story and photos by James P. Hughes
In 1945 regional writer Arch Merrill hailed Palmyra as the “Grand Dame of the Towpath” and “a breath from the long ago.” Prolific author Samuel Hopkins Adams used Palmyra as the symbolic setting for his intriguing 1944 novel Canal Town. Today an air of “Clinton’s Ditch” still hovers over the stately village that grew up along the once bustling Erie Canal. It’s evident in the grandeur of Palmyra’s period architecture, shops and boutiques, and even the village’s narrow side streets that slope past historic brick and frame buildings to the water’s edge.
Busy Then…Busy Now
The era of the Erie Canal was an active time, and Palmyra continues to be a lively place. It seems there’s always something going on in town. The village celebrates with traditional Christmas, Memorial Day, and Fourth of July events, but that only scratches the surface. There is an old fashioned ice cream social, bargain hunting at a community-wide garage sale, and every August the village plays host to the Wayne County Fair, an event that traces its roots to 1849.
In mid-August Palmyra Pirate Weekend provides (as one person puts it) a time for “merriment, nostalgia, and nonsense.” Along with vendors and music, there’s a pirate window painting contest, a parade led by a blaring kazoo band, and the “Pillage ‘N the Village” bed race regatta. Family-friendly fun continues in September when thousands attend Palmyra Canaltown Days, a festival with something for everyone: grand parade, antique car show, horse drawn wagon rides, flea market, art and craft shows, live music, and more. The celebration is a village tradition going back a half-century.
Scattered in between major events are periodic pastimes that bring local folks together like Movies in the Park, open-air music concerts, and Halloween’s Trick or Treat on Main Street. Things slow down a bit during the winter, but there’s always cross country skiing along the canal path and occasionally “curling on the Erie.” Yes, curling…that Scottish-born, shuffleboard-like game contested in the Olympics. When weather permits, curling competitions and instruction take place on the iced-over canal.
Religious Legend and Legacy
The eye-catching features of church architecture are displayed during any Finger Lakes excursion: brick, stone, spired, columned, and elegant. Palmyra’s churches claim all of these, enhanced even further with a few twists. At the intersection of state routes 21 and 31, almost at village center, sit four graceful churches (Episcopal, Fellowship Bible, Methodist, and Presbyterian), one at each corner. This oddity occurs less than a dozen times around the world, and in Palmyra it’s believed to be the only such convergence of “four corner” churches in the United States.
An aura of religious history floats above the countryside at the southern outskirts of the village. A splendid marble temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints graces a wooded hillside overlooking a pastoral farm, an early home of Joseph Smith Jr. It was there in the 1820s that young Smith claimed to have experienced visions leading to his discovery of “golden plates,” encounters that established him as a prophet and founder of the Mormon faith.
Today, the Smith Farm is overseen by the LDS church. Visitors can tour the site viewing replicas of the farm’s earliest log cabin and later frame farmhouse, then wander through the Sacred Grove where Joseph received his vision – locations where an enduring religious movement began.
In the center of downtown Palmyra stands the carefully restored Grandin Building, the site where in 1830 Smith arranged to have his translation of the plates printed, bound, and sold as the Book of Mormon. The publication would become the sacred text of the Latter-day Saint movement.
A few miles south of Palmyra sits Hill Cumorah, the fabled drumlin where Joseph Smith is said to have been directed to the golden plates by a “holy messenger,” the Angel Moroni. Each year since 1937, the Hill Cumorah Pageant has presented a dramatization of Smith’s discovery of the plates and the events translated from them into the Book of Mormon. It is a magnificent hillside spectacle with a cast of hundreds, vibrant costumes, and striking special effects. The multi-stage pageant plays out to a crowd of thousands for each of its seven performances in July.
Interact with History
Conservation of a community’s rich past does not happen by accident. As mentioned, the LDS church maintains and promotes the many significant sites relating to the founding of the Mormon faith. A dedicated society, Historic Palmyra, oversees an array of events, programs, and five distinctive museums aimed at preserving the village’s historical and architectural heritage.
The Palmyra Historical Museum, once a hotel and tavern, spreads its extensive collection through 23 themed rooms. The William Phelps Store dates back to Erie Canal days and is described as “a curious retail time capsule,” one that leaves a visitor “frozen in time.” Museum buffs can also tour the 19th century Palmyra Print Shop, the 1830s Erie Canal Depot, and the Alling Coverlet Museum. The Alling collection features looms, spinning wheels, and the largest assemblage of early hand-woven coverlets in the country dating from the 1790s to the 1870s.
Evidence of the Erie Canal’s golden era is scattered throughout Palmyra’s Aqueduct Park. The Canalway Trail passes through the park and over its aqueduct’s original stone work. A path leads over an iron bow-stringed truss bridge that once crossed the canal. The classic 74-footer designed by Squire Whipple (“the father of iron bridge building”) dates to the mid-19th century and is one of the oldest surviving bridges of its type in the country. The spacious park is a great place to hike or bike, go fishing, enjoy a picnic or just relax.
Residents of Palmyra are proud of their town and more than willing to introduce its many positives to guests. Docking facilities at the Port of Palmyra Marina have been recently updated to welcome boaters with lighted slips, electric hookups, and pumping stations. A local group of volunteers, Harbor Hosts, stands ready to present visitors with relevant brochures, chat about local history, and give directions to nearby restaurants and shops. Striving to go that extra mile when needed, they’ve driven folks to a pharmacy for an Rx refill or to a vet for a pet emergency. One out-of-towner, an avid fisherman, was particularly impressed and appreciative. “I was driven to a local spot where I found just the right bait…now that’s service!”
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