Chenango Forks United Methodist lasted the longest in a church group

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For readers of this column, you already know that I attended schools in Chenango Forks and spent much of my youth riding the bus through the hamlet of Chenango Forks until many of us call still ‘old school’.

I went to play bingo at the Chenango Forks Fire Station and enjoyed field days on the land next to the Tioughnioga River. I also remember so many buildings hugging the mountain that forced Chenango Forks to nestle between that hill and the Chenango River.

It was a small hamlet which at one time had everything it needed. Two hotels, a train station, train tracks and the Chenango Canal, a funeral home, pharmacy, fire station, and a variety of stores—and four, yes four, churches spanned about three-tenths of a mile. That’s a lot of religion for a small population.

The former Terwilliger Hotel in the hamlet of Chenango Forks, circa 1900.

Sadly, today none of the churches have remained open, and only one, the old Roman Catholic Church of St. Rita, is still standing and turned into a business.

St. John’s Episcopal Church left first. It was a small church that opened in the 1870s with only about 30 members, which seems to have evaporated by the 1930s. Chenango Forks Congregational Church was the largest of the churches and was erected in the 1930s. 1870, but it too closed in the 1970s and was moved to another building. A small Congregational church was erected to the south of the hamlet which has also since closed for service.

The Chenango Forks United Methodist Church that was destroyed by a canal, as it appeared in 1954.

That leaves the Chenango Forks United Methodist Church. Of the four churches, it has the most unusual and resilient history. The building, which stood on Church Street in the part of this area that is in the town of Chenango, did not begin its religious history in Broome County. No, the building began as a church in the village of Oxford in Chenango County.

This is where the story gets a little tricky, as using multiple historical resources results in three different dates as to when this church building made its way to Broome County. It seems that in 1844 a small group of people from Chenango Forks started worshiping the Methodist faith in that area – probably in someone’s house. The church building may have been dismantled in Oxford that year. He was then placed on steamers and down the Chenango Canal to lock gate 104 at Chenango Forks, and back up the hill south of the hamlet.

A steamer travels down the Chenango Canal in this painting from around 1860.

There is a ten year gap in the parish records, but we know that the church was incorporated in 1854 – which may also be the year the church was moved to its final location. Whatever the correct year, the church would remain a part of this community for over 125 years. There are countless mentions in the newspapers of religious suppers and events held in the building, apart from the weekly church services. There were many women’s group meetings and events geared to the needs of this not wealthy part of Broome County.

This church, together with that of North Fenton and Tunnel, formed a small Methodist division, but attendance, even in the 1950s, was not large. Still, the church persevered, and in 1971 neighbors and members Phyllis Ziska and her son Mark (a classmate of mine) repainted the structure. But the number of people present continued to drop, as in the other churches of this hamlet. Churches cannot stay open if there are not enough people to support them financially. One by one, the churches disappeared.

Mark Ziska, top, and his mother Phyllis repaint Chenango Forks United Methodist Church in 1971.

Chenango Forks United Methodist Church closed around 1990 for the last time. This time the building was again dismantled for wood. The 1877 bell in its tower has found a new home. Although the church is gone, the Communion service used in this church was donated to the collections of the Broome County Historical Society and made an appearance in the Historical Society’s County Bicentennial exhibit in 2006.

A church transported by a canal that found a new home in Chenango Forks still evokes memories of times past.

Gerald Smith is a former Broome County historian. Email him at [email protected]

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