The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2006-Winter 2007

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


Mendon — The Early Years

Brigham Young

Carpenter and Cabinet Maker


John G. Sheret

Brigham Young was born at Whitingham, Windham County Vermont, on the first day of June 1802, the ninth of eleven children of John and Abigail Howe Young. When Brigham was two, the family moved westward into central New York. They first settled in Sherburne in Chenango County, then moved to Aurelius in Cayuga Couinty, and later to Tyrone township in Ontario County.

Following the death of his mother in 1815 and his father's marriage in 1817 to Hannah Brown, a widow with two children, Brigham left Tyrone to live with his sister in Auburn, New York.

In that city Brigham was apprenticed to Thomas Jeffries, a cabinetmaker where he learned the trades of a carpenter, joiner, glazer, and painter. Over the next five years he assisted in building the first marketplace, the Aubrun Prison, the theological seminary, and the home of "Squire" William Brown (later occupied by William H. Seward, a governor of New York who also served as Lincoln's Secretary of State).

As a master carpenter, Brigham built door fittings, louvered attic windows, and carved ornate mantelpieces for many homes. Numerous old homes in the Auburn region contain many of his chairs, desks, staircases, doorways, and mantelpieces.

Brigham left Auburn in the spring of 1823 to work in Port Byron, New York, where he repaired furniture and painted canal boats. He developed a device for mixing paints and turned out many chairs, tables, settees, cupboards, and doors. He also helped organize the local forensic and oratorical society.

On October 5, 1824, at the age of twenty three, Brigham married eighteen-year-old Miriam Angeline Works. Their first child, Elizabeth, was born in Port Byron on September 26, 1825. From Port Byron, Brigham and his wife moved to Oswego, a port on Lake Ontario. Four years later the couple joined Brigham's father in the Town of Mendon, Monroe County, New York State.

The father, John Young, was the first of the family to come to Mendon. On February 23, 1827, he purchased eight acres of land from William Allen, and on April 8, 1830, forty acres from Marvin and Eliza Burton. The combined acreage occupied the northeastern and southeastern corners of the intersection of the Cheese Factory and Mendon-Ionia Roads.

Map drawn by J. Sheldon Fisher showing location of the Young Mill.

On Trout Creek at the east end of his father's farm, Brigham constructed a building, the second floor for his house and the first floor for his wood working shop. He built a dam on the creek in order to provide power for the workshop. The property, including the early house of John Young and the site of the former shop/house of Brigham Young, is now owned by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and is visited every year by members of that fairth.

(Author's Note: The word "Mormon" is derived from an Egyptian word "Mon" meaning good, prefixed by the contraction "mor" for more, making the complete word mean "more good."

For much of the information about Brigham Young's mill site and the years he spent in Mendon, I am indebted to the late J. Sheldon fisher, the noted historian who created the Valentown Museum in the town of Victor, Ontario County. I consider myself fortunate that I knew Sheldon and was able to absorb some of his knowledge of local history.

In 1972 Sheldon Fisher obtained exclusive digging rights at the Young shop site from owner Robert Hutchinson. He then began an archeological investigation that would lead to additional information about Brigham Young's years in Mendon, and hopefully provide fresh insights into his life and character during the time that he began his great spiritual adventure.

The following excerpts are from an article in the October 1980 issue of New York History Magazine in which Mr. Fisher described how he excavated the site of the Young mill and determined its physical layout in relation to the creek on which it was located:

"As a first step, I staked out the site in a grid of ten foot squares, starting at a spike I drove into a tree at the northeast end of the dam. Exploratory test holes in the area where the building was supposed to have been revealed nothing. But at the edge of the field near the creek bank I found a pothook used to hold kettles on a fireplace crane. Fragments of dishes and pottery were everywhere. A long trench was dug and the sifted soil was thrown back into a pile for a second sifting when it had dried out. By the end of six summers, I had exposed the foundations of the building which measured 45 feet long by 20 feet wide.

