Project Canterbury

William West Skiles

A Sketch of Missionary Life at Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina 1842-1862

Edited by Susan Fenimore Cooper

New York: James Pott & Co., 1890.

Chapter XII.

CHANGES in the property at Valle Crucis, with the increasing dilapidations of the buildings now led Mr. Skiles to seek a temporary home among different friends on the Watauga. For a time he lived with Mr. James Mast at Upper Watauga, in the house built by Mr. Prout, now removed to Lenoir. Here the Missionary taught a little school for a time, holding frequent services at Easter Chapel, while he visited other stations also. Wherever he moved his labours were always the same in character, an unceasing succession of quiet, loving, Christian service, for the good of all with whom he was thrown. And still Valle Crucis remained his head-quarters. He was enabled to retain possession of the Library, or Office, where he still kept his books, and medicines, and where he occasionally passed a week or two, in comparative solitude. His sole companion in the Library at this period [117/118] was a favourite cat. The good Missionary was very fond of this creature, making arrangements for its comfort during his absence, and leaving him in the dignified position of custodian of the Library, a position he is said to have held for a considerable period. Whenever the Missionary came into the neighbourhood on errands of mercy, he never failed to visit the cat, petting him and bringing him an especial treat of something nice; he also made arrangements with a family near at hand to provide him with milk from time to time. The books were always found in good condition; rats and mice had been kept at bay by the custodian. One luckless day a party of young men, with their guns, and hounds, crossing the valley for hunting, passed near the Library, and saw puss in the road. They set their dogs upon him, and hounded them on until they had worried the poor creature to death! An act of gratuitous cruelty this, which is said to have aroused in the good Deacon a stronger feeling of positive resentment than he was ever known to have shown before, in all his clerical life. He valued the [118/119] cat highly, and to have this useful, harmless, creature so cruelly tortured tried the Missionary severely. For some time he could not speak of the disgraceful incident without indignation.

Occasional services were still held in the Chapel, and Mr. Prout came regularly, once a month, to administer the Holy Communion, to the little flock gathering there. The Report of Mr. Skiles for the year '55 follows:

"I have held service at the following places: At Lowei Watauga once a month, on Sunday; I have assisted the Rev. Mr. Prout five times at Valle Crucis, in the services, and in the administration of the Holy Communion; three times I have held service at Elk Cross-Roads; four times at Jefferson; twice on the Linnville; six times at Easter Chapel; seven times at Cranberry Forge; six times at a private house near Valle Crucis. Owing to the severity of the weather I was prevented from having a congregation for nearly two months, during January, and February. Baptisms 5. Confirmations 5. Communicants 17. Offerings $3.50."

Bishop Atkinson visited the Watauga country in '55.

"August 28th, at Valle Crucis, Mr. Skiles baptized an adult. I preached, confirmed five persons, and administered the Holy Communion, assisted by Mr, Prout."

[120] Mr. Skiles was now living with Mr. Evans, at Lower Watauga. He gave up his schools at this date, and devoted his time entirely to religious duties at his many scattered, and widely distant stations, holding services, catechizing, baptizing, visiting and nursing the sick. Scarcely a log cabin in that region where the Missionary, and his horse "Henry" were not well known. The good people at the different stations were always friendly, and hospitable; they provided for himself, and his horse, but could make him no payment, beyond an occasional gift from some Christian woman of a pair of socks, or a cake of maple sugar. His stipend was now however, raised by the Diocese to $150. He was much respected by the country people, and the hearts of many in those rude isolated homes warmed towards him with kindly feeling in gratitude for his teaching the children, and his services among the sick. At Lower Watauga the religious interest, in connection with Mr. Skiles' labours, was increasing so decidedly that it was thought a small Church would soon be needed.

[121] Bishop Atkinson came again to the Watauga country in '59:

"August 30th: I preached at a small meeting-house on the Lower Watauga. Here efforts are making to build a Church.

"Sept. 1st: I preached and confirmed one person at Boon (the county seat of Watauga), the first instance of that rite being administered, or indeed of a Bishop visiting that place

"Sept. 3d: I preached and confirmed two persons at Jefferson (the county seat of Ashe). In this place also, the rite was administered for the first time. In the evening I baptized a coloured child."

Bishop Atkinson became very much interested in Mr. Skiles, and his work; this interest increased with every Visitation. He generally invited the Deacon to accompany him on a circuit, more or less extended. On one occasion he took him to Asheville, and in a letter mentions the knowledge of the country shown by Mr. Skiles, with his admiration of the beautiful landscape, and his interest in the trees, and plants. The Bishop was much impressed with the personal character of his companion, so simple, and guileless, yet so strong and faithful in uprightness.

The Report of the Missionary for the same [121/122] year, shows the usual amount of steady persevering labour. It is contained in a few words; but the amount of fatigue, and exposure necessarily connected with his work, in a climate severe during the cold months, and over forest tracks often dangerous, can scarcely be understood by the reader unacquainted with that wild mountain region. In winter it is almost Alpine in character. He travelled over a belt of country some sixty miles in extent, though his usual course was more limited:

"Baptisms 9. Confirmations 3. Communicants 16. Offerings $2. I have held Divine service at Lower Watauga once a month; at Jefferson once a month; occasionally at Valle Crucis, Easter Chapel, Boon, Elk Cross-Roads, Cranberry Forge, and Linnville. I have filled all appointments except one Sunday. Once I officiated at Lenoir. I feel cause for encouragement from the increased interest manifested in the services, and larger attendance for some time past."

