The First Church in Warren County
Old Time Tales of Warren County


The First Church in Warren County

The winter of 1816-17 was a cold one in the Broken-straw Valley. The floor of the forest was deep with snow and the branches of the great, patriarchal pines which filled the whole region were bent with burdens of white. The creek, curving down through twenty miles of valley filled with virgin forest was buried and lost beneath its heavy coat of ice and snow. Only at the riffles, which are frequent, the clear water bubbled forth to have a look at the crystalline glory of green and white woodlands, primeval, untouched save for a few scattered clearings where a low, log cabin cuddled close to the earth, its roof and half its walls buried in snow, while from its stone or mud chimney came curlings of blue wood smoke that floated off into the forests and hung in blue-green haze among the pines.

At night the clear eyed stars looked down on the wooded valley which lay in profound silence in the midst of interminable trees. Occasionally the wailing cry of a wolf came from the hills, or the sharp barkings of a pack pressing close on a fleeing deer. The unearthly shriek of a panther sometimes stabbed the tremendous silence of the night. Great owls, perching in the pines, uttered their booming cries. But these were only passing sounds, the night was saturated with a silence that seeped with mystery and awe. Here was nature, lavish and lovely, as yet undesecrated by the marring hand of man. The air was full of fresh fragrance, so pure and clear, the winking stars seemed to be touching the high tips of the pines on the hillsides.

On Thursday, January 30th, 1817, the sun shone down in the valley with sparkling brilliance, gemming the clean snows with dazzling light. But underneath the dense pines it only filtered through in green half-light, or flung a long golden shaft, slanting down from an opening in the high treetops. It was not a melting sun, bright as it was, the frost defied it, laughed at it. Long icicles hanging at the eaves of James White's log house at the mouth of Blue Eye Run did not drip, but only glistened like bright glass bangles in the sun.

A sort of road was broken up and down the valley. The wide runners of sleds had left their tracks, and the cloven feet of oxen. There were no tracks of horses. The trail wound away among the trees and was lost in a moment. There was no wide, open valley. Looked up to from the creek bottom, the lofty hilltops seemed far higher than they do today, because of the towering trees that grew high up their sides. It was a wilderness of big trees, white and green and silent. James White's one-story log house stood by the side of the little traveled road. There was no wind this day, the smoke from the big chimney, built of flat stones from the creek went straight up into the dazzling blue. There was not even a little breeze to whisper in the pine trees. The whole valley was like a frozen dream of beauty, silent, motionless.

From down the road, in the direction of Pittsfield comes the low squeak of an ox-bow, the crunch and creak of wooden runners passing over dry snow. A pair of red and white steers come into sight, drawing a low sled filled with rye straw. In the straw, among blankets, sit two men and two women. Both men have bushy beards, caps pulled down over their ears, heavy woolen mittens made of gray yarn. The women are wearing low, close fitting bonnets, with scarfs wound over them.

The necks and breasts of the oxen are covered with frost. Their breath puffs like white smoke in the brilliant sunlight. As the sled reaches the log house it turns in at a low shed. Company has arrived at the wilderness home of James White this bright Thursday afternoon of January, 1817. White comes hurrying from the house in his leather boots, long skirted great coat and grey wool cap, swings open the heavy slab door, helps the driver loosen the bow-pins, lifts the heavy pepperidge wood from the oxen's patient necks and leads them into the low shelter, to stand beside his own team of wide-horned steers.

Robert Andrews, first settler in the Brokenstraw Valley has brought his wife and two neighbors in the sled. There is warm greeting between these folk who dwell at lonely intervals in the wilderness of Warren County, Mrs. White meets them at the door, the women embrace. Social contact is a privilege among these pioneers.

The log house of James White, within sound of the cold, bubbling riffles of Blue Eye Run, is hardly an ordinary log house, it's larger than most of the cabins scattered here and there in the valley, and has real glass windows through which you can see, when they are not coated with frost. The panes are tiny ones, set in pine frames made by hand. The glass was brought up the river from Pittsburgh by Robert Andrews' son Arthur, in a pack carried on his back. A broad stone fireplace almost fills one end of the room. It is the only means of heating the house, and the only means of cooking.

Enormous beech chunks have burned down to little, blue-flickering flames on a huge bed of cherry-colored coals. Inside the fireplace, suspended on a black iron chain an immense roast of pork is slowly turning as it simmers in the heat, oozing beads of juice which drip into a iron pan. The roast is kept turning by a red cheeked girl, Eunice White, who stands by the fire and pokes the roasting meat with a long-handled fork. Roast pork is a luxury in Warren County in 1817, venison is a commonplace. James White has half a dozen deer hanging up in the woods, but to give his guests roast pork is to provide them with a rare treat.

There is a large iron pot hanging in the fireplace, too. It bubbles softly and sends out steam which mingles with the little smoke and goes up the wide, black throat of the chimney. The iron pot, a copper-lined one, is, like the glass of the window panes, an unusual possession. It has been carried into Warren County all the way from Philadelphia on the back of a horse, following Indian trails. The next house up the creek has greased paper instead of glass in its windows, and boasts no copper-lined kettle.

