In Search of Silas Mercer Brown

As some will know I was fortunate enough to retire from work in July 2011, escaping in the nick of time before my employer revised the retirement age upwards by a number of years. What better way to celebrate than with a “big trip” to sing in Alabama and Georgia during the summer of 2012.

A number of friends in the UK asked how I would spend the time between singings. Well, with composers’ graves to find, historic sites and civil war battlefields to visit, and one of the largest surviving carousels in the USA not far from Atlanta I knew that I would definitely not be at a loss for things to do.

On Thursday August 2nd, towards the end of my travels, I visited the Genealogy Room at Buchanan Library in the old Haralson County Court House. Having learned from Warren Steel’s book, The Makers of the Sacred Harp, that S. M. Brown, composer of four songs in the 1991 edition including “Span of Life” (p. 379), had settled in Haralson County and had been the first secretary of the Tallapoosa Musical Convention I decided to take the opportunity to search for information about him. Warren had been unsure of his first given name at the time of writing his book.

Imagine my joy when I found, in The History of Haralson County, Georgia, 1983, compiled by the Haralson County Historical Society, a whole article by one of S. M. Brown’s great grandchildren. This began as follows:

Silas Mercer Brown (1811–1881), my great grandfather, was married to Eliza Chandler (1815–…) on August 16, 1836. Our earliest record showed this family migrated from South Carolina, first settling in Jasper County, then in Polk County, and on to Haralson County for permanent residence near Buchanan, in the early 19th Century. He was active in the Primitive Baptist Church and an ardent lover of Sacred Harp music. Some of his songs are included in the original Sacred Harp Song Book and are still being sung.

This confirmed that this was indeed “our” S. M. Brown. The unnamed writer of the article continued:

My great grandparents had ten children, one of whom was my grandfather Samuel Wyatt Brown (1843–1925). He was a teenager when the Civil War was begun and saw active duty in the battles of Atlanta and Chickamauga. He knew hunger and hardship, and was taken prisoner, yet had many witty stories to tell. One was the time when a young Confederate soldier told him that he wished he was a baby, and a gal baby at that.

When the war was over, grandpa was stationed in Tennessee, so he walked back home to Haralson County to the delight of his anxious, watchful family.

Life was very hard since the Yankees had destroyed their homes, taken their livestock and other necessities. People boiled the dirt from the smoke house, where the meat had drained, to get salt for seasoning their food.

It seems likely that Samuel Wyatt Brown was the S. W. Brown whom Earl Thurman refers to as being one of the “chief architects” of and “leading singers” at the Chattahochee Convention, although the writer of the Haralson article does not mention anything of his grandfather’s participation in Sacred Harp singing. Karen Rollins has kindly checked and found that S. M. Brown and S. W. Brown, together with J. F. Brown, all joined the Chattahoochee Convention at Cedar Creek Church in Coweta County in August 1867. Unfortunately there are no minutes in the record book for the Chattahoochee Convention of 1925, when Samuel would have been mentioned in the memorial lesson. The writer continued:

On December 31st, 1867, S. W. Brown married Nancy Catherine Williams (1843–1901), daughter of S. H. Williams. He farmed to support a family of six boys and four girls. Their children were: Frances Elizabeth, Susan Emma, Roland Mercer, Thomas Elmore, Henry Wyatt, Mary Lazora, Noble Newton, Martha Catherine, Isaac Robinson and Samuel Chambers. Typhoid fever struck the family in 1901, taking the mother and two young adult sons within a few months. Then in 1902, he married Nancy Aldridge, continued to farm, take his daily walks and entertain with his wife.

It would seem that the love of music continued with the writer’s father, Roland Mercer Brown. The writer described him as “a progressive, hard-working farmer, [who] cultivated several hundred acres of land, using as many as fourteen mules,” and also as “an ardent lover of sacred music, which he sang and encouraged the young people to study” and someone who “supported progressive programs of the church, the county, and the state.” Unfortunately the writer does not specify the type of sacred music that Roland Mercer loved so much.

That article gave me the information I needed to look up Silas Mercer Brown in the Haralson County Cemetery Book, which showed that he had been buried in the cemetery of Macedonia Primitive Baptist Church on Macedonia Church Road off Highway 120 between Buchanan and Tallapoosa. After copying down the information and the directions, which dated from 2002, I set off to find the cemetery.

Driving west along the 120 I found no sign whatever of Macedonia Church Road. Explorations down the only likely looking road yielded nothing and my GPS persisted in taking me to Haralson County High School. So I parked at the High School and asked a couple of the students there for directions to the school’s office, where I enquired about the church. The first reaction of the helpful ladies there was that no services had been held at the church for many years but when I explained that I was looking for a grave one of them drew a rough map for me. It looked as if the church was down the road I had already tried, but how had I missed it?

As I walked back to the car a young workman who had followed me out of the office said that he was driving home down that very road. He kindly offered to point out the church to me if I followed him. This was not the first time during my trip that a kind stranger appeared and offered help just when I needed it the most.

We did indeed turn down the road that I had explored before. When the man slowed down and pointed out the location to me from his van I realized why I had driven right past it. I would never have found it without his help. All that could be seen from the road was a locked metal gate to a dirt road. On closer inspection I saw a very faded, peeling, hand painted sign, propped up at ground level, saying “Macedonia Primitive Baptist Church Est 1840.”

