Wilmington church dedicates Polly Lewis Sanford’s 1832 hymnal
In 2009, when the Whiteface Community United Methodist Church — founded in 1834 — began to celebrate its 175th anniversary, it was decided that I, as the church historian, would deliver monthly “history moments” throughout the year to highlight various aspects of the church’s history.
In doing the research, I found an 1832 hymnal among the historical files kept in a locked file drawer. On the leather cover inscribed in worn gold lettering are the words, “Presented by Mrs. Polly Sanford, To the Methodist Church, in Wilmington April VI, 1834.” I was taken by surprise and pleasantly shocked at such a discovery!
First, we had heretofore been unable to determine the actual date of the first opening church service of this congregation. We had only known the year of its completion. Second, as historians are aware, it is difficult to find documentation of women’s contributions in history. But, there it was.
Polly Sanford was the wife of Reuben Sanford, the well-known town leader and builder of the church, and here was her own singular contribution documented in writing. While we celebrated her contribution in 2009, it seemed appropriate to revisit Polly’s contributions and to re-dedicate the hymnal with its own display case in 2022 — Wilmington’s bicentennial year.
On Sunday, Nov. 13, the hymnal was dedicated with another speech to the congregation, this time with a focus on Polly herself and what other kinds of contributions she may have made to the community. I did some basic research, using ancestry.com, church records, town records, copies of Sanford family letters, general history of the area and general knowledge of the time period. My purpose was to create a story of Polly Sanford in the context of the times that would elevate her contributions and place them in the memory and imagination of anyone wishing to learn about the history of the area.
Just imagine. You are Polly Lewis, of Poultney, Vermont, a woman getting married at age 20 in 1804 in Plattsburgh to 24-year-old Reuben Sanford of Woodbury, Connecticut, a man with much ambition and a desire to move West to the frontier. It sure is exciting; new land and new opportunities are ahead. The only drawback is that you had to leave your family and somewhat comfortable life in New England, and it is likely that future family visits would be sparse, if at all.
But you are ready for adventure and starting anew with the faith that God will provide and sustain you and your husband in this new endeavor. You pack up what you can to start a new home — blankets, a few clothes, eating utensils, cooking kettles and pots, a butter churn, crocks, a spinning wheel, a bed, a table, a few furnishings, a sewing kit, seeds, and tools for clearing the land, chopping wood and building a home.
As you travel, the roads are primitive tracks in many places and rough terrain once you reach the rugged Adirondack Mountains. Your destination is somewhere in Jay, New York, an unsettled land ripe for development. You have heard that there is a river there for mechanical power and iron in the mountains.
When you arrive at a tall mountain with a fast-moving stream at its base, your husband likes what he sees. The quick water would provide the mechanical power for Reuben’s business endeavors — mills and factories along the river. The mountains would provide iron for one of his future endeavors, the Sanford Ironworks. You set to work to tame the wild country, to make a home in the wilderness. Other pioneer families have already begun to inhabit the area — among them the Thayer and Owen families, both from New England as well. There are Indian wigwams about 2 miles south along the AuSable River at the foot of the big mountain and you wonder about the people who built them.
Your husband clears the land and establishes a potash factory. (Potash is made from ashes from local farmers and used for making soap, dyes and gunpowder.) By September of that first year in 1804, you deliver your first child, a boy, who struggles to live four days and is buried — at the now Pleasant View Cemetery in current Wilmington. Despite this early tragedy, you continue to make a home for you and your husband, perhaps tend a vegetable garden, while he plants rye for tillage to later distill into whiskey to sell as a commodity for hard-earned cash.
Your second-born child, Perlina, lives until March of 1808, when she is one year and six months old. The winters are harsh, children have fragile constitutions and doctors are scarce. You are saddened and grieve this loss, but you have a strong faith in God, and believe He will get you through any hardship.
You support your husband Reuben as he becomes a leader in the community and the local militia. You support his business endeavors, including a hotel.
Another child, Eliza Sanford, is born on Sept. 18, 1808, a little over six months after her little sister died, bringing joy at last to the little family. You give birth to another daughter Ann in 1810. You feel blessed.
War of 1812
In 1812, the United States goes to war with England once again, and your husband feels a need to protect our sovereign nation and his land and enterprises in Northern New York. Many of your friend’s husbands and sons are away in the fight, too.
The women in Jay help each other as best they can and as their talents allow. You find out that you are expecting another child in September, but perhaps Reuben is absent for the joyous occasion of the birth of his daughter Jane on Sept. 28 because he is serving in the War of 1812 as captain of the 8th (Miller’s) Regiment, a detached militia. His service had extended from July 1 of that year to January 1813 on the Canadian frontier. A change in regimental leadership takes place, and Reuben becomes captain of the 9th Regiment. He fights in the border skirmish in Plattsburgh from Aug. 1 to 6, 1813, later called Murray’s Raid.
