Fire destroys Gates church

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 28, 2004

GATES – A chilly but calm morning for some turned out to be a most uneventful one for the members of Middle Swamp Baptist Church in Gates.

A county landmark for almost 200 years burned to the ground on Jan. 19, leaving members with no where to worship, but yet with a renewed spirit to rebuild their sanctuary.

Over 40 firefighters responded to a call around 5 a.m. that Monday morning at the historic hurch, located on Middle Swamp Road in Gates County. The firefighters fought the blaze for approximately two hours, but were unable to save the historic structure.

Late last week, a cause of the fire still had not been determined, but North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation officers had been called in to survey to fire scene and determine a cause. Fire investigators had been on site all week trying to determine the cause and may never know because of the extreme amount of damage to the structure.

Reports say that a passerby noticed a bag of debris smoldering on the front porch of the church one week prior to the fire. Gates County Sheriff Edward Webb, a church member, pulled the bag from the porch to a ditch just before it burst into flames.

Contractors working on the floors that day may have left a cigarette in the debris, Webb said, but that incident was not related to the Jan. 19 fire.

Authorities do not suspect arson in this case, but noted that faulty wiring or a heating system are among common causes of fires.

Congregation members are devastated about the fire, but vowed even hours after the tragic incident that they would rebuild their church.

Church board members were meeting to decided on where to hold services in the coming weeks.

Rita Lane, a lifelong member of the church, said the fire is devastating.

&uot;It is a pillar, a landmark in the county, and it affected all the other churches in the county,&uot; she said. &uot;They’ve all called and offered to help with the use of their facilities. You don’t realize how many people you do touch until something like this happens.&uot;

The church was organized in 1806 and it is the oldest in the county. It is a wood frame structure, the third for the members. The church also had some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in the county. The pews, woodwork and high ceilings had never been altered and still the wood shone with a deep patina that seemed to reflect the glory of God.

&uot;I’m not sure what happened to the original building and the second one, but I understand the membership just outgrew the church,&uot; said Lane. &uot;We currently have about 60 members, with an average of 40 attending for Sunday services. In times, past, of course, we’ve had a much larger membership.&uot;

Lane closed by saying, &uot;Like many small churches across the county, we are struggling to stay alive, but we all pull together in this. The church is the people who attend and make up the membership. It was just such a precious and beautiful church.&uot;

(Barbara Allen contributed to this story.)