Pioneer Spirit: The Pearsall Family and Mt. Zion Church

By Sherry Jesberger

© 2002 No part of this article may be reproduced or used without permission of the author.

It was a sad and undignified end for such a beautiful lady.

In the early twilight hours of September 1, 1976, the Mount Zion Church located near Caledonia in Jay Township burnt to the ground. For 120 years, she had presided over the unending cycle of life for the good people of the area. She bore silent witness as at least two generations of infants were brought into the church for baptism, grew to adulthood and married, and finally were carried out through the doors of the church to the nearby cemetery and laid to eternal rest. And now she was gone.

Life moves on in the face of such loss, as it must. Although the Mount Zion church remains only in our memories, it stands as a testimony to rugged pioneer spirit and determination.

Peter Pearsall is generally noted as being the founder of the Mount Zion church, although he did not live to see it built. Peter was born on January 17, 1769 in Dutchess County, New York, a son of George and Magdalene (Shear) Pearsall. He was first married in New York to Phebe Burtis, with whom he had nine children prior to her death in 1818. He then married Hannah Clement, who was the widow of Jacob Clement. Peter and Hannah had one daughter, Phebe Pearsall who later became the wife of Shadrach Gardner.

Peter Pearsall’s father and grandfather appear to have had a background in iron-working, making and supplying arms and munitions for the Continental Army while living in Danbury, CT. When the British moved in and destroyed Danbury, the Pearsalls beat a hasty retreat to a Quaker settlement located at Clinton Corners, Duchess Co., New York, where Peter’s grandfather, Peter Shear had a farm. This frightening exodus inspired the patriot in Peter Pearsall, and he became a soldier of the Revolution at the tender age of thirteen or fourteen. According to family tradition, Peter served with Colonel Malcolm’s forces, which were a part of the Fourth New York regiment.

When the war ended, Peter returned to civilian life by joining his father in the family business at Duchess County, NY. He became a mill-wright and an iron worker. It was this occupation that would eventually bring him to the vast wilderness of Elk County.

Peter became an expert in the forging and building of tools and equipment necessary to build saw mills, grist mills, and other factories. The demand for lumber was growing at a steady pace in the infant America, and conventional saw mills simply couldn’t keep up. Peter displayed a keen interest in improving the efficiency of the saw mills of the time. As the entire extended Pearsall family was engaged in lumbering, his services were much in demand and he helped his cousins build many saw mills in the Chenango County, NY and surrounding area in the 1790 time frame. It was a prosperous time for the Pearsalls.

In 1793, Peter relocated his family to Saratoga County, NY where he built himself a saw mill and cleared land for a farm. In a series of unfortunate financial mistakes and misdealings, he lost his farm and sawmill in Saratago County. While on a trip to New York City in 1817, thinking to recoup some of his losses, Peter met with Thomas Cornell Pearsall, who was an American agent for Wilhelm and John Willink of the Holland Land Company.

The Holland Land Company had a bit of a problem. Their tracts of lands in northwestern Pennsylvania had been extremely slow to sell, due to the fact that it was such rugged terrain, and completely inhospitable to settlement without a way to clear the land. They also were aware that a fortune in timber stood in this area, and they had no way of harvesting it. They needed someone who could forge into the wilderness of western Pennsylvania, engineer and build sawmills, harvest the timber and float it down the various river branches to market. Peter Pearsall had all of the experience they needed.

In the spring of 1817, Peter reluctantly left his family in New York to come to Pennsylvania and examine the Holland Land Company tracts. What he found here was timber as far as the eye could see. Tangled and impenetrable stands of white pine, hemlock, oak, hickory, and chestnut covered the rolling hills of the West branch of the Susquehanna. Peter quickly realized that before farmers and other settlers could move into the area, he had to import seasoned lumberman like himself to get the land cleared.

Impressed with what he saw in western Pennsylvania, and already dreaming of a way to turn timber into cash, he made his way back home to New York. Once there, he had no problems in gaining the interest and backing of the right people.

It was during this exciting time that death took Peter Pearsall’s first wife, Phebe, who died on July 16, 1818, along with a three year old daughter, Phebe, who died on July 6, 1818. Both are buried in Saratoga County, N.Y. on the family farm. While death was not uncommon nor unexpected back in that time, it certainly must have caused Peter much grief and a heavy heart. Ever the staunch pioneer, Peter returned to Pennsylvania in the late summer of 1818 to set his plans and dreams in motion.

