The cool morning air, the silence of which was broken only by the sound of footsteps crackling through the thicket and the quiet babble of Burrell’s Creek, filled George Cayward’s lungs as he methodically made his way up a small rise on the north end of his land. A group of deer momentarily stood still before galloping off to safety as he tried to gain his bearings, for the land he and the other settlers had come to call home was heavily covered with tall hardwoods of many varieties, as well as thickets of vines and smaller bushes, often making it no small task to figure exactly where one stood. George knew the “English Settlement” (Hall) was not far to the east, and often heard musket fire farther to the north. He set his own rifle down against a tall pine near the top of the knoll and looked at its evenly layered branches. One by one he grabbed the limbs and ascended into the greenery until he was high enough to see the whole lay of the land. Sure enough, smoke could be seen rising through the trees about two miles to the east, and a few other columns of smoke were about twice as far to the northeast. He thought this to be as good a place as any to build and began his climb downward.
After he donated the land, Cayward and other local pioneers (with names such as Burrell, Stokoe, Hall, Robson, Sutherland, and Wilson), who saw a need for a church and a centrally located meeting place, built the original log house up the knoll to the west of where the church now stands. The structure had a composition similar to many of the early homes in the area. Without modern equipment, one can only imagine the manual labor involved in such a task. Many local houses still have original hand-hewn beams from that era, but log sides eventually gave way to clapboard once the time and resources became available.
The Log Meeting House served as a location for early Methodist circuit riders who, beginning in 1806-1807, served the Lyons circuit, which ran through the land in and around Yates County. These Methodist circuit riders were men who traveled as preachers of the Wesleyan faith when there was a need to cover large, sparsely populated areas. Early records show the Methodist membership to be about 40 at that location, and these services took place until about 1830, when the community moved the church about three miles farther west to Gorham. For several years after that, the log meeting house was not used and fell into disrepair.
Then, in 1862, a half-acre from the Cayward farm below the log house was deeded for the purpose of erecting a new Methodist church. However, the trustees had discretionary powers to allow preaching of the Christian faith of any or all denominations. After receiving donations of money and labor, it was decided the new building should be a union church, thus the name Little Union Church. Completed in 1863, the same year the battle of Gettysburg was fought, it appears today almost as it did then.
The white church has two front doors – one each for men and women as they were separated inside. This practice, though outdated in most churches today, is still practiced in local Mennonite churches. A partition running straight up the middle of the room separates their respective pews, and in the rear of the church they are raised higher than the others for the choir and other good singers. An original bible dated 1863 rests on the pulpit, and the weather vane, given by William Stokoe, still sits atop the steeple. According to records, the original steeple was too small and the taller one seen today was built over it. For heat, two chunk stoves were installed at the back corners of the church with flue pipes that run above the pews. Next to these stoves are benches from the original log house. Lighting was accomplished with oil lamps hung from the ceiling and walls, a modern amenity of that era.
The Little Union Church never had a regular minister. Local ministers from the area would take turns conducting services, and this practice went on until the turn of the century. Since then, the church has been used for Easter services, funerals, and weddings. The Last Will and Testament of one James Blake, the owner of a farm just north of the church in the late 1800’s, left $1,000 to the Log Meeting House Corporation for the upkeep of the church and the cemetery where he and his family members were laid to rest. This occurred in 1892 and, adjusted for inflation, would today be a considerably higher amount. Many of the local inhabitants, once responsible for the building and maintenance of the property, are buried in the cemetery behind the church. Today, hard work and money taken in for plots help keep the property in a fine state of preservation. Several of the original pioneer families have plots with extended family members buried together. Some of these older gravestones are severely worn, while others have been replaced or are still readable. One impressive stone for the Wilson family sits on the knoll behind the church. It is a four-sided stone that is approximately three feet at the base and tapers to a point about twenty feet high. More recent graves are to the north of the older ones, with available plots in a grassy area farther away. At the extreme north end of the cemetery is a row of silver maple trees planted in 1989 to commemorate the surrounding Town of Seneca’s 200th birthday.
Some events that have occurred in the last fifty years are Old Home Day in 1957, when some two hundred forty people assembled to pay tribute to the founders of the church and to gather in friendship and fellowship. In 1963, a 100th anniversary celebration once again opened the doors of the Little Church. Later, in the summer of 1973, then-pastor Gary Shaffer of the United Church of Hall held early morning services.
Recently, the property has undergone a few changes. Some of the large maple trees close to the building have been removed under the guidance of Bob Robson, who, together with his father, Walter Robson, has eighty-two years of service in taking care of the Little Church and its cemetery. Also, the church has been re-sided and the front steps and entryway were refurbished. However, these changes have not taken away the historic nature of the property, and one could easily go back a hundred years while standing inside the church. Perhaps this is the reason why weddings are still held there each year. No better setting could be found for a simple, old-fashioned country wedding service.
In the heart land of the Finger Lakes, near the dividing high ground between Canandaigua and Seneca Lakes, stands a plain white, four-sided, neatly-kept structure known as the Little Church. The name ‘little’ merely describes the physical size of the building, but in no way indicates the rich history associated with the property. Beginning in 1807 with the original Log Meeting House until today’s Little Church, the land given by the Caywards has been home to town meetings, classes, church services, and weddings. Yet, these are just the events that occurred. Much of history tends to focus on significant happenings, but the real stories are hidden in the lives of the individuals who took part in it. In a sense, Little Church represents the “little” story of Finger Lakes history. Yet in my eyes, in its plain, humble, no-frills manner, the story is the biggest part of our history – the part where men and women sacrifice everything for new opportunities and endure the hardships of long arduous journeys and years of going without that we generally cannot understand; the part where people built a life with their own hands, hearts, and minds, and remembered to give something back so future generations would have some grasp of what had gone before; and most of all, the part their faith played in everyday life, as many of the first settlers in western New York came to practice religious freedom. The Little Church stands as a reminder of those people and gives us a bearing on how we might live simply today in a world that has become ever more complicated. From the first sound of a farmer’s axe hitting a tree to the hum of a mower neatly trimming the cemetery lawn, we are connected by the thread of almost two hundred years of life in the Finger Lakes.
by Mark T. Santoro, photographs by Linda Bombard
Mark Santoro lives near the village of Hall with his wife and two children. Linda Bombard has multiple photographic contributions to this issue.