There are five antique Quaker benches at Cobscook (Maine) Meeting. At this point they are in various stages of disrepair. Deciding what to do about them requires some careful contemplation. They have become part of the meetinghouse and stand in mute testimony to a past we can now only wonder about, and to Friends long gone who we never knew, but who are reaching out to us through these benches.
The history of the benches starts with the history of the early Quakers who settled the area of Westchester County, New York, where Purchase Meeting is today.
Harrison’s purchase was made for the benefit of Friends on Long Island, New York, who needed to escape the hostility of the Dutch who controlled New Amsterdam and the adjoining areas. Many of these Friends migrated to the northern part of the Harrison tract and developed a farming community that became known as "the Purchase" and later just "Purchase."
These Quaker farmers formed a meeting and began to worship in each others’ homes around 1719. One of the farmers, Anthony Fields, donated a plot of land for the purpose of building a meetinghouse, and with the cooperation of the Friends it was erected in 1727 and opened on the present site of Purchase Meeting.
This much-loved historic building stood at the corner of Lake and Purchase Streets for nearly 200 years, until 1919 when it was completely destroyed by fire. Across the street, an elderly woman whose generation remembers that event told us that the people who were on the spot at the time of the fire carried out as many of these heavy, hand-constructed benches as they could manage, and they were preserved in neighboring barns until the new building could be raised.
The second meetinghouse was designed to follow the first one exactly in every detail of the exterior appearance. But in-side, the new plan omitted the old gallery where the African American servants and farmhands sat, and also the center partition separating men from women.
Unfortunately, this lovely historic replica was also destroyed by fire during the evening of January 1, 1973. My husband, Harry Snyder, and I, and many of our friends in Purchase Meeting, watched as the kitchen and the great dining room where we had spent so many Harvest and Christmas dinners and early birdwalk breakfasts turned to ash. The old iron cookstove sank into the cellar and was drowned and broken beyond repair. The high school classroom with its interesting hand-painted Navajo mural was completely damaged by smoke and water. In the worship room the greatest damage came not from flames but from the heavy slate roof, which rained shards onto the backs and arms of the benches, cutting into and mutilating them. The seats were protected by the old brown corduroy cushions, which smoldered but did not burn through.
The next day, while the ashes were still warm, my husband and our sons, Frank Lyman and his sons and daughter, Dick Lockyer, Merril Houser and his daughter Linda, Mort Heineman, and others went into the building to retrieve what was salvageable.
The benches, surprisingly, still stood solid.
Once again community neighbors offered to house them in barns or garages until we could rebuild. But when the new meetinghouse was built it was much smaller than the old building and there was not enough room for all the big, old benches. They remained stored for more than 15 years.
During that time, 600 miles to the northeast the newly formed Cobscook Meeting was outgrowing the Tamarac Farm home of the Snyders and was contemplating building a meetinghouse of its own. Friends from near and far came with hammers and saws to help make this new dream a reality. With the direction and expertise of Ralph Cook as carpenter and architect overseer, the building was ready to open in 1991. It was time for furnishing. We needed benches.
My family discussed with Friends the benches we had known at Purchase Meeting, and in New York, Purchase Friends generously offered to give five benches to Cobscook Meeting if we could transport them.
While we were visiting there to make arrangements, we shared memories of some of the Friends who sat with us in worship, and we wondered also about the 250 years and the generations of unknown Friends who had gone before. I recounted that one First Day in the fall of 1956, when I was a brand-new visitor to Quakerism and to Purchase Meeting, I was surprised to find no one at the meeting when I arrived. As I was about to leave and go back home, a tiny, elderly lady arrived in a very old but well-kept Cadillac, driven by an un-uniformed chauffeur. She said that she was happy to see me, and I could tell that she really meant it. She explained that the rest of the Friends had gone to quarterly meeting. In very low, sweet tones she described the monthly-quarterly-yearly organization and how much fun it was to get together and see everybody this way. We spoke then of those early Friends who had constructed such a fine building from the virgin timbers of the Rye Woods area, and how they must have furnished it with benches built for the various farm families who occupied them on First Days. Then she said she was glad that she couldn’t go to quarterly meeting this time because now we could have a little meeting together. And we did.
I later learned that she was Alice Field, who at that time lived on her family farm in a Victorian house. She was a descendent of the same Anthony Field who had donated the Purchase Meeting land. It was the only time I saw her; she died shortly after our strange and wonderful encounter. Now her ancestor was to become the role model for Harry and me some 250 years later—we decided to give the acre at the end of our property to Cobscook Meeting for their building.
In the early 1990s Harold Crosby of Whiting loaned my husband and our son his big, very old farm truck to go to New York to get the benches. They got as far as New Jersey when the truck’s oil pump failed and had to be replaced. Sara Siebert, my sister-in-law, offered her driveway for Harry to fix the truck and her hospitality to the two hungry, weary driver/mechanics.
When the truck was fixed, the Snyders returned to New York to pick up the benches—some of which turned out to be longer than the ten-foot truck bed. How they managed to load five long, heavy benches onto the truck will remain a mystery. But happily it was an uneventful trip home.
How the benches originated in the first place will remain a puzzling legacy. Curiously, the benches are constructed of different kinds of wood and have slightly different designs, which indicates different carpenters. The different lengths or sizes were probably custom-built to fit different sized families. They stand now in our Cobscook meetinghouse, 600 miles and possibly 275 years distant from their origin, silent witnesses to the progress and changes of U.S. Quaker history.