Peter became quite prosperous as an agent of the Holland Land Company, and through his purchase of large tracts of white pine. In the spring of 1824, Peter and his new wife, Hannah, moved their family from Saratoga to Sinnemahoning, which was then in Lycoming County, but now lies within Cameron County, PA. After a few years of living and lumbering at Sinnemahoning, the Pearsall family moved to Bennetts Branch on land that Peter purchased from Beroth Bullard. He cleared the land of timber and and set up his farm near Caledonia, Jay Township, Elk Co., PA, which was then part of Clearfield County.

Peter appears to have been a Baptist with Quaker ties, and was by all accounts, a very religious man. It was his dream to build a church in Jay Township for all Protestant denominations. The good citizens of the growing community in this area displayed a leaning toward the Methodist faith. According to the book “History and Genealogy of the Pearsall Family” by Clarence E. Pearsall (1928): “Peter Pearsall went along with the sentiment of his neighbors in this particular, but somehow or other he never ceased to impress them with the thought that he was nevertheless a Quaker, hence he was known and is remembered to this day, in this locality, as a Quaker-Methodist.”

Peter Pearsall held early religious services in his home near Caledonia, but quickly realized the need for a more formal house of worship. In 1832, Peter donated land from his farm for the building of a church and a cemetery to serve the local community, regardless of religious affiliation. This was a man who had dreamed of bigger things and had made them come true through sheer determination and force of will. Alas, he was not to fulfill his dream of building a church. Peter Pearsall died February 26, 1838, and was laid to rest in the Mount Zion Cemetery on his farm, the first to be buried there.

It must have been devastating to lose a powerful patriarch such as Peter Pearsall. However, the can-do pioneer spirit is often passed from parent to child, and after Peter’s death we see another strong, unifying figure emerge: Peter’s son Alfred Pearsall.

The Torch is Passed

Alfred Pearsall was born October 8, 1810 in New York. His mother was Peter Pearsall’s first wife Phebe (Burtis) Pearsall. He was married on January 27, 1837 in Jay Township to Harriet Byron McIntosh, and they were the parents of five children: two sons and three daughters. Alfred was a lumberman like his father, and continued lumbering until his death in 1870. He and his wife are buried in the Mount Zion Cemetery next to where the old church stood.

Alfred appears to have been close to his father, as they did much lumbering and traveling together. They are said to have been the first to float logs down the Bennetts Branch. It is perhaps because of this closeness that Alfred felt a sesnse of duty to carry out Peter’s dream of building a church in Caledonia.

The “Pearsall History and Genealogy” by Clarence Pearsall eludes to the fact that Alfred was “fronted by opposition and obstacles on all sides, and soon realized that if the church were ever completed, the brunt of the burden would be on him.” He does not elaborate on what those obstacles may have been, but they must have been significant as the building of the Mount Zion church was not begun until sometime between 1850 and 1852- twelve to fourteen years after Peter ‘s death.

Alfred Pearsall’s daughter, Mary (Pearsall) Emery, gives this account in the Pearsall History (pages 1258-1259) of the building of the church: “The church was originally started with donations-he (Alfred Pearsall) gave liberally. When a small child, I accompanied the Committee down to grandfather’s old mill in search of stones for the foundation. I have always been proud of my grandfather. Father boarded the carpenters until the building was enclosed. George Alfred Huller was married that winter and I remember his asking father’s permission to arrange a room in one corner where he and his wife might live while he did the inside work. It was not plastered until 1856. In the fall of 1859, there was a protracted meeting held there which was very successful in bringing in the delinquents. Father said, as the knelt they were so intent upon Salvation that the peaches rolled out of their pockets, for the church stood in the midst of a peach orchard, and in the springtime, when the trees were in bloom, the place was one of the most beautiful imaginable, while when the fruit was ripe, it seemed as if everyone was free to help himself. It was the year of the great comet and that year there was a prayer meeting that reached from Iowa to the Atlantic. In regard to peaches, father said it was grandfather’s plan to plant a fruit tree in every corner and along the fences of the farm, that everyone should be welcome to what fruit they wanted to eat. I went with father when he bought the tin to cover the cupola. I do not remember about the dedication of the church, but I do remember that it brought us company, plenty of it. One time, I think it was at a Methodist Quarterly Meeting, there were thirty guests for dinner. They came from far and near and there were horses to feed also. The ministers thought father’s home a good place to stop. One, I remember, brought his wife and two babies and remained for three weeks. Father told him that if he would bring a bag, he would give him some oats. Father said the minister brought one three yards long. They all seemed to think it was a great joke. I very much doubt that they would have ever finished the church had it not been for father.”

