If the walls of Fort Herkimer Church could talk, they would certainly have many stories to tell. What began as a modest one-story structure in 1753 now stands as an impressive historical marker that continues to draw visitors and quietly remind us of a past that cannot be forgotten.
Throughout the centuries since its original construction, the church has aged and changed commensurate with the many men, women, and children who it originally served and who are now considered pioneers of the Mohawk Valley. Between 1812 and 1814, the church underwent renovations to accommodate a growing congregation of these settlers. A second story was also added with balcony seating at this time. In addition, the original entrance was closed, an entrance and storm shelter were placed in the west end, and a pulpit was installed at the head of the building.
No major changes have been made to the church’s internal or external structure until 1976 when a major restoration project began following an extensive study and archeological survey. The project has been financed by government grants and individual contributions. The renovation and restoration continues today as funds become available.
In particular, a project is currently underway to restore the main pulpit and canopy to its original painting with all of its original bright and vivid colors. The first step is to remove the white paint that was likely applied during the turn of the century to cover the badly deteriorating original paint. Next, restoration specialists are painstakingly matching colors to what originally existed and reapplying the paint. The church is currently applying for grants to assist with the painting restoration.
In addition, the church is being repointed, which involves removing the old mortar and cement between the stones and inserting lime mortar to reseal the areas. Two of the four walls have been repointed; however, the two remaining walls still need to go through this process to avoid cracking and leaking water through the deteriorating structure.
As eluded to above, in December 1975, a Historic Structure Report published by the architectural firms of Mendel, Mesick and Cohen of Albany, NY recommended several internal and external structural improvements designed to restore the church to a serviceable condition. The New York State Parks and Recreation Commission awarded a matching grant to help the church carry out the first phase of these improvements, which included the construction of a drainage ditch along the south wall of the church to prevent further damage to the foundation and the removal of the floor boards to create an air space preventing added deterioration.
As part of these improvements, an archeological study was also conducted during the spring of 1976. The study provides an interesting glimpse into the church’s past and how community members may have used it. For example, a large amount of cultural debris was found inside the church’s walls. This suggests the church may have been used for purposes other than worship. The sizable quantity of bone remains, midden feature, and ceramic inventory all suggest there may have been an extended occupation.
The specific artifacts found suggest the occupation could have occurred either while the church was threatened with an Indian attack (during the late 1750s) or during the Revolutionary War. For example, a 1749 copper half penny and coarse earthenware with a Rhenish motif point to an occupation during the French and Indian War, while the presence of porcelain fragments, a large quantity of bent nails, and purple and blue tin-glazed pottery shards suggest an occupation during the Revolutionary War.
To learn more about making a contribution to the restoration efforts, contact Kenneth W. Palmer, Fort Herkimer Church Board of Commissioners Treasurer, at 19 Walnut Street, Mohawk, NY 13407 or (315) 866-6253.