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Spirits of the coast 

'Smallest Church,' Harris Neck NWR are two unique sights

About an hour south of Savannah off Highway 17 in McIntosh County are two of the most interesting (and free!) sights on the Georgia coast.

The tidy and adorable Memory Park Chapel might not actually be the "Smallest Church in North America," as it calls itself - a pair of mini-churches in Iowa and New Hampshire are marginally smaller - it is certainly the smallest church within hundreds of miles of Savannah.

The tiny chapel on the east side of Highway 17 near South Newport was built by a local grocery owner, Agnes Harper, in 1950 to provide round-the-clock availability for travelers on what was in those pre-Interstate days the main north/south route along the coast. Mrs. Harper was serious about the effort - on the deed she transferred ownership to Jesus Christ!

No mere roadside shrine, the 10x15 foot Memory Park Chapel is a bona fide church in its own right - with chairs for about a dozen worshippers, a genuine pulpit, and tiny stained glass windows.

To get there from Savannah, take Highway 17 South past the town of South Newport. The Chapel will be just off the road on your left.

Literally a stone's throw from the Memory Park Chapel is the left turn that takes you out to Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Besides being one of the southeast's premier birding locations, Harris Neck NWR has an interesting and bittersweet history.

After the Civil War, the area was home to a tight-knit community of former slaves who lived on subsistence farming and fishing in relative isolation, having little contact with the world at large.

When World War II broke out, however, they got a lot of attention - the federal government confiscated 1,200 acres of their land to build an airfield for the U.S. Army Air Corps. The African American residents of the Harris Neck area were given $26 an acre for their ancestral land and forced to disperse (white families received $37 an acre).

After the war the feds gave Harris Neck Army Airfield to McIntosh County, whereupon it was promptly looted by corrupt county commissioners, who in a familiar story were let off by a local judge. In disgust, the feds took over the airstrip again, making it a wildlife refuge in 1962.

Harris Neck is one of the smaller National Wildlife Refuges, but also one of the most interesting. The sheer volume of waterfowl is impressive in and of itself - it's known for its thriving wood stork rookery - but what's also unique is how the refuge incorporates the old airstrip's concrete tarmacs.

While you can certainly get out and walk all you want, you can also choose to simply drive around in a loop that takes you through the refuge. Bring your binoculars - that's the best way to observe the teeming array of bird life.

About the only trace of the African American farmers who once lived here can be found in the southern portion of the refuge, near the boat landing. Gould's Cemetery contains the poignant, hand-carved tombstones of many of the old residents.

Each tombstone is a work of folk art in and of itself, with malapropisms such as "James King was bond October 15 1888" instead of "was born." Many of the markers appear to have been carved by the same person.

A distinctive feature of many tombstones in the old graveyard is a simple five-pointed star - an ironic foreshadowing of the insignia on the warplanes this community lost their land to make room for.

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About The Author

Jim Morekis

Jim Morekis

Bio:
A native Savannahian, Jim has been editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah for ten years. The University of Georgia graduate is also a travel writer, authoring regional guides in the Moon handbook series... more

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Connect Today 12.06.2016

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