I’ll likely never help forge a community out of a wilderness in quite the same manner as the first EuroAmerican settlers in Kentucky. (Spending hour after sweaty hour ridding the land of invasive honeysuckle is satisfying work, but…not the same.) The sheer magnitude of building everything from scratch always amazes me, and never more when I visit a site preserved and memorialized for its role in Kentucky’s pioneer history, like Old Mulkey Meeting House in Monroe County, Kentucky.
The log church, set within a glen of trees overhead and spring beauties covering the ground underfoot, made a magical first impression. I’ve seen lots of log buildings in Kentucky, but this quiet state park seemed, on the afternoon I visited, like a place out of time.
Although the almost deserted surroundings were soothing, what really struck me about the building, originally known as Mill Creek Baptist Church, is its chance survival. It may seem singular today, but the building itself is representative of a once-common type.
The trees that once covered most of Kentucky provided plentiful building materials for settlers. Houses, corncribs, public buildings, schools, and churches – as communities became more stable, and more settled, the first generation of log buildings were often improved upon. Fire took care of many buildings, and subsequent iterations were either more elaborate log buildings, or masonry buildings.
The congregation formed in the last quarter of the 18th century, and the first church apparently sat around 200 yards from the current building. Minutes from the Mill Creek Baptist Church in May 1804 outline the plans for a new, larger church to accommodate the growing membership: “50 feet long, 30 feet wide, shingled with jointed wood shingles, five windows and three doors.” Jilson Thompson was hired to make the church’s dream reality.
The church lacks any heat source – no chimney, no flue. According to the author of the 1973 National Register of Historic Places nomination, the women of the church heated large soapstones, and then inserted them into bags made from “heavy woolen cloth or animal skins, which were fastened to the seats. The worshipers stepped into these and pulled the material over their knees.” Even if that is an apocryphal story, I love it.
As its original name implies, Mill Creek Baptist followed a Baptist doctrine, but like many churches across Kentucky at the time, the minister – John Mulkey – and some of his flock – began to be influenced by the Great Revival (also referred to as the Second Great Awakening). Camp meetings, like the one at Cane Ridge Meeting House in Bourbon County, Kentucky, began to change the way pastors interpreted and preached.
In 1809, the congregation of Mill Creek Baptist Church split – and Mulkey and his supporters kept the log church, which would eventually take on his name. It remained an active church until the mid-19th century.
Local community members took up the cause of preserving Old Mulkey in the 1920s, at a time when the larger Commonwealth was actively recognizing sites of historic and natural significance. Donations secured for the church provided for a new floor, roof, and wooden shutters. In 1931, the fledgling Kentucky State Park Commission (established itself in 1924) accepted the property into the state parks system.
I haven’t been to every state shrine or park in Kentucky – but I am a fervent supporter of the historic sites within the park system. It’s not possible for everyone to view and experience historic buildings and sites “in the wild” (or in the same way that an intrepid architectural historian and wanderer might). Access to buildings like Old Mulkey Meeting House provide one small glimpse into history, and by knowing where we’ve been – we’re better prepared for where we might go.