This Former Church in Black Brook Now Tends to More Earthly Needs

by Tim Rowland | October 2022

The biblical Saint Matthew, who abruptly walked off his job at a customs house to follow the Lord, knew a thing or two about career changes. So perhaps it’s fitting that Michelle and Rob Timmons would put their respective vocations on the back burner to purchase the St. Matthew’s Catholic Church building in Black Brook and convert it into a general store.

No matter that, when the mighty J. & J. Rogers iron company provided a mite of land to local Catholics for their church nearly 150 years ago, the deed specifically prohibited the sale of “intoxicating spirits, goods, wares, merchandise and groceries of any kind” on the property. It had a company store to protect.

Today, these prohibited items are basically everything that Black Brook General Store sells, along with souvenirs, artisan crafts, camp equipment, bait, deli meats, michigans, homemade soups, salads, brownie sundaes, pastries, apple crisp and soft-serve ice cream—a commodity J. & J. Rogers somehow missed on its list of commercial no-nos.

When the Timmonses bought the church in 2020 it had been empty for five years, its dwindling congregation folded into the Church of the Holy Name in Au Sable Forks, four miles down the road.

Abandoned country churches such as St. Matthew’s dot the landscape and those that have not been repurposed are silently rotting back into the forest, themselves a commentary on shifting Adirondack religion, demographics and society.

Although some parishioners had to swallow hard at the thought of their former house of worship becoming a commercial enterprise—yesterday’s altar is today’s beer cave—the Timmonses said most have come around when they saw the renovations and the respect with which they have treated the church history and artifacts. “Once they see what we’ve done, they change their minds,” Rob said.

The tabernacle was remanded to the town of Jay historian, the grand oaken doors and pews were refinished, and the Timmonses have plans to restore the broken frame holding the half-ton church bell. The bell was a later addition—the original congregation was too poor to afford one, so the father summoned his flock by ringing a triangle.

The Black Brook General Store is also popular for returning a flame of commerce to a community that was once a madhouse of industry, but today is a quiet collection of private homes, the last place to buy so much as a loaf of  bread having closed some 30 years ago.

Rob had studied hotel management at Paul Smith’s College, so he knew a thing or two about running a restaurant, and he had a bit of retail experience. But construction and politics had become a more recent calling—he currently represents the towns of Peru and Ausable in the Clinton County Legislature. Michelle is an educator at SUNY–Plattsburgh, so for her, running a business out of an old church has been a particular leap of, well, faith. “This had not been in our plans, so for a while we were just flying by the seat of our pants,” she said.

Rob performed what passed as a marketing study by counting nearby rooftops on Google Maps. The middle-of-nowhere location is both a challenge and a strength. Harkening to a true general store, Black Brook sells anything and everything. If a customer has a request, the Timmonses will generally add it to their inventory.

Along with running a store, they have also taken a keen interest in church history, which back in 1976 was dutifully and impressively chronicled by a young parishioner named Jeff Gauthier, whose family had owned the last Black Brook store left standing. Just as the Timmonses have preserved the church, Gauthier preserved its story for a class project that the Timmonses now treasure.

In 1832, as the booklet recounts, Black Brook was fortunate to be linked to the outside world by the Port Kent–Hopkinton Turnpike, a superhighway of its day. The town’s stock in trade was timber, and great hemlocks were felled and sawed into the planks that paved these early roads and kept wagon wheels from sinking into the black Adirondack mud. Every two years the planks rotted and had to be replaced.

Townsfolk were also kept busy mowing down a thousand acres of timber annually to be hardened into the charcoal that fueled the Rogerses’ voracious iron furnaces. By mid-century, the community was teeming with commerce—blacksmiths, wheelwrights, schools, clinics, hotels, taverns. It was inevitable that talk would turn to building a church.

Like many classic white, clapboarded country churches, St. Matthew’s was a humble-brag. Its symmetrical architecture and plain stained-glass windows refrained from excess, yet its stocky frame and soaring steeple reflected rock-solid spirituality.

Little of the Rogerses’ wealth trickled down to those who inhabited the log cabins of the laborers, but what they lacked in money they made up for in muscle, sawing the timber and whittling the pegs from which their house of worship would be created.

Built to hold 400 parishioners, St. Matthew’s was fashioned in 1876 by a carpenter named Louis Tebo, who is buried in the cemetery across the road from the store.

Almost from the day it opened, it housed not just the spirit of the Lord, but a running feud between the French and Irish Catholics, first over which community would get the cemetery, and then over the accent of a French priest whom the Irish couldn’t understand. When the priest capitulated and agreed to bring in an English-speaking father, the French nailed the church doors shut.

A more harmonious history developed, of course, and Michelle and Rob said a number of customers have shared happy stories of weddings and baptisms. For sit-down dining, there are tables (and pews) in the balcony, a place naughty children were once banished, where they scratched their names in the woodwork and launched gum, spitwads and other ordnance onto the unsuspecting congregation below.

St. Matthew’s was abandoned and put on the market after dwindling numbers of parishioners made services impractical to maintain. After all these years, it was still in good shape, its post-and-beam construction a testament to frontier-town construction.

It was also something of a miracle that the Black Brook General Store was able to open at all. Church and state bureaucracy, never expeditious, all but ground to a halt during the pandemic. And COVID rules prohibited outside contractors at the jobsite, which reduced the crew to Michelle, Rob and their two daughters, Allie and Lacy.

Along with family, the store is a local affair. Its cook, Valerie Parker, and clerks are drawn from the community where job creation has been sorely lacking. The Timmonses have also molded the  store to fit modern Adirondack pursuits, catering to snowmobilers who pass on a nearby trail and offering tools to bicyclists who need a mid-ride repair.

“We’ve tried to base a lot of what we have on what the community wants and needs,” Michelle said. Which, after all, was how St. Matthew’s got its start so many years ago.

The Black Brook General Store (781 Silver Lake Road, Au Sable Forks; 518-647-0111; and on Facebook) is open year-round, seven days a week.    

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