"In all of my experiences, I had never before seen or heard of a building being built in a stream bed as this was. Here, still preserved, were the foundation timbers shaped by a broad ax and smoothed off by an adz. The sills of the building on the field side had rested on large boulders and were rotted away because they were not covered by mud or water.

"The upstream end of the building was about four feet from the dam which still reveals the bottom logs and the heavy supporting boulders. A headgate controlled the amount of water that flowed down a plank flume under the building to a three-foot-wide water wheel housed inside near the downstream end of the building. The waterwheel spun over a wide board which prevented the water from gouging gravel under the waterwheel and losing pressure. A four-foot head of water operated the undershot waterwheel.

"The waterwheel was mounted on a heavy axle of hewn oak timbers, parts of which were well preserved in the mud. This frame was mortised and tenoned into the foundation timbers, which were still visible. It would follow, that because of its size, the waterwheel could have projected through the floor into the first floor shop. Shafts and belts operated the saws, grindstone, and the two lathes, one for metal work and the other for wood turning. There were trap doors in several places in the shop floor where the working debris was swept into the water.

"Near the north west corner of the building was located a fireplace serving the first floor shop and the second floor dwelling. A part of the first floor fireplace was a forge for blacksmith type work. The fire place interiors were built of brick evidently made by Brigham Young on the spot as a pile of red clay and waste fragments of brick were found. His initials were cut into some bricks when the clay was soft before the bricks were baked."

Sketch of Brigham Young's mill by J. Sheldon Fisher based on his excavation of the site.

(I recall that many years ago Sheldon Fisher told me that Brigham Young's building was dismantled and rebuilt as a dwelling on Malone Road in the town of Victor.)

In April of 1830, Samuel Smith passed through Mendon on a missionary journey to distribute copies of the Book of Mormon written by his brother Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism. He left a copy with Brigham's brother Phineas, an itinerant preacher for the reformed Methodist Church. Phineas was favorably impressed with the book and lent it to his father, then to his sister Fanny, who gave it to Brigham.

Though impressed, Brigham nevertheless counseled caution: "Wait a little while…I want to see whether good common sense is manifest." (Journal of Discourses 3:91 8:38). After nearly two years of investigation, Brigham, moved by the testimony of a Mormon elder, Eleazer Miller, was baptized on April 15, 1832 (Journal of Discourses 13:211). All of Brigham's immediate family were also baptized and they remained loyal Latter Day Saints throughout their lives.

One week after his baptism, Brigham gave his first sermon. He declared: "After I was baptized I wanted to thunder and roar out the gospel to the nations. It burned my bones like fire pent-up, so I commenced to preach. Nothing would satisfy me but to cry abroad in the world, what the Lord was doing in the latter days." (Journal of Discourses 1:313).

Brigham's wife, Miriam, who suffered from chronic tuberculosis and was a semi invalid, lived only until September 8, 1832. He felt the impulse to "cry abroad" so strongly that he enlisted the assistance of his Mendon neighbors, Vilate and Heber C. Kimball, to care for his daughters and abandoned his carpenter trade to devote himself wholeheartedly to building the "Kingdom of God."

In the fall of 1832 Brigham, his brother Joseph, and Heber Kimball, traveled from Mendon to Kirtland, Ohio, where he met the twenty-six-year-old Joseph Smith for the first time. Brigham later wrote "my joy was full at the privilege of shaking the hand of the prophet of God—he was happy to see us and bid us welcome. In the evening a few of the brethren came in, and we conversed together upon the things of the Kingdom. He called upon me to pray. In my prayer I spoke in tongues. As soon as we rose from our knees, the brethren flocked around him and asked his opinion—he told them it was the pure Adamic language. It is of God and the time will come when Brigham Young will preside over the church."

