Historic Palmyra

By Carrie A. Moore
Deseret News religion editor
October 8, 2000

      PALMYRA, N.Y. — Situated unobtrusively and quaintly along the banks of the Erie Canal in upstate New York, the village of Palmyra defines small town America. Beyond the reach of shopping malls, urban smog and even fast-food joints, it isn't hard to imagine the asphalt streets as dusty roads with hitching posts outside the post office, the cafe and the print shop.
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      Farmers still gather at the local greasy spoon to catch the early morning gossip over a cup of coffee. Victorian homes with large yards sprawl beneath aging hardwood trees, and the occasional bed-and-breakfast beckons with a hand-carved sign.
      Main Street bustles with tourists by midmorning during good weather, as shopkeepers open their doors. On Sundays and weeknights, parishioners gather at the historic "Four Corners" churches, one on each corner of the intersection at Main and Canandaigua streets — believed to be the only intersection in America that is home to four separate houses of worship.
      Built in the 1800s, the Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Methodist and Baptist churches reflect the religious melting pot that bubbled unabated in western New York during much of that period. Attracted by large, fertile tracts of land, Eastern farmers migrated here by the thousands at the turn of the 19th century, bringing their faith and their families with them.
      Among them were Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith, whose emigration from another rural outpost in Sharon, Vt., ultimately would help shape the history of their new homeland and give birth to a new legacy of faith amid the religious excitement of the time.
      Cradled in this obscure burg, that faith has spread around the globe, with more than 11 million members who believe that the Smiths' son — an uneducated country boy — saw God in a grove of trees here when he went into the woods to pray.
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The restored E.B. Grandin Publishing house on Main Street. The company printed the first copies of The Book of Mormon.

Ravell Call, Deseret News
      As the 19th century home of Mormonism's founder Joseph Smith, Palmyra has become a focal point for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, thousands of whom make the pilgrimage each year to visit the Sacred Grove and climb the Hill Cumorah. Smith said it was near the top of the hill that an angel entrusted him with gold plates, containing a record of America's ancient inhabitants, which he translated by divine power to become The Book of Mormon.
      Smith's account, and the subsequent controversy it generated, eventually spurred him and his fledgling church to leave New York for Kirtland, Ohio. But the founding of what one sociologist has called the next major world religion left its mark on Palmyra in ways that have long outlived the last ox-drawn wagon of Saints headed west.
      Today, the sites sacred to Mormons provide the basis for the area's tourist economy, with visitors pumping much-needed revenue into Palmyra and its environs. Yet it isn't entrance fees that drive the tourist trade: Every LDS site is free and open to the public, with the exception of the new Palmyra LDS Temple. Dedicated in April after an extended open house for the public, the temple is open only to faithful Latter-day Saints who hold a current temple recommend that allows entrance.
      Long popular with Latter-day Saints, the historic nature of the church's sites — and particularly the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, staged each summer at the base of "The Hill" — attract tens of thousands of visitors annually.
      Even with a mere "drive-by" look at the temple, the Palmyra experience can easily occupy a full day for visitors in the off-season, and may require an additional day during height of the pageant's summer run in mid-July.
      Because lodging is scarce within the village proper, most visitors make their way to Palmyra from Rochester, 25 miles to the northwest. The best route is Highway 31, an undivided two-lane road that winds its way east from urban Rochester through suburban Pittsford (home to the many of the area's well-heeled) and on through increasingly rural country. The highway becomes Palmyra's Main Street, which is fully shaded in summer by majestic hardwoods that line the sidewalks.
      Stafford Street is marked as the turn-off for the temple and the Joseph Smith Farm complex, situated about 3 miles south of Main. A chronological tour of church history sites begins at the new Welcome Center, opened in January 2000, where LDS missionaries give visitors an overview of the events that transpired in the area and provide maps for a self-guided tour.
      All sites are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
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The Peter Whitmer farm near Fayette is where the LDS Church was organized. The farmhouse has been reconstructed.

