Most Little Falls residents know about the Octagon Church, but how many of us know about the Concord Society, the Aqueduct Association, the Ellice Estate, the Old Yellow House and the Old Stone Schoolhouse?
Each of these were important in early 19th century Little Falls history. This is an attempt to breathe new life into this era.
There were at least four Indian trails through Little Falls, two on each side of the river, in part to provide portages around the Little Falls river rapids. Indian spiritual incantations were likely offered nearby the river to gain favor with the natural spirits so central to Native American existence.
These Indian trails eventually became city streets and roadways. A 1790 map shows both the “Salisbury Road” located where Salisbury Street is today and a “Fairfeld – Newport Road” where Church Street runs. Another became the route of the Utica and Schenectady Turnpike, Route 5 today.
Let’s begin with the Edward Ellice Estate.
Ellice was a well-connected Scot who used his wealth and influence in the late-1700’s to gain tittle to all what is now Little Falls. During the Revolutionary War, Little Falls had a functioning lumber mill and gristmill. Ellice controlled both operations.
Most everyone who lived in Little Falls from the 1790’s-1820’s were his tenants; this stymied population growth and economic development. Ellice maintained an iron grip, keeping the cost of living high and making exorbitant profits for himself and his son Sir Alexander Ellice.
The earliest religious services in Little Falls were likely held at either the gristmill or at the nearby Old Yellow House, both located near today’s Medical Arts Building on West Main Street. The Old Yellow House (1788) was John Porteous’ residence, a store and later a hotel.
The religious-based Concord Society built the Octagon Church between 1792-1796, although improvements continued for the next twenty-two years.
Records indicate that the church was constructed “under the direction of John Porteous, Abraham Neely, Nicholas Thumb and Henry Klock Escuires,” all members of the Concord Society.
As a side note, the six-lock Western Inland Navigation Canal began operation in 1794 allowing boats to avoid the river rapids. The Erie and Barge Canals came later.
Often referred to as “the pepper box,” the yellow-painted, eight-sided Octagon Church was used by Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists and Catholics alike.
Services began there in 1796. Early on, parishioners sat on floor joists during services in the dirt-floored structure. The church was 55 feet long on the short diameter, 60 feet on its long diameter, had eighteen-foot ceilings and its front door faced east towards the Fairfield – Newport Road. Its roof sloped upward to a cupola topped by hollow gilt balls. The church could seat 300.
The village’s first burial grounds were beside the church until the 1820’s when those bodies were reburied in the new Church Street Cemetery. It was thought that the decomposing bodies polluted the drinking water of those living downhill from the cemetery.
A stone Octagon Church monument nearby where the Church once stood was dedicated in 1911 by the Astrogen Chapter of the D.A.R. and Mayor Timothy Dasey during a Little Falls centennial ceremony. The monument is now located in a small tree-filled park.
LITTLE FALLS IN THE EARLY 1800’S
In 1801, Little Falls had about forty dwellings, several merchant stores and mechanical shops and a large meeting house. In 1802 the Reverend John Taylor noted that there were about thirty houses and 600-700 residents. He also noted: “They have a new and beautiful meeting-house sitting about forty rods back on the hill, built in the form of an octagon.” Taylor made a rough sketch of the Octagon Church which is preserved in the Documentary History of New York. A beautiful Gwen Lee oil painting of the structure is housed today in the Old Bank Museum.
Few accounts of the official activities of the Concord Society still exist, but on December 28, 1805, a William Carr and a Joel Lankton were noted as being “returning officers” and Frederick Lansing stated that the Concord Society of Little Falls’ official insignia was a “Heart of Oak” twig with “these words.” The group had “a lodge for meetings,” but where was it located? In the Octagon Church?
Early pastors of the Octagon Church included Mr. Anderson (1805), Rev. Thomas Kirby (1807-1811), Reverend Anderson (1812), Reverend James Joyce (1812-17), and Rev. Hezeekiah N. Woodruff (1817). Joyce and Woodruff each received $450 per year.
Little is known about these pastors or anything about their style of preaching, but the Second Great Awakening, characterized by “fire and brimstone” sermons with emphasis on “judgment” and “eternal damnation,” soon followed, so it might be safe to assume that the Octagon Church hosted some “fire and brimstone” sermons in its day.
An April 18, 1818 ceremony dedicated the completion of the Church after a quarter century of construction.
Our first Village President Nathaniel Benton noted that the Octagon Church “attracted the admiring gaze of travelers by stage, canal and railroad.” Records indicate that in December 1824 the Emanuel Society of Little Falls used the Octagon Church in return for paying for a portion of the fuel used to heat the building. Roman Catholics were the last religious denomination to worship there.
The Octagon Church was torn down in 1842 to make room for a new school; its timbers were used to build outbuildings. Too early for any historic preservation efforts; no earlier incarnation of Preserve Our Past!
In 1806, the Aqueduct Association began delivering fresh water from nearby streams through interlocking bored out cedar logs to subscribing households in Little Falls. This business also issued paper script (money) to its employees to be used in company stores and for other business affairs. This water delivery system was expanded to include a reservoir in Ward Square. Our present public works water delivery system commenced operation in 1886 delivering water from our reservoirs in Salisbury and Fairfield.
Little Falls’ first formal schooling took place in the Old Stone Schoolhouse (1796) located catty corner from the Octagon Church. Wintertime church services were also held there as were the first meetings of the Little Falls Village Board following the granting of a New York State charter in 1811.
A village government we may have had, but we were also still shackled by the Ellice Estate and only freeholders (landowners) could vote for village trustees. This aristocratic process was opposed by most village citizens. Fortunately, by the 1820’s, the stifling grip of the Ellice Estate was lessened, largely through the legal work of Arphraxed Loomis and Benton; a new charter got NYS approval in 1827. Suffrage and land ownership rights were expanded, community growth followed. The first village-wide election took place in the Old Schoolhouse in May 1827. Judge Sanders Lansing presided over early village board meetings. Nathaniel Benton was elected our first village president in 1827.
Merchant stores, mechanical shops, the Aqueduct Association, the Western Inland Navigation Canal and other businesses and corporations were all commercial operations in Little Falls in the early 1800’s.
What was lacking? A bank.
After years of contracted lobbying and debate, Little Falls finally obtained a NYS charter to build and operate the Bank of Herkimer County; the Old Bank began operation in 1833, the first bank in Herkimer County. The building was placed on the National Registry in 1970 and is today a museum maintained by the Little Falls Historical Society.
Other early Little Falls buildings of note include today’s WCA which was built in 1827 and was first occupied by the Nathaniel Benton family and the village’s first single denominational church Emanuel Episcopal Church was dedicated in 1835.
NOTE: Various excerpts contained in this article were copied from Nathaniel Benton’s “Illustrated History of Herkimer County” and from George A. Harden’s “History of Herkimer County New York.”
Jeffrey Gressler is a member of the Little Falls Historical Society.