MERRY OAKS — On a recent Wednesday evening at Merry Oaks Baptist Church, a dozen church members gathered in the sanctuary to discuss the Old Testament story of King David.
Three men risked their lives in a march to Bethlehem to get water for their camp, Rev. Jim Brady describes from the pulpit. When the men returned, water in hand, they gave that water to David and he poured it out in front of them.
“David did not drink of it,” Brady says. “He poured it out to the Lord.”
The story, he said, is a reminder that no matter how discouraged or tired one may become, the love of a higher power is always watching over — and that God has a will for the future.
No matter what the future holds, Merry Oaks Baptist Church will listen to His will.
When Jerry Holden isn’t attending services at Merry Oaks — located not far from the Sky Mart convenience store at the intersection of U.S. 1 and Old U.S. 1 — you can find him on its front lawn mowing the grass, cleaning the red pews of the sanctuary or tidying up the community space adjacent to the church. To him, like many in the congregation, Merry Oaks is a second home.
Holden, 70, has been attending the church since he was a child. It’s where he met his wife, Karen, and where he’s felt a sense of community.
But Merry Oaks isn’t the same place as it was when he growing up, he says. And while he isn’t exactly worried about the future, he fears what it could mean for the little town.
Holden has seen this play out before in other rural towns and churches nearby — a big entity makes big promises for the future, but with those promises comes the destruction of history.
“I’ve seen so many little communities like this one go down to nothing but a crossroads,” he said. “You go by and you see what used to be seven or eight or 10 stores, and there’s nothing. They’re either rotten down or just a foundation and a crossroads.”
He doesn’t want his beloved community to meet the same fate. But as the Merry Oaks community ages, Holden said it seems more and more likely. People die off, their kids don’t stay. Family farms get sold to developers for subdivisions, and with each purchase, the history goes with it.
“All they cared about was the money,” he said. “That’s what’s taking this community: money. They say, ‘Look how much money this thing’s gonna bring in. Look what it’s gonna do.’ They don’t care about us people. They just want money.”
To Jerry Holden, Karen Holden and the more than a dozen members of Merry Oaks Baptist, preserving this space is about more than money — it’s about preserving history.
In Merry Oaks, the past is part of the present. Few places in the rural South still exist where you can find a preacher whose grandfather grew up a quarter mile from the church. A place where one of the congregation members is the great-granddaughter of someone who built the town; where the church has one unofficial car mechanic; or where every congregation member is just a few degrees of separation from every grave in the nearby cemetery.
The future of Merry Oaks, both the community and the church itself, is uncertain. The tall white steeple has stood on the border between Moncure and New Hill — on the corner of Old U.S. 1 and New Elam Church Rd. — since 1888. But under recent roadway plans from N.C. Dept. of Transportation (NCDOT), the church is set to be taken to make way for a highway into the new VinFast facility.
VinFast, the Vietnamese electric car manufacturer, has promised to invest $4 billion and bring 7,500 jobs to Chatham County over the next decade in the second-largest economic development project in state history — surpassed only by Wolfspeed, which will build in western Chatham County near Siler City. VinFast is planning a 1,765-acre facility in nearby Moncure at the Triangle Innovation Point (TIP) site. The roadway plans from NCDOT into the facility include taking 27 homes, five businesses — and Merry Oaks Baptist Church.
Plans for the roadways have not been finalized by NCDOT. Updated designs may be available by next month, and the project team is still in the process of addressing public comments, according to NCDOT Communications Officer Harris Kay.
Kay said Phase 1 is estimated to relocate three businesses, 11 homes and Merry Oaks Baptist Church; Phase 2 is estimated to impact an additional two businesses and 16 homes.
Unless you’re looking at a map alongside a traffic engineer, the maps for these roadway plans are confusing and difficult to interpret for the layman; the people of Merry Oaks certainly feel that.
Members of the congregation are frustrated and upset at the current NCDOT plans, but they also believe the future of the church is in God’s hands. In nearly a century and a half, the tall white steeple atop Merry Oaks Baptist has been no stranger to trying times.
The NCDOT plans are only the latest to come its way. The red pews of the sanctuary hold more memories than the aging minds of its members can recall. It holds the beginnings of awkward relationships that later became marriages, the echoes of old choir practices and maybe even the hidden crumbs of cookies made by the preacher’s wife every Sunday.
