Recovering the Past: A Trip to Okonoko

ROMNEY – St. Paul tells his listeners, “We are surrounded by a large crowd of witnesses.” In a small church we count those who went before us as part of that large crowd and so on a bright summer day part of the confirmation class of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church set out to learn what they could about the members of a once thriving congregation – Epiphany Church in Okonoko.

Built in the late 1880s, the church is gone now; the cemetery is all that’s left. The trip takes 50 minutes from Romney. You go about 20 miles out Jersey Mountain Road onto Bright’s Hollow Road, left onto Okonoko Road and eventually you come to a small cemetery. There are twenty headstones. A few are relics of the 1880s and 1890s. The most recent is from 1963. Over the years nearly all the family members have moved away, but the grounds are still maintained by a relative who remembers those buried there.

In spite of the heat and the bugs the class carefully noted the inscriptions. A few were clear and unmistakable, others faded by more than a hundred years of wind and rain. Some gave evidence of just how hard life was a hundred years ago – a fifteen-year old boy, a mother, dead at 27, and a baby. The baby didn’t even live to see his first birthday. Another mother had six children and buried two of them before she, herself, died at age 43.

But there was also evidence of hope and faith. A quote from the Book of Revelation assured that a father, who had died in his seventies, now rested from his labor and that his works would follow him. Another reminded readers that a boy, who had died too young, now slept in Jesus’ peaceful rest.

The cemetery visit was only part of the experience. Our Episcopal Church is blessed with records dating back to the 1890s and so the class returned to the church house to discover what they could about the people buried at Epiphany cemetery. By looking through records of baptisms, marriages and funerals they were able to piece together some family trees.

Epiphany was used primarily by two families from this area. Looking at the family lists made it clear why this was possible. Families in those [days] were large. Most had five or six children and by the third generation it was possible for the group to number in the hundreds, certainly enough to populate a small country church.

Research didn’t stop with church records. The third step helped to breathe life into the statistics the class had gathered. Reading notes from Bishop Peterkin’s History of the Church in West Virginia and asking members of the congregation about people they remembered brought more information.

Henry McGill Russell lived to be 87, and before he joined his parents in the Epiphany cemetery he served for years as the Sunday school superintendent. There are other names, some still familiar in this area. Blanche Largent (Clise) 1886-1913, George J. Williamson 1833-1917, Margaret A. Williamson 1847-1912, Wallace Hook (McGill) 1872-1888, Edward W. McGill, Sr. 1817-1891, Mary Elizabeth (McGill) 1831-1898, Mary Hester McGill 1853-1910, Ella S. (Swisher) 1861-1905, Thomas McGill (Kuykendall) 1885-1886, Kate T. (Kuykendall) 1859-1902, Mary White Kuykendall 1887-1905, Mahlon H. Russell 1830-1905, Arabella W. (Russell) 1849-1929, John R. Burnside 1832-1901, Edward B. Miller 1855-1936, Emma L. Miller 1876-1909. We would still be interested in hearing from anyone with information about Epiphany Church or about people buried in the cemetery.

So, was it worth all the effort? We look to the saints who went before us for inspiration and example. In a letter dated August 1890, Bishop Peterkin wrote, “From Berkley Springs I went on Monday to Okonoko. Here at half past three on a warm summer afternoon I preached to a good congregation in Epiphany Church and confirmed one Mr. Gibbons [and] baptized a little child about one-year old. The mother had brought him in her arms five or six miles, walking every step of the way. Certainly this showed such an earnest spirit on her part that we cannot but hope for a rich blessing on her and her little child.”

The event is listed in the church records and then Roy and his parents are never heard from again. Did the family move on as so many did? Did the child die before he would have appeared in other church records? We will never know. But the effort required to carry a baby miles through those hills on a July afternoon cannot help but inspire the rest of us.

The cemetery for this church can be found by clicking here