In '58 the Bishop came again to the Watauga country:

"Aug. 15th; Preached at Valle Crucis, confirmed four persons, and administered the Holy Communion.

"Aug. 21st and 22nd at Morganton preached four times, [122/123] baptized two infants, confirmed four persons, and administered the Holy Communion, Mr. Skiles assisting me in all the services."

The Report of Mr. Skiles for the same year, shows a large amount of work, in a wide field:

"I have performed Divine service at the following places, since the last Convention: Once a month at Lower Watauga; once a month, excepting January, at Jefferson; at Wilkes-borough; at St. James' Church, Lenoir, seven Sundays; in the valley of the Yadkin once; three Sundays at Grace Church, Morganton; once on John's River; one Sunday on New River; near Morganton 4 Baptisms; one Sunday on Linnville; once at Asheville; performed several services at Hendersonville; occasional services at Easter Chapel, at school-house near Valle Crucis, Elk Cross-Roads, and twice at Valle Crucis. Baptisms 9; Confirmations 5; Communicants 23. Offerings, for Church Building Fund, $7.25."

Here are services held at sixteen different places, many of them widely distant from each other. He must have travelled more than 1,000 miles during the year. His services among the sick were frequent as ever. Mr. Evans remarks that on any application for a pastoral service, "he would saddle 'Henry' and ride over the mountains, ten, fifteen, or [123/124] even twenty miles, often in stormy weather, in order to pray with a sick person, or act as nurse." In case of severe illness he would at times remain several days in some distant log cabin. On these occasions "Henry" carried his master safely over dangerous roads, by day or night, being very sure-footed; he was a very spirited animal, capable of giving trouble to an ordinary rider, but it was remarked that he was always quiet with Father Skiles, never even attempting a caper with him. The Missionary took all the care of "Henry" himself, rubbing him down, feeding him, and attending to all his wants. The understanding between the kind owner and his horse was perfect.

Speaking of the character of Mr. Skiles, his friend, Mr. Evans, remarks: "He was kind to every one, and everything, especially what was under his care." "He was ever patient, kind, and gentle." "He was full of a constant, persistent, looking to duty, and living for duty."

Mr. Prout also, speaking of the good man's character remarks that "he was cheerful, [124/125] genial, patient. His manner commended him to the people. He had a cordiality, discretion, and suavity, rarely seen combined."

The heart of the Missionary was now full of the little Church, planned a year or two earlier. The Sunday attendance at Lower Watauga had become too large for any room in the settlement, and the first steps were taken for building. The position chosen for this little Church was very pleasing, on a high bank whose base was washed by the clear musical waters of the Watauga, while fine mountains, still clothed with broad reaches of the ancient forest, looked down upon the quiet spot. The scattered dwellings of the hamlet were seen here and there, on their small farms. The distance from Valle Crucis was about six miles, and the house of Mr. Evans, now the home of the Missionary, was about a mile distant, higher up the river. With the help of some architectural designs, and with the advice of more experienced friends, he was enabled to plan a pleasing building, simple but church-like in its whole character. The raising of the necessary funds was no light [125/126] task among a people so very poor. There was very little money in all that region. Many were the mites thrown into that rustic treasury by the women, mites earned by the sale of butter, honey, yarn, etc. The poorer men gave lumber and labour. A few families, more at ease, gave very generously. There was not one rich man in all the region watered by the Watauga. But there were men of generous hearts, and open hands, who gave freely to the building of the Lord's house. A few gifts of $10, or $20, and in one instance $50, were offered for the pious work. One good friend in the valley subscribed $50, and gave the logs needed, which he had drawn from his own land to the mill, and later the lumber was drawn by him to the building site. The Church was to be a wooden one, a frame of timber, with boarded sides. It was to be painted white. The work went on very slowly for awhile; gathering funds and materials was no easy task.

Meanwhile the pastoral work of the Missionary was carried on with the usual patient fidelity. In the summer of '59 Bishop Atkinson [126/127] again crossed the mountains to visit this humble flock.

"August 25th at Valle Crucis I preached, and administered the Holy Communion, and also confirmed five persons."

A few weeks after this Visitation the Missionary had the pleasure of breaking ground for the little Church, and laying the foundation. Mr. Skiles' Report for the same year contains the following items:

"Baptisms 11. Confirmations, 5. Communicants 24. Contributions: Education Fund $5; Church Building Society $12.80. Offerings at Communion $6. Total $23.80. I have performed Divine Service at the following places: Lower Watauga; Valle Crucis; Linnville; Easter Chapel; Elk Cross-Roads; Jefferson; New River; once at Pisgah; once near Elizabethtown in Tennessee; one Sunday in Statesville; one Sunday in Wilkesborough; two Sundays at Gwyn's Chapel. I commenced building a Church on Lower Watauga last fall, and hope, by the blessing of God, to complete it during the present year."

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