About 15 miles due north of Canandaigua  is Palmyra, an old Erie Canal town where Joseph Smith allegedly received, from the angel Moroni, a set of gold tablets inscribed with the Book of Mormon. The Hill Cumorah Pageant, the largest outdoor pageant in the United States, celebrates that event every July.
Downtown Palmyra is small and compact, lined with sturdy brick buildings. At each corner of the intersection of Main Street and Route 21 stand four soaring churches—a fact that once made it into Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Just west of downtown is a graceful stone Erie Canal Aqueduct, off Route 31.
In downtown Palmyra are three small museums run by Historic Palmyra. On the outskirts of town are the Hill Cumorah Visitor Center and Joseph Smith Farm, run by the Mormon Church.
The William Phelps General Store (140 Market St., 315/597-6981) was operated by the Phelps family from the 1860s until the 1940s. The museum recreates the general store of the 1890s and is an incredible untouched place to poke around, with excellent guides leading the way back into a simpler time.
The Alling Coverlet Museum (122 Williams St., off Main, 315/597-6737 or 315/597-6981) houses the largest collection of handwoven coverlets in the United States. Often referred to as the American tapestry, coverlets are ornate bed coverings made out of wool, cotton, or linen.
The nearby Palmyra Historical Museum (132 Market St., 315/597-6981) occupies the former St. James Hotel. Exhibits here include 19th-century furniture, Erie Canal art and artifacts, children’s toys, stern Victorian portraits and a tour led by an expressive guide who brings the historic objects to life with animated anecdotes.
Finally, All three museums are open 1–4 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday June–September. Admission is free.
A good place to learn about the Mormon religion is this modern center (603 Rte. 21, 315/597-5851, www.hillcumorah.com , 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 1–5 p.m. Sun., with extended hours in summer, free admission), four miles south of the downtown. Most visitors are well-scrubbed Mormons straight from the heartland, but nonbelievers are welcome and are left more or less in peace to peruse the exhibits. A film provides a good introduction to Mormon history and beliefs, and exhibits tout the growth of the religion. There are currently about nine million Mormons worldwide, though only 1,500 live in upstate New York.
Behind the center stands Hill Cumorah, the drumlin where Joseph Smith is said to have found the gold tablets on September 22, 1827. It took him years to translate the tablets, and after he was done, he reburied them. Atop Hill Cumorah today is a gold statue of the angel Moroni.
Born in Vermont in 1805, Joseph Smith first came to Palmyra with his family in 1815. The Smiths were farmers, and Joseph—described by one contemporary as a “quiet, low-speaking, unlaughing” boy—lived in this simple, white clapboard house (29 Stafford Rd., 315/597-4383 or 315/597-5851, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 1–5 p.m. Sun., free admission) until he was 22. He received his first vision in the Sacred Grove behind the house when he was only 14.