These are frightening times. The British vow to destroy public buildings, military stores and vessels. On July 31, they had already succeeded in burning all the government buildings, including a blockhouse, arsenal and the hospital. Murray’s British soldiers even captured a company of the Clinton County militia, later exchanging them for British prisoners.
While the war is escalating, you are taking care of your home, your young daughters, and perhaps advising on your husband’s various businesses while he is away. You are worried about your husband’s safety and unsure about future British raids. The worst part is not knowing — but you pray faithfully with Reuben always as the focus of your prayers. May this awful nightmare end soon, you think.
You appreciate the times when Reuben can come home in between his militia service. But still, it is hard for you to raise three daughters with Reuben gone so much. You are once again expecting a child in November 1814. Now ranked as a major with his own battalion, Reuben must leave once again and finds himself defending the mouth of the Bouquet River from May 13 to 16, 1814. Finally, Reuben comes back to Jay to summon a militia to protect the city of Plattsburgh. And the men answered the call, leaving families, farms and mills — to protect their way of life in a great battle. Early on Sept. 6, one of Jay’s own, Cpl. Stephen Partridge, was killed at the Battle of Culver Hill. The close-knit community mourned his loss. And you, Polly, were one of those there to provide consolation to the family, even as you were expecting another child yourself only two months away in November. Finally, the Battle of Plattsburgh is over with the battle won, thank God. Celebrations were held along with happy family reunions.
After the war
Now life goes on as before, and a new baby girl, Perley, is born only two months after the great battle. You think that at last Reuben will be home, and he does resign from the militia in April 1815. But in the meantime, your husband takes up politics and serves in the New York State Assembly from 1815 to 1817 and you are once again the head of the family when Reuben is away serving in this capacity.
And two more girls, Phebe in 1817 and Polly L. in 1819, are added to your family. Reuben remains active in politics and becomes a member of the New York State Constitutional Convention in 1821 and the New York State Senate from 1828 to 1831. You are an avid supporter of your husband in his duties and likely hold sway with him on multiple topics.
In 1821, the town of Wilmington, first as Danville, breaks away from the town of Jay. In 1822, the name of the town is changed to Wilmington. You and Reuben, along with Reuben Partridge and his wife Diademia, start a group for Bible study and prayer. You meet in each other’s homes and invite others to join.
Over time, the group is large enough to meet in the schoolhouse and form a “Methodist Society.” In 1834, the Wilmington Methodist church is built, mostly at the hand and financial support of your husband.
At this time, you make a singular contribution — you present the church with a hymnal, likely at your own expense. Music is a big part of your church life. On the front cover, is the inscription, “Presented by Mrs. Polly Sanford, To the Methodist E. Church, in Wilmington April VI — 1834.” That is likely the date the first service is held in this church.
According to church records, you continue to participate in Sunday School classes, along with Reuben and other members of the family. In fact, your daughter Perley is married probably at this church in July of the same year, a happy occasion indeed.
The first records of the common charge of the Jay-Wilmington Methodist Churches begin in 1836. The first female church class members listed in the Jay-Lower Village are Catherine and Susan Southmayd, Belinda, Rachel and Lucy Peck. In the Wilmington classes, we can see Eliza Avery, Eunice Southmayd and you, Polly Sanford.
In later years, you and Reuben live with your daughter Phebe and son-in-law Elisha Adams in Wilmington. In 1843, in a letter received from your daughter Ann of Columbus, Ohio, dated Sept. 24, you find tragedy strikes. Your granddaughter Ann Maria has died due to a fever from an unknown cause. You are heartbroken.
Your daughter Ann writes the announcement in part, “Oh how dark and mysterious are the providences of God and his way is past finding out by us short-sighted mortals. But death has been here and borne away our daughter from our sight, and my heart begins to swell with grief and my eyes to swim and my hand to tremble so that I can hardly process but will try to give you a short account of what has happened since I last wrote.”
She continues the story of a little girl of 6 years old, who had been just fine on the previous Sunday, taking part in Sabbath services. She goes to school happy and healthy on Monday morning, but returns home by 10 a.m., not feeling well and with a fever. In the course of just a few days, little Ann Maria died, leaving an indescribable emptiness. But you believe in the providence of God and will keep her memory close to your heart.
You and Reuben in 1855, are living with your daughter Ann (Sanford) Bartlit in Columbus, Ohio, and your beloved husband dies and is buried there that year. You move to Plattsburgh to live with another daughter. Polly, your life is well-lived until 1869 when you meet your God.
We here today, honor your commitment to God and family and hold your memory dear as history shows us that your life can be an example to follow. You have demonstrated faithfulness, service and courage through your prayers, planning, organizing and supporting family.
The hymnal you presented to the new church in 1834 will serve as a reminder of the good life you lived, and of the impact you had on our church and community. May our church continue your mission and vision for a long time to come.
(Karen Marshall Peters is a member and historian of the Whiteface Community United Methodist Church and president of the Wilmington Historical Society.)