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Friday, December 20, 2013

Strawberry Chapel and the Vanished Town of Childsbury

Front gates, Strawberry Chapel
It all started with a ghost story.

Of course, as a Christian, I don’t officially approve of ghost stories, and this was more the explanation behind a local legend than promulgating tall tales about the supernatural. The melodramatic story of a young girl tied to a gravestone by her vexed schoolmaster and left there overnight is still told around the Lowcountry. It's part of what awakened my curiosity about the Charleston area, and later, my love for the more obscure bits of local history.

Strawberry Chapel, side and rear
 The terrible event took place in the churchyard of Strawberry Chapel, located in rural Berkeley County, South Carolina, miles upriver from Charleston. Built in 1725, the church served as a “chapel of ease,” providing an accessible place of worship to planters and tradesmen downriver from St. John’s Biggin Church, where they were still required to attend services on high holy days. With the trees cleared, Strawberry Chapel would have overlooked the west branch of the Cooper River, but now stands nestled among oaks, screened from the river by thick brush. The adjoining grassy field was once the site of a flourishing trade town, named Childsbury for the English settler James Child, who granted the land and laid out the plans for the town in 1707. A plackard states that among other things, an open-air market and horse races were held here, back in the day. The town served as an important point of contact between native peoples and European settlers. A ferry docked at Strawberry Landing on the Cooper River and connected Childsbury with Charleston.

A school was also located here, attended by Catherine Chicken, the great-granddaughter of James Child, the seven-year-old heroine of the local legend. The most trustworthy accounts tell us that, yes, at the tender age of seven she was tied to one of the tombstones in the Strawberry Chapel churchyard by her schoolmaster for some infraction and left until after nightfall. One of the family’s servants discovered and rescued her, and the offending schoolmaster was run out of town, but the story gave rise to all sorts of embellishments and legends—one of which was that the girl died of fright and her ghost haunts the churchyard, still.
Strawberry Chapel, front

Not so, but the place has suffered under the constant stream of ghost hunters and thrill-seeking teens. During our first visit to Strawberry Chapel in 2006 during a family photography outing, I was shocked to see so many signs of vandalism. Box tombs open or cracked (nothing to see inside; the actual grave is below ground, but this is apparently a popular form of monument in historic Southern cemeteries), broken glass littering the place, especially around the curiously open, arched brick construction a few yards away from the church. But as my first study in original church buildings in the Charleston area, the place enthralled me.

The church itself is a small, white building, covered in weathered plaster, with a shingled jerkin-head roof. (See the photos for exactly what that means—the flattened corners at the “head” of the roof.) Like other historic places, it just smells old, and the churchyard is graced by crape myrtle, camellias, and several sprawling live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Walking through and reading headstones is always a lesson in local history, to me, and in this case just made me hungry to go search out the stories behind the names. No ghosts here, even in the obscure corner where a miniature version of the stars-and-bars decorated the grave of a Confederate veteran.

I later learned that the brick “cave,” pictured above, was not a crypt as we’d originally guessed, but a place to temporarily shelter a coffin in inclement weather. And on one visit, I discovered a peephole in the front door of the chapel, offering a view inside. Plain, dark wood pews and slate floors—and the sunlight slanting in through a window, bathing the sanctuary in a pool of light. The next time, however, the peephole was boarded over.

Over the years, I've noticed the addition of floodlights and surveillance cameras to the churchyard. Because of the worsening vandalism, the caretakers have felt the need to exclude casual visitors. Stories have surfaced of people being asked to leave by caretakers, and a friend’s brother was actually arrested for trespassing. Another friend and I visited one day but weren’t challenged—I hope because we were careful to treat the property with respect.

Despite its long standing as a historic site open to the public, most informational sites online now state that the chapel and churchyard are private property and trespassing will not be tolerated. I'm presuming that permission could be obtained to explore the site for research.

Sunset on the Cooper River
The Childsbury site, however, still welcomes visitors, offering the information kiosk next to a small parking lot and a mowed path down to the old dock. The view there is not to be missed—a particularly lovely section of the Cooper and its old adjoining rice fields. Off to the right, especially at low tide, the planks marking the old Strawberry Ferry landing can still be seen embedded in the mud.

Except for the chapel building, everything else is only a memory.

Playing in the field that was Childsbury

My thanks to the photography talents of Kimberli Buffaloe, and my daughter Breanna McNear.


  1. I imagine that would be quite a place to visit. Thanks for sharing it with us, Shannon. I hope your December is not too crazy!

  2. You're welcome, Debra. It's a lovely spot!

  3. Another reason for a road trip to the Charleston area. I love old churches and the neighboring cemeteries. There is so much history to be found there.

  4. No kidding, Judith! We've been here 20+ years and it wasn't long enough!

  5. Your accounts of visiting Strawberry Chapel are interesting and informative although not 100% accurate. The chapel's vestry is dedicated to the preservation of the chapel and graveyards which are on private land. Although part of the once-town of Childsbury, Strawberry Chapel in maintained by descendants. Anyone entering any private property, at anytime, for any reason, assumes the risk of being stopped or arrested. It's the law in SC. Due to repeated vandalism and safety concerns, it is requested that no one enter the grounds without prior permission. No photos of Strawberry's chapel or grounds a should be sold for profit or copyrighted. Visitors are more than welcome to take photos from outside the property's borders. Thank you very much for helping to protect and preserve historic sights. Strawberry Chapel may be the oldest church structure in the Lowcountry.

    1. Please see Ms. McNear's reply below. If you return to the blog could you kindly leave your email address or contact us at our own email. What a shame that vandalism is occurring on this historic property.

  6. Thank you for clarifying this issue! I meant no disrespect to current policies regarding the property. The visits I referenced were several years ago, and the photos of the chapel and surrounding grounds taken during that time, for our personal use and research only and not for profit. (Well, not directly--we are novelists after all, and everything we experience becomes fodder for story! :-) ) I can assure you, we have no intention of selling these images for profit, but isn't a photographer's work automatically protected by copyright as their personal artistic expression?

    The protection and preservation of Lowcountry history is a subject very near to my heart, and that of my friend Kimberli. Strawberry Chapel in particular remains one of my favorite sites, and as much as I would love to casually stroll the grounds again, I completely understand why it was closed to the public.

    Thank you again for taking the time to respond to my post!

  7. Thanks to all for positive comments. As noted above, the grounds & bldg of Strawberry Chapel are indeed private, with new barbed wire fencing in 2016 and new security system, necessary because of decades of egregious vandalism costing the Chapel leaders greatly (no support from any Diocese). It is always locked since it is against SC law to trespass on gated posted private property. Since the Chapel is owned by its Vestry, permission to enter MUST be obtained from a Vestry member. As of early 2017, the Senior Warden is Robert Ball (, & the Junior Warden to become Sr. Warden is Richard Ball ( Please contact them or any current Vestry member you may know if you wish access. We try to be as accommodating as possible. Pax. Robert Ball


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