The Old North Church, one of Danville’s most treasured historic buildings, exudes the character that is spoken of by Moore. Located in the middle of woods, it peeks out of the forest, white and gracious, speaking to us of times past. On July 29, this pristine architectural building and the people who care for it hosted a celebration of its second major restoration since the community of North Danville went into action to save it in the late 1950s.
Originally built in 1832, through the combined efforts of four churches, the Old North Church became the local religious center of the Free Will Baptists, Methodist, Congregational and Christian denominations. A historical document exists that identifies how the use of the building was divided into time blocks for each of the four groups.
The building itself was constructed by local artisans and reflects their impressive building skills in creating a large-spanned space — a post-and-beam barn. Heavy, hand-carved curved beams support the roof and are clearly seen from the choir loft, as well as by gazing upward if seated in the sanctuary below. It creates an airy, spacious meeting room, alive with the busy handiwork of structural technique.
The most spectacular architectural element in the church is the large Palladian window that graces the front of the building, reportedly one of three windows that one can find in the entire state. Flanking the window are the twin entrance doors, trimmed in the linear molding of the early 1800s. Along each side of the building are four large multi-pained windows that light the interior with sunshine during the day; at night, oil lanterns by each of the windows provide dim lighting. No longer used, but still a mechanical wonder, is a large center chandelier that hoisted oil lanterns high above the congregation. By looking up today, a congregant is afforded the opportunity to study the intricate rope pulley system that was used to raise and lower the chandelier.
The floors are of wide wooden planking, and, near the front, still visible are the markings of where family box pews were stationed. These pews, since removed, were the means of raising funds for the building of the church, the total cost of which came to $1,400; the sale of family box pews brought in $800 and the remaining $600 was a gift from building committee members John A. Stanton and Theophilus Drew.
As with most of Vermont’s older buildings, over time the church was updated by remodeling. We know now that some of these structural treasures were hidden or marred by such well-meaning efforts. In 1868, after the ravages of the diphtheria plague, the migration from Vermont for points west and the Civil War, the old church could no longer host four denominations. The Methodists became the sole owners. According to a pamphlet describing the church history, the open choir loft was enclosed to serve as kitchen; the original chandelier was replaced by one holding 14 lamps from a church in Hardwick; a ceiling of white plaster covered up the curved beams, a carpet was laid covering the floor, and the box pews were removed, replaced with the ones that are present today.
It is not known when regular services ceased, but quoting from an article written by Eugenia Powers in 1982 for the Burlington Free Press, “the last regular preacher was Deaconess Laura Buchanan, who came in 1909 and preached for about two years, later marrying a local resident.” Powers also related two engaging stories, most likely from oral history and old photograph albums. “Practical jokes were common—like the time a dignified deacon picked up the long-handled collection box and found a large green frog beneath it.” And as, “a good driving horse was a prized possession, it is said that men raced their fancy Morgans on the Wheelock road between Sunday services.”
Powers’ article continued, presenting information about what happened after the Methodists discontinued the church as a place of worship. The North Danville Tampico area formed a school association in 1928, and “an annual reunion was held at the school on a Saturday in August, with speakers, musical programs and baked bean dinners. On the following day, the Old North Church would be host for an Old Home Day service. Some of the speakers were well known—like Governor Weeks, who spoke at the 100th anniversary.”
Citing World War II gasoline rationing, Powers reported the cessation of the annual tradition until “Arthur Sanborn of North Danville, long a member of the Vermont Legislature, worked to revive interest. The Lamplight Service Committee was formed to assist him, and beginning in 1957, weekly lamplight services were held in the summer and fall.” This is when work began in earnest to save the Old North Church.
In 1960 the church went through its first renovation. The ceiling, which was falling in places, was completely taken down, once again exposing the structure of the roof. The plastered walls were repapered, covering damage under a wood-grained paper. The carpet was removed and the wide boards refinished. To support the renovation, weekly lamplight services were held. In three years, enough money was raised by freewill offerings to cover the cost.
