Shirley Simmons & James Stephens
The Varina Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized in the very southern part of Wake County and met in the very northern part of Harnett County in the years 1895-96. The church was the result of Elders William H. Ingham and Joseph A. Jorgensen, who were both missionaries from the Southern States Mission assigned to the North Carolina Conference (specifically Wake and Harnett County) as a field of labor. The church records detailed accounts of missionaries and their assignments during this era.
The other half of the story comes from the life of Durham Hall Smith. One of eleven children of William Smith and Susannah Hall, he was born October 22, 1829. Smith was a Confederate Veteran who had enlisted in the North Carolina Thirty-first Regiment, (one source says Company D; another source says Company C of Andrew Betts known as “the Chalybeate Guards”) Born in Orange County, he was then married and residing in Wake County. In 1861 he took his brother Thomas’ place leaving the younger brother to run the family grist mill and care for their mother.
Smith married Mary Winifred Whittington, daughter of Allen Whittington and Elizabeth Smith in Cumberland County. In 1895, they lived and farmed in the area off Wagstaff Road where they raised their eleven children.
Durham Hall Smith “ had had a dream in which he saw two men coming up the path to his house bringing a book with them,” according to the church history. When Ingham and Jorgensen arrived that day, Smith recognized them as from his dream. They invited him to a meeting that evening in the local school house which some members of the family identify as the Rawls School. The elder Smiths, in their 60’s, walked to the meeting and home again that night. Smith told his wife this was what he had been waiting for from his dream.
According to church history, Smith dug out the little creek which flows under Wagstaff Road and members of his family were baptized there on September 15, 1895. The record also says that several hundred people witnessed the baptism out of curiosity about the new religion.
The Elders confirmed them as members of the Church. Other members were added to the Church. There was heavy persecution of this new religious group as they met in the schoolhouse, other places, and ultimately in the corn crib. As a result, John Gardner of the Rawls Community, whose daughter had married into the Smith family, donated an acre of land for a building in 1896.
Timber was cut by the Smiths on their farm and hauled to the Harnett County site to construct the building which housed 90 people. D. H. Smith served as Elder there until he died in 1899. He carved the podium which the family donated in the 1990’s to the church. His daughter-in-law, Corenna Smith, wife of Vivian Smith, donated an organ and served as organist. The family made a quilt to raise money to purchase hymnbooks.
Vivian I. Smith, the seventh child, married Corenna Alvin Baughcom of Raleigh. He and his bride moved home in 1907 (the town was incorporated as Fuquay Springs in 1909). Vivian was a building contractor, well known in the area, who retired and operated a jewelry store with clock and watch repair over what was Elliott’s Pharmacy for some years.
Meantime out at Rawls, “The little building became the central headquarters of the state” for a time, according to their church history. When membership declined, the church missionaries would use the home of Durham’s son, Vivian, as a meeting place. Located at 301 Depot Street in Fuquay Springs, the missionaries received mail there and often they say 15-18 persons spent the night sleeping on the floor when the family did not have enough beds for the visitors.
Eventually, the family of Vivian Smith comprised the total membership in the Varina Branch and more members lived in Raleigh, so church activity was moved to Raleigh, circa 1939. On November, 25, 1942 the Varina Branch building was sold for $95. The land reverted to the Gardner family in Rawls and the church at Salt Lake held the money for a future permanent meeting house. The small building, located adjacent to the then Rawls Community Club, was used for storage until a developer demolished it for a new housing project in 2009. Mattie Rawls and others of the community remembered services when the church met there.
The home of Vivian and Corenna Smith was demolished on Depot Street in 2004. Members of the Smith family, especially Blanche Smith Keith, donated many records, pictures and family and church history to the Fuquay-Varina Museums.
The Fuquay Independent of 1980’s recorded some of this history. Especially noted were the difficult experiences of the family members because of their beliefs. However, the little church, called the first LDS Church in Wake County, was actually located in Harnett County for most of its history.
In the 1890s, the Varina Branch was the only LDS congregation in all of Wake and Harnett counties. As of 2023, there are now 29 congregations meeting within 11 meetinghouses. Since 2011, the church has built two new meetinghouses in Fuquay Varina, with one being on Johnson Pond Road and the other on Highway # 55 West towards Holly Springs. These meetinghouses currently host five congregations (Fuquay-Varina Ward, Sunset Lake Ward, Lake Benson YSA Branch, Swift Creek Ward, and Holly Springs Ward).
Sources: Scrapbook of Smith Family in Fuquay-Varina Museums Collection
Alan M. Smith, “Durham Hall Smith’s Conversion and the Missionaries That Baptized Him and His Family,” database, FamilySearch, Durham Hall Smith (29CP-QB5), Memories.
Alan M. Smith, “Durham Hall Smith’s Experience in the Civil War,” (printed copy from family research)
James Stephens, a Church Historian for the Raleigh South Stake.
Fuquay Independent, 1980’s article without author,
Notes: Fuquay-Varina History from Mattie Rawls, Gardner family, Rawls Community Club, et al.
Pictures courtesy Blanche Keith and family to the Fuquay-Varina Museums collection.
Current Church Pictures: Courtesy Gail A. Woolard