From wooden pegs in the heavy pine beams overhead hang bundles of dried pot herbs, sage, parsley, wild celery for flavoring. James White's long-barreled flintlock rifle hangs, not over the fireplace but by the door, loaded, the pan carefully primed, the piece of blue flint tightly screwed in its clamp, ready to throw a spark and ignite the powder. Last fall Nehemiah York, on York Hill had lost four of his pigs by a bear. Panthers sometimes came prowling and the wail of wolves was a familiar sound. Only the night before White had seen a grey form vanish around his log barn, and in the morning tracks showed a pack of wolves had gone up the creek.

Other guests arrived at the home of James White. Two men, mufflers white with frost, had walked the seven miles down from Spring Creek, following the frozen stream most of the way. Another ox sled had come, bearing six people. It was evident that this was a special occasion. Each arriving guest was introduced to a kind-faced bearded man who rose from his bench seat and shook hands cordially. Some of the company knew the man, called him "Reverend Chase", without being introduced.

There were fourteen people in the large room when the women began setting dinner on the table. The roast was so large the pan that held it for carving had to be carried by one of the men. There was no silverware, just steel knives with bone handles, but the blue plates and cups had come all the way from Scotland. There were huge dishes of boiled potatoes, warm, soft bread without a crust, baked in covered iron pans in the ashes. Yellow custards in bowls, two generous round puddings made of coarse wheat flour with dried raspberries. Stewed onions, boiled turnips, red jelly made from wild plums, large round butternut cookies and a basin of steaming tea made a feast for these pioneer dwellers in the great, silent forests of Warren County.

Long benches were pulled up to the table, the company sat down and the Reverend Amos Chase asked God's blessing on "these bounties which Thou hast set before us." It was a long blessing, but the dishes were large and just from the fire, so nothing got cold. Eunice and Lucy White, with Dorcas Davis helping kept the blue china plates replenished. There was plenty of talk across the long table as the dinner went on and outside the blue shadows of the pine trees grew longer. It was quiet talk, a little restrained because of the presence of the minister. And then these good people had met together to organize a church, a serious consideration, certainly.

Robert Prather had recently been to Meadville and talked with Harm Jan Huidekoper in the office of the Holland Land Co. Huidekoper had told him of the considerable trouble the company was having with "intruders", squatters who took possession of tracts and refused to move. Prather had met Mrs. Huidekoper, too, and pronounced her a very fine lady.

There was light brown loaf sugar for the tea, which caused all the ladies to exclaim. They declared it preserved the flavor of the tea better than the common maple sugar. William McClain told how Archibald Tanner, a staunch old Presbyterian down at Warren, who had as yet no church to worship in, was getting ready a great raft of pine boards which he purposed to float all the way to New Orleans when spring opened, and to come back up the coast to New York in a sailing vessel.

There was plenty to talk about, among these good people who saw so very little of each other in their scattered homes in the wilderness.

James White expressed a belief that it would not be more than a year or two till Warren County had its own court of justice at the county seat. There was plenty of good cheer among the company, but no merriment, no jokes were cracked across the table. For these good men and women had met together this midwinter day in the year 1817 for the purpose of organizing a church, a unit of the great Presbyterian Church founded by John Knox.

The Brokenstraw Valley is a land of glorious sunsets. As the short January afternoon slipped away and the sun lowered to it's hilltop horizon of towering trees, a pink glow flushed the snowbanks with color. Dinner was over in the White home, the table cleared, the fire replenished with pine and sending a curling spire of blue smoke straight up into the clear, pink sky. Perhaps it was prophetic of the church spire that was destined to rise and point valiantly toward the heavens as a direct result of the meeting of these good men and women in the snowy woods of Warren County this day.

There was no sound in the large room in the log house when the Reverend Amos Chase, a man nearing sixty, arose to speak. Only the soft crackle of the fire could be heard now and then. The minister spoke of the desire of the men and women present for a church organization, dwelt at length on the spiritual benefits of an organized church. Others were called upon to speak. When the meeting was over the first church of any denomination in Warren County had been organized, with Robert Prather and James White chosen as Ruling Elders. It was called "The Brokenstraw Church," Garland not yet having its earlier name of Mullengar.

The organization was also variously called "Centre Congregation," "Big Brokenstraw Church," and "Church of Mullengar" as it grew and prospered.

A clear sunset in January means a cold night in the valley of the Brokenstraw. As the men and women departed from James White's home on the banks of Blue Eye Run the snow squeaked sharply under the wooden runners of the slow ox sleds. It squeaked beneath the boots of the men who had come afoot, and were now starting homeward under the early stars. The stars seemed particularly near and sparkling that still, cold night of January 30th, 1817. Perhaps they were heavenly eyes, smiling down on the birthplace of the newborn church, the little church that was to live and grow and touch the lives of many human beings and make these lives better. Soft candle light glowed against the tiny, frosted window panes of the log house. The blue smoke was still rising like a spire, prophetic, straight upward to the stars. A towering pine tree standing near the log house, seemed to spread its great green arms in silent benediction.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 69-76: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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