Gallery of the History of the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society and the adaptive reuse of the Old Copake Falls Church as its Home
(Click on images below to view)
(ABOVE) Two Roeliff Jansen Historical Society visitors consider John Bunyan Bristol's mid-19th Century Painting "View of the Iron Works, Copake Falls:
A painting of the Copake Iron Works, long out of the public eye, by Hillsdale's own Hudson River School Painter:
John Bunyan Bristol (1826 - 1909
Hillsdale's Hudson River School Painter
The fascinating story of an almost forgotten painting, and an important rural church.
At one time, both were nearly lost to history!
(above left & Center)
St. John in the WIlderness in 1930s Postcard and in 2021 (above right) The St. John in the Wilderness rectory
(below) Broadcaster Enoch Squires in the 1950s
An introduction to the broadcast transcript by Judy Whitbeck, August 2023
Dick Barton (a longtime RJHS board member) called me one day in June, probably at the request of Jane Peck, to inquire about the painting of the Iron Works owned by St. John in the Wilderness and if St. John in the Wilderness would consider loaning it to the Roeliff Janson Historical Society museum for their summer event. Since I am Sr. Warden at St. John this year I replied, “ Well, I would need to ask Fr. John Thompson, our rector plus our Vestry before any decisions about loaning the painting can be made.” So, soon after, with an enthusiastic Yes from Fr. John and an unanimous Yes vote of by our vestry members, we contacted Lesley and Nick, (Lesley Doyel is president and her husband Nick Fritsch is a board member of the Roeliff Jansen Historical Society), Dick Barton, Bobby Callahan and Jane Peck. A bit of brainstorming and with Lesley and Nick’s help enticed Mike Fallon of The Copake Auction to make arrangements for their large truck to bring the John Bunyan Bristol painting of the Copake Ironworks out for public view at RJHS, after 20 years behind the scenes gracing the office wall of St John in the Wilderness’s Rectory
A BROADCAST OF WGY
"THE WGY TRAVELER"
AUGUST 25, 1953
(TRANSCRIPT OF BROADCAST)
Hello my friends, this is the story of a little church. Its name is St. JOHN IN THE WILDERNESS. It is located at the village of COPAKE FALLS, N: Y.
The story is that of people too . . . those who built this church in the long ago ... and of later people who found it abandoned, unused and in a state of disrepair, and revived it to the glory of God.
Our broadcast yesterday briefly described TACONIC STATE PARK at Copake Falls. The park. is it spot of notable beauty ... popular with those in search of the refreshing qualities of outdoor fun and relaxation in a setting amid verdant mountains.
Comparatively few of the many who come here for a picnic or a swim or a vacation ever realize that this same spot, more than a hundred years ago was the birthplace of the once-bustling COPAKE IRON WORKS. The "works" included quarries, blast furnace and foundry.
Perhaps as many as 45 miners and their families lived in this iron-mining settlement in the years' following 1846. They had a store and school. Why not a church
The founders of the iron works, as well as most of the miners, were English. In the main they were adherents of the Episcopalian faith.
Hence, on a June Sunday in 1852, a small Episcopal church, built on a knoll overlooking the quarries, was consecrated by the RT. REV. CARLTON CHASE, Bishop of New Hampshire. Bishop Chase gave it the apt and appealing name: St. John in the Wilderness.
It was a simple wooden building, with an exterior of upright boards. Equipped, it cost about $3,000. Plans for its construction came from the drawing board of RICHARD UPJOHN. The great architect used his talents as willingly in planning modest rural missions and chapels as when his pencil shaped TRINITY CHURCH in New York Something of his devout gift went into the making of little St. John in the Wilderness.
Hiram C. Todd, New York attorney, who relocated to Columbia County, was Mr. Squires guide in Copake Falls
One morning last, week, I entered the sanctuary of this Copake Falls church with HIRAM C. TODD, a New York City lawyer who now makes his home in the hills of eastern Columbia County, and is the Senior Warden of St. John's.
"Come into the church and just sit awhile," he said. And soon I knew why he had made that suggestion. I saw the altar with its cross then my eyes glanced upward to the vaulted roof ... and the five arches of oak supporting it. They wandered on to the lancet windows drawing the morning light into the chancel.
The church was empty. Yet, a presence was there ... a feeling of peace... an atmosphere that opens hearts. No cathedral, no matter how large or stately or costly, could have offered more.
The beauty of the little church, at one time a mission in the Berkshire wilderness, grew on me in an abiding way as I continued to sit there. In appearance the edifice remains unaltered. Likely it is the same as visualized by its architect Richard Upjohn more than a century ago. I noticed only two modern touches: an Orgatron... and.. an electric light in the sacristy. The interior is illuminated by candles... 200 of them. On a winter's evening ... at vespers ... What mellow warmth must come from their glow!
