Reverand Pearson Gamaliel Hartsell was an influential citizen and Baptist preacher in the town where he spent most of his life—Big Lick, North Carolina. He served the people in a number of important ways. In addition to preaching, he was a casket maker, an undertaker, and store owner. According to Big Lick Baptist Church history, P.G. or “Pierce” would sometimes build a casket for a deceased parishioner, prepare the body, preach at the funeral, and then open up his general store. It is not surprising that in a rural town during Reconstruction he would have had what we think of today as several distinct jobs, but what is remarkable is the depth of heart and steadiness of hand it must have taken to perform all of these roles at once. In a small town like Big Lick, he would have been handling the most intimate affairs of his friends, customers, and family. In one moment he had to be strong enough to handle the cold, lifeless bodies of those he knew in their prime. In the next moment he had to bring comfort to grieving loved—ones who needed a pastor to remind them of the precious promises in the Holy Scriptures. One can easily imagine that he was a once both a fierce and tender soul. And probably not a bad businessman to boot.
Mortician skills may have been handed down through generations of Hartsells. P.G.’s first cousin once removed Jacob Miller Hartsell (1841-1904) was a cabinet and coffin maker in the area. Jacob’s son Philas J. Hartsell founded a funeral home in nearby Midland which still operates today. Another cousin, Joe Albert Hartsell, was a coroner for Cabarrus County, North Carolina.
Georgia Herman Osborne is P.G.'s great-granddaughter and lived next door to him for a time. She says he lived in a large, two-story house that had many bedrooms and a good library room. In a conversation with the author in 2012, Georgia said everyone loved P.G. and his preaching.
P.G. liked to make things. Georgia remembers helping him collect rocks around Big Lick in order to construct a garage which still stands today. She also remembers the cedar wood coffins her great-grandfather used to make and says he put his wood-working skills to use in other ways. For example, he built a contraption to shoo away flies from the dining room table. The device held strips of newspaper which would turn as P.G. pedaled it during the meal.
P. G. Hartsell was the fourth of seven sons born to James Wesley Hartsell (1824—1904) and Eleanor “Nellie” Whitley (1829—1883). His grandparents were Jacob Hartsell ( 1794—1857) and Lucinda “Lucky” McCollum (1809—1879). Two of Pierce’s brothers, Ephraim Alexander (1846—1928) and James Wesley, Jr. (1850—1942), were also preachers. His brother Jackson (1860—1938) was a doctor. James, Sr. was born in Montgomery County, North Carolina. He married Nellie, also a North Carolina native, about 1845 in Anson County. Nellie’s parents have not been positively identified.
Hartsells were some of the earliest settlers of the area around Big Lick. Pierce’s great—grandfather John S. Hartsell (1760—1857) was of German descent and is believed to have come from York, Pennsylvania, though that has not been confirmed. John’s wife was Rosena Herlocker (1764—1833). Hartsell descendants Eunice Hartsell Sechler and Charles H. Price have both done extensive research and have written about the family. They have traced John Hartsell’s line back to Jacob Hirtzel who was born about 1580 near Zurich, Switzerland. The village of Hirsol, Switzerland, has been in existence since at least 1269 and is 12 miles southeast of Zurich. Sechler believes that the family came from this village as the earliest known spelling of Hartsell is the same as the village. Sechler’s educated guess is that “Jacob’s parents heard Huldrich Zwingli, and believed in the coming Reformed faith .” The baptisms of Jacob’s children were recorded in the local church register, believed to be the first after the Reformation for that Parish. It seems that P.G. and other Hartsells continued in the rich faith tradition of previous generations of Hartsells.
P. G. took great care to preserve the family history. He is known to have sketched an outline of the Hartsell genealogy which later researchers like Eunice Sechler have built upon.
On September 20, 1874, Pierce married Margaret Sophia “Maggie” Howell (1854—1920), a North Carolinian and the daughter of William R. Howell (1808—c1865) and Frances “Fannie” Hopkins (1809—1890). William was a farmer in Stanly County. Fannie’s lineage can be traced back to Benjamin Hopkins who was born in York County, Pennsylvania in 1676. William’s parents are unknown.
Maggie Howell grew up just a few miles down the road from Big Lick in a place known as Crossroads where Highways 24 and 27 cross Highway 200 about 27 miles from present day Charlotte, North Carolina. About the year 1869 the Crossroads community applied for the building of a post office and needed an official name. Maggie was in her early teens at the time and was present at the meeting where the new name was discussed. According to Mrs. Titus Hartsell who wrote a centennial history of the town in 1969, “Maggie happened to look out at the wooded plot where a large locust tree was in full bloom. Beyond the locust tree plowed fields lay flat, and the reddish clay dirt of the Charlotte road stretched out level. This view was unbroken by hills. Miss Maggie suggested, ‘Why not call our place Locust Level?’ And so it was called until May 29, 1894. The Level was dropped and it was simply called Locust.”
