Meandering Around Malone, NY
October 18, 2013

You can’t miss the First Congregational Church of Malone when driving through this upstate New York town. It commands the corner of Clay Street and East Main Street, and its sturdy stone bell tower is the tallest edifice for blocks around. 

Not only can you not miss it—you shouldn’t.  We visited the church on our trip to see the Almanzo Wilder Homestead on the outskirts of Malone, which is a lovely town left behind by the Industrial Revolution in the United States.  Who knew that that the earth beneath Malone had done so very much?  Having read the Laura Ingalls Wilder book Farmer Boy, we knew that it supported a robust farm community, but on our visit to the church, we learned much more. 

We had heard that the church was possibly the one that the Wilder family attended, pulling up proudly every Sunday in their horse-drawn carriage or sleigh, with the girls wearing hoopskirts so big that Almanzo and his brother could hardly get in.  The trip was five miles, but would take a half hour.  Donna, the church secretary, confirmed this—and more—during an impromptu tour that she kindly gave us. 

An amateur historian on the church and all things Malone, Donna said she had found paperwork confirming that the Wilder family had been parishioners.  The handsome stable that Father rented is no longer out back, and the church itself was reconstructed starting in 1883, but it was exciting for Halina, our Little House on the Prairie-obsessed daughter, to be around the stained-glass windows that might have once captivated young Almanzo. 

We also learned that William Wheeler, vice president under Rutherford B. Hayes, was a member and indeed, his pew is commemorated as such.  The most riveting history of all, however, awaited us in the basement. 

Underground Railroad

Hidden well below the bright windows and shiny pews are tunnels dug deep in the earth, mostly likely after the 1852 Fugitive Slave Act, as part of the massive Underground Railroad that was once used to spirit slaves away from ownership and to freedom in Canada.  Canada is about 20 miles north of Malone, and Donna said that there is evidence of other tunnels throughout town, heading that way. 

The church has delineated two of the holes with cement borders, and they are covered over with wooden doors.  The church runs formal tours for school groups, but on the day we visited, Donna gave us an expert and gripping run-down.  A tunnel is about as far away from the outdoors you can get, yet Halina, who’s seven, and her brother Riley, who’s 10, very much appreciated that these underground borrows once liberated people to the outdoors and more. 

Touring the Town

Malone is situated 20 or so miles outside of the massive Adirondack Park, and for the Wilder homestead and First Congregational Church, it is worth the detour to see.  The downtown also boasts the exact county fairgrounds where Almanzo once won a blue ribbon in the pumpkin contest, having gorged his gourd on milk instead of plain water.  The Franklin County Fair is generally held early in August.  Their annual Childstock Harvest Fest—a family-friendly music festival complete with sack races, face pumpkin carving—will be held on Sunday, October 27 from 12 P.M. to 8 P.M.

While the downtown is in need of an economic revival, the building stock and architecture is lovely, and features the wide sidewalks of an earlier era so it is very walkable.  Ambling around, as we like to do, you can sense how the streets once bustled with horse-drawn carriages, and the sidewalks teemed with farm folk in town to bank, shop for dry goods, and carry out commerce by barter and trade. 

Logistics

Malone sits where Route 30 north and Route 11 meet.  It is a 5-hour drive from Manhattan, so we stayed at a hotel on Route 11. There are several places to stay nearby and many options for delicious family meals.


 

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