The cemetery at Steele Creek Presbyterian Church contains graves of over 3,000 souls, including some of Charlotte’s earliest settlers. It also contains a unique collection of 18th Century stone-carving.
Now some historians worry that the encroachment of Charlotte Douglas International Airport threatens not only the church but stone markers that offer a significant window into Southern history.
“There’s nothing like them in any part of the South from this period,” said Daniel Patterson, a retired professor of folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill. “You can read through these stones what was going on in that time and place.”
This week the Observer reported on the 257-year-old church, Mecklenburg County’s second-oldest, that finds itself in the path of eventual airport expansion. On Sunday, members voted to pursue a merger with another Presbyterian church, a move that signals the likely end of their presence at the current location.
The airport has said it’s not interested in acquiring the adjacent cemetery, and church officials say they’ll continue to be good stewards. But Patterson worries about the long-term fate of the grave markers.
He documented the stones in a book called “The True Image,” a story of gravestone art and early Scotch Irish culture. The book traces the work of three generations of the Bigham family, stone cutters whose soapstone markers Patterson calls “the earliest identifiable art of British settlers in the raw Pennsylvania and Carolina back country.”
Patterson said the markers not only offer prime examples of early folk art but stories about the people, religion and economy of the period. He once called such cemeteries “art galleries and little libraries used for storytelling.”
From a preservationist’s view, Patterson said, “it might be best if some of the best carvings might be moved into a museum.” Of course the church and families whose ancestors are buried at Steele Creek would have to agree. The cemetery includes the graves of a signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, many Revolutionary and Civil War veterans as well as the parents of evangelist Billy Graham.
Some Bigham-carved grave stones already are in a museum: the James K. Polk State Historic Site in Pineville. But not everybody likes the idea of moving stones.
“It’s always best from a purely historical point of view for gravestones to remain in their location,” said Dan Morrill, consulting director of the county’s Historic Landmarks Commission.
Church pastor Jeff Pinkson said he understands the concern. But he said the church will continue to care for and secure the cemetery.
“We certainly value that cemetery and the history it portrays,” he said. “We’re going to try to be good faithful stewards.… It’s not just a marker that’s historical and worth preserving, it’s the grave as well.”
Morrill said the cemetery at Sugaw Creek Presbyterian church, Mecklenburg’s oldest, has seen vandalism as development has encroached. He said the threat at Steele Creek could be decades or generations down the road.
“To me what happens with the Steele Creek Presbyterian Church cemetery is a test in a sense of just how much sophistication we have in this community about land use,” Morrill said. “We have to be very, very careful, very, very cautious, very, very systematic about what we allow to have happen to that property, especially in the vicinity of the cemetery.”
The grave stones, Morrill said, are a historical treasure.
“If someone came back to this area 1,000 years from now and unearthed those stones, they would recognize them as extraordinary works of art,” he said. “They are incredible.”