Millbrook Historical Society’s Annual Tea steeped in Smithfield area history

Presenting the rich history of The Smithfield Church was Kevin T. McEneaney, Clerk of the Council governing the church.

Leila Hawken

Millbrook Historical Society’s Annual Tea steeped in Smithfield area history

AMENIA — Grounded in a heritage that saw settlers come to a corner within the fertile fields of the Smithfield Valley, The Smithfield Church welcomed the Historical Society of Millbrook to savor the history of the church dating to 1742, its Greek Revival architecture, and cemetery.

The Thursday, June 20, event was the occasion of the historical society’s annual tea, held in a different historical location each year to give its members a deeper view of area history.

Millbrook Historical Society President Robert McHugh led off the program with a welcome to historical society members and the broader audience that included several church members and friends.

The program was in three parts, an overview history of The Smithfield Church that began as a Presbyterian church in 1742, long before the present building, erected in 1846, stood along Smithfield Valley Road. Poet Kevin T. McEneaney, who serves as Clerk of the Church Council, began with a history of the pre-Revolutionary land purchases, Moravian influences, and the eventual establishment of a Greek Revival meeting house at the location of the present church building.

Local architect Darlene Riemer, instrumental in the recent project to restore the church’s foundation and its columns, gave a short talk about the interior features of the present building and their significance. A brief history of the church’s cemetery by cemetery President Robert Riemer capped off the program.

The first settler in the area arrived around 1702, McEneaney said, having purchased 7,500 acres from the colonial government. He built his farmhouse along Wassaic Creek within the Oblong area, the disputed land between Connecticut and New York State.

Around 1740, two Mohican native Americans living in cabins in Shekomeko were converted by a Moravian missionary, Christian Henry Rauch, from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The Mohicans had traveled to New York City attempting to settle land disputes and met Rauch, inviting him to visit them in Shekomeko. Before long, they were converted to Christianity.

The influence of Christianity continued to underpin area life.

A religious society was formed in 1742 by the Smith family who owned the surrounding farmland and determined that the society should become a community, likely within the Presbyterian tradition because the Smith family originated in Wales.

That society within The Smithfield Church has remained an entity for 282 years and continues to meet annually on the last Sunday in January.

Architect of record for the church’s restoration, Darlene Riemer, spoke of the building designed by noted nineteenth-century architect Nathaniel Lockwood, favoring Greek Revival style.

“Greek Revival is my favorite architectural style,” Riemer said, describing the perfection of the Greek “Golden Section” ratio that brings a sense of quiet, along with perfect acoustics under a 20-foot ceiling from which hangs the original whale oil chandelier.

Pointing to the original Moravian Red shade of interior wall paint, Riemer noted that the red suggests nobility, while the accompanying yellow ochre implies the ordinary. The black band striped near the ceiling was originally liquid mercury that turns black with age, but now the black band is simply black paint.

The dentals, made of plaster, are precisely spaced by the width of two fingers, Riemer said.

The whale oil chandelier would be lowered by rope for refilling and soot removal, as the burning of whale oil produced considerable soot. The rope was moored in the attic space, Riemer said. Once the chandelier was electrified in the 20th century, the rope was permanently secured in the attic by filling a Coon Brothers Farm milk can with cement. That system remains, Riemer said.

Presenting a brief history of the Smithfield Cemetery across the street from the church, Robert Riemer said that the cemetery began as the Smith family burial ground, measuring two acres with stone wall on two sides.

The cemetery now measures four acres, with New York State regulations allowing three burials in each plot, but two of them need to be cremations.

Riemer said that he and Darlene first came to Amenia in 1957, having purchased 5 acres for $5,000 to build their home, expecting to stay only five years. They have now resided on that land for nearly 70 years.

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