by Todd Henon
Visit ToddHenon.com/SignalStories for our Little Brown Church short film, photos, and info on Karen Paul Stone’s fascinating book “100 Years The Little Brown Church.” “Signal Stories” is a series of reflections by lifelong Signal Mountain resident and president of Todd Henon Properties, representing Homes, Estates, Land & Farms on Signal and throughout TN, GA, and AL for 20 years.
Not publicized or marketed, it’s a bit like happening upon an unexpected treasure. The decades-old pea gravel under my truck’s tire and the century-old familiar squeak of the worn hardwoods remind me how exceptional the Little Brown Church is: a simple place of worship with the gentlest of improvements over time.
If you’re nearby on a Sunday morning between Memorial and Labor Day, you’ll see horses, golf carts, bicycles, and Jeeps parked out front. You’ll feel at home whether you get a seat inside or a bench on the porch. Among giggling children in seersucker, parents in shorts with coffee mugs from home, and family dogs roaming freely, you’ll hear a piano that sounds like an old Western movie playing hymns you haven’t sung in years. You’ll likely be invited to stay after for a watermelon cutting or “lunch on the grounds.” And you’ll wonder how it got started and why it still thrives.
My family, just four generations on Signal and, therefore, “new-comers,” visited with two beloved families who have lived the history of The Little Brown Church. We couldn’t help but share the wealth of their iconic Signal Stories and this unique inter-denominational community born out of love...and necessity.
Catherine O’Kelley Fore, (b. 1980), six generations Little Brown Church
“The Little Brown Church started around the turn of the 20th century. At that time there was a big colony of summer residents with homes on Signal Mountain in an area of Walden we still call Summertown. Chattanoogans came up to Signal to escape the heat, yellow fever and cholera. It was at least a five-hour round trip up and down the mountain via horse-and-buggy or hack [horse-drawn wagon with bench-style perimeter seating for multiple people]. Because of that, folks were unable to make it down to the city for weekly church services.”
Rachel Divine Sharp Decosimo, (b. 1926), six generations Little Brown Church
“The church started on my grandmother’s front porch in Summertown as a Sunday school for the children of the summer residents. This was a way that Summertown residents could worship the Lord together. After my grandmother’s porch got too full, they realized they needed a building. So, in 1908, local men raised the money and handled the construction of a Swedish barn design. I’ve always wondered how they knew anything about Sweden way back on Signal Mountain!
“I started going to the Little Brown Church when I was 5 years old. I’m 91 right now, so you do the math. It was the highlight of our summer as children! All the children got to be barefooted at church because, on May 1, you took your shoes off and didn’t put them back on until school started in the fall. We loved being with each other and our wonderful Sunday School teachers!”
Catherine O’Kelley Fore:
“My great-great grandparents were a part of the Little Brown Church in its earliest days. They had a home in Summertown where my family still spends many happy summer days. My great grandfather was the church’s superintendent in 1958-59, and I served in that same role in 2018, so it’s been very meaningful.
“One of the highlights of the weekly services for me are the hymns. Growing up, I remember singing ‘Old Rugged Cross,’ ‘Beulah Land’ and ‘In the Garden.’ Now my children are singing those same hymns. It’s special to carry on that tradition.
“We close each service with all the children coming up front to ring the old bell, just as I -and generations of children before me - did. The ringing accompanies the adults singing our theme song ‘Little Brown Church in the Wildwood,’ with verses customized for our church in 1932 by Summertown resident R.H. Williams.”
“The purpose of the Little Brown Church is that people will learn about God and Jesus Christ. We have never had our own preacher. We invite different teachers and leaders to come up from the Chattanooga area to speak to us each week. It’s very important that they teach clearly and stay right on track.” [“...and right on time” her son Fred Decosimo jokes, “preach Jesus and do it in 20 minutes.”]
“We have so many visitors,” Mrs. Decosimo says. “It’s a wonderful outreach to people who may not go to church regularly, but feel comfortable here. You know, even though we lovingly call it ‘Little Brown Church’, its official name is Union Chapel because all are welcome here, regardless of denomination. I remember, one of the brothers of Adolph Ochs’, a Jewish Summertown resident, [publisher of Chattanooga’s Times Free Press and owner of The New York Times] was one of our first treasurers.
“There’s just something here that draws people. I feel it. My great, great grandchildren feel it. We’re drawn to this place. It’s real. As real as it gets, thanks to generations of these and many welcoming Signal Mountain families who have gathered to worship together through World Wars, epidemics, and moon landings. When it comes to a sense of peace, community, and a true Word from God - the things everyone is searching for - when you come to the Little Brown Church, you find it.