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The Church at Caughnawaga

Local church has 250 years of history

September 14, 2008
By RICHARD NILSEN, The Leader-Herald

FONDA - Johnstown isn't alone in celebrating 250 years of existence - the First Dutch Reformed Church of Caughnawaga began in 1758, also.

Now called the Fonda Reformed Church, the Rev. Christopher De Graaf said a number of previous pastors of the church are coming back for a series of Sundays to help celebrate the church's history.

"Before it was Fonda, the village was called Caughnawaga," De Graaf said Thursday. "The earliest church records we can find have the date 1758."

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Richard Nilsen
An artist’s rendering of the “Old Caughnawaga Church” appears framed in the Fonda Reformed Church vestibule Thursday.

Parishioner Jack Adams was outside the church's 19 Broadway address doing yard work and helping raise some sunken sidewalk to "spruce up" the church Thursday.

"It's a good, close, friendly church," Adams said.

He's been a member since 1959, nearly 20 percent of the church's existence.

"This is the church's third location," De Graaf said. "The church first was built on the east end of town as the First Dutch Reformed Church of Caughnawaga, then it was rebuilt across the railroad tracks behind the present post office at the intersection of Center and Railroad streets in 1843."

A state historical marker and stone with embedded plaques sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1910 mark the original site of the church along Route 5.

The Rev. Thomas Romeyn, "the first settled minister of any denomination in the state west of Schenectady" is buried there. He was pastor from 1772 to 1794. A stone plaque in Romeyn's memory also is in the church auditorium.

According to a church history on its Web site, the railroad made meetings too noisy and the church building was moved across the tracks to its present location on Broadway in 1869.

De Graaf said the congregation is taking the opportunity of the anniversary to "look back, see who we are today and see what God has for us in the future."

One way the parishioners are looking back is by having previous pastors come back to speak for a Sunday series this fall.

The Rev. Jack Millard got his start at Fonda where he served 12 years before going to the Johnstown Reformed Church for more than 28 years.

"More than 40 years at two churches is practically unheard of," Millard said from his home in Holland, Mich. Friday. "I'm glad to come back and celebrate with them."

Millard said at age 70 he thought he was the oldest pastor to return to the church as part of the celebration.

"Someone asked me if I was the founding pastor there," Millard said with a laugh. "Fonda Reformed was my first church and helped me to grow. I really appreciate them there."

Millard will speak at the church Oct. 12. Other former pastors returning will include Jay Hine Sept. 21, Will Daniels, Sept. 28, Karen Patterson, Oct. 5, Ken Eriks, Oct. 19 and Wesley Ganberg-Michelson Oct. 26.

De Graaf has been at the church six years. He said it is part of the "Schoharie Classis" group of 15 reformed churches that stretch across several counties.

"Churches were formed within walking and horseback distance," De Graaf said. "The reason there was a Fultonville and Fonda church so close together was because the ferry across the Mohawk was unreliable and the problem with crossing in winter."

Of particular interest, he said, is the account of moving the church building across the railroad tracks to its present location. The church's Web site, www.fondareformedchurch.com, has a history link with the following account of how the church crossed those tracks:

"By 1868, the church was becoming dilapidated and improvements were necessary. The building was too small, the noise of the trains was annoying, the crossing of the railroad was dangerous.

"A meeting of the pew owners, pew holders and members of the congregation was held Sept. 15, 1868 at which time it was decided to remove the church building to a lot on the corner of Broadway and Prospect Street.

"Large rollers were placed under the building and strong chains fastened to it and then to a large capstan and sweep. A horse hitched to this sweep and driven round and round, winding the chain around the drum, moved the church along. When the entire length of chain was wound around the drum, the chain was unwound, the capstan and sweep moved ahead and the operation repeated.

"In this way, the church was moved into Center Street, along the street back of the jail, turning the corner of the street that leads to the railroad. Notice was given the congregation to be on hand Sunday morning to move it across the railroad. Between 10 and 11 [a.m.], an order was given to halt the trains, the telegraph wires were taken down.

"So careful were they, that the plaster inside was not cracked. After it was across the tracks, the people went to church. This was the Sunday after Thanksgiving."

De Graaf said buying a pew for reserved seating was an old tradition to make sure a family had good seating and helped stabilize revenue for the church. He has two of the original pew doors to be displayed during the celebration that had been stored in the attic of the Old Fort Johnson Historic Site.

The history available on the church Web site describes early pews:

"The pews were high and square and had a door at the end. After the persons entered and the door was closed it was like a small room."

Although records of the church go back to 1758, the church itself was not built until 1763. It was the first Low Dutch Reformed Church west of Schenectady and the congregation was organized soon after the year 1754.

The original church was without a bell until the property of Sir William Johnson was sold during the American Revolution. Then the former dinner bell of Sir William Johnson was bought by several male members of the congregation and carried on a pole by friendly Native Americans, according to the church's history. The bell weighed about 100 pounds and the inscription on it read: "Sir William Johnson, Baronet" 1774, made by Miller & Bros. in Elizabethtown. The same bell eventually was melted down and serves as a plaque at Old Fort Johnson today.

At first the church was supplied by the pastor of the Dutch Church at Schenectady, the Rev. Barent Vrooman officiating. Both preaching and records were in Dutch.

The plaque commemorating the church at the original site also is in both Dutch and English.

Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at ga@leaderherald.com.

 
 

 

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