GREENFIELD — Through the decades, the story has been passed down: Martin Bash Smith swung an ax, chopping logs to help build a church in Philadelphia. The way there from his home passed over a stream, and he and his family pulled off their shoes to cross it.

Through the generations, Smith’s descendants have kept ties with the family he started and the church he helped build. Recently, that appreciation culminated in family members donating toward a repair to help others enjoy programs there.

The structure no longer sits in Philadelphia because it got a new home 35 years ago. Philadelphia United Methodist Church eventually built a new building, and the one Smith hewed logs for became a museum. The Hancock County Historical Society raised money to have the structure moved to Riley Park.

Story continues below gallery

On June 2, 1981, it was driven east on U.S. 40 toward its current site in the southeast corner of the park, and it began its new phase as the Chapel in the Park Museum. Though the building can be rented for parties, weddings, and, yes, church services, the primary gatherings happening there are the monthly meetings and programs of the county’s historical society.

It’s a fitting role for the building, because Smith’s descendants have been preservers of history, documenting, both in photos and occasional hand-written recollections, their heritage. It’s a heritage celebrated each year at a long-standing family reunion begun in 1896, eight years after Smith’s death.

At the 1974 reunion, Smith’s granddaughter, Katie Duncan Marsh, wrote some notes about his years in Philadelphia — about the church, the logs, the barefoot walk across the stream and his home.

“Their family moved to Hancock County west and north of Philadelphia on a farm,” Marsh wrote. “He built a house with two floors. The boys slept in the second floor.”

Though the building moved from the community where Marsh had lived, the family’s ties to it continued. When the family gathered for its 100th reunion in 1996, the festivities included a service in the former church building.

Arriving at events there became a little more challenging over the years, however, as the 1981 black metal railing lining the cement steps into the chapel began to give. Brigette Cook Jones, president of the county historical society, said children skateboarding or bicycling past the chapel tended to grab the railing to stop themselves, and it took a toll. The posts became wobbly in the cement.

“The railing had become a hazard, as it was very loose,” she said. “Older people entering the chapel would place their hands on the rail, and it would sway back and forth.”

The society poured small cement blocks around the base of the posts a couple of years ago as a temporary fix, Cook Jones said. But Smith family members donated for a contractor to install new railing, with holes drilled into the concrete steps and the post bases cemented into the steps.

Cook Jones said after replacing the roof and repairing the steeple in recent years, there are more items on the to-do list, and it’s challenging for an organization run mostly by volunteers to keep pace. The railing repair was a much-needed and deeply appreciated donation, she said.

“I thought this was absolutely wonderful,” she said. “Donations like this are a huge boost to us and a critical means of support — because we clearly are not doing this to make money. We are doing this because we love and enjoy history — and Hancock County.”

Churches at the chapel

No congregation meets at Chapel in the Park Museum, home of Hancock County Historical Society. Through the years, however, several congregations have rented it from the historical society for Sunday services. Among them were King James Bible Church and Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit. Park Chapel Christian Church met there as it started 30 years ago and also took its name from the building.