He stood six foot six, wore a size 13 shoe, his head was crowned with a full shock of gray hair and his beard would make a Viking proud. Joseph H. “Bear Joe” Lunsford was a man of the mountains, and a mountain of a man. Born in Suches, Union Co., Georgia in 1853 at the southern base of Blood Mountain, his life spanned more than eight decades and his legacy was left in stone.
Bear Joe Lunsford spent his life in the mountains as a farmer and lay preacher. The Appalachian Trail follows a ridge line that crossed his family farm. One mile north on the trail from Woody Gap where the trail crosses highway 60, is Lunsford Gap, just beyond the gap at the top of several switchbacks is a large granite slab called “Preachers Rock.” Many know the spot but few know the story of how it got its name.
“Bear Joe” and his wife Martha “Marthy” Holloway Lunsford (1855-1933) were married in 1875 and raised eleven children, corn and other mountain staples on their farm. Life on the farm was not always easy and healthcare was often scarce. In 1923 she took a fall and never walked again, spending the last 10 years of her life in a wheelchair. Bear Joe built her a flume that ran from a spring to the window of their kitchen so she would not have to leave the house to draw water. A bit of mountain ingenuity to deal with the harsh realities of life.
The Suches community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was home to seven Baptist churches, a store, a school, a post office, a couple of grist mills and a sawmill. A dam constructed on Kennedy creek provided power for the mills and a lake perfect for baptizing.
Moonshining took place in the surrounding mountains. The unofficial mayor of Suches, 84-year-old Bud Braddock is a deacon at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church, his wife Pat is a great-granddaughter of the Lunsfords. Braddock noted that there are piles of empty Ribbon Cane Syrup cans scattered throughout the woods that moonshiners used as a sugar substitute during the days of rationing in WWII.
Moonshining and the fear associated with it added to the hardships of mountain life. One Union county pastor was murdered for speaking against the trade. One of Bear Joe’s sons, Pat Braddock’s grandfather, was falsely accused of sabotaging a revenuer’s buggy. He had to flee with his family, on the run for many years living as a sharecropper in other states before returning to learn the real culprit had been tried, convicted and sent to jail years before.
The Lunsfords were active in the Baptist churches in the area, each of which typically met for worship one Sunday a month. Bear Joe began serving as a lay preacher. Although he never pastored a local church, in the mountain tradition he would preach at different churches on Sundays, revivals, and funerals. During revivals and funerals it was not uncommon for five or six preachers to show up for any service. They would sit on the front pew and then one, two or sometimes more would preach during the service “as the Spirt moved.” It should be noted at that time one-hour sermons were the norm and two-hour sermons were not uncommon!
Although this preaching arrangement might sound more like “Primitive Baptists,” in the mountains at the time there was less distinction between Primitive and Missionary Baptist worship practices. The churches that the Lunsfords were primarily affiliated with, Mount Lebanon, Zion and Mount Airy were all “Missionary Baptists” and members of the Chestatee and Notla Baptist Associations.
Having received the call to preach, and according to census records, having no formal education, Bear Joe decided he needed to practice preaching. He began walking up to a granite rock slab on the side of the mountain overlooking the valley to practice. In addition to his large frame, he had a thunderous voice that carried. He could be heard practicing his preaching in the valley below. They began to call the granite slab on the mountain Preachers Rock.
Sometimes during the hot summer months when revivals were held, services were held at Preachers Rock where the temperatures were cooler. Lunsford was also considered a healer. He was asked to pray over the sick. The family lore includes a story of a family who came from Alabama asking him to pray over a woman with a goiter. She returned home and it went away. He was also vividly remembered for always walking everywhere he went and carrying his large Bible at all times. He was a man of prayer and a man of the Word, not a bad way to be remembered, besides having a rock named in your honor.
When the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail was laid out in 1921 by Ranger Arthur Woody, another Suches native, it followed the south ridge of Blood Mountain which passes over Preachers Rock. Arthur Woody, for whom Woody Gap is named, is probably best remembered for reintroducing deer to Georgia. Ranger Woody and Bear Joe are both buried in the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church cemetery which is about a mile as the crow flies from Preachers Rock.
Each year thousands of hikers, including through-hikers from all over the world, hike over Preachers Rock. Many will stop and take in the magnificent views across the valleys and mountains of North Georgia. Often hikers take a few moments to sit on the rock and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. Undoubtedly, at some time before his death in 1938, Bear Joe must have stood on that rock and preached from Genesis 1:1-10. With a little imagination they might hear his voice thundering across the valley, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth . . . and God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas; and God saw that it was good.” God enjoyed the beauty of His creation and from Preachers Rock man can too!
Because of its location near Atlanta, and its sweeping views, which are rare due to the tree canopy on the Georgia Appalachian Trail, Preachers Rock is one of the most popular day hiking destinations on the trail. It's located 21 miles from the southern terminus of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail on Springer Mountain.
If you decide to visit on a Sunday, plan to attend the 11:00 morning service at the Mount Lebanon Baptist Church. Pastor Matthew Jones, Deacon Braddock and the church family will welcome you. Before or after the service you might want to wander over to the old church cemetery across the road to visit the graves of Ranger Arthur Woody, Bear Joe and Martha Lunsford. Then visit Preachers Rock and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.
Charles Jones is a Southern Baptist historian, retired pastor, and newspaper columnist.
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