the at-risk rural structures that still tugged at his heartstrings. He came to understand that outside of the major cities, all the rural sacred spaces were at risk to varying degrees. He just didn’t know what he could do about it.
He thought that the stories he’d discovered of congregants reaching into their not-so-deep pockets to save the past, and by doing so, honoring their ancestors and preserving their history, worthy of the national stage. As it turned out, he was correct. He wrote a series titled, “South Carolina Stories” for the Saving Places/National Trust for Historic Preservation in late 2015 and most of 2016. The series became one of the most read and commented upon for the organization. Fitzpatrick finally had proof that there were many people like him who were interested in saving the nation’s sacred spaces.
Fitzpatrick finally decided to commemorate his journey by publishing one coffee table book featuring 70 sacred spaces from across the state, his reminder of what he’d discovered during his travels and the many new friends he’d met along the way. About a year ago, he spotted a newspaper article about Michael Bedenbaugh, executive director of Preservation South Carolina, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the historic and irreplaceable architectural heritage in South Carolina. That gave Fitzpatrick an idea. He called Bedenbaugh and set up a meeting.
Through the photographs in his 350-page coffee table book, Fitzpatrick introduced Bedenbaugh to his new friends, his fingers easy flipping through images of at-risk rural sacred spaces and the stories of those trying to save them: John Grier at Lower Long Cane ARP Church near Troy; Barbara James at Temple Beth El in Camden; Moose Littlejohn at Mulberry Methodist Church in Pacolet; May Hutchinson (whom Bedenbaugh already knew well) at Trinity Episcopal Church in Abbeville; Davetta Green at Catholic Hill Church near Waterboro, to name just a few.
Within a few minutes of their meeting, Fitzpatrick offered Bedenbaugh and Preservation South Carolina his book titled, “South Carolina’s Sacred Spaces” to help raise awareness about the importance of preserving the state’s sacred spaces and to draw attention to those most at risk. Fitzpatrick also published and donated 1,000 copies of his book, with all the proceeds from sales going to a special fund to help repair and protect these important state treasures.
If Fitzpatrick was the flame that ignited the Sacred Spaces Project, then Bedenbaugh is the jet fuel needed to move it forward. Fitzpatrick’s initial hope was to raise enough money to save two or three sacred spaces. Bedenbaugh hopes to save them all.
This is the first in a series of stories exploring South Carolina rural Sacred Spaces; and the commitment of Preservation South Carolina to preserve and protect these historic and irreplaceable state treasures for generations to come.