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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Adventists Come to Screamersville

Arrival of Adventists at Screamersville, early 1900s (Vickie Neely)

     This is the final installment of a three-part series that details the singular and epic experience of the Armstrongs and Colemans, two northern families who came to Spotsylvania in the 1850s. For those of you who have not yet read the first two articles, they can be found at "They would have him dead or alive" and "Since the war, I have been fighting them politically".

Mahlon Armstrong (Vickie Neely)

     When the three Armstrong families came to Spotsylvania in the late 1850s from New Castle County, Delaware, they joined the first Presbyterian Church of Fredericksburg. Their names appear in the Manual for the Members of the Presbyterian Church of Fredericksburg, Virginia, 1860. Shown on the list below, they were: Mahlon Armstrong and his sister, Martha; Mahlon's brother, William, and his wife Sarah; Mahlon's cousin, Archibald, and his wife, Sarah. Mahlon's father was not a church goer and his name does not appear on the church's rolls.

From the membership rolls of Fredericksburg Presbyterian Church

     It is not known whether Mahlon resumed his attendance at the Prebyterian Church, or any church for that matter, after his return to Spotsylvania after the Civil War. While living in Washington, DC in the early 1870s, Mahlon noted in letters to his wife, Romelia, that he attended services in at least three different churches--Methodist-Episcopalian, Quaker and Catholic. From that fact it appears that Mahlon was not committed to any one denomination at this point in his life, and he may have tried several different churches seeking one that would be a good fit for him. For Mahlon, that search would end in October 1889.
     As I understand it, Adventism in America evolved from a movement called Millerism, founded by William Miller, a New York farmer, lay preacher and Bible student. One of the tenets of the Millerites held that the earth would be destroyed by fire during Jesus' second coming. Miller spent years carefully calculating the end of the world by consulting the Bible and other sources. He revealed to his followers that the apocalypse would occur in 1844. When the world did not end on the first date he predicted, he forecast the end for several other dates that year. When the world failed to vaporize on any of those dates ("The Great Disappointment"), a schism occurred among his adherents. His movement divided into several new Adventist groups, including the Life and Advent Union, started by John T. Walsh. The Virginia Life and Advent Christian Union (which will hereafter be abbreviated as VLACU) was the umbrella organization for this branch of Adventists in the Commonwealth. It was this organization that brought Adventism to Spotsylvania.
     The Life and Advent Christian Church, located at 1206 West Cary Street in Richmond, was organized in 1887. Soon thereafter, mission work was undertaken in Spotsylvania. The first camp meeting in Spotsylvania, led by Elder R. C. Brown, was held October 5-22, 1889 on property near the Screamersville depot where the  Virginia Mission Tent had been erected. Several dozen Virginia Adventists assembled there to await the second coming and the end of the world. Among them was Mahlon Armstrong. Once again, the world failed to vaporize, and the out-of-town Adventists boarded the train and returned to their homes.

Richmond Daily Times, October 24, 1889

     Despite this inauspicious beginning, Mahlon became a true believer in the Adventist creed. He helped build the Berea Adventist Church near Screamersville in 1891. Over the years, he held positions of authority in VLACU, including secretary and treasurer. He was also instrumental in organizing a number of camp meetings in Spotsylvania, the last one being in 1911.

Map detail of Spotsylvania (Vickie Neely)

     The camp meetings were held on property owned by the Adventists located between modern Chancellor Road (Route 674) and Lewis Thorburn Road (Route 743). Out-of-town attendees would arrive at the Screamersville depot (which was also a post office and general store) via the Potomac, Fredericksburg and Piedmont Railroad. In the map detail shown above, Screamersville was located where the Virginia Central Railway (successor to the P F & P Railroad) crossed Route 674. For those of you who may be interested in my brief history of the railroad that once connected Fredericksburg with the town of Orange, it can be read at Death on the Virginia Central.

The Daily Star, February 5, 1903

     The Berea Adventist Church burned in 1899 and was rebuilt the following year. The last regular camp meeting there was held in 1911, although the Life and Advent Christian Church of Richmond, which owned the property, continued to have occasional events there until the 1930s. By 1945, the church building had fallen prey to neglect and decay and burned some time after that.

