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Looking after Little Fork Church

Looking after Little Fork Church

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  RIXEYVILLE - Culpeper County's only Colonial church recently received some needed TLC though the restoration work is far from finished.

  Little Fork Church, circa 1776, got a brand new western red cedar shakes roof in December while receiving repairs to its original exterior cornice and an interior attic truss damaged in a fire in the 1870s. A team from Habalis Construction in Fredericksburg also painted the cornice and the church ceiling as part of the $137,000 project initiated by The 1776 Little Fork Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit group separate from the church.

  Careful attention was paid to restoring the 239-year-old structure as closely to its original condition as possible, and not just because it's on the National Register of Historic Places.

  "The tradition is there, and that's important, but it's more than that," said John Ragosta with The 1776 Foundation. " There's been thousands of people coming to this building to worship for several hundred years and if someone walked in from 1776 out of the grave they'd walk in and this would all look very familiar to them. To me, that's more than just tradition."

  The Foundation is accurately restoring the historic church, in part, out of an obligation to the community, he added.

  "This is part of what makes Culpeper — Culpeper. The Culpeper Minutemen came to church here. The Little Fork Rangers mustered here. Yankees lived here in the winter of 1863 and 1864, traded cannonballs across the Hazel River," said Ragosta. "It's important to the community they can have a place to come and say, my ancestors were here, the people of Culpeper were here. When you start changing it, at what point have you changed it so much it's no longer Little Fork?"

  Last replaced in 1976, the new roof should last 40 years, said 1776 Foundation member and parishioner Rick Furnival. It is only the third roof to ever be put on Little Fork Church, including its original one and another in the 1920s, he said.

  The recent roof replacement offered a perfect opportunity to fix an original beam damaged in the fire that began when Methodists were leasing the gathering place some 150 years ago, said Furnival, whose family has deep roots at Little Fork. The job also included creating a new attic door in the ceiling in preparation for the next phase of work at the church that will consist of installing an efficient geothermal heating and air conditioning system.

  "The roof is a lot more sound," Furnival said. "They went in with five-eighths plywood sheathing and a felt wrap and now the shingles are on top. We have a composite structure that is much more durable."

  Jay Holloway, Habalis Construction president, said his company specializes in historic preservation work so they did not encounter anything particularly challenging during the job.

  "We did encounter some very interesting craftsmanship," he added, namely original roof sheathing boards pegged to the rafters rather than nailed. "The entire roof structure of the church has only a handful of iron nails in it."

  As part of his company's work, the roof was treated against decay and termites to prolong its life, Holloway said. The primary focus when working on a historic building like Little Fork, he said, is to preserve as much of the historic fabric in its original state and to be certain that the work they do is entirely reversible by future craftspeople.

  Bob Lee with the Foundation agreed with the importance of respecting the original craftsmanship.

  "One of the reasons we created a separate foundation is that this building, besides being an active church, is very much a cultural icon for the community," he said. "When this church was founded, it was more than just a gathering place for religious activities — it was a seat of government."

  Colonial Governor Alexander Spotswood ordered the church — then part of the state — into existence in 1731 to better serve residents in a non-motorized world. It was "a chapel of ease" and a center for community activity.

  "People communed here," said 1776 Foundation member Jay Lewis. "What do we have now? We have Facebook, we have Twitter and everybody sits at home. Well, in those days, people had to get together and so they came to these churches."

  Phase two of the ongoing restoration of the historic structure, the aforementioned HVAC job, is primarily intended to halt damage being done by fluctuating heat and humidity in the non-air conditioned church. The 1776 Foundation's next goal is establishing an endowment for the future. Furnival said it's important to get that in place sooner than later.

  "Right now, you have a senior group of folks that are interested in the history of the church, but as we get older we are going to need to turn over the responsibility to the next generation," he said. "It's going to be more difficult to get younger people to carry the ball if it's always about raising money."

  For more information about the ongoing restoration, visit or call (540) 937-4306. Mail tax-deductible donations to: The 1776 Little Fork Preservation Foundation, Inc. P.O. Box 367 16461 Oak Shade Rd., Rixeyville, Va. 22737.

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