Potter County, which borders the state of New York, touts itself as “God’s Country.” I’ve heard the term applied to other locales as well. Anyone who has hiked or canoed or otherwise visited the hills, hollows, rivers, and wild places of Pennsylvania surely feels that the hand of God had to be involved in their creation. There are some beautiful places in our Commonwealth.
When it comes right down to legal ownership of the land, however, God in heaven seems only to have ever held outright title to about six square miles. That’s about 3,800 acres. The land we’re talking about was in the Endless Mountains of Sullivan County, not too far from the county seat of Laporte. A lot of folks have trouble making payments on their properties, and so sooner or later the sheriff comes calling. Seems like even God had some trouble along these lines, as a goodly part of that land was repossessed for failure to pay the taxes.
I’ll bet you’re getting curious about just how God came to own land in Pennsylvania, aren’t you? Well it happened sort of like this.
In the early 1850s, a religious community was founded up there in Sullivan County. It was known as Celestia, and those who lived there believed that Jesus Christ, the son of God, was going to come again. A papermaker from Philadelphia by the name of Peter Armstrong was the founder of Celestia, which was also known for a time as Celesta. Earlier, in about 1840, he fell in with a group of Adventists known as Millerites. They devoutly believed that Christ would make a second coming on October 22, 1844. When the prophesied date came and Jesus didn’t appear, many of the less devout left the faith and the community. But Peter Armstrong held fast to his beliefs. He also apparently preached that a whole series of prophecies would come true, leading to the End of Days.
Peter Armstrong believed the words of the book of Isaiah 2:2, which says, “And it shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains.” With that piece of scripture as guidance, Armstrong found and bought some land in the Sullivan County mountains. Then he set about convincing people to settle there. Plans of the town were filed in the county offices. It would be laid out in a nine block grid, with the central space reserved for a temple to worship, and where Jesus himself would live when he came to join them.
Life in the community was apparently peaceful and prosperous during the years prior to the Civil War, even if the diety still hadn’t come to occupy the home they had built for him. But the war changed things. Brother Charles Russell was drafted into the Northern army. Peter Armstrong felt strongly that the government had no business intruding on the community’s faith. He wrote to President Abraham Lincoln, asking that Charles Russell be excused for religious reasons. Lincoln approved the exemption. Armstrong decided to appeal for other favors. He wrote to the Pennsylvania authorities, asking that the community of Celsestia also be exempt from paying taxes. He declared them all to be “peaceable aliens and wilderness exiles from the rest of the Commonwealth.”
In short order this request was of course refused. A check of land records revealed that title to all the community’s lands were in the names of Peter Armstrong and his wife Hanna. Hoping to get around this and continue his hopes for tax exemptions, Peter and Hanna Armstrong, through a deed of conveyance, transferred ownership of all Celestia’s lands to the “Creator and God of heaven and earth, and to His heirs in Jesus Messiah, for their proper use and behoof forever.” This occurred in June of 1864.
Little is known of the day to day events in the community’s life thereafter, but it did attract many who heard that one could avoid both military draft and taxes by living there. That only lasted a while, because local authorities eventually got impatient. Even if God was the landowner, they told Armstrong, then either He or someone else still had to pay the taxes. No official exemption had ever been granted. The Armstrongs refused to pay, and so the county took the only legal action available. They repossessed a part of the property, which would then be sold to pay the back taxes.
Sometime in 1876, 350 acres were auctioned off by the Sullivan County sheriff. The property sold for $33.72. This was $3.62 more than the back taxes that were due. Who bought the acreage? Peter Armstrong’s son.
But Celestia’s heyday had come and gone. The community’s population began to dwindle. The war and the draft were long over, there was no tax exemption, and it was really pretty rugged country in which to try to make a living. All the high hopes and faith on which Celestia was founded vanished when Peter Armstrong died in 1887, and in a few short years, the place was abandoned.
Travel along Pennsylvania Route 42 from Laporte toward Eagles Mere and you will pass through the lands that once were Celestia. A few stone foundations hidden in the woods are all that physically remain of what once upon a time really were “God’s Acres.”
The story above is exerpted from several sources: “Weird Pennsylvania, Travel Guide to Pennsylvania’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets”, by Matt Lake; the Sullivan County PA Historical Society; and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
A Pennsylvania state historical marker along PA Route 42 near Laporte states the following: Peter E. Armstrong founded a religious community here in 1850. He envisioned his followers as “wilderness exiles” in a “City of Heaven” on this mountaintop. In 1864 the land was deeded to Almighty God “and to His heirs in Jesus Messiah.” Because of the owner’s nonpayment of taxes, the county sold the land in 1876 to A.T. Armstrong, Peter’s son. Peter Armstrong himself, struggled to continue this community before he died in 1887.