Brigham's subsequent missionary tours carried him north, east, west, and south of Mendon. He and his brother made several preaching trips into many areas of New York State and upper Canada. In the summer of 1833 he traveled to Kirtland with several of his Canadian converts, where he heard Joseph Smith preach about the gathering of the Saints, emphasizing that building the Kingdom of God required more than preaching. Thus instructed, Brigham returned to Mendon and, with the Kimball family, moved his household to Kirtland so he could participate in building a new society.

Among those whom Brigham met in Kirtland was Mary Ann Angell, a native of Seneca, Ontario County, New York, who had worked in a factory in Providence, Rhode Island, until her conversion to the Mormon Church and her move to Kirtland. Brigham married her on February 16, 1834. She looked after Brigham's two daughters by his first wife and subsequently had six children by him.

Mary Ann was the second of twenty-seven women who Brigham married over a period of sixty-two years. During this time he fathered fifty-seven children. His last wife was twenty-three-year-old Ann Eliza Webb who he married on April 6, 1868, at age sixty-six..

My research into the life of Brigham Young during his years in Mendon, and the years prior to his move to that town, have revealed conflicting accounts of his character. During his four-year residence in Oswego it has been recorded that he added to his reputation for good craftsmanship, trustworthiness, and industry. An Oswego associate testified that his "conduct was exemplary, humble and contrite."

An article in Volume Five of the Rochester Historical Society Publication Fund Series, dated 1926, mentions that shortly after Young's arrival in Mendon, he was employed for a time by Captain George Hickox in the Town of Canandaigua. The article further states that Hickox family has specimens of his handiwork, including a well made splint-bottomed chair. According to family tradition, Brigham was an industrious, willing worker, serious minded, and earnest.

In a letter to Captain Hickox, written from Salt Lake City in 1876, the then president of the Mormon hierarchy spoke of his amusement and interest at hearing that an article made by him fifty years before was to be exhibited at a fair for the benefit of a new school. He also stated that: "I have believed all my life that what was worth doing was worth doing well and have considered it as much a part of my me, as to attend the services of God's worship on the Sabbath."

Governor Brigham Young of the Utah Territory
From Harper's Weekly, July 11, 1857

On August 11, 1926, the Hon. John D. Lynn, formerly a resident of Mendon wrote the following letter in response to an inquiry by the editor of the Rochester Historical Society's Publication Series: "You load me with patriarchal dignity in assuming I have any personal memory of Brigham Young. I have, however, some memory of local gossip quite active in my childhood. Though generally communicated in confidential undertones, as Brigham was not one in whom his fellow townsmen took great pride, and when he went away with the Mormon movement, he took with him others from the neighorhood, to the end that a number of Mendon families had a member or two with that forceful sect whom they never mentioned and even gossip respected their feelings.

"Brigham was considered by his yeoman neighbors a sort of vagabond, a 'ne'er-do-well,' who would stop in the middle of any job, to argue the Scriptures, particularly as to their authority for minute differences of faith and practice.

He was an attendant of the Baptist Church in the building that, until recently, stood upon the hilltop just south of Mendon Village. Whether he was an actual member of that Church is uncertain, and if he were, it was prinipally for argumentative purposes, never being able to agree with his brethren on the proper hardness of a shell. He was something of an Evangelist and, until he found the 'true faith,' wandered from sect to sect with more activity than welcome.

"He was the first glazier in the neighborhood, and many of the old houses on the town have glass in their windows that was set by him.

"He could also make baskets and splint chairs, and from this vocation principally he supported himself. His work was durable, and Brigham's chairs are today found in many of the parlors of the town, cherished less for their beauty than for their historic interest.

"When Brigham became leader of the Mormons, his chief minister of state was another Mendon man, Heber C. Kimball, who, before he became a Latter Day Saint, ran a blacksmith shop about a mile south of Brigham's house on the Mendon- Ionia Road."

Also, I have in my files a copy of an undated account, written some years after Brigham Young's departure from Mendon, by George W. Allen who knew Young when he was a resident of the town. In this account Allen describes how Brigham employed devious means to extort money and materials from his neighbors.