Beyond the walls of the sanctuary, the church is an important symbol because it is the last remaining pillar of the community that once was the town of Merry Oaks.
Prior to the construction of “new” U.S. 1, the Merry Oaks community was touted as the next big thing in the state. A dance hall in nearby New Hill drew people in from as far as Raleigh. It was home of the first-ever school in the county opened in 1906, and dozens of families lived in rental housing along what is now Old U.S. 1. All of that is now gone. As the Raleigh News & Observer said in an article from 1966, “Merry Oaks is a town that was.”
On the train between Maine and Key West, Florida, New Hill was once a prominent stop on the railway. The rental houses and inns once housed the likes of Babe Ruth and even the legendary Bonnie & Clyde.
And much like robberies perpetrated by the infamous criminals, the roadways to Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh ultimately stole families away from the rural town that once thrived. It became an afterthought in the pursuit of industrial progress and urbanization. It’s a history, though, that isn’t even a lifetime old. Merry Oaks Baptist Church and its congregation may be its last living memory.
“I call it ‘shredding the community,’” Kay Hinsley said. “From Merry Oaks up to New Elam Church over to the Christian Chapel area and Corinth — that was our community. It’s just going to be shredded. There’s not going to be a whole lot left.”
Katherine Holden Haynes, 86, is the older sister of Jerry Holden and one of the people that still has fond memories of what Merry Oaks used to be. She remembers the travelers coming through on their way south.
“Somebody would come up and ask if they could sit in on the service,” Katherine said. “A family that was traveling, that was here at church time. ‘Of course, come on in,’ [we’d say].”
But she also understands why people have been drawn away, because it’s happened in her own family. While Katherine and her brother still live near Merry Oaks, her daughter Sharron Bouquin, 60, moved to Apex and her cousin Faye Obler Crutchfield, 82, moved to Chapel Hill. With limited job opportunities or attractions in the area, it’s hard to keep people in a place with history alone.
“When the new U.S. Hwy. 1 came through, they needed 25 acres of our land,” Faye said. “That took all the stores and houses and things. There was not much left. It was a thriving little community, at one time.”
Merry Oaks got its name, according to Katherine Holden, because of the giant oak trees surrounding the property of Joe Mann, a once-renowned business owner who some say was Chatham County’s first millionaire. Farmers would gather on his property after a long day, rest under the massive oaks and share their tall tales. It’s a scene one could picture in modern day Merry Oaks, too.
Attending services at Merry Oaks nowadays, you’ll still feel that sense of welcoming the stranger and embracing them with open arms. The regular attendees know intimate details of everyone’s families and goings on. Any given Wednesday night service, stories of community members, mutual friends and family members are shared and everyone is prayed for. It’s that deeply personal nature of the church that the congregation says you just can’t get elsewhere.
“Here [at Merry Oaks] you pull in and it’s like, ‘Oh, I wonder if such and such is sick, I wonder if something happened,” Bouquin said. “In other places, especially urban areas, you don’t have that.”
While Bouquin no longer lives in the area, she still commutes to Merry Oaks every Wednesday and Sunday for services because of the value she finds in the community.
She’s also been at the forefront of trying to preserve the historic church from being destroyed by NCDOT. She started a Facebook page called “Save Historic NC Church,” which features 50-year-old photos from Easter egg hunts, weddings from the early 1900s and old photographs of some of the congregation members who still attend services there.
From contacting attorneys, examining NCDOT maps, pulling archival records and communicating with the press, it’s not a stretch to say Bouquin is Merry Oaks’ most vocal advocate. She says she continues to do this work because she sees it as living up to the legacy of her great uncle, Victor Obler.
Obler was, in many ways, the reason Merry Oaks was once a thriving community. A Russian-Jewish immigrant who started from nothing when he arrived in 1923, Obler decided to use his savvy to put Merry Oaks on the map. He owned pottery stores, and grocery stores and farms — all employing dozens of people throughout the town.
“Victor was one of the few in the area who would not have sat back and said, ‘Well, government says they’re doing this, so there’s nothing I can do,’” Sharron said. “He would try to fight it, and most others would not.”
