With each snap and crackle of the flames, sparks shoot upward as missiles into the chimney of the fireplace. The sound of which adds to the comfort of warmth radiating across my chilled body. For it is a cold evening here on this Eve before Christmas in Ballengee. With only a slight ache in the knees from bending to form a resting perch, I enjoy the captivity of the fire. It powers the engine of my amazement. It is of the same effect as gazing into a star filled sky at night, the dancing flames of the fire enmesh the thoughts of one’s process. It has always been a wonder to me, a fire, capturing my attention and holding it until all thoughts from prior season have been sorted to their proper page. I think it is appropriate for one to find these moments and allow them to do their work. So often we allow life to go un-organized with-in and deny ourselves time just with ourselves. With the importance of the time we share with others, we should not refuse that same privilege for ourselves, the time we hold just for us and He who created us. I feel closest to Him when in the presence of the star filled heavens, as well, as the warm glow of a crackling fire.

Amid the warm glow of the fire, and with-in my heart, I relive the blessings of the day and prepare for the challenges of the morrow. The wife and the tots have taken themselves to bed in hopes that sleep will shorten the time of waiting. Waiting for that magical moment when we gather at the Christmas Tree and share the blessings of the year past by giving a portion of that to each. It is a materialistic moment, which expresses the spiritual desire of our hearts. A desire to show our love for each in the giving of our rewards and the acceptance not of the gift, as much as the giver. A time-out taken from our worldly obligation to pay attention to those whom we hold dearest. I myself, also, have that can’t wait feeling, but have chosen to tough it out in the pleasant anticipation of the moment, here in the temper of the fire. I amaze myself that this radiant transfer of warming light began with just a match, and has grown to such an abundance of flame.

I spent my day wondering the streets of Ballengee in search of those last-minute gifts, provisions for the coming feast and that one special thing I have reserved for myself. Though in my own fickleness was unable to find it. Moving along the crowded streets, along with the other procrastinators of this season, with bags of stocking stuffers and mint jelly, I found myself in the enjoyment of Lester and Fonda’s Bottoms Gospel Choir. The visit of the Bottoms Gospel Choir was the main event of the towns activity for the past two weeks and to some a great annoyance, but to most of us a great blessing. Though they did create a snarl in movement, for those of us who afforded the time, we received a blessing.

Lester, and his wife Fonda, I would have to list in the record as mighty un-sung heroes of Ballengee and the surrounding community. They have been a part of us now for what seems always, but their story began in the not so long ago at the bottoms of our community here in Ballengee.

Ballengee rests along the banks of the Greenbrier River and in the earlier days blossomed when the C&O Railroad laid its tracks through the area and built a maintenance facility. The railroad followed the river’s course through the mountains and its right of way widened at Ballengee to allow two tracks for the station and maintenance facility. Ballengee has, and to this day, been a farming community. The C&O created a short-lived boom in our community and perhaps it is the old money of those days, which still sustains us. The Greenbrier flows southwest and elbows at Ballengee into a more Southern course. The railroad cut its corner sharper than the river leaving a patch of ground along the bank unsettled with the rest of the town. Sliced from the town by the rails, this area became known as the bottoms and remained undeveloped for a time. In the early 1940’s a large lodge was built at the pinnacle of the elbow. The Greenbrier Lodge became a resort of leisure for those seeking a place of peace from the pandemonium of larger cities. It caused some development in transportation and utilities along the bottoms and the area flourished for a period of time. Late in the 1950’s the C&O closed its operations in Ballengee and the area of the bottoms quickly died with it. The Greenbrier Lodge closed and the bottoms was abandoned.

The charming summer cottages, long lawns of green grass, paved streets, small marinas and the Greenbrier Lodge itself quickly became dilapidated. The summer cottages became rundown shanties and housed the elderly, the poor and the helpless. The green lawns became patches of overgrown weeds and the streets nothing more than a collection of potholes. The marinas rotted and collapsed into the river and floated away into the abyss of the Mississippi and the Lodge began to sag beneath the burden of better days gone by. The bottoms began to breed discontent and if there was crime in Ballengee the town constable knew the culprit could be found in the bottoms. This section of our community that once was the crown of our glory now had become an open wound without healing and an embarrassment to us at the front door of our town.

