The itineracy of the United Methodist Church requires us to go and live in places where the churches are located to which we are appointed by the bishop of our annual conference. My first itineracy was to a place that was served by the Cedar Bluff, Virginia post office, but the community had its own name: Belfast. A friend of mine recently traveled to Ireland. I told him he could stay right here in Southwest Virginia and within about two hours travel to both Belfast and Dublin. These communities were named after their counterparts in the green island.
I came to Belfast in 1989. It was much as it is today, except the main road, US Highway 19, was only two lanes. Land had been purchased for the right of way to expand the highway, but work on constructing new lanes would become a project towards the end of my time there five years later.
Belfast starts about where the Tazewell County/Russell County line is, and goes south to spot where a long decline leads to the neighboring community of Rosedale. It lies between the Clinch Mountain to the east, and the House and Barn Mountain to the west. It is a beautiful green valley watered by a strong stream that comes out of Clinch Mountain. The community was once centered on what is now a back road, where there was once a mill. The advent of 911 service brought on the need to name roads, and one of the roads is called “Belfast Mills Road” to honor this old community. The mill was placed along this creek and used the water therein to power the milling work.
A lot of Scots-Irish descendents people the hills and hollers around Belfast. An old family named “Duff” settled on one tract that now faces the northbound land of US 19 in a beautiful bottom. Upon discovering this tract, they felt so at home (they had immigrated from Ireland) that they called the place “Belfast,” after the Ulster capitol. The name stuck and people found it a great identity.
A Ferguson family member once told me that there was a slave auction block located a little south of the old mill on the road that parallels the Clinch mountain range. At one time the agricultural efforts of the people of Belfast was focused on raising wheat and other crops. They produced quite a bit of wheat and were recognized for the quality of the crop. In the green hills surrounding the tillable lands they pastured cows, sheep and horses. They have been known to raise some fine beef cattle on these beautiful hills.
Across from the Belfast Elementary School lies a hill that is said to have been the site where a campmeeting was held for many years. This campmeeting was organized by Methodist preachers and led to the organization of a permanent congregation or two in the area. At one time the Belfast Circuit of the Methodist Church had about nine churches on it, serviced by one circuit riding preacher. The Belfast Church was established in the 1880s, others not long afterwards. Harmony Chapel, Bradshaw, Barrett’s Chapel (across Clifton Farm), Clifton, and a couple congregations in nearby Tazewell County made up the bulk of the churches on the circuit (including Midway at Paintlick, and Green’s Chapel). Sometimes these church houses doubled as schools in the days of subscription schools. Community members would pool their funds and hire a teacher to teach their kids.
Eventually a school was built across from the Belfast Church, and a parsonage was also erected nearby, all funded by the locally famous “Governor” Stuart. The parsonage was built in the second decade of the 1900s, about 1912 if I remember correctly. Later as the county took over the schools a new building was built further down the road. At the time I was living in Belfast, the first three or four grades were taught at Belfast, and then students traveled to Elk Garden School to get the rest of their elementary education before traveling to Lebanon for Middle and High School.
One of the interesting tales I encountered while serving Belfast was that of the Taylor family. In the 1920s and 1930s the famous Carter family (AP, Sarah, and Mother Maybelle) were recording music that became the origin of country music. A. P. Carter is said to have found his way to Belfast where the Eva and Alma Taylor family sang “My Old Clinch Mountain Home” to him. According to local tradition, A. P. Carter then recorded the song and never gave the Taylors credit for it. Some of the song as given to me by the Taylors goes like this:
Far away upon a hill
On a sunny mountain side
Many years ago we parted,
My little Ruth and I,
From my sunny mountain home.
She clung to me and trembled,
When I told her we must part,
She said “Don’t go, my darling,
You know it will break my heart,
When we two are far apart.”
Carry me back to old Virginia,
Back to my Clinch Mountain home.
Carry me back to old Virginia,
back to my old mountain home.
The Taylors were still a little upset about A. P.’s actions in the 1980s.
The Belfast community used to sponsor a country music concert on the hills around “Bob’s Barbeque and Country Store” in the decade before I got there. They had quit by the time I came, but pictures were posted inside Bob’s store. He used to serve lamb BBQ sandwiches that were so good you had to have another. One day I was in there getting one when a nice lady named Elaine Keen asked me if I’d like to meet somebody. She had in mind a single young lady she knew, and as I was a single young man, I was actively looking (in fact my mother had called the man I replaced and asked if there were any “Loose”–I think she meant “unspoken for” women in the area–you can imagine how that went over and how fast it spread!). I later met and eventually married Tammie Beavers, who moved with me after we married into the historic parsonage at Belfast.
Belfast was the place where I met Walter and Amanda Cox. These two lovely people were in their 90s when they passed away. I visited their little humble log home several times and got to know and love them. When they died, they each had instructed their family that they wanted to be treated the way people were traditionally treated in the mountains of Russell County. That is, they wanted to be “laid out” at the church two nights, and have their funeral on the third day. This was a mountain tradition I was not familiar with, but it was a beautiful way to observe their passing as stories were told and people connected as they visited the family and honored the Coxes.
Belfast was also where my dog showed up. There used to be a trash collection area at the bottom of the hill where the Belfast road met Highway 19. It kind of attracted stray animals. One day I noticed a german shepherd in the neighborhood. She eventually took up residence on my porch and during thunderstorms at the basement steps. I eased around until I could feed and pet her. She eventually adopted me. I was preaching the first Sunday of October on “Lazarus and the Rich Man.” I said something like “we need to look for Lazarus in our world and reach out in mercy to him.” After church, my lay leader, David Hankins, a living legend, said “Preacher, there’s Lazarus!” He was pointing to my newfound friend, the German Shepherd. And her name was Lazarus from that day forward.
I got to scale the utmost heights of House and Barn Mountain while I was there. It was a beautiful place to view the surrounding countryside. The back roads around Belfast take you to a different age and beauty that is stark but deeply moving. I’m really thankful to have been able to meet this place and sojourn among its peope.