There are two historical Palmyras, and, unfortunately, they seem to attract different visitors. There is the old canal town, and there's the birthplace of the Mormon church.
A young woman from Samoa was soft-spoken and polite as she led a group of tourists around the Grandin Building on Main Street in downtown Palmyra. It's the place where the first Book of Mormon was printed. She asked one of the three or four children in the group about a story in the Book of Mormon and helped the little girl come up with the correct answer. Then the young woman paused and said, "I know" the Book of Mormon is true.
Another young woman, this one from Utah, is soft-spoken and polite as she leads a slightly larger group of tourists around, first, to a replica of a log cabin where Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, lived in the early 19th century and then through a larger, frame house where the Smith family later lived. She, too, asks questions of children in the group and also gently helps them with the answers. And she, too, says, with the same gentle emphasis, "I know" the Book of Mormon is true.
Later, at the visitors' center at the Hill Cumorah, the third major Mormon site in the area (all of them are owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), I decide to avoid the tourist group and ask if it's OK to just walk around and look at the exhibits. Sure, I'm told, but an elderly man walks along with me. He tells me he's from Boise, Idaho. And just like the two young women mentioned, he says he's on a church mission.
>Guides emphasize faith
One of the most important events in the religious history of the United States occurred in Palmyra in 1830 when Smith established the Mormon Church, and anyone interested in our country's history could and should have an interest in that event. But, if you're not LDS and you visit the historic Mormon sites in Palmyra, you should be aware that your guides may be less interested in history than in sharing their own faith.
For instance, inside the log cabin, about a five-minute drive south of the village, our guide tells us that young Joseph Smith was visited there by an angel, among other events in his early life. Only after I mention that when I visited the Smith farm 15 years ago, there was no log cabin, does she mention that the log cabin is, in fact, not original. It's a replica.
A little later, inside the frame house just down the road, we are given more information about Smith and a conversation our guide says Smith had with God and Jesus Christ in the nearby Sacred Grove. She has to be prompted by my question to explain that the house actually has been moved from its original location across the road.
Those two details -- that the log cabin is a replica and the frame house was moved across the street -- were not deliberately omitted from the tour lecture, but they, and probably dozens of other history details, were less important to the tour guides then reinforcing the faith of the church members who visit the sites. (Most of the visitors are clearly LDS.)
Still, the visit is worth the trip. You can even see how history is made, and remade.
Here's a type of detail to pay attention to. In the Grandin building, there is a copy of the first Book of Mormon, and on the first page are the words "By Joseph Smith, Junior, Author and Proprietor." All 5,000 copies of the first edition had that on the title page. No copy of the millions printed since then have those words. Now, we're told, the work was written by an angel named Mormon, and the angel's son, Moroni, taught Smith how to translate the book from golden plates he found nearby.
Admission to all of the sites is free and all are open year-round, usually 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Also free and open to the public is the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, which began this weekend and continues Tuesday through Saturday, starting at 9 p.m. each evening. The pageant, a colorful extravaganza, depicts scenes from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. It's performed on the side of the Hill Cumorah (which is where, church faithful believe, Moroni showed Smith where to dig up the golden plates). The hill is about a five-minute drive south of downtown Palmyra. Each showing can accommodate up to 9,000 people.
You can take a picnic, but there is also food (burgers and hot dogs, salads, soft drinks, etc.) available on the pageant grounds, prepared and served by the Lions Club and Rotary. Meals are available starting at 4 p.m.
>Canal town a must-see
If you go to Palmyra, make time to see the historic canal town. There are four small local museums that, combined, shouldn't take more than a couple of hours to tour. The largest and most unusual is the Alling Coverlet Museum, which displays dozens of hand-woven 19th century coverlets.
One block east are three other small museums, all directly related to the town's early Erie Canal days. They are the William Phelps Store and Home, the Palmyra Print Shop and the Palmyra Historical Museum, all next door to each other.
The Phelps store, which dates to the mid-19th century, catered to both town residents and visitors passing through on the canal. The print shop contains a collection of printing presses that were manufactured in Palmyra beginning in 1856 and shipped around the world. The Historical Museum contains 23 rooms, each devoted to a separate theme, such as police and fire protection, photography, home furnishings, women's suffrage and Joseph Smith.
Admission to any one museum is $3, but a $7 "trail ticket" gets you into all four, and there are discounts for students, seniors and families. All three are open only in the summer. The Alling museum is open daily, 1 to 4 p.m. The others are open Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Many of the buildings on East Main Street, the main shopping area, have had newer facades removed, so they look much like they did more than a century ago. Particularly worth visiting is Candy Corner Fudge Square, where I held up two fingers close together and asked for a piece of maple walnut that big, and when it was cut and I was told that would be $1.38, I thought the price pretty steep. But I went outside, ate it, and went back in and bought another, bigger piece.
If you go:
Take I-90 to Exit 43 and go north on Route 21. Downtown Palmyra is about six miles north of the interstate. Hill Cumorah is on Route 21, on the right. A turnoff to the Smith farm site (which includes the log cabin and Sacred Grove) is just north of there. The turnoff is well marked. When you reach East Main Street, turn right, go one block, to William Street, turn left, and the Alling Coverlet Museum is less than a block away. The Phelps Store, Print Shop, and Palmyra Historical Museums are one block east, on Market Street. Candy Corner Fudge Square is at 205 East Main.