On January 9, 1933, Ripley’s Believe It or Not printed that “the Petrified Church of Mumford, NY is built entirely of wood that has turned to stone.” Petrified wood is actually the nickname for the process of permineralization, which occurs underground, when wood becomes buried under sediment and is initially preserved due to a lack of oxygen which inhibits decomposition. Did you know that in Mumford, New York there is a church made out of petrified wood? Neither did we, so if course we had to go investigate.
The church we are talking about is the First United Presbyterian Church in Mumford, NY and before I go any further, I must inform our readers that the church is definitely NOT made out of petrified wood and this has in fact been debunked long ago. Instead, the church is actually made out of bog limestone (also known as tufa) and making an entire church out of this material is still very rare. In fact, we did hear from the people we would eventually meet that they had been told that the First United Presbyterian Church in Mumford, NY is the only church in North America made from bog limestone found in the USA. Let me be clear though they we can neither confirm nor deny this, this is just what they have been told and now they have told it to us…so we will now perpetuate the rumor on the internet. However, it is well documented that over in Europe there are many churches made from this unique material.
The hamlet of Mumford, NY is very small and is primarily made up of one intersection with a couple of stores and a post office, right before the Town of Caledonia. However, what puts Mumford on the map is that it is the home of the Genesee Country Village and Museum. I am not exaggerating when I say that the only other thing in Mumford is the First United Presbyterian Church and if you did not know its unique building material, it would be easy to drive by without giving it a second thought. There is a parking lot across the street from the church which is right next to Oatka Creek, and this is where Chris and I parked as we prepared for our adventure that day.
Chris and I had previously been in contact with Pastor Roger Estes, who invited us down for a service and a chance to take a look at the church. Coincidentally the Sunday we happened to go was also Palm Sunday, so we took some palms and then sat in the very back row. Being that it is a small church to begin with, Chris and I were not expecting a large crowd and overall there was approximately 30 people in attendance. This also means that Chris and I stuck out as the newbies but we are pretty used to this by now. We certainly shared with anybody that asked why we were there and about Exploring the Burned Over District. There were definitely a few people in attendance who were quite knowledgeable about the church’s history so we made sure to pick their brains as much as possible. The service was fairly quick and over before we knew it. We stayed and talked with people for a while, but the truth be told is that the First United Presbyterian Church is really not that big so our time there came to an end quickly.
While we were talking to people we kept hearing that the bog limestone used to make the church in 1869 (but not actually finished until 1883) was actually quarried not too far away, on the “old Oliver Allen Farm.” After saying goodbye to everyone and taking a bunch of pictures, we decided to go take a drive to see if we could find the Allen Farm and maybe even some original bog limestone for ourselves. As we drove down the street we were told the Allen Farm was on, we passed a house that looked as though it too was made out of bog limestone, so we pulled over to take a look. Even though we are not bog limestone professionals, we both felt fairly confident that what we were looking at must have been the same material that the First United Presbyterian Church is made out of. What this also meant to us though was that the farm across the street must be the Allen Farm, so without a second thought, I marched onto the property and flagged down the woman I had seen walking around.
To make a long story short, we had indeed walked onto the original Allen Farm. The woman we had introduced ourselves too introduced us to her husband, and it was he who told us the history of the property and that his family was actually the third owner of it. The original owner was Oliver Allen who himself was a descendant of Ebenezer “Indian” Allen, who was the first settler of what is now the City of Rochester, NY in 1788. The gentleman who today owns the farm explained to us that Oliver Allen basically was “the guy” back in the day and owned lots of the property around Mumford, including the bog which today is located at the bottom of a hill behind the farm. It was in this bog that the bog limestone was found. The thing about bog limestone is when you first pull it out of the ground; it is very porous and therefore incredibly light. It did not take very long for Allen to recognize how this could be used as a building material. However, this was not Allen’s only economic venture and he also owned a mill across the street on Oatka Creek and the house Chris and I had first seen was actually the original office building for the mill. Today the original foundation for the mill can still be seen but for the most part it is completely destroyed.
We actually reached out to some scientists to learn more about what bog limestone actually is. This is an excerpt from scientist Rory Cottrell from the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Rochester had to share with us:
“‘Bog’ Limestone in New York is relatively rare, and the source of the building material for the First (United) Presbyterian Church of Mumford comes from a particularly thick deposit outside of town, according to some reports I have found…Tufa (and marl) tend to form due to decomposing limestone (and gypsum rich) rocks, which were deposited in abundance in New York during the Silurian and Devonian periods (roughly 400 million years ago). Rainwater has a component of carbonic acid within it, which can dissolve the these types of rocks, hold it in solution until the water is supersaturated with it and is deposited along waterfalls, river or stream banks…While tufa is most often used burning into lime (for the iron and steel industry), if it is compact enough it can be used as a cheap and often durable building material. It can be cut into the required shape and allowed to dry to form construction materials.”
While Chris and I did not actually get a chance to actually go to the original bog to try and find some bog limestone, we were pleasantly surprised to meet some really great people and to learn a plethora of history we had not counted on. It is really quite remarkable what can be used to make a building and Chris and I now have some interesting ideas of how we may one day be able to make our own installment to the burned over district!