The church was finished in 1856 at a cost of roughly $2000, paid for mostly by the subscriptions and donations of Jay Township’s faithful. Albert Pearsall no doubt stood back and gazed at the completed church with satisfaction, and wiping his hand over his brow, said to himself, “We did it, father.” Pioneer spirit had prevailed again.

The Later Years

From the time of it’s completion in 1856 until roughly 1913, the Mount Zion Church had many different pastors and was the hub of community activities and worship. According to Dorothy McClintick, a native of Jay Township in an article published in 1955 in the Bennett’s Valley News: “We have no actual records as to who preached first in the Mount Zion Church, but according to rumor, Mr. (Albert) Pearsall himself was a minister and preached for some time. The Rev. Thomas Holland preached from 1873 to 1879. He was an elderly man and died in 1880. Then Rev. Jackson and Rev. Penney each preached two years, but they were also old men and could not stand the long trip from Snowshoe to Weedville by train. Then Rev. Hartman came to Sterling Run in 1883 and he preached for two years. Finally, a Rev. Ebersal came to Sterling Run in 1886, and he preached at Mount Zion until his death in 1913.”

Apparently the lack of a pastor after 1913 contributed to the church’s eventual disuse and decline. It stood empty and neglected until around 1926, when repairs were begun. Dorothy McClintick in her 1955 article wrote: “For some time after this, the church was sadly neglected. Then two men, Leander Gardner and Walter Fox, realizing the sentimental value of the church, starting repairing it, and made it fit for public use again. These two men worked for a long period of time, free of charge to save this old landmark. Although Leander Gardner has been deceased for a number of years, Mr. Fox is still living, and I feel that he deserves a hearty “Thank You” from the people of Elk County for the great service done.”

On August 28, 1926, a box social auction was held to raise money for the “repairing and upkeep of this ancient edifice.” Dorothy McClintick reports that this box social raised $143.00 to help pay for materials and other expenses. In 1927, it was decided that the Mount Zion church would hold an annual Homecoming church service the Sunday before Labor Day and sunrise services at Easter, and so it continued until that dreadful morning of September 1, 1976 when the church burnt to the ground.

I had just started my freshman year of high school when I heard the news that the church was gone. Even at such a young age, I already had an interest in local history and genealogy, and I was sickeningly aware that we had lost something of inestimable value. At the time, Mount Zion was the oldest standing Protestant church in Elk County, and it reached back in time to touch a simpler way of life. To attend an annual Homecoming in this church was to stand shoulder to shoulder with Peter and Albert Pearsall and the other pioneers who built Elk County.

The fire that destroyed the church was deemed “suspicious” by investigators. The bell of the church was discovered stolen immediately after the fire, but was recovered later by the Ridgway State Police. None of the newspaper clippings that I looked over said where the bell was found, and I am not aware that anyone was ever arrested for the fire at the Mount Zion church, nor even if the fire was ever proved to have been an arson.

The Annual Homecoming, which was due to be held on September 5, 1976, was held anyway on the site of the Mount Zion Church, despite it’s loss five days earlier. A spirited Mount Zion Day Committee erected a large tent on the site of the ruined church, and carried out it’s scheduled services in the tent without missing a beat. This continued on for several years until it finally died away.

Is this the end of the story? Not by a long shot! I am happy to report that pioneer spirit is very much alive and well in Elk County. A trip to the Mount Zion area on a balmy day in the fall of 2001 reveals that no one in the Caledonia area has forgotten their beloved church or it’s history. Several interested citizens have formed the Mount Zion Historical Society, and a rest area and park is being built on the site of the old Mount Zion church. The cemetery has been cleaned up, and a new area has been cleared for burials. According to Susan McClintick of Weedville, this is a project that was begun several years ago by the late Joe Burke and is now being carried on by his son Jim Burke, who is the current President of the Mount Zion Historical Society. These folks deserve our sincere appreciation in the preservation of such a vital part of Elk County’s past.

For more information about the Mount Zion Historical Society, Inc., please contact Jim Burke at (814) 787-7496 or Susan McClintick at (814) 787-7675.

Much of this article is based on the book “History and Genealogy of the Pearsall Family in England and America” a three volume set by Clarence E. Pearsall (1928). I am very grateful to James Pearsall of Zarephath, New Jersey for sending me photocopies from this book.