Eventually Lester and Fonda Richardson bought the old Greenbrier Lodge. There was speculation that they would try to revive the Lodge and restore it to the days of its glory. They did make needed repair but made no effort to improve upon it or use it as it had once been. We then felt them to be eccentrics who felt the need for a very large dwelling. Shortly after Lester and Fonda came to the bottoms, subtle changes began to occur in the bottoms that at first none noticed neither appreciated.

Lester gathered the elderly and sick of the bottoms and moved them into the lodge. He enlisted the unmotivated women who slumbered upon broken porches by day to care for the elderly and sick at the lodge. At first they endeavored it as a burden to their slothfulness but soon realized the joy of caring for others and the satisfaction of being cared about. They found purpose for their lives and began to improve upon their newfound purpose. The men found themselves, at the insistence of the women, cleaning up the trash and debris around the bottoms.

Lester went around to the lumberyard and offered to haul away the shorts and salvages of wood that would normally be discarded. He went to the hardware stores and obtained unwanted paint, broken un-sellable tools and materials. Lester enlisted the men of the bottoms to repair or rebuild the shanties. To give them a fresh coat of paint and clean up the yards. Soon the whole appearance of the bottoms improved as folks became happier with the cleaner appearance of the bottoms.

Lester went around to all the farms and convinced them he could provide a Farmers Market at the bottoms and could sell their produce for a portion in return. At first only a few of the farmers would participate but soon all joined in. Lester took the donated building materials and built a market place with booths, had the children of the bottoms man the booths and sold the farmers produce. With their portion earned he fed the folks in the lodge and those of the bottoms.

Lester invited the pastors of all the churches to come and visit with the folks of the bottoms. Each responded and shared visitation duties to minister to the people of the bottoms. The largest church, Grace Baptist, also sent their choir director, the First Methodist sent their youth director also and Brother Simms, of our own Church on the Knoll, holds a prayer service every Thursday. But it was Fonda herself, blessed with great musical ability, and with the help of Grace Baptist, and the Three Sisters, formed the Bottoms Gospel Choir, which performs each and every Saturday evening at the lodge. Surprisingly, they pack the house.

So it was they, the Bottoms Gospel Choir, that I found great enjoyment in this last crowded day in Ballengee before Christmas. Standing alone it was one of those great blessings that are given to us now and then, but knowing the history it becomes one of those miracles that some think never happen anymore. As I sit here at the fireplace it is hard to distinguish the greater warmth, that of the fire or that of the folks at the bottoms and Lester and Fonda.

For those who think that one cannot make a difference I say, Bah! As one man and his wife moved into our community, with nothing more than a faith that all things are possible within God’s Will, found that which was lost and discarded in the bottoms, and changed it into a foundation for our community. Because of Lester’s faith, determination and refusal to leave a door closed and locked, those souls found along the bottoms, who came into his presence, now live another way.

The truth is that what has been a part of us now for what seems always, but again may have begun in the not so long ago, that on another cold December day such as this one, Jesus came into this world to seek that which was lost and discarded in the bottoms. With that spark of Light found through Him, warmth has gone out into the world to fill the souls of men. That through Him we have found our hope and we have received His peace. By His lead we have felt the joy of caring and the security of being cared for. Because of Jesus life has become abundant by His purpose living through us. It is that as we had chained ourselves to living for a passing world, now we have gone another way to living for an eternal world beyond this. I ask, as we celebrate His birth, God’s gift, are we still mired in the trappings of this world?   Are we content with that which has failed us and shall continue? There is hope, purpose, there is the greatest love, as the Wise Men sought, and those of us who have embraced His presence have learned, we find it impossible not to depart to our eternal home another way.

 Copyright: 2001 Thomas N Kirkpatrick

Durant Bible College


wordpress analytics