Though unattended by the Methodist circuit, the deed to the church was still in their hands. The Danville Methodist church intimated they were considering reviving the church as a North Danville Methodist church. In a letter dated, April 2, 1962, and addressed to Larry Cahoon, the secretary of the Danville Methodist church, the Lamplight Service Committee, requested that “First, the hymn books purchased by the committee for the Old North Church and stamped with its name, will be used for this church only,” and second that “The Lamplight Service Committee name of the Old North Church be dropped completely and not used again,” explaining that they wanted to “treasure this name, as being exclusively our own.”
A year later, in a letter dated March 11, 1963, Larry Cahoon related to Arthur Sanborn that “John Swainbank was in here the other day and I told him what we wanted to do and asked his opinion. He thinks that we could give a ‘quit-claim’ deed which would be all legal and binding.” From this, we can surmise that during the previous year, the idea of reopening the church as a North Danville Methodist had been dismissed. Also in the letter is a directive for the future of the building: “One other thing I think we should be thoroughly agreed on, and that’s the conditions we will want to write into the deed as to what the building can and cannot be used for. To prevent its misuse in years to come after we are all dead and gone. I think also that some of us should attend the next Historical Society meeting and acquaint them with what we are trying to do and make sure there will be an agreement, perhaps in writing, with the folks in North Danville concerning the care, etc., of the building.”
According to the quit-claim deed, conveyed to the Danville Historical Society on Aug. 17, 1964, the two groups had worked out the conditions: “This conveyance is given with the condition that these premises be used only for events connected with Religious or Historical purposes.” The Historical Society was a fledging group itself, having formed in 1961; thus the need for assurance that North Danville citizens would continue shouldering the responsibility for the building. The Lamplight Committee name was changed to the Old North Church committee, and they accepted the burden of caring for the church.
Under the committee’s care, the church was, and still is, tended with loving care. The Lamplight services became monthly events during the summer — the interior scrubbed and shiny, the exterior kept in paint, landscape grooming by committee members, and meetings and hymn singing directed by a variety of host pastors, accompanied by a pump organ. No electricity or running water was allowed by the committee; the outhouse was located across the road and flashlights were required to read hymnals as the summer sun moved behind the trees.
In 2004, Dick and Sue Strifert, who were relative newcomers to North Danville, fell in love with the old building. Feeling it was time to update the renovations by going back in time, they researched and wrote a grant for funding a historic preservation project to bring the church back to its earlier condition of 1868, before it was updated by the Methodists. After a grant was received by the Robert Sincerbeaux Fund, an evaluation was completed by well known preservationist, Jan Lewandowski. Bids from and recommendations from S.A. Fishburn, another well known preservationist, followed.
The Preservation Trust and Freeman Foundation of Vermont responded by awarding the project $30,000 in 2008. Also, Bill Stanton, a North Danville relative of the many Stantons who founded the area, bequeathed $20,000 of his estate to the church as well as a parcel of land to the south of the building to cushion it from development. With these funds and the successful “Adopt a Window” campaign initiated by the Striferts, the funding was in place.
In 2012, the second renovation, mostly directed and carried out by S.A. Fishburn, is complete. Windows are restored, the choir loft has been reopened, the walls replastered and a new, state-of-the-art outhouse, built by Dick Strifert, is located on land that was given by Stanton.
Still, there is no electricity, and the monthly lamplighter services continue.
A celebration of the second renovation of the Old North Church took place on Sunday, July 29 2012, at the annual Old Home Day. A photograph was planned at 6:30, weather permitting, to replicate the 1947 photo with those present lining the front of the building. A cake in the shape of the Old North Church, made by Dawn Peck by order of the Danville Chamber of Commerce, was served. The main speaker of the night was Ann Cousins of the Vermont Preservation Trust. During the service, Paul Chouinard, past president of the Danville Historical Society and Kenneth Linsley, president of the Danville Chamber of Commerce presented an award to the Old North Church Committee, past and present, as its Citizen of the Year designee. Hymns, with flashlights at the ready, were sung.