History of Poplar Tent Presbyterian Church
Scotch-Irish immigrants from Pennsylvania and Maryland settled the Poplar Tent community, originally part of the Mecklenburg County, during the years 1732 to 1751. Rev John Thompson was sent by the Presbytery of Philadelphia to preach to scattered Presbyterians in the colony of North Carolina among who were the people of Poplar Tent. Under the shade of a poplar tree, Rev. Thompson preached several times during the summer, even baptizing children. He organized the church in 1751 and ordained a bench of elders. The tree under which he preached fell in 1802 just 51 years after its shade sheltered those who gathered to hear God’s word. Rev. Thompson died in 1753. Temporary visits by Spencer and McWhorter provided ministry to the people of Poplar Tent from the time of the death of Rev. Thompson in 1753 to the pastorate of Rev, Hezekiah J. Balch in 1769.
Rev. Balch served from 1769 to 1776. He is reputed to be the author of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Five other members of Poplar Tent congregation also signed this document on May 20, 1775. They were Benjamin Patton, Zacheus Wilson, John Phifer, David Reece, and Robert Harris. Rev. Balch is buried at Poplar Tent. An unusual tombstone designed by the congregation in 1847 marks his grave.
The hill on which the church now stands was called Poplar Ridge due to a grove of large Poplar trees in the area. Tradition tells us in the earliest days of the congregation, a tent was raised to house the meetings. A discussion concerning a name for the meeting place evolved. Someone in the group threw a cup of water on the tent and exclaimed “Poplar Tent”. Thus the church was named. The tract of land on which the buildings of the church are currently on was conveyed to Poplar Tent congregation by the crown of England on May 3, 1765. Nathaniel Alexander and Archibald Houston were named trustees. The deed is missing, but the transaction is recorded at the courthouse.
Poplar Tent’s first building was constructed of logs. The second was a frame building. The present sanctuary, a colonial brick building, was constructed in 1851-1852 during the pastorate of Rev. Walter Pharr. Jacob Stirewalt was a master builder of homes in Piedmont North Carolina and served on the building committee. His artistic ability is also evident on the walnut furnishings that he designed and made. The restored original pews and the unadorned bow-fronted pulpit are presently in the balcony. The old communion table is in the vestibule. There was also a large bell hanging at the front of the church that was rung to call the people to the start of Sunday School. During the 1930’s, the men from the church built a log building for a fellowship hall. Many have only ever called it “the hut”. In 1969, a large hall of bricks and blocks replaced this structure. In 1955, a three-story educational building was added on to the sanctuary. In 1991, additional classrooms were added to the sanctuary, enlarged bathroom facilities, multi-purpose building, and stands adjacent to the barbecue pit area were completed. The first manse was built in the 1870’s and served as such until 1949 when the present manse was constructed. The old manse was sold and is still standing on Poplar Tent road just beyond the softball field. In the early days, two wood stoves heated the church. Mr. Latta Caldwell would show up early to church to chop wood and build fires before services.
The early church was not only a center for worship but also for education. In 1768, Classical school opened at Poplar Tent, remaining open for a century and producing some of the leading scholars of that time. Under the direction of Rev. John Robinson during the 4 decades from 1801 to 1841, the school produced seven ministers, three govenors, four congressmen, several judges and fifteen doctors. Charles Wilson Harris, first presiding president of the University of North Carolina received his early education there. Rev. Robert Archibald, Thomas Allison, Samuel Harris, and Charles Caldwell, M.D. was among the distinguished teachers in the humble log cabin education academy.
Poplar Tent had many prominent North Carolinians. Charles Wilson Harris, a member of Poplar Tent church. Dr. Harris, a distinguished physician and surgeon also organized the first medical school in North Carolina. About 90 young men were educated there. It was located on Derita Road and most recently owned by Mr. and Mrs. Hoyle Motley. It was struck by lightening and burnt down in 1990.
In the early days, the church was a worship center for many families, including the slaves that lived with and worked for these families. In 1867 there were 163 white members and 104 black members. Most of the black members asked for a letter of dismissal in 1868 in order to form a church of their own. Cedar Grove Presbyterian Church is located not far from Poplar tent on Odell School Rd.
Poplar Tent is known well these days for its famous barbecue. The first one was held in 1945. Many of the families of the church raised hogs to provided the meat to be cooked. They also used their own garden tomatoes in their brunswick stew.