My host led me to a plaque on the wall near the old, elevated pulpit. The plaque is a memorial to' the founders of this church: namely, the two men at the helm of the Copake Iron Works venture" and their wives. There is also a fifth name:
FANNY POMEROY CHESBROUGH PECK. Following her name is inscribed a phrase calling her a "Loyal defender of the faith…”
Behind the word "defender" is a captivating story. If it had not been for Mrs. Peck, probably there would be, no St. John in the Wilderness today.
As my host related the story ...
Mrs. Peck was descended from the two families that had started the iron works and founded the church. She moved to a far western state after marrying a priest. Meanwhile, hard times had fallen upon the iron-mining operation. The Episcopalians at Copake Falls had "petered out" in numbers. The church had been taken over by a group of Methodists. Fanny Peck, by this time a widow, returned east to her old home and was shocked to find the Episcopalians swallowed up by the brethren of a different denomination.
In a history of St. John's, published a year ago on the occasion of the church's one-hundredth anniversary Mrs. Peck was described as a frail old lady with a deep attachment to the Episcopal Church." She was not so frail however but what she was able, bless her, to round up what was left of the Episcopalians and lock the door of the church.
The significant thing is . . that she locked the Episcopalians in and the Methodists out! It sounds a bit harsh, but Mrs. Peck was well within her rights. The door did not remain locked for long . . . just long enough for this "frail old lady", by her single-handed zeal, to preserve the church in the faith intended by the founders.
St. John in the Wilderness then acquired the status of a mission. It had its ups and downs. In a sparsely populated area it became a struggle to keep it open. It lost its backbone of membership. In spite of Fanny Peck's valiant stand, church activity declined and ceased altogether in 1927.
Three years later, on the day following Christmas, 1930, the property was transferred to the trustees of the Diocese of Albany. In turn, they sold this extensive property, including the rectory, to the State of New York. The State, as you know by now, converted it into park grounds for all the people to enjoy. The conveyance, by the way, did not include the church building, a slender strip of land around the church, and a small graveyard in a grove at the rear.
All in all, this sounds like the end of the church ... and the finish of my story too. But not quite!
After being abandoned for sixteen years, ST. John in the Wilderness came to lite again in a curious way. REV. ALLEN w. Twenty miles away in Hudson, NY, the Rev. ALLEN W BROWN, then rector of Christ Church in that city, was preparing to take his annual vacation. It as a summer day in 1943. He was in his study making sure that things were left in proper places. A key came to his attention. A tab attached to it identified it as. fitting the lock of front door of St. John in the Wilderness, over at Copake Falls.
Hiram Todd, who related the story to me, also said this, as he guided me around St. John's the other day:
"The re-opening of this church was due to the irrepressible missionary spirit of Father Brown."
In Hudson, Father Brown studied the key a moment, flipped it in his hand, and said to his wife:
"Let's begin our vacation in Copake Falls."
They found St. John's a building fit for a ghost town. Its roof was leaking ... the floor ready to cave in. It was inhabited by bees, birds and bats. With real ministerial oomph, the Browns took hold of brooms and whisked away the moldy dust and cobwebs of an uninterrupted decade and a half.
Father Brown let it be known that the spirit of the church was not dead. He offered pastoral care to those who desired it. Mass was held in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Masted in Copake. The response was noticeable. The Hudson priest squeezed as much time as possible from commitments of his busy city parish, for the awakened mission at Copake Falls. A fellow clergyman, CANON GLYN THOMAS, of St. Paul's, in Kinderhook, also devoted time and effort to St. John in the Wilderness. There were others, too, who helped to revitalize this long dormant church.
As of five years ago, the church was reunited with the Diocese of Albany as a regular parish. In 1948, the' REV. GERALD BLISS became its rector, its first resident rector in 80 years. After five years of service, he was called to another charge. Early this month, the REV. FREDERIC J. EASTMAN was installed as pastor.
In my brief encounter with St. John in the Wilderness, I am impressed by the gumption of its parishioners. Sizeable sums have been raised for reconstruction purposes. The leaky roof was repaired, a new floor was installed. The church bell had been removed because of a rickety, hazardous tower. It was rehung in a sturdy new belfry and now calls the faithful to worship.
In many instances, donations were prompted by the kind of spirit that money cannot buy. The men of the parish volunteered to grade the rough approach to the church. With shovels and pick axes, they prepared the road and parking area for blacktop surfacing. This they did as a centennial project.
