A Tale of Three Churches, Part 1

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In the beginning, the church was in Simsbury, and the people of Salmon Brook had to travel this distance on foot or horseback. The roads were mere tracks through the wilderness; mud, dust or snow, according to the season.

After numerous pleas of hardship, in 1736 the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut allowed the Ecclesiastical Societies of Salmon Brook (Granby) and Turkey Hills (East Granby) to have their own churches.

For several years, the people of Salmon Brook met in the large tavern room of Daniel Hayes. His sturdy plank house was located on Salmon Brook Street just south of the present fire department. Hayes received 30 shillings a year for rent.

In 1740, the first of the three churches was built, according to church records, “at the north end of a broad street in said Society, where two roads meet, one from the northerly, and the other from the westward, on the southeast corner of a hill.” A militia map of 1812 depicts this “broad street” clearly. It ended at the present Rte. 20 and only narrow roads continued north, east and west.

The exact location of this church is unknown, but following English custom, it was probably placed in an area with room for a future cemetery. 

An 1895 letter in the Connecticut Historical Society quoted 95-year-old “Aunt Julia” who said that a church was situated “on a rise of ground west of the present school of Salmon Brook (which was located on the WWI Monument corner). It was on the southeast corner of the cemetery. A Pettibone gravestone now stands on the exact location of the old church.”

The monument of Col. Ozias Pettibone, a Revolutionary War soldier who died in 1812, stands close to the brow of the hill leading to the WWI monument. At one time the hill was closer to the corner, much of the hill was cut back when the school was built in 1822.

The new church was a crude structure, only 34 by 45 feet; built without a steeple or fireplaces for heat. A citizenry struggling to build homes, farm the land and to just to survive, had neither the time nor the money to construct an elaborate edifice.

An ill-mannered traveler passing through town, caustically remarked, upon viewing the Meeting House: “I have seen many of God’s houses, but never one of his barns before.”

This simple church served the people of Salmon Brook until 1767, when church records indicate the first vote on rebuilding the Meeting House. The New England tradition of lengthy debate was well-established in Salmon Brook, and the Meeting House location was not changed until 1775.

The old church was taken down and rebuilt across from the small cemetery on Creamery Hill Road. The population of Salmon Brook was moving north and west, and this was a more central location.

According to the 1812 map mentioned before, the church was located on the south side of Creamery Hill Road, then called Meeting House Road. Church records state it was “in a field of rye belonging to Ebenezer Lampson, about 50 rods east of said Lampson’s dwelling house.”

Ten years later, in 1785, “bords” were still needed “to finish the Meeting House.” In 1791, Tille Gossard was hired to make a door and set glass in the Meeting House. The congregation considered building a new church in 1793, but voted the following year “to make an addition to the Meeting House and finish it off.”

Also in that year, 1794, the Rev. Isaac Porter was ordained minister of the Salmon Brook Society. He ruled the church for the next 38 years with grim piety and an iron hand. He was called “Priest Porter” by the less-reverent. His clothing and doctrine never left the 18th century. He invariably wore knee breeches and a tricorn.

James Hayes (1821-1914) described the church and Rev. Porter in the memories he wrote in his 86th year.

“The old church on William Pratt’s corner was conspicuous in all but convenience. There were no Stoves, consequently no fire in the church and nothing for comfort, but notwithstanding, there was a large congregation in those days. People, many of them coming five or six miles, out of pure Puritan principle.”

“Seats or pews were made square, big enough to hold Father, Mother and eight to twelve children. The pulpit was a half circle and high, so one had to go up two flights of stairs; going up one flight, then turning a right angle, going up another flight and there you are up among the rafters.”

“Here the Rev. Isaac Porter, a large man, preached the doctrine of election in two written Sermons of an hour’s length each Sabbath. He disgusted everybody, wore it completely threadbare. He read his sermons in the same tone of voice, never looking up to see whether his people were awake or asleep. His Prayer was about a half-hour long, in the same tone. No matter what his text was, the doctrine of election was the beginning and the end.”

Election or predestination was the Calvinist doctrine that believed God chose those who would be saved or damned and God’s plan was absolute. The theory that man had free will and could take responsibility for his actions was heresy to the Calvinists.

In 1831, Rev. Isaac Porter was 65 years old and the church was in trouble. The times were changing; old ways were questioned; new churches were forming with more liberal religious doctrines. People were making choices, not just docilely accepting the word of the established church. It was a time of dissent and change, but Rev. Porter would not change.

(to be continued)