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NSG Visit 1999

Palmyra's Book of Mormon
and Alling Coverlet Museums


Donovan A. Shilling

As the Towpath Volunteers Fife & Drum Corps produced a stirring beat while marching down Palmyra's thoroughfare, twenty-three members of the New Society of the Genesee entered the Egbert B. Grandin Building, at 217 East Main Street, site of the first printed publication of the Book of Mormon.

Built in 1829, the three-story, brick Grandin Building has undergone a three-million-dollar renovation. The site was "dedicated to the Lord in March, 1998" were the words of Elder Norman our guide and a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. The museum provides visitors today with a state-of-the-art presentation of the origins of the Book of Mormon as well as a detailed look at the tools and intensive labor involved in the printing and binding of 5000 copies of the religious work.

Elder Norman, a native of Idaho Falls, Idaho, began the tour of the print shop's 170-year-old bookstore. The first floor, that once housed a dry goods store and later, a Ben Franklin store, has been transformed to communicate its original purpose. Cabinets, that line two walls of the shop, were built by Isaac Merritt Singer who later became well-known as a sewing machine manufacturer. There shelves contain scores of paper bound books. These when sold, would then often have custom-made leather bindings applied at the second-floor bindery. Other book shop artifacts included an original "10-piece" stove and replica whale oil lamps.

Following this, the Elder ushered our party to the third floor by way of a roomy elevator, the only one in Palmyra. On this level several displays center on the origin of the Book of Mormon, its translation and its publication. A floor-to-ceiling painting depicts the Angel Maroni encountering Joseph Smith in his log cabin loft bedroom. Moroni is seen giving his message concerning the location of a set of gold plates to the young Smith. The tablets contained the story of people living in pre-Columbian America and their meeting with the risen Savior.

Next to this is a very life-like representation of the grove on Hill Comorrah duplicating the location where Joseph Smith found the sacred plates. Elder Norman explained in detail the trials Joseph Smith endured in preserving the plates and locating someone to copy down his translation. An adjoining exhibit highlighted the interior of the early kitchen in which this task was accomplished. Here, Oliver Cowdery a school teacher, acted as Smith's scribe from April through June, 1829. Over a sixty-five day period five hundred, seventy pages were translated.

Beyond these exhibits, Elder Norman led the group into a neatly restored print shop. He explained printing terms: composer's stick, upper & lower case type, frame & chase, printer's pie, etc. and he described the hand setting of type, the use of the press, and how sixteen book pages will be in reading order when the large printed sheets are correctly folded. To print the Book of Mormon it took printers seven months working twelve hour days, six days a week. Cost of the project, the largest Mr. Grandin had ever undertaken, was three thousand dollars. Martin Harris an early member of the church sold 150 acres of his farm to help pay the publication costs.

The price of the original Book of Mormon in 1829 was $1. 25, equal to about two and a half days' salary. The museum has an original copy displayed in a large lucite case. One of the first 5000 copies, it was donated by local historian, Robert Lowe. As a first edition, it is worth well over ten-thousand dollars. We all thanked Elder Norman for his informative explanation of the museum's notable exhibits. The tour was most enjoyable, suitable for anyone interested in early printing or in the origins of Mormonism.

Just a short amble across a parking lot from the rear exit of the Grandin Building and one reaches the Alling Coverlet Museum at 122 William Street. Opened on the July 4, 1976, the museum holds more than two-hundred coverlets, most donated by Mrs. Merle Alling. Formerly a printshop, the building was donated by Mrs. Agnes Griffith to be used to house the coverlet collection.

Marjorie Clark who has been with the Museum since its beginning was our guide and informant. She told us that the word "coverlet" is derived from the French couvre, a cover, and lit meaning a bed. Thus, we use the term coverlet when speaking of woven bed coverings. During our tour John Topham, a Society member, recalled an auction when Mrs. Alling outbid him for one of the colorful coverlets now hanging in the museum. John donated large Venetian blinds for shading direct sunlight shining through the museum's windows to help prevent fading of the coverlets.

We saw that coverlets were produced in different colors and a kaleidoscope of geometric patterns. Stars, wheels, crosses, roses, squares and other shapes represent the many motifs employed by the weavers. The thread used in coverlet production was linen made from locally-grown flax and wool spun and dyed from fleeces shorn from sheep raised on near-by farms. Housewives used yarns of natural color and yarns tinted with dyes made from berries, bark, and plant roots.

The domestic looms often had only four sets of heddles harnessed for carrying the warp threads, but with them women could weave geometric patterns for coverlets, as well as make plain-weave fabric. Adding more frames with fewer threads carried by each frame allows more intricate geometric designs. Some looms had 24 sets of heddles.

The museum's coverlets are classified into several groups. One distinctive type is termed "summer and winter. " They're dark on one side and light on the other, reversed on the beds according to the season, light for summer, dark to winter-a neat idea. A second group is called "German" or doublewoven coverlets. This type, using two layers of cloth woven simultaneously, were professionally done. This resulted in attractive coverlets featuring very well-defined patterns.

Two Palmyra natives, James Van Ness and Ira Hadsell, were professional weavers who wove most of their coverlets employing a "Jacquard" mechanism attached to their looms. The weaving device, invented by the Frenchman Joseph-Marie Jacquard, allows weavers to produce "figured and fancy" patterns through the use of a series of linked and advancing hole-punched cards that controlled which individual warp threads (running the long way of the cloth) would be raised each time a weft thread was placed crosswise between the raised and lowered warp threads. As the fabric was woven thread by thread a separate card for each throw caused a pre-determined design to emerge in the fabric. This unique semi-automated system we were told was a mechanical fore-runner of the modern computer.

Upstairs more coverlets, a few quilts and an exhibit of spinning wheels, clock reels, "swifts," and aids used to produce coverlets can be viewed. There is also in the museum a collection of sample rugs made by Sarah Hall Bonesteele using available household materials.

We thanked our guide and after lunch in the basement of one of the four churches standing on opposite corners at an intersection along Palmyra's East Main Street, society members visited the William Phelps General Store Museum at 140 Market Street and other displays of Palmyra's Canaltown Days.

© 1999, Donovan A. Shilling
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