Obler, along with Joe Mann, employed most of the town in the early 1930s, according to his daughter, Faye Obler Crutchfield. But in 1959, as U.S. Hwy. 1 was being built, many of Obler’s properties were being taken by the state for construction. One of those properties included 11.7 acres and seven buildings. The N.C. Highway Commission offered him just $23,000 for all of it. Obler sued the commission claiming it was worth at least $78,000, equivalent to $793,342 today according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator.
According to an article in the Durham Morning Herald at the time, Obler equivocated his land being taken to Russian communist rule. In fact, he said the reason he came to the U.S. in the first place was because the Russian government took his home.
After fighting the settlement in court for four days, Obler was awarded $27,250 on Sept. 3, 1959, for his property — equivalent to $277,161 today. According to the Durham Sun, Obler said the settlement was “not satisfaction to my heart.”
“He knew there was no way we could keep what we had physically, but he thought he should be paid fairly,” Faye said. “So he wasn’t arguing about it. With the church, he would encourage the people to fight for it.”
It’s that spirit that Bouquin hopes to embody in her work to keep Merry Oaks alive.
In August, NCDOT held two public input sessions where the agency showed community members its roadway plans for the VinFast site. One was held in person at the Chatham Agriculture & Conference Center in Pittsboro and the other was held virtually. More than 250 Chatham residents attended these meetings, but Bouquin said they were inaccessible for many members of Merry Oaks because of the distance or limited internet capabilities.
“Some of has commented, ‘We wouldn’t know who to call, or what to say, and we couldn’t fight or voice anything,’” she said.
So, as one of the youngest regular members of the church, Bouquin has taken on the task herself. She said, however, she isn’t a community organizer — she isn’t going to plan a protest or picket outside the Governor’s Mansion. In her mind, that’s not what Merry Oaks is about.
“That’s not who we are,” Sharron said. “Nobody is encouraging that.”
She said the congregation urged her to continue investigating the situation and looking into the possibilities for the church’s survival.
You may not see a protest, or mass community organizing from Merry Oaks; for the congregation, that’s largely because of its Baptist faith. But make no mistake, that doesn’t mean members are throwing in the towel on their sanctuary.
“If I’m going to listen to what the Bible says then I’m not going to protest,” said Rev. Brady. “I’m going to live the life that would make Jesus proud.”
Brady said the future of the church will always be in the hands of God, and when it comes time for God to take the church back, there’s no fighting that will. To Brady, Merry Oaks is like King David pouring out the water despite the sacrifices of his men — standing at the mercy of a power beyond anyone’s control.
“His will is not always clear,” Brady said. “When the time comes, we will graciously give back to God what God gave to us. But in the meantime, the only thing I know how to do is stand.”
If you had driven by Merry Oaks Baptist Church four months ago, you might have seen its historic white steeple protected by a dilapidated fence. Some pieces broken off, other portions fallen in the grass.
Following the August NCDOT meeting where the congregation discovered its beloved church was in jeopardy, they decided they weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. To symbolize that, they decided to put up a new white vinyl fence in front of the church.
Brady said he had been planning to put up the fence for some time prior to that August meeting. But after it was held, fears among the community started growing. It was then that fence became a necessary symbol.
Soon after the fence went up, Brady said others started to follow suit. A neighbor who lived near the church, whose home was shrouded in overgrown bushes, cut his shrubbery a week after the fence went up. Brady said he also noticed some shorter lawns in the weeks that followed.
“If you honor what God has given you, you’ll take care of it,” Brady said. “If you don’t, he’ll take it away from you.”
It’s that same methodology that’s motivated Jerry Holden to mow the grass and tidy up the space. Whether there is a physical Merry Oaks Baptist or not, he said there will always be a church. He said the congregation will still worship together, appreciate one another and engage the same way they always have.
“We’re gonna act like we ain’t going anywhere,” Holden said. “I’ve had people in the community tell me — who have seen me down here cleaning up — ‘You’re wasting your time. It’s gonna be torn down.’ I say, ‘Have they told you that?’ ‘Oh yeah, I know that,’ they say. ‘Well, they haven’t told us that,’ I say.”
Anna Connors contributed reporting.
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @b_rappaport.
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