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1930's Church Reunion
1930's Church Reunion

Archives & Photo Gallery
Archives and Photo Gallery

Frank & Myrtle Church's Family
Frank & Myrtle's Family

Visiting Grandfather and Grandmother Church in Petersburgh


by Jean Bierwirth Bornt

When I was growing up I spent many happy hours at Grandmother and Grandfather Church's at their house by the river in Petersburgh NY. During summer vacations from school I would stay there for weeks at time. All of their many grandchildren were welcome to spend as much time as they wished at their "home away from home."

Now I should remark from the start that I'm not just being pretentious or trying to be formal in my writing when I call my grandparents "Grandfather" and "Grandmother," not "Grandpa" or "Nana" like some of the kids do now. All of us grandchildren actually DID address them in this fashion and still talk about them as "Grandmother and Grandfather" even to this day.

I remember Grandfather had a side porch on the river side where he would take his nap in the porch swing. He had a rope attached to a porch post and would rock himself to sleep. The sound of the river gurgling over the rock ledges was a beautiful lullaby for an afternoon snooze.

Inside the door from the porch was their living room. They had an old roll-top couch which Grandmother covered with a spread she had crocheted from long torn strips of colorful cloth she had sewn end-to-end. Grandfather hand-carved her the smooth wooden crochet hook that she used for crocheting. The back of the couch was lined with brightly-colored pillows assembled from pieces of saved materials.

Grandmother's creativity was evident in everything she did, and especially in making pretty things out of the scraps and leftovers from past projects. She was a born decorator who used her Yankee ingenuity to make up for the things she never had and couldn't afford.

Continuing on with my tour of their house - in the dining room I recall a round oak table with claw feet, with a matching sideboard. It had an ornate shelf, a marble top with drawers and doors galore. Here was where Grandmother kept all her treasures.

I loved to rummage through these drawers, and poke and examine all the wonderful items she had saved. One treasure that she gave me and I still have is the postcard dated December 1, 1924 that Mom and Dad, Esther and Otto Bierwirth, had sent them while on their honeymoon in Boston. (see card at right)

Off the dining room was a storage room that Grandmother made over into a "summer" kitchen. She single-handedly painted and papered the walls and laid a sheet of linoleum on the old floor. After moving in a cupboard and an oil stove, now, in these long-ago days before Home Depot ceiling fans and Trane air conditioning, she had a place to cook during the hot humid days of June, July, and August.

Without cooking in the kitchen of the main part of the house, the place would stay relatively cool without air-conditioning. Grandmother would close the windows early in the morning, and without the sun coming in it was quite comfortable.

It didn't matter how many folks dropped in unexpectably around mealtime. Grandmother would see to it that no one went away hungry. Down in the cellar was a store of home-canned meat, vegetables, and fruit that she would draw upon to whip up an elegant meal fit for a king. I think there was a good reason why some of those folks showed up around mealtime, especially in the lean times of the Great Depression!

In a dining alcove off the main kitchen was another circular oak table, and during the fall and winter, both Grandfather and Grandmother cooked on a cast-iron wood stove. Here's where their famous "water" johnny cake would come straight out of the oven onto the round table, where it would be slapped with a dollop of yellow butter to ooze down into the cornbread just seconds before being instantly devoured by a hungry child who had been playing outdoors all day by the river. Unfortunately, the recipe to reproduce that wonderful taste has never been exactly duplicated.

Here also was the source of the "boiled dinners," stewed in an iron kettle over the wood stove's blackened griddles. It started with ham or salt pork cooked 'til 'almost' done; then the cabbage, potatoes, carrots, onions, and sometimes turnips and beets would be added along with a little cayenne pepper.

Grandmother also made yeast rolls that were light and fluffy with a brown crust on the top and bottom, (see her recipe at right) and were fondly known as "Grandmother's Rolls." She made and sold them to many of the neighbors. I have the recipe directly from her because when I was first married she came to my house and directed how to make them step-by-step. (See recipes above.)

Another of everyone's favorites from her kitchen was her baked beans. She always brought this "covered dish" to all the family picnics, reunions and parties, or "infairs" as Grandfather called them. All the picnic-goers made sure they got second helpings of "Myrt's Beans" (recipe above.)

Did food taste better back then or do one's taste buds dull with age?