Allen further stated that "Brigham in his habits was essentially lazy, so far as labor was concerned, and an unprofitable hand to employ. He would shirk the hard and most laborious work, if possible, and would surely cut the day short at both ends of it, and render some plausible excuse of family sickness or religious engagement as a reason for his absence. He had an appetite for dainties and delicacies and would generally indicate to the housekeeper where he worked, such food and drink he desired, accompanied with a very persuasive request that they be provided for his use while he worked there."

Doctor Milton Sheldon was the owner of a general store in Mendon and the future brother-in-law of George W. Allen. In 1829 when Allen was a young man, Doctor Sheldon sent him to Brigham Young's house to collect a store debt of $18.50. In his own words he described this visit: "It was a cold windy day when warm clothing and good fires were a necessity. His house and shop stood some eighty rods from the highway, nothing but a foot path led to it. Leaving the horse I rode at the bars on the highway, I followed this path which lay along by the side of a beautiful little stream of clear water noted for the speckled trout that it contained. A dam had been thrown across this stream and sufficient water power obtained to run a turning lathe in his shop.

"On arriving at the house and shop I ascended a rickety outside stair case and was bidden to come in. Pulling a leather string lifted a wooden latch, enabled me to open the door and I entered. Everything about the house inside and out indicated poverty and destitution. There was only one room which served for bedroom-kitchen-sitting room and parlor. There was a bed in one corner, a cupboard for dishes in another, a table and a few splint bottom chairs. Mrs. Young was poorly dressed and thinly clad, having an old black shawl thrown around her shoulders, endeavoring to keep warm over a single stick of wood on fire in the fireplace. She was evidently in very feeble health. The only other person was a little red haired girl five or six years old, with a basket gatherng chips and bits of wood for fuel. This girl is now the wife of a Mormon dignitary who stands high in the community.

Mrs. Young said that her husband had gone to Miller's Corners (now Ionia) to attend a quarterly or a 'four days meeting' and she did not know when to expect him home. An influence that could entice him away from a sick and suffering wife and infant family, destitute of the ordinary comfort of life, and cause him to remain night and day for three or four days almost in sight of home while he was enjoying the hospitalities of his brethren—exhorting, praying and singing, the ''loudest of the crowd' and having a 'glorous time' at a religious meeting.

"I made known my errand to her. She replied 'I do not know how or when Mr. Young can pay Dr. Sheldon; he has been gone two or three days and left us without fuel. The last stick is on the fire; we have no flour or meat nor anything else in the house to eat. As soon as he comes home, he will first have to provide fuel and provision for the family. Dr. Sheldon will have to be patient a little longer.' I left the house saddened by this exhibition of poverty, physical and mental sufferings and in deep sympathy for the trials she endured, and with no very exalted opinion of Brigham Young or his religious sincerity."

Several years ago Edwin Bachmann found in his house on Maplewood Avenue in Honeoye Falls an 1829 account book for the general store in Mendon operated by Dr. Milton Sheldon. Mr. Bachmann generously donated the book to the Honeoye Falls / Mendon Historical Society. In this account book are entries for purchases on credit made by Brigham Young. It is possible that they are the purchases for which George Allen attempted to collect payment when he made his visit to the Young House.

Page from account book of the Mendon General Store of Dr. M. Sheldon listing
purchases made by Brigham Young on October 2nd, 1829.

The primary focus of this article has been the years that Brigham Young spent in Mendon with a brief mention of his earlier life. For an account of his life after his departure from Mendon, there are numerous books that describe his journey westward to Utah and his eventual elevation to the leadership of the Mormon Church.

Sources of Information

J. Sheldon Fisher (verbally and in written form)
New York History Magazine, October 1980
Rochester Historical Society Publication Fund Series, Volume IV
"Brigham Young & Mormonism" by George W. Allen, undated
© 2006, John G. Sheret
Index to Articles by John G. Sheret
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR