Playhouse and Music Theatre

September 28, 2005
Last Revised
January 1, 2013
Robert K, Lynch

Welcome to the Elias Church!! You have just stepped back in time to 1806 when this church was built. Thomas Jefferson was president. The Louisiana Purchase was negotiated with France only three years ago for three cents an acre, more then doubling the size of the United States. There were only 16 states, none west of Ohio. The Elias Church building rests in West Buffalo Township and within Northumberland County. West Buffalo Township was created in 1792, Youngman’s Town was founded in 1792, and Union County was not carved from Northumberland County until 1813. The community is named Youngman’s Town and is not officially called Mifflinburg until its incorporation in 1827. Surprisingly, it is referred to as Mifflinburg as early as 1805 in the Elias Church subscription list presently in the archives of the UCC Church in Mifflinburg (the original Reformed congregation that shared the church with the Lutherans when the Elias Church was built). Mifflinburg, at that time, was the largest community in what is now Union County; there was no “Turnpike” road between Mifflinburg and present day Lewisburg until 24 years later, and records indicate that monetary transactions were still in pounds, shillings, and pence. No wonder the Elias Church was only the third church built in the entire area.

In 1773, the Presbyterians organized and built the first church in the area at Buffalo Cross Roads. The original building no longer stands. It was rebuilt for a third time in 1845 on the original site, and is still standing today. It was purchased several years ago by private owners and is no longer used as a congregational church. This original 1773 congregation represents an era when Indian hostility was present and, in 1780, most settlers left the valley for their own safety. This time in history is referred to as “The Great Runaway”. Shortly after 1780, settlers began to return to the valley.

By 1788, enough settlers dotted the valley that the need for other churches began to develop. As was customary in this era, the German Reformed and Lutherans combined and erected a new church called the “Dreisbach Church” on the New Berlin Mountain Road. Martin Dreisbach donated Seven acres of land for the erection of this “Union Church”. This original church was of log construction. A second brick church replaced the original structure in 1845 and, while being remodeled in 1970, its foundation gave way, causing severe damage to the structure. A new brick church was built and its beautiful structure can be observed today.

By 1805, Mifflinburg continued to grow and sentiment began to develop that a new German Reformed-Lutheran “Union Church” was needed since the travel distance to the Dreisbach Church was inconvenient and time consuming. A building committee was formed, including Sebastian Whittmer, John Dreisbach, George Roush, and Michael Schock, and a subscription list created to finance the new church. Elias Youngman, founder of Mifflinburg, provided a lot to be used for this purpose, Reverend Ludwig Albrecht Wilhelm Ilgen, Frederick Adam Gutelius, and others were also influential in the construction and creation of the building and congregation. By 1806, the Elias Church was up and running.

The German Reformed and Lutheran congregations used the Elias Church until 1857. As the town and church membership grew, it was decided that new and bigger churches were needed. Both congregations built at their present sites, the German Reform (St. Johns UCC Church) at 417 Market St. and the Lutherans (First Evangelical Lutheran Church) at 404 Market St. The Mifflinburg Borough purchased the building for the sum of $1,000 and remodeled it into a high school. Extensive renovations were made to the building and we will try to demonstrate how we know what its original structure was with reasonable certainty. We will be relying on three methods: 1. Written description, 2. Historical description, 3. Forensic evidence.

Before continuing further it is important to know some of the information about these influential people above:

Elias Youngman-

Reverend Ludwig Albrecht Wilhelm Ilgen-

Frederick Adam Gutelius-

Reverend Fries

1. Written description- although we have no photographic pictures of the Elias Church as it existed in 1806-1857, we do have a written description that appears in the October 7, 1885 “The Messenger”, a Reformed newsletter. It references the Synod held at the Elias Church, 1828 in Mifflinburg, and describes the interior of the church with excerpts as follows: “The opening sermon was preached on Sunday morning, September 28, 1828, by Rev. Samuel Helfenstein Sr. from I Tim. 4:16. The pastor at that time was Rev. Yost Henry Fries, then fifty one years old, short, full-faced, erect, plain but tidy in dress, high tempered, strong will, democrat, and very outspoken.”

Synod met in the old Elias church built in 1806 at the south side of town. The building is now used as a barn. Oats, wheat and hay are now seen in the windows from which the young people on the galleries then looked out over the valley. An aisle ran from the east door to the west door and another from altar to the north door (only the west door had lock and key). On the south side was the pulpit, of wineglass shape, high up against the wall. On a platform just below it stood the large altar without railing, at which Father Fries, standing still, administered the Lord’s Supper to the people as they moved around it. Two Franklin stoves were at the east and west ends, a little in from the aisle. From these went pipes into a great drum overhead, and from the center of this a pipe went upward. The elderly women sat in the southeast corner of the church, the young unmarried women in the northeast corner and the young married women in the northwest corner. All these were below. A gallery was on three sides. To the right of the pulpit were the singers and the organ; on the west end sat the boys and young unmarried men and on the north side, opposite the pulpit, sat the young married men. The pews below were very long, holding twelve or fifteen, with high backs. On the front pew in the old men’s corner sat the elders and deacons. Along the front pew on the women’s side was a red wood-chest. The deacons always made the fire. Sextons were not known. Coal came along time afterward. Tallow candles on the posts on wooden or tin holders, (brass for the pulpit), dimly lighted the church. At confirmation (only every two years), the girls wore white caps and white dresses, (even down perhaps to 1858). The communion wine was in fine bottles and the bread was on a pewter plate, (only once a year).

On the steeple were a ball, a bird, a tulip and an arrow. On the arrow was the date of building. All these are gone except the bird, and many an eye today turns toward it for weather signs. The bell (put up in 1820-24?) now is now displayed in the Mifflinburg High School.

  • Historical Description- We (John Vought, Carl Catherman, Bob Lynch) paid a special visit to Fredrick Conrad Weiser, a noted church historian and lecturer on Pennsylvania churches, and he states that German Reformed and Lutheran Union Churches tended to be identical, with slight differences, in the early eighteen hundred era. We have visited the Saint Johns Lutheran Church in Brickerville (built in 1807) and the Bindnagle Church outside Palmyra (built in 1803) and have found each to comport nearly identical to the written description and forensic evidence of the Elias Church in Mifflinburg. We have in our possession a photograph of the Brickerville Church as it appeared in 1807 as well as recently taken photographs of the Bindnagle Church that still exists as it did in 1803. Both match the written description of the Elias Church appearance as it was when built in 1806.
  • Forensic Evidence- As we stand in the center of the church, observe the south wall where the pulpit originally stood. A hallway led from the pulpit to a door on the north. Observe the square holes in the original door framing which contained the Dutch door hinges on the right and the latches on the left. As indicated in the written description, only the door on the west wall contained a lock. The other two were locked from the interior. A door also existed in the center of the wall on the east and led by an isle to a center door on the west wall. Churches of this era were heavy in symbolism and these three doors were symbols of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. This church also contained a three-sided balcony that is evidenced by the support beams you see as you look to the balcony. The pulpit was elevated so that the minister could see "eye to eye" with the congregation seated in the balcony. The elderly women sat in the southeast of the church, the elderly men in the southwest; the young unmarried women in the northeast corner; and the young married women in the northwest corner. In the gallery, the young boys and unmarried men sat in the west corner, the married men in the north gallery, and to the right of the pulpit was the chorus and organ. The church could seat about 250 people. This Elias Church remained active until 1857 when both the German Reform and Lutherans decided to build their own church at the present locations on Market Street. The German Reform Church (now Saint Johns United Church of Christ) is still the original building while the Lutherans rebuilt in 1900 at the same location.

In 1857, the Elias Church was purchased by the Borough of Mifflinburg for $1000 and converted into a high school. Renovations occurred. Observe the right and left corners of the south wall. You can see evidence of two sets of steps that were installed at this time. The risers are visible where the grey looking paint is seen. Risers were constructed against the wall and then the walls repainted the color you see on the original five-quarter boards. The gray paint represents its original color of the church because they were unable to paint back of the risers. The school also installed a door where the pulpit once stood. This is evident by artist Christine Pontius’s Elias Church painting done between 1857 and 1864. It clearly shows a door exists where the pulpit once stood. The school, to form two classrooms on the first floor, installed three petitions. The open chamber, which surrounded the three balconies, was closed in as a floor for the second story of the building. If you look to the left window on the west wall, you can see where the petition was built. You can also observe where the petition was attached to the joists by notching the petition studs and nailing them along the side of the ceiling joists. Evidence of the petition also exists by observing the joists on the east wall and ceiling as well. This formed the closed-in hallway that ran from the east wall to the west wall and included the pair of steps. Observe the large timber supporting the balcony on both the east and the west ceiling. The timbers were cut off about four feet from the outside wall to make room for the staircase. If this were not done, students using the steps would hit their head since, if left in tact, it would be much to low. You can see the newly built hall petition became the support for the cut-off timbers. Also take notice that the stairs pass through the center of the window. This was done to provide light above and below the steps.
The second petition extended from the middle of the hallway to the original door on the north wall. The door was removed, of course, and replaced by the solid petition. If you look at the ceiling you will observe that the entire ceiling was plastered at this time. Looking at the joists that were notched in, when the chamber was enclosed by the school, you can see that no plaster lines exist where the petition existed. That is because the petition was constructed, the plaster lath then added and plastered. Therefore no plaster lines exist under the petition location. This created two large rooms on the first floor. You can also observe the added joist that was placed in the ceiling for the petition to be attached to in the middle of the former north door. It is also evident that two windows were cut into the north wall framing, one on each side of the petition, to increase lighting. Thanks to Glen and Ruth Zimmerman for the Christine Pontius’s art painting of the Elias Church. It has been very valuable in helping to understand its history. Ruth is a descendant of the Pontius family, one of the original families to receive from the Penns, a land grant in this area. A portion of the farm is still in the family.
On the cover of the “History of Mifflinburg”, written By Charles McCool Snyder, you will see the representation that a door existed on the west-southwest corner of the building. The picture was taken by Doctor John Gast around 1900 and is the earliest photograph of the church that is known to exist. However, as you look at the framing in the southwest corner, you can clearly see that no original door existed at this location. It originally was located in the very center of the west wall of the building. The west framing where two doors now exist, as well as the two doors on the east side, were changed when turned into a double house in 1921. The framing on all four walls will be reconstructed to its original condition in the near future.

1876- in 1876, the Mifflinburg Borough built a state of the art high school at the foot of the Mifflinburg Cemetery hill. The Elias Church building was sold to Robert Weirick, a buggy trimmer. The church building was used as a barn-storage for the next twenty-six years and little is known during this ownership. Historical books indicate it was used to store grain and other farm related items during this era. During the restoration committee’s dismantling of the building, plenty of oats and wheat were found in the walls of the building. On the second floor, there are west wall doors that were installed through the framing and appear to have been used for hay and grain access. On the north wall there is also a small framing support that has been cut off and appears to have been used as a hay chute. It seems likely that Mr. Weirick would have made the changes, although it is not certain when these two alterations occurred. On May 2, 1904, it was resold to buggy maker John Gutelius.

1904- Buggy maker John Gutelius purchased the property in 1904 and used the building as a repository for his buggy manufacturing business located on Market Street. While owning the building he added a buggy ramp on the south side of the building and cut through the framing on the south wall to install doors for access to the second floor from the top of the ramp. Signs of the ramp are visible on the outside south wall of the building. In 1919, he sold the building to Thurston Diehl and, by 1921, remodeled into a double house.

1919- Thurston Diehl purchased the building and by 1921 converted it into a double house, both sides being of equal size and identical layout. They consisted of a living room on the west, a dining room in the center, and a kitchen on the east. Porches were added on the east and west. A door to each unit was installed from both porches.
For the third time stairs were installed at a new location. Observe the beam traveling west to east and you will see it has been cut to accommodate the installation of the stairs in the north apartment. A rod was inserted through the beam and hanged from the massive roof structure to support the weight of the second floor, a practice generally unheard of. The stairs will be removed in time and the beam reconstructed and supported. Upstairs consisted of three bedrooms and a large room for a bath. Two chimneys were built resting on the floor, one close to the corner of the southwest wall and the other close to the corner of the northwest wall. A third chimney was built resting against the attic floor and in the center and close to the east wall. The original 1806 stairs existed in both the northeast and the northwest corners. You can see the mortise and tenon joints that were cut off when the church stairs were removed, presumably in 1857 when the school steps were installed. These steps will be rebuilt in the original location in the future.

The original balcony consisted of three sides and an open chamber with an open view to the barrel-vaulted ceiling. The balcony seats where bleacher-like in their construction with solid pew backs. If you observe the windows, you will see some of the framing was removed and the lower part of the original window frame is missing. You can see the original window cross framing-which is at a higher location than the top of the present window. The reason for this window height was to place them above the tiered pew seats. If you look to the south wall you can see where the buggy doors were installed circa 1904. On the west wall is evidence of the hay doors, circa 1857. On the north wall is evidence of the hay chute, circa 1857.

If you observe the massive ceiling structure, you can see the barrel-vaulted rafters are honed from large logs into one piece. Ceiling boards covered the barrel-vaulted rafters over the entire curved ceiling. Two large trusses are located toward each end. Evidence of the steeple can be seen by the large metal straps used to bolt it to the building. The entire framed structure is so over-engineered that numerous experts who have visited know of no other existing buildings that compare to the Elias Church in its construction. It truly seems to be a “one and only “timber-framed design and construction. Built in 1806, it is believed to be one of the oldest surviving timber-framed constructed churches that still stand in the United States.

The following is a first-hand account of the sale and purchase of the Elias Church in 2004. It is intended to ensure that the history of the purchase is accurately documented. The information was submitted by Mike Wolf. Mike is the husband of Eileen (Hoffman) Wolf, executor of the Estate of Edith Hoffman who was the previous owner of the Elias Church. The Elias Church building was purchased by PMI (Preservation Mifflinburg Inc.) from the estate of long-time Mifflinburg resident, Edith Hoffman. It was Edith's desire, as well as her family, that the building be preserved. Through the years the family had periodic discussions with different groups on the possible purchase or "gifting" of the building.

It was Eileen's desire to sell the building to PMI or some other group that was willing to restore or preserve the building. Mrs. Wolf contacted Joannah Skucek and offered her the building for $35,000. Eileen made serval visits to Design Tiles, which was Joannah Skucek's business, to keep her informed of the status of the building. After some lapse of time with no response from PMI Eileen asked her husband Mike to list the property for sale on eBay to gauge if there was any interest from other buyers. The listing was a one-time, seven-day auction and no bids were received. However, Eileen received one inquiry from a gentleman who wanted to purchase and raze the structure. Eileen contacted Joannah right away to let her know about this unacceptable option. Concerned about the building possibly being razed, Joannah Skucek contacted Bob Lynch. Bob approached the Mifflinburg Bank and Trust, Inc. with a proposal for the bank to buy the building for $35,000 and donate it to PMI. This is eventually what transpired. Contrary to a popular myth that seems to have developed the Elias Church was not bought on Ebay. Ownership of the Elias Church was eventually transferred from PMI to MHRA (Mifflinburg Heritage and Revitalization Association), who is the current owner and operator.

Here is some interesting personal information about the previous owner and the final landlord for the Elias Church, Mrs. Edith Hoffman. When Eileen was compiling the information for Edith's estate, she was shocked to see that there was virtually no estate except for Elias Church. Edith had spent her final months in a nursing facility and she was almost destitute. She would really have been better off had she divested Elias Church right after Reno's death, even if it she had donated it to a historical foundation. This is because she was losing about $2,000 a year charging only $75 per apt while paying the water and sewer bills, repairs, insurance and property taxes. The tenant(s) on one side would pay her one month's rent, skip a month, and then pay her one month again, even though they were a month behind. Edith never called them on it, even though she was actually accepting six month's of ridiculously-low rent every year as payment in full. During the years that she operated her beauty shop in town and after she moved it out to the farm, she would drive to the homes of many of her elderly customers transport them to and from her shop and charge them $1.00, $2.00 or $3.00 for a haircut, wash and perm. Would you believe that only a few of these ladies even tipped her and their "gratuities" were usually just a quarter or half-dollar, rarely more than a dollar. So she was losing money at her profession also and therefore she was paying little or no self-employment tax resulting in her social security benefit, her sole source of retirement income, being minimal.

Every person who has been connected with the Elias Church since 1806 has played a small but important part leading up to the current outcome of a preserved Elias Church. Without Edith's generosity and selflessness the Elias Church might not be standing today.