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Collection of churches finds home at playhouse
8Churches
Forsyth County’s own Salem Baptist Church, above, is among the miniatures on display at the Cumming Playhouse. - photo by Autumn McBride

A project that once helped a Forsyth County man through a time of grief is bringing joy to the community.

W. Benton Kinney’s wife of nearly 40 years, Tommie, passed away in 1990.

While the loss was devastating, Kinney found comfort in an unusual project.

"He would ride the roads and go out to all the churches in the county," said his daughter, Debra Johnson.

Kinney would take photos of the county’s churches and have the film developed. Based on the photos, he would create plans for miniature versions of the houses of worship.

Kinney, 79, said he would then take about "two or three days" to build a model of each structure.

"I built all the churches I could find," he said. "Then I called the chamber of commerce and asked how many of them there were in the county.

"The lady said, ‘Lord, there’s a bunch of them, but we don’t have a list.’"

Kinney, who made his living in the real estate development and construction business, ended up crafting 76 of the replicas over the course of about three years.

"It occupied his time and brought joy back into his life," Johnson said. "It brought him some peace."

The miniatures are as accurate to the life-sized version of each structure as Kinney could make them. But, he noted, they’re "not to scale, they’re just replicas."

While they may be "just replicas," each is striking in its detail.

Some have tall white steeples topped with crosses, others have simple pointed or flat roofs.

Some are all white, while others are green, blue or brown. Still others are painted to reflect the bricks that make up their parent structures.

Each has a tiny sign in front, created from an actual photograph Kinney took of each church’s life-sized sign.

For many years, Kinney and his second wife, Mickey, kept the models near a gift shop they owned.

Johnson said the shop, Mickey’s Robin’s Nest, was located for about five years on Hwy. 369 and had a small outbuilding behind it.

"I painted it white and put a steeple on top of the roof and put in stained glass windows," Kinney said, noting he then housed the little churches in a larger model church.

"People would always want to buy them," he said. "People always wanted the one where they got married."

After the gift shop closed, Kinney kept the churches for several years at home until Johnson asked for them.

For the past several years, they were at her house.

"We had shelves put in for them and whenever people would come over, they’d always want to see them," she said.

This spring Johnson and her husband moved into a smaller home and no longer had room for the churches. She contacted Linda Heard, executive director of the Cumming Playhouse, to see if she would like them.

The playhouse, which was formerly Cumming’s first schoolhouse, today houses numerous memorabilia from Forsyth County residents.

Heard was thrilled with the donation.

"From a historic standpoint, these allow us to have something representing Forsyth’s spiritual past," Heard said.

Danny Faulkner, playhouse manager, said there was some damage to some of the structures when they were brought to their new home.

"Those little crosses and steeples and glue over all that time, was not a good thing," he said. "A lot of the little crosses had to be replaced."

He spent about a week cutting out and regluing the ones that had fallen.

"It was fun. It was a good project," he said.

Since their arrival at the playhouse, the little churches have attracted quite a bit of attention.

"We have people in here all the time just standing and looking at them," Faulkner said.

Heard agreed.

"People are always trying to find their home church or saying, ‘Oh, that’s where I got saved’ or ‘That’s where I got baptized or we got married,’" she said.

For Johnson and her father, it was a joy to share the miniatures with the community.

"We talked to him about donating them to the playhouse and he was thrilled," she said. "They really are a part of the county’s history. We’re tickled to be able to put them on display."

Added Kinney, "I hope they make people happy."