Madison County, NY
ONEIDA LAKE CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH HISTORY
Founded 1814 as the Union Congregational Church in Lenox and Sullivan
The Oneida Lake Congregational Church was approved for listing on the NYS and National Registers of Historic Places by the NYS Preservation Review Board on September 15th, 2005. This church is one of the oldest standing churches in Madison County, and since its construction during the 1820’s has been utilized exclusively and nearly continuously as a place of worship. The church qualifies for listing on the historic registers based upon three of the required criteria. Not only is it architecturally significant, but its history reveals involvement in national historic trends, and an association with historically significant individuals.
In 1808 church founders E.S. & Phineas Cadwell traveled by ox drawn sleds from Quality Hill, to reach their partially completed log cabin which stood near the present day Oneida Lake Community Center. At that time Thomas Jefferson was completing his second term as President, and Madison County had only existed for two years.
When founders Reuben and Stephen Bushnell brought their young families to the area in 1811 settling where the so-called “Brown Derby” now stands, James Madison was our President. The threat of a possible British invasion from Canada caused concern for the safety of frontier settlements like Oneida Lake. When the War of 1812 became a reality, volunteers from this area were defending our nation at Sackett’s Harbor.
Yet in 1813 these wilderness pioneers of the School & Gospel Lands joined together, laying the groundwork to establish a church society, which was incorporated in January of 1814. During that first decade after the church society was incorporated, they had no church to attend, and services were held in barns, schools and private homes.
Despite the hardships of frontier life, construction of this Congregational Meeting House began in 1824, resulting in a functional, but very simple structure, probably lacking decorative embellishment. Architecturally, the style of the church is predominately Greek revival, but its massive stained glass windows, interior wainscoting, and ceiling detail are characteristic of the Victorian style popular at the time of 1890’s renovation. The curious elliptical second story windows may date to the Federal era, while the 1922 dinning room addition at the rear of the building has retained its original decor for more than eighty years.
It is believed by preservationists that the Greek revival features of the edifice were added following the reorganization of the church society in 1846. Today the pulpit and the matching trim below the balcony rail, as well as, the wide board horizontal wainscoting in the vestibule date to the renovations of the 1840’s. The exterior features exhibit a columned entrance, the detailing being repeated on the square bell tower, a triangular pediment cornice adorning the front roof gable, and cornice returns at the rear of the building. Wide corner boards and horizontal molding and fascia along the roof line on the sides of the building are characteristic of the Greek Revival style.
Historically this country church was a stepping stone on the way west for many New England pioneers. While much of Madison County had been settled somewhat earlier, the School and Gospel Tract along the shores of Oneida Lake was populated in the early 1800’s. At the time that the Congregational Society of Northern Lenox and Sullivan was organized, the land along the lake was an unbroken wilderness, geographically isolated from the rest of the county by the Great Swamp. Connecticut pioneers cleared the land for their farms and established a flourishing community, where a life style reminiscent of their New England background developed. Valuing education, family and religion, they demonstrated their strict Calvinist views by establishing a church based on the conservative Puritanical theology of Jonathan Edwards. As the boundaries of the United States pushed ever westward, members of the church were dismissed to become pioneers in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
During the early 19th century church members were influenced by their long standing association with prominent members of the CT Missionary Society, including Jedediah Bushnell, Ezekial Chapman and Seth Williston, who had traveled into the NYS and Western Reserve frontier prior the founding of the Oneida Lake Community and its church. In the mid 1830’s the Oneida Lake Congregational Church experienced the breaking away of many church leaders and members, who were influenced by the rivalistic preaching and abolitionist views of Luther Myrick and his associates. The phenomena of the Unionist Movement in Madison County had a similar impact on many county churches more than two decades before the Civil War erupted.
After the Civil War the Temperance Reform movement found support for its cause among the members of the Oneida Lake Congregational Church. The church hosted regional meetings and a Madison County Convention. The women of the church, who formed the Lakeport W.C.T.U. in 1885, were very vocal in advocating, not only temperance, but also Women’s Rights. Women served in church offices, as church representatives, and were involved in financial decisions of the church long before the passage of the 1920 Women’s Suffrage Amendment.
During the 20th century the church continued to serve the needs of the local community, and its records speak of projects to assist the American cause during WWI and WWII.
This anachronistic country church, once the focal point and guiding energy of a close knit community on the shores of Oneida Lake, has witnessed the passage of more than 180 years. As Madison County nears it Bicentennial Celebration this landmark church is a reflection of a proud heritage.
Sandra B. Wilsey, 2005
Source: Union Congregational Church (Lenox & Sullivan) Records, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library.