Ravell Call, Deseret News
      Just south of the center sits a reconstructed log cabin on the 100-acre site the Smiths first built along what was then a wagon trail after arriving in Palmyra in 1816. Destroyed more than a century ago, the cabin was reconstructed in painstaking detail once infrared photography identified its location and an archaeological dig was finished. Completed in 1998, it is built of hand-hewn logs caulked with mud and straw, its cedar shingles secured with square-headed nails. Period furniture, dishes and cooking utensils provide the backdrop to imagine country life as the Smiths lived it.
      LDS missionaries discuss their beliefs and lifestyle, then suggest a visit to the Sacred Grove, which is accessed via a paved trail about 200 yards south of the cabin.
      Once in the grove, visitors find well-worn dirt paths through the trees that are long enough to provide a nice stroll and space enough for dozens of visitors to enjoy the peace of the place simultaneously. A variety of spots along the path provide views of the temple, which sits near the top of a small hill to the east.
      Visitors usually speak in hushed tones, reflecting a reverence for the place where in the spring of 1820, the 14-year-old Joseph said he saw God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, who told him they had "a great work" for him to do in restoring the true church to Earth. The grove is especially alluring at dusk, when the temple can be seen lighted through the trees and most visitors have moved on.
      At the entrance to the grove's footpath is the reconstruction of a white frame home where Joseph lived with his family from the time he was 19 until he was 22. A cooper shop has recently been constructed adjacent to the frame home in the same location it once stood. Missionaries take guided tours through the home during daylight hours, explain the significant events that took place there and periodically show visitors Joseph's upstairs bedroom, where he said the angel Moroni first appeared to him following his experience in the grove.
      About three miles southeast of the Farm Complex just off Canandaigua Road stands the Hill Cumorah. The Visitor's Center at the base of the hill details Joseph's repeated visits to a place near the hill's crest, where he said he was led by the angel who showed him the gold plates that would eventually be translated as The Book of Mormon.
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The Angel Moroni monument stands atop the Hill Cumorah.
      The famed Hill Cumorah Pageant has been performed at the base of the hill each summer since 1928 and now draws more than 100,000 visitors annually. Slated July 6,7,10 through 14, 2001, the pageant begins at 9 p.m. and includes hundreds of cast members in a depiction of Christ's visit to the ancient Americas as detailed in The Book of Mormon. The New York Times said the pageant is "performed with the spirit of a George Lucas techno-dazzler and the scope of a Cecil B. DeMille epic." Area civic clubs operate food services on-site prior to each performance during the pageant's weeklong run.
      A paved trail zigzags its way to the top of the hill, where a monument depicts a life-size golden angel Moroni on a stone pillar, surrounded at the base by depictions of events that transpired in early LDS Church history.
      From there, the chronology takes visitors north on Canandaigua Road back to the intersection with Main Street, where the Four Corners churches are located. Turn right at the light to find the restored E.B. Grandin Publishing house at 217 E. Main, also owned and operated by the church. LDS missionaries detail the events surrounding the publication of the first 5,000 copies of The Book of Mormon —considered a companion scripture to the Bible by Latter-day Saints — in March 1830, and show visitors the restored press room and typesetting operation.
      Once outside, visitors can stroll through Main Street's business district or head back toward the Four Corners churches for closer inspection. Just north of Western Presbyterian Church is St. Anne's Catholic Church. Across the street from St. Anne's, a set of stairs leads to an elevated cemetery, where Joseph Smith's younger brother, Alvin, is buried. The religious fervor centered here is further complemented by a historic marker about 30 yards north of the cemetery, marking the site of the first church built in Palmyra.
      Continuing north by car on Maple Avenue, visitors will find Quaker Street, which runs along the Erie Canal's north bank. The canal's completion in 1828 spurred construction of the E.B. Grandin Publishing house, providing a vital and swift transportation link between the small country publisher and more populated areas along the canal route.
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Period furniture, dishes and cooking utensils are inside the reconstructed Peter Whitmer farmhouse, above.
      Turn left on Quaker Street and follow the road for a few miles to find a sign for Lock No. 60 from the old Erie Canal (the present canal was realigned in 1914). Discovered amid swamp land by an area resident in recent years, the lock functioned from 1822 to 1914, and the area has now been restored as an out-of-the-way park with grass and trees suitable for a private picnic, with plenty of climbing opportunities available on the lock's old cement walls and outcroppings.
      Backtrack on Quaker Street to Maple Avenue, and turn left, continuing north to reach the nearby Martin Harris home and farm. Harris was a wealthy farmer and notable figure in LDS Church history who provided the funding for the initial publication of The Book of Mormon. His home is now a private residence, and no tours are available, but a plaque outside the house describes his activities.
      About an hour's drive southwest of Palmyra is the village of Fayette, where a colonial-style LDS chapel and visitors center await visitors to the adjacent Peter Whitmer Farm. Set amid the vast stretches of still-rural farmland, missionaries detail the formal organization of the LDS Church at the farmhouse (a replica has been reconstructed) on April 6, 1830, and during the summertime, visitors can stroll the grounds behind the cabin to see a large vegetable garden under cultivation.
      Though all LDS sites in the Palmyra area are open year-round (other than an occasional temple closure), consider timing a visit based on local weather conditions, which can range from the mid- to upper 90s in midsummer to an average of 29 degrees in December. Much of the touring involves time spent outdoors.

 


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