Palmyra – Queen of Canal Towns

An old postcard depicting Main Street of Palmyra, looking east. Photo courtesy Bonnie Hays

You know you’re in Palmyra when you see the famous four churches. Located at the intersection of Routes 31 and 21, they were featured in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” newspaper column in 1938.

But this village has far more to offer the visitor. Like the churches themselves, its Main Street skyline looks remarkably like it did in the 19th century. Palmyra managed to escape, unscathed for the most part, the architectural bloodbath known as “urban renewal” in the 1960s. And a recent renovation project added new curbing, old-fashioned brick walkways and light poles, and more trees, benches and flower planters.

Today, it’s more family-friendly than ever. You can park the car, and walk from the shops on Main Street, to the Historic District, to the Erie Canal, all within a few blocks of each other.

Where History Comes Alive
“History does come alive in the Village of Palmyra,” says Mayor Vicky Daly. “You can visit the shops and restaurants and be greeted with the warmth, courtesy and service of another era.”

Walk a few blocks east of the churches and you’ll come to the village’s five museums. The Alling Coverlet Museum on William Street features the largest collection of handwoven coverlets in the country. The Historic Print Shop, Palmyra’s newest museum, is on nearby Market Street. Next door stands the Palmyra Historic Museum, built in 1826 as a tavern and boarding house, with 23 rooms. This is where history is hands-on. The kids can get upclose and personal with the past, and learn how it connects to their world today.

“This is something everybody can relate to,” says Bonnie Hays, director of Historic Palmyra. “There are dominoes and checkers from the 1800s. The kids get to try on hats and clothes, play with the toys, and realize that people are still the same.”

Upstairs, you will find rooms with individual themes, like the Military Room (with hardtack that’s very hard after all these years), Women’s Room, Toy Room, and Tool Room. Perhaps the scariest is the Doctor’s Room, with the medical instruments on display. The herbal remedies doctors used years ago are coming back into style now with the popularity of holistic cures. Once again, the past and the present overlap.

Sybil and the Phelps Store
The museum with the most “personality” in Palmyra is the Phelps General Store, just next door. The personality is Sybil Phelps herself, only child of Julius, who ran the business from 1905 until 1940. Built in 1826, it was last updated in the 1880s.

“He (Julius) never moved, changed, repaired, or painted anything,” says Bonnie Hays. In 1940, when he decided to close, he just locked the door and left everything as it was, which is what you see today. You’ll recognize the names of many of the products on the shelves: Tide, Velveeta, Arm & Hammer, Heinz Pickles and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Beware the eggs. They were fresh back in 1940 when Julius left them there on the counter in their carton where they sit today.

Back to Sybil. After an early attempt to become an actress in New York, she returned to Palmyra and the spacious two-story home above the store. After her father’s death, she lived there without electricity or running water with her 15 cats until her death at age 81 in 1976.

When you visit, listen for Sybil’s footsteps on the stairs, or the unexplained creaking of a door. Is that a cat’s meow you hear? According to Hays, Sybil and her cats are still a very strong presence in the Phelps Store.

“Sybil was quite a lady,” says Hays. “And today, she’s the star of her own story.”

E.B. Grandin Prints the Book of Mormon
Back on Main Street stands another historical treasure, the Grandin Building, publication site of the Book of Mormon. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acquired the property in 1979.

Tours guide you through the printing process of the early 1800s. All the equipment on display is either original or an authentic replica, and it all works.

“I have personally printed on it,” says Elder Norman Mayes of the LDS Church Historic Sites. “People are interested in the Grandin Building for its historical interest. History is very important to us.”

It took two years to print and bind the first 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon, at a cost of $3,000. This was a huge undertaking, and required a staff of 10 to 12 working 12 hour days, six days a week. The job was not shipped off to Rochester, but handled locally, an example of Palmyra’s prominence in the business world in those years.

“It’s amazing what the process entailed to print a book!” says Bryon Andreasen, visiting from Springfield, Illinois. “What the Erie Canal allowed a community like this to do was something you would expect from New York City.”

You can still see the original ink stains on the third floor, along with wooden typeset boxes so popular today as curio shelves. The second floor houses the bindery, where it took one hour to sew and glue each book, after which it was hand-stenciled in gold letters.

On the first floor, you step into Grandin’s bookstore and circulating library. He sold popular books of the day—biographies of Ben Franklin and George Washington, essays on theology, and histories of the American Revolution. He stocked items like maps, games, pens,
pencils and ink. The cozy little shop is not very different from our bookstores today.

Back to the Present
All that history can make you hungry, thirsty and ready to return to the modern world. Stroll through the shops and restaurants in the village and see what else Palmyra has to offer.

A modern “print” shop uses computers and copiers to spit out documents, some in color, while you wait. Two book stores give you choices, from vintage, rare and collectible editions, to modestly priced used books, to hot-off-the-press new ones. This is the place to buy books on local history, especially the Erie Canal and Mormon Church.

Restaurant fare includes pizza, hamburgers, veggie wraps, Chinese, and more. Eat in or take out and enjoy a picnic in the village park, shaded by elegant old trees. For dessert, try gourmet coffee with fresh baked goods, or ice cream and homemade fudge. The kids might like some retro style treats that their parents will remember from the penny candy days. It’s all available right on Main Street.

If you’ve been inspired by the Alling Coverlet Museum, visit a quilt shop and start a project of your own. Or bring home a piece of the past from one of Palmyra’s antique shops.

The Erie Canal
Of course, you might not even be enjoying Palmyra at all if it weren’t for that 19th century feat of engineering: the Erie Canal. Dedicated in 1825, it opened up western New York to commerce as merchandise was shipped east and west faster and cheaper than ever before.

Today, we look to the canal to slow down our hectic pace rather than speed it up, as its tranquil, bucolic setting can soothe even the most frazzled nerves. Walk north one block from Historic Palmyra and down the wooden walkway. You’re at the new Palmyra Marina, complete with picnic tables and information kiosk.

Hike the Palmyra Wetland Nature Trail, with access a block north of the four churches. This easy, one-mile, self-guided loop gives you a chance to watch turtles, snakes, frogs, squirrels, herons and ducks, all at your own pace. Just west of the wetlands is Aqueduct Park, site of Lock 29. Here’s a chance to see a working lock, just as it was in the 1800s, as barges and recreational boats pass through.

Walk where the mule drivers walked. The Restored Aldrich Change Bridge from 1858 is there for you to cross over and under, just as they did in the old days. The park also includes restrooms, playgrounds, picnic tables, shelters, and grills, as well as access to the towpath trail.

Palmyra is more than just a landmark intersection. It’s the place to slow down, explore the past, and enjoy the present. Plan to visit soon, and see for yourself why it’s still “The Queen of Canal Towns.”


by Camy Sorbello
Camy Sorbello is a freelance writer who also teaches creative writing in the Finger Lakes area. Originally from Rochester, she lives in Ontario County. She enjoys small-town historical sites and museums wherever she travels. Visit her website at www.camysorbello.com.