According to the Big Lick Baptist Church history, Maggie ran a “military store” in Big Lick along with Mrs. A. N. Springer and Mrs. Daniel Effird. The nature of this military store is not exactly clear, but the history also mentions that the Confederacy maintained a commissary in the area during the war. It seems possible that this commissary and the military store may have been one in the same. The Confederate army received its supplies from the local citizens who were required to bring in their foodstuffs to the commissary where it was prepared for transport to the troops.
Before there was a church building, the local people gathered at the general store for worship, particularly during the winter months. That first store was opened by Prince Hartsell whose relationship to P. G. Hartsell is unknown. During the summer, the congregation would hold “brush arbor” church meetings in the woods. Log benches were set up as well as a preaching stand to facilitate worship, preaching, and teaching. The first real dedicated church structure was made of pine poles, a dirt floor, and wooden shingles. At this time the church was called Mt. Olive.
The Big Lick Baptist church history gives a colorful description of the life and activities of the church:
“Because of the snuff-dippers and tobacco-chewers, spittoons made of wooden boxes filled with sawdust were placed at the end of the benches in the amen sections. A water bucket and dipper was placed on the table at the front of the church for anyone that needed a drink of water during the long church services. Rough hand-hewed benches were used by the congregation to sit on. Seats at the very back were used by the farmhands and slaves that were allowed to attend the church services.
“Hitching posts were erected under the trees to tie the horses up during services. They were usually unhitched from the wagons or buggies during the church service. Many Sundays, the ladies would bring a lunch basket filled with food to eat before starting home. Communion was usually held the last of May and October. The deacons’ wives would make the unleavened bread” and wine from wild muscadines. “A single cup was passed among the men, who sat on the right side of the preacher stand, and another cup would be passed among the women members on the other side. A wooden tray was passed in the same manner with the unleavened bread . . .
“These two groups would lead the singing, and everyone in the congregation joined in. Preachers would serve several churches. They were called horseback or traveling preachers. Outside the front door stood a massive chestnut tree with a church bell hanging in it. It is said its rich tones could be heard six miles away across Rocky River.” [This church building was used until a new building was constructed around 1904. It was at that time the church name was changed to Big Lick Baptist Church.]
“The Deacons were the governing power of the church and made decisions about misconduct of church members. There was no arguing and fussing in the church, or unbecoming conduct. If so, the members would be turned out until the disagreement was settled. Old records show that many were turned out and later reinstated in the church. Records also show that the offering was very small, due to the fact that most all members were farmers. One week it was only thirty-five cents.”
P.G. Hartsell served his first term as pastor at Mount Olive Church from 1887 to 1889 when he was 35 years-old. It was during this time that Rev. Brantley York was a guest preacher at the church. He started Trinity College which eventually became Duke University. P. G. served two more pastoral terms, from 1898 to 1900 and 1901 to 1902. He was also served as church clerk in 1908. He and his wife Maggie were dedicated Bible readers and raised their children to do the same.
Things changed dramatically in Big Lick about 1916 when the railroad came to town. The Norfolk-Southern railroad originally planned to lay track through Big Lick, but the path was later moved a few miles down the road to Furr City, now the town of Oakboro. Most of the businesses left Big Lick and moved to Oakboro to benefit from the new railroad traffic. It seems that a new church was needed because of the migration for in that same year P.G. was one of four ministers who organized a new church—First Baptist Church of Oakboro. It was a one room frame building on Main Street.
The North Carolina legislature revoked the Big Lick town charter in 1918. Very few of the original town buildings and homes remain today. P.G. and Maggie’s home was eventually destroyed by fire, but part of their general store functions to this day as a barber shop. The Big Lick Baptist Church and the First Baptist Church of Oakboro are still active today.
Pierce and Maggie raised a large family and successfully passed along to their children the faith that meant so much to them. Francis Eleanor “Fannie” Hartsell (2 Sep 1875—22 September 1940) married Hugh Alson Helms (9 December 1868—14 May 1938) on March 13, 1892, and their offspring included Bascom Alson, Wade Leander, , Kenneth H., Leona M., Claude Hartsell, Curtis, Dewey, Amon Pearson, Hubert, Edwin Hight , Nellie “Fannie”, and Eustus. Olive Hartsell (10 June 1877—7 July 1885) died in childhood. Lucy Brantley Hartsell (25 May 1879—28 December 1962) married first Kirkland Lafayette Hathcock (1 March 1870—c1906) on July 22, 1893 and then PFC George M. Denson (c1887—30 Aug 1958) on November 17, 1908. From her first marriage Lucy had Sallie M., Hobson D., Hugh T., and Cora Lincoln, also known as “Fay." Cora N. Hartsell (11 August 1881—19 May 1905) married M. Fillmore Huneycutt (1875—) on July 30, 1899. Birtie A. Hartsell (20 August 1883—17 June 1884) died in infancy. Rev. Wallace Howell Hartsell (8 April 1885—9 September 1932) married Bessie Victor Wooten (31 August 1882—16 August 1956) on January 18, 1905, and had four children: a daughter, Ollie B. (7 Feb 1900—12 April 1900) died in infancy; Emma Margaret (16 July 1909—1986); Wallace Harold (February 23, 1912—October 1, 1912) died in infancy; and Dr. Bruce Victor Hartsell (July 13, 1914—1986) who carried on the family tradition of pastoring. Dalla Sophronia Hartsell (25 August 1887—19 April 1982) married Private John Marion Seago (19 December 1879—2 June 1924) on November 12, 1905, in Stanly County. You can read more about them here. Bascom M. Hartsell (10 June 1890—10 February 1892) died as a toddler. According to Bruce V. Hartsell, P. G. and Maggie had twin girls in 1892 who both died about 1902. Rev. Paul Gamaliel Hartsell (9 January 1894—1 August 1978) married and had four children: Frances Pauline, Dr. Harold McPherson, Charles Kent, and Caroline. Rev. Pruett Pearson Hartsell (2 December 1899—28 June 1977) married Gladys Zora Belle Morgan (14 December 1901—) and had Gaither Wilson, Effie Marguerite, and Gladys Yvonne.
Pierce and Maggie must have looked on with a mixture of pride and humility as three of their sons picked up the banner of gospel preaching. By 1915 Wallace was a pastor at a church in Bunn, North Carolina. One report from his time there states that “he is truly a man that knows how to get into the hearts of the people and is a strong preacher.” Once when he preached at a church in Spring Hope, North Carolina, 24 people responded to the call to salvation. “Out of this number, twenty-two were baptized, one restored, and one waiting to be baptized.” Wallace finished his career at Lakewood Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina. He died in his prime at Duke Hospital in 1932.
Paul Gamaliel Hartsell studied at Wake Forest College and by 1925 was pastoring a charge of 1,000 in Stovall, North Carolina. At that time one of his fellow pastors gave him this accolade: “His people love him and stand by him. He is one of our strongest and best young preachers.” A Ridge Baptist associational meeting in 1942 passed a resolution honoring Paul for his service at its Johnston Church. In it he was praised for his “splendid leadership” and thanked for being a “great inspiration and help.” At that time Paul was leaving the Ridge association to answer a call at the First Baptist Church of Abbeville, South Carolina. A copy of the full resolution can be seen here. Paul died on August 1, 1978 in Cross Anchor, South Carolina at the age of 84.
Pruett Pearson Hartsell studied at Mars Hill College and became the pastor at West Concord Church in early 1932. Following the death of his older brother Wallace, Pruett was called to take up his brother’ pastorate at Lakewood Baptist in Durham. An article in the Baptist publication The Biblical Recorder announced the change and said that Pruett was “a splendid representative of the fact that preachers, like poets, are born not made.” Pruett died on June 28, 1976.
Maggie Sophia Howell Hartsell died of heart disease on November 28, 1920 in Stanly County, North Carolina. The undertaker who signed her death certificate was none other than P. G. Hartsell. Two years later on December 17, at the age of 70, Pierce married Luvenia B. Moore Williams (21 April 1854—27 October 1937), the widow of Joseph D. Williams (1853—). Luvenia was the daughter of Abram and Rebecca Moore.
Rev. P. G. Hartsell died at the home of his daughter Lucy Hartsell Hathcock on April 16, 1940. He was laid to rest in the Big Lick Baptist Church cemetery next to Maggie and Luvenia.
by Eric S. Fleshood
February 26, 2012
Rev. Pearson G. Hartsell. This photo was cropped from a larger photo picturing a dozen or so men wearing ceremonial sashes with stars. The occasion is unknown, but may have been a Woodmen of the World ceremony.
Rev. Pruett Pearson Hartsell, the youngest son of P.G. and Maggie Hartsell.
Rev. Wallace Howell Hartsell, a beloved pastor and preacher who died in his prime.
This photo was left behind by P. G. Hartsell's daughter and the author's great-grandmother, Dalla Sophronia Hartsell Seago of Lawrenceville, Virginia. These four men are unidentified. Their strong resemblence to one another suggests they may be brothers. The author suspects that this may be P. G. Hartsell
(2nd from right) and his brothers James Wesley, Jackson, and Brison Wellington. If you have any information that may help identify these men, please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE (3/14/2012): P.G. Hartsell's great-granddaughter Georgia Herman Osborne has positively identified the man with the walking stick in the above photo as P.G. Hartsell. The men are standing in front of P.G.'s house. Georgia could not identify the other men.