The women of the parish have been as quick as the men to demonstrate a similar spirit. By her own hand, MRS. CHARLES LENT- I understand, made a beautiful Centennial banner... of blue Silk, with a white shield and gold fringe.
From the wedding gown of MRS. PETER MALEVSKY-MALEVITOH came white brocaded silk converted into hangings for the altar, prayer desk and lectern.
For the last six years MR. AND MRS. J. STERLING WYCKOFF have provided church bulletins, printing them on a press at home. This has been a work of art, performed in the spirit of service and devotion.
Mr.LOUIS BOLAIR, one of the oldest members of the parish and its beloved church sexton, known to all as “Bolero", carefully fashioned an alms box. His handiwork now graces the church wall.
The list of gifts is a long one too-long to announce in full. One item that intrigued me was the cleaning and restoration by MRS. HARRIET HARVEY of an old oil painting.
The painting is a landscape depicting St. John's and the Copake Iron Works as they looked in the founding days.
The scene was captured on canvas in the late 1850s by JOHN BUNYON BRISTOL. who, I am told, figured in a minor way with the so named and celebrated Hudson River "school of art."
His painting measured five feet in length by three-and-a-half. Even of that size, it was lost ... and remained lost . for many years. It was resurrected in a most unusual way.
My host, Mr. Todd, is one of those men who become absorbed in local lore. It is his plan to prepare a pictorial history of the Bash Bish territory around Copake Falls. In his search, he got on the track of a batch of old photographic plates stored in a Hillsdale attic. As the result of months of patient effort, he finally persuaded the owner to bring the plates down from the garret.
While examining these plates, he noticed that one was a negative taken of an oil painting. Plainly the painting disclosed St. John in the Wilderness surrounded by active operations of the iron mine in its early days. Thereupon Mr. Todd began a search for the original work of Bristol the artist.
He learned that the painting had hung in the house of one of the mine owners. Later, this house became a summer camp for underprivileged children of New York City. Still later, it was torn down.
With the sleuthing spirit of a Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Todd tramped from one dead end to another in the alleyways of Time. The contractor who had charge of tearing down the house was now dead. Finally, he located a carpenter who had worked on that house wrecking job of many years ago.
The carpenter remembered the painting. He vaguely recalled that it had been stored in the loft of a building within a five-minute walk of the church. It did not take long after that for Mr. Todd to snift it out.
It was covered with grime. Mrs. Harvey carefully restored much of its original luster and color.
Thus reclaimed from the past, the long-lost painting now hangs on a wall of the rectory. It is regarded as a treasure of the parish
Somehow ... and somewhere . .. perhaps
Fanny Peck is shifting the spectacles on her nose to get a closer look at some ethereal picture of St. John in the Wilderness as it is today ... a live and active church of 118 members. If this be true, that "loyal defender of the faith" is no doubt pleased by what she sees.
WHO WAS ENOCH SQUIRES?
Enoch Squires was born on March 24th, 1909 at Diamond Point in Lake George, New York. He began his career in radio in 1929 as a radio columnist for the Buffalo Evening News, and worked for several stations across the United States before being hired by WGY in 1953. There, he was best known for his work as the “Schenectady Traveler,” logging over 3,000 miles each month to gather the audio footage for the weekday show.
The New York State Museum’s collection contains nearly 400 reel-to-reel audio recordings of the “Schenectady Traveler,” donated to the museum in 1979 by Squires’ widow. Squires left WGY in 1961 to work as a research associate for the New York State Civil War Centennial Commission.
Transcript provided by Jane Peck. Special thanks to Senior Warden: Judy Whitbeck, Jane Peck and The Rev. John P. Thompson, Rector, St. John in the Wilderness
MOVING THE PAINTING FROM THE RECTORY OF
ST. JOHN IN THE WILDERNESS
A) Bob Callahan discusses painting still hanging in the Rectory,
B) Mike Fallon of the Copake Auction House, considers the structural condition of the 19th-century stretcher and frame,
C) Moving the painting onto the truck
D) The painting placed in the RJHS museum for display in this summer's exhibition, "The First 40..."
Read a terrific article about
Hillsdale's own Hudson River School painter John Bunyan Bristol
(1826 - 1909)
from the Hillsdale Historians
Lauren Letellier and Chris Atkins
LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS SUBJECT!
THE HEAVENLY REST CONNECTION with Jim Mackin WATCH VIDEO
To begin to delve into the the full story about the people and circumstances behind the dedication of "View of the Copake Iron Works", by John B. Bristol, you'll want to see this video lecture!