Mary Armstrong Mitchell (Vickie Neely)

     Mahlon and Romelia's daughter Mary, their only child, married Joseph Clarence Mitchell on January 15, 1899. During the first six years of their marriage, they had four children together: David Lynn, Louis Clarence, Elsa Gertrude and William Eugene. The Mitchells became Adventists and attended the camp meetings in the early 1900s. Shown in the 1905 photograph below at rear are Romelia Armstrong and Mary Mitchell holding Elsa. Seated is Romelia's mother, Esther Coleman, and next to her are Mary's two oldest sons, David and Louis.

Four generations at the Berea Adventist Church, 1905 (Vickie Neely)

     Vickie Neely's collection of photographs includes a number of pictures of the Berea Adventist Church, a few of which are presented here:

Berea Adventist Church

Romelia Armstrong at Berea Adventist Church

Adventists in front of one of the tents

Adventists in front of Berea Adventist Church

A gathering during one of the camp meetings

Children posing for a photo at one of the camp meetings

      The candid photo taken of the youngsters on the grounds of Berea Adventist Church include three children of Joseph Clarence and Mary Mitchell: Elsa, seated second from left; Louis, the tall lad in the back; and Willie, seated second from right. Elsa later remarked that that her association with some of the children she met at these meetings turned into life long friendships.
      In 1907, the attendees of the camp meeting posed for the group portrait shown below. It is my understanding that the research for the caption was done by the late Dr. Robert A Hodge. The members of the Armstrong and Mitchell families are identified:

Attendees at the Screamersville camp, 1907

     Also worth noting in this photograph are:

- Johsua Scott Mewshaw (23), who was chairman of the committee of finance for the VLACU. Johsua was active in the civic life of Washington, DC and for 18 years worked as station master at the old Pennsylvania train station. He was married to Juanita (9), and they were the parents of Rosa Musetta (8).

- James Howle (not in the picture) was the pastor of the Life and Advent Christian Church in Richmond. He was a tinner by trade and a long time employee of the city gas works. James was the father of Mary Duval Howle, (3), Alice May Howle Wingfield (18), Jessie Howle (32) and Bessie Evelyn Howle (35).

- Bennett Lee Fraysier (21) was president of the VLACU. His paying job was that of buyer and manager of the shoe department at the J. B. Mosby Company in Richmond ("The Finest Store in the South"). His mother (5) stands behind him and his future wife, Lula Baughn (6) stands next to her.

- Bennoni Milstead (24) was a government laborer and one-time chairman of the committee of finance for the VLACU.

     In addition to his work as an Adventist, Mahlon Armstrong continued to farm at Beechwood, his home on Gordon Road. In addition, he trained as a surveyor and was hired to survey the property of the late Richard Comfort in 1905 so that the land could be divided among his heirs (Virginia Chancery Causes).

Bramble Hill Post Office (Ancestry)

     Mahlon also ran a general store on a section of his property called Bramble Hill. In July 1911, he was named post master of the post office established there. This remained active until May 1913, when the post office at Bramble Hill was discontinued and its functions were transferred to the nearby Homedale office. Two months later, Homedale was also closed and its postal duties were consolidated at Screamersville.
     Mahlon's mother-in-law, Esther Coleman, died at his home in 1906. His daughter, Mary Mitchell, died of tuberculosis in 1910. Both are buried in the cemetery at Berea Adventist Church.

1918 Richmond city directory (Ancestry)

     Mahlon's long and eventful life took one more unexpected turn when by 1917, at the age of 80, he and Romelia left Spotsylvania and moved to 105 Lady Street in Richmond, where they operated a grocery. This would be the last hurrah of Mahlon Armstrong. In early 1918, he developed a carbuncle on his neck. Septicemia set in, and he died on February 6. His body was brought back to Spotsylvania and he was buried at Berea Adventist Church.

Mahlon and Romelia Armstrong (Dan Janzegers)

     After Mahlon's death, Romelia went to Baltimore and spent some time with her brother, Royal Bunker Coleman, who worked as a driver for the city trolley system.

Royal Bunker Coleman and Romelia Armstrong (Vickie Neely)

     Romelia returned to Spotsylvania and lived out her years in a small house on the Beechwood property. As her health declinced, she was cared for by her niece, Grace Coleman Alsop Harris. Grace, a practical nurse, moved in with Romelia and stayed with her until her death on December 1, 1932. She is buried next to Mahlon in the cemetery at Berea Adventist Church.

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