The old round oak table could tell some fascinating tales of the Saturday night card games of "pitch" as Grandfather and his cronies gathered around it for an evening's diversion. They took their cards seriously, even though they were only playing for "points," and their language was more than a little emphatic as they slapped their cards down onto the table with cries of triumph or disgust!

Grandfather also had an yellowed and faded Chinese checker board with its colored marbles set up on a small tray table, ready for challengers to his prowess at any time of day. Grandmother loved working on picture puzzles, and always had one in progress on a card table in the parlor. And in those days before collages were widely known as an art form, Grandmother had a wall collage composed of photographs of her children and grandchildren.

The old house originally had been the town's blacksmith shop when they purchased it about 1913. In time Grandfather converted the upstairs into three bedrooms with a bathroom, as they were able to afford materials and furnishings. In their bedroom Grandmother needed a "clothes press," or closet, so she built one out of cardboard and curtains which served its purpose just fine.

The old house originally had been the town's blacksmith shop when they purchased it about 1913. In time Grandfather converted the upstairs into three bedrooms with a bathroom, as they were able to afford materials and furnishings. In their bedroom Grandmother needed a "clothes press," or closet, so she built one out of cardboard and curtains which served its purpose just fine.

Across the hall the largest bedroom had another depository of treasures - a chest of drawers where Aunt Harriet kept all her school mementoes. Grandmother allowed me to rummage through this fascinating collection whenever I showed up as a guest.

Grandfather's Pomeranian pup "Prince," which he fondly nicknamed "Printer," was given orders in the late mornings before noon to awaken all the sleepy heads who were staying over at the time. He would send Printer up to get us up for breakfast. Up the stairs Printer would bound, jump onto the bed, and lick us in the face until we arose to tumble down to "brunch."

Grandmother belonged to the Home Bureau, part of the county extension service which encouraged and promoted useful do-it-yourself home projects out in the rural areas. It also gave the housewives an outlet for socializing outside their homes while working on their projects. Grandmother made many lovely and fancy hats while she was a member, which she wore whenever it was sunny. Perhaps that is why she had such a youthful and wrinkle-free complexion even into her seventies.

Once she took me to a "quilting bee" at the Methodist Church hall. The ladies let me help with the quilting stitches, which was a big thrill for a young girl. All the ladies had brought a dessert and during the rest period we had all these home-made goodies with coffee, tea, and lemonade. When the quilt was finished it was raffled off, the proceeds going to the church. The lucky winner received a unique handcrafted item, a real historical and sentimental treasure.

Every spring after the danger of frost was considered to be past, Grandfather and Grandmother planted a garden on the river bottom land behind Uncle Jay's house. (See the photo of Uncle Jay's garden on the "Under the Bridge" page.) As the river meandered back and forth in the channel that it had cut through the ancient bedrock, it deposited a sandy loam that produced bountiful crops.

As the summer progressed they spent many hours there hoeing and weeding in the morning before the heat of the day. By middle August and early September it was time to harvest the crops. Grandfather called harvest time "The Green Corn Dance." Besides tomatoes and carrots and corn and squash, they raised cranberry beans, a red and white striped variety.

When the beans were dried enough to shell, they brought them to the kitchen along with fresh picked sweet corn. Grandmother cut the corn from the cob, shelled the beans, and combined them in a large kettle with water to cook. After the potpurri was done, she added milk, butter, salt, pepper, and heated it to make this "succotash," a dish with roots in Indian lore. Served with the aforementioned "water johnnycake" it was, I think, their most delicious and memorable treat.



Here we are at Grandmother's with her "summer" kitchen in the background, about 1937 or '38: Me (Jean), my mother Esther, and my younger brothers in front - Tommy, Johnny, & Jimmy (I didn't really tower over my mother like that - since I am so short I must have been standing on a box!)

Grandmother's Rolls or Bread

(Grandmother Myrtle Church's original family recipe)

  2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter

Rolls: Heat together - Bring to a boil, but do not boil. Let cool. 1 yeast cake dissolved in 1 cup lukewarm water. Stir in 7 cups flour. Use 1/2 cup to mold to put in bowl. Grease bowl. Cover until raised to top. Punch and roll out. Cut off in pieces. Shape into balls. Let raise again. Bake in 350° until done. Take out of oven; Brush with butter immediately.

Method for bread: Let yeast soak until milk is cool. Put milk in mixing bowl with dissolved yeast. Add flour gradually and mix until all flour is in. Knead on floured board until smooth. Put in greased bowl and cover with greased cover. Let rise until dough comes to top of bowl. Divide in half and shape. Put in greased bread tins, bake.

"Myrt's Beans"

Soak large package of navy or great northern beans overnight, completely covered with water. Add more as needed.

In the morning slice salt pork into strips and boil for 20 min. in water. Add drained beans and add water to cover.

Add a little crushed red pepper flakes, 1/2 cup sugar. Salt and black pepper to taste.

Cook covered until tender. Pour into a baking pan and sprinkle brown sugar.

Aunt Harriet Willetts' Chili Sauce

(given to Aunt Harriet by Vivian White,
a very old recipe)

12 tomatoes (peeled and blended)
3 onions (ground)
3 green peppers (ground)
1-1/4 cups of sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup vinegar
Cook 2 hours or more
Add some crushed red pepper to taste
Put in sterilized jars and seal
Makes about six pints

Floss McCumber, Grandmother, and granddaughter Susie McCumber (photo courtesy of Kathy McCumber Armstrong)

Rev. and Mrs. David Paton, (above) pastor of the Petersburg Methodist Church; Parsonage shown on right (south) side of church
Otto Bierwirth and Esther Church were married here November 31, 1924 by Rev. Paton

Reprinted from The Eastwick Press, July 5, 2002, p. 23

C. Malden Wells was born in Petersburgh on August 4, 1907. He grew up in the "mill yard" (Wells complex). He lives now in Watervliet.

Homemade Drinks Circa 1930

Now this is a true story; a lemonade story.

Rev. David Paton was assigned to the Petersburgh Methodist church in the 1920's. I was in Nichols Store on a Sunday when Rev. Paton and his wife stopped. there. Mrs. Paton told Mr. Nichols that she was so glad the store was open because she needed some lemons. The Reverend said, at once, that they could not encourage Fred to be open on Sunday, so he added, they could buy on Sunday. Our church agrees, and so do I, he added. She responded that she was hosting the Ladies Aid Society later in the day and she already told the ladies to come for she was serving lemonade. I think she wore the pants in the family, or maybe she was just an excellent salesperson. In any case the Reverend told her to go in and ask if you can get the lemons today and pay for them on Monday.

Perhaps times haven't changed that much. Recently a clergyman called my niece to babysit on his Sabbath. Then he asked her if she could come back later to get paid. - C. Malden Wells

Otto and Esther's honeymoon postcard back home to Grandfather and Grandmother, postmarked Boston, Mass., Dec. 1, 1924

The "Ford" coil, cause of the cussin'!

One Sunday morning after services outside the Methodist Church, Otto, always the practical joker, had hooked up a "Ford" coil on a switch and wired it to his car doorhandle. Calling over a church lady to his car, she leaned on the door, and he threw the switch. An arc of electricity jolted her backwards.

"You S.O.B.!" she screamed, then realized her location and covered her mouth. "Look what you've made me do, now! You've made me swear in the church yard!"

In the 1940's after World War II was over, a fad of making "granny" afghans swept the country among the ladies who enjoyed handcrafting. Those who could afford it purchased new wool yarn (acrylics weren't invented yet).

Grandmother, thrifty and inventive as always, let it be known amongst the family that she was going to make one with discarded wool sweaters. Every one pitched in and gave her their old used stretched-out sweaters, (some khaki ones from the Army boys, too). After she had been given enough of them for the project, she washed them all, and then began the tedious process of preparing her "yarn" for the afghan.

First she laborously unraveled all the sweaters. Then she balled the yarn and divided it into its various colors. It took a while, but eventually from these discards she crocheted a beautiful "granny" afghan coverlet.

And these were some of my happy, serene childhood days in the 1930's visiting my grandparents Frank and Myrtle Church on the banks of the Little Hoosic River.

- Jean Bierwirth Bornt, July 2002

Ed. Note: Mrs. Jean Bierwirth Bornt is a member of the National Society of the Daughters of the Revolution, Reference Number 820016.

(Above) Delphinum (one of Grandmother's flowers...also, see the "Church Begonia" and "Jean's 'Pinks' ")

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The Church Family of Petersburgh, NY website Featuring Descendants of Frank and Myrtle Church
©2002 by Daniel J. Bornt, e-mail to: