Cudmore: A church that refused to die

Circa-1793 structure is home to Charlston Historical Society

Radio and television executive Edythe Meserand left New York City in 1952 and moved with her companion and fellow media professional Jane Barton to Windy Hill, a Christmas tree farm on Esperance Road in the town of Charleston.

Meserand started an ad agency and became well known to Capital Region broadcasters such as Boom Boom Brannigan, Betty George and Lloyd Smith. Meserand later embarked on another project: historic preservation.

In the 1970s Meserand became town historian and in 1978 founded the Charleston Historical Society.

The historical society’s home is Charleston’s former First Baptist Church on Polin Road, built in 1793, when George Washington was president. It was renovated in the 1850s. 

The ancestors of Ila Grandy Phillips were early members of the church. Phillips wrote in a college paper in 1943, “The white church in the clearing with its sheds for the horses, its old-fashioned box stove and kerosene lights maintained a steady place in the community.”

Phillips added that this Baptist church became the Mother Church of later institutions in Rural Grove, Four Corners, Randall, Johnstown and Amsterdam.

Dwindling membership starting in the 1940s led to the church’s closing in 1955. The abandoned building was severely damaged over the decades by vandals. Thieves stole the church bell and a pulpit chair.

The Charleston Historical Society bought the building from the American Baptist Convention for $1,500 in 1978. Volunteers began the renovation.

In a history of the restoration, Meserand wrote that in 1978 the church was in sad shape, “The pulpit was shattered and the debris on the floor was three feet high.”

Then-County Historian Anita Smith advised Meserand that restoration might be impossible. But Meserand said the building itself “seemed to smile and say ‘thank you’ for every shovelful of nastiness we took out.” She said it was “a church that refused to die.”

The restoration united the local community. Bricks were needed to repair the chimney. Trustee Anna Caird heard from a dairy in Fultonville that had just lost one of its brick buildings to a fire. The Charleston historical volunteers picked up the bricks at no cost, wrote Meserand, “except our own physical effort, sooty hands and clothes, and tired backs.”

The original pastor of the church in 1793 was Reverend Elijah Herrick. In 1978 his descendant, Herold Herrick of Cranford, New Jersey, came to Charleston and expressed his gratitude to the volunteers.

It took 2,100 hours of work done primarily by ten volunteers to make the church ready for a public dedication in June 1983 as the building became the home of the Charleston Historical Society. Two hundred attended. 

WRGB/WGY reporter Jack Aernecke, master of ceremonies, said according to a newspaper account: “At last we seem to be entering an age of progress with thoughtful renovation instead of the recent age of tearing down and building something new.” Paul Tonko, then a state assemblyman said: “You are making history by preserving history.”

In 1986 an unknown person returned the pulpit chair that had been stolen from the church to Meserand and Barton’s home at Windy Hill Farm. 

The former church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. When Edythe Meserand died in 1997 her calling hours were held at the restored 18th century building. Jane Barton died in 2005.

Current Charleston Historical Society chairperson Patricia Prill said the organization today has some 65 members. The church was painted last year. Windows were restored by Alden Witham of Sharon Springs and new shutters made by an Amish carpenter have been installed. New members and contributions are welcome. For information call 518 829 7592.

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News

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