Hand painted sign for Macedonia Primitive Baptist Church

Hand painted sign for Macedonia Primitive Baptist Church

Parking the car beside the gate I set off along the road on foot and before too long came to the church and its small cemetery, where it appeared that even though the church was no longer used someone regularly cut the grass.

The grave of Silas Mercer Brown clearly shows his first name and his complete dates: SILAS M BROWN SEPT. 19 1811 MAR. 29 1881

Brown's grave clearly shows his first name and his complete dates: SILAS M. BROWN / SEPT. 19 1811 / MAR. 29 1881

Here I found the grave of Silas Mercer Brown marked by a reasonably modern flat memorial that, judging by the number of very badly weathered, broken and collapsed stones, may well have replaced an older upright memorial.

I could find no memorial for his wife Eliza, but there were a number of stones nearby for which only the footings remained.

The Brown plot, with Silas’s stone in the foreground and the church in the distance behind. A broken stone and a place where footings only remained can also be seen.

The Brown plot, with Silas’s stone in the foreground and the church in the distance behind. A broken stone and a place where footings only remained can also be seen.

There was an old upright memorial for Samuel Wyatt Brown, and a more modern flat memorial for Sam’s first wife Nancy Catherine. There was no memorial for his second wife.

Memorials for Sam W. Brown (left) and Catherine, his wife (above). Although Sam fought in the Civil War there was no Confederate Stone for him.  His inscription reads: SAM W. BROWN / JAN 26 1843 / MAY 9 1925.

Memorials for Sam W. Brown (left) and Catherine, his wife (above). Although Sam fought in the Civil War there was no Confederate Stone for him. His inscription reads: SAM W. BROWN / JAN 26 1843 / MAY 9 1925.

After taking pictures of the other memorials in the Brown plot I decamped to the shade for a drink of water before taking the usual notes. Just as I had sat down, enjoying the feeling of being the only visitor at the cemetery, a member of the Sheriff’s department appeared on foot. He had seen my car by the gate and had come to investigate. I did not notice his rank (he was a youngish man) but did see that he went by the appropriate surname of Browning. I explained the significance of the Brown graves, told him a little about Sacred Harp, showed him page 379 in my book and asked him if I could stay to make the necessary notes. He thought for a while—clearly the rules did not cover the eventuality of a woman from England visiting the grave of a Sacred Harp composer—but in the end said that he guessed there was no reason why not. He told me that he had been in his job for seven years and there had been no services at the church in all that time.

After a short rest I made my usual notes and took a leisurely look round the outside of the church and the rest of the small cemetery, which contained a number of seemingly very old now nameless graves.

Macedonia Primitive Baptist Church (left) and an old grave in the church cemetery (right).

Macedonia Primitive Baptist Church (left) and an old grave in the church cemetery (right).

On my way back to the hotel I made sure to stop to write down the name of the road that the church was on.

Any fellow grave visiting Sacred Harpers should drive west from Buchanan, Georgia, towards Tallapoosa on Highway 120 and turn left on Estvanko Road between Haralson County Middle School and Haralson County High School. If you get to the High School you have missed the turn. The gate to the dirt road that leads to the church is almost a mile along Estvanko Road on the left.

I had never expected to discover new information about one of our composers and this remains one of the most treasured memories of my trip.

About Rebecca Over

Rebecca has been singing Sacred Harp since 2009 and attends singings across the United Kingdom and Europe. She lives in Ash Vale, United Kingdom.
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5 Responses to In Search of Silas Mercer Brown

  1. Thom Fahrbach says:

    I really enjoyed this piece. I could almost hear the cicadas buzzing in the background.

    I’m eager to read more of Rebecca’s sleuthing into the salient figures of Sacred Harp’s history.

  2. Jason Stanford says:

    My son is a student nearby at H. A. Jones Elementary in Bremen and the assistant principal is Silas P. Brown. I have been longing to ask him if he is a descendant and knows the significance of his name. Perhaps I will show him your article. If you do any more sleuthing in Haralson County I’d be happy to tag along and offer my assistance.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed your article. Silas Mercer Brown was my great-great-grandfather by his daughter, Eliza Carolin Brown Beall. I had searched for her parents for about five years when someone sent me a copy of her death certificate which listed her parents’ names as Mercer Brown and Eliza Chandler. Eliza—often called “Lucy”—was related to my great-great-great-grandmother, Nancy Farmer Chandler who married William Otho Beall.

    Your piece gives me a better view of my family. I am now in search of Silas Mercer’s parents. The only reference I have—an iffy one—is that his father was a missionary from England. Thanks again!

  4. Chloe Webb says:

    Thank you for seeking out this old church and cemetery, Rebecca. I easily imagined being with you, for I’ve had similar adventures trying to locate old churches and gravesites. I especially like your reference to unexpected help from strangers, which I’ve also experienced. I suspect that the peaceful feeling you described comes from the sweet communion Sacred Harp singers feel with those who have crossed before us, our “balcony” people.

  5. Lynda Boggs says:

    What a delight to jump into Sacred Harp music today at the new singing held at Rome Midway Primitive Baptist Church and to meet there the delightful Rebecca! I have been listening to a YouTube collection of Sacred Harp recordings ever since we got home. I am hooked!

    May God richly bless your efforts here, may He forever speak to us through this precious music.

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