Queen of Orleans
FAR in the distance, something silvery gleamed above the green of the trees.
The man at the wheel of the canal tugboat said: "That's Albion ahead. That's the Courthouse dome that shines."
Circling that glistening dome like a guard of honor, "the clustered spires of Albion stand," to paraphrase an old verse about an older town.
The canaller went on: "You know, one night when we laid over in Albion, I took a stroll around the town. There wasn't much night life and the main stem was pretty quiet. But the place's got something. Atmosphere, I guess you'd call it. There's an old red Courthouse in a shady square with churches and old mansions, like you see in New England and the South, all around it. It kinda gives you a feeling of history and class— if you know what I mean."
I think I know what he meant. I get that same feeling every time I visit the canal-born county seat town in the orchard country. I think the canal man put it very well: "History and class." A more stilted phrase would be "An air of consequence."
Albion, like the older shire towns of Canandaigua and Batavia, has a touch of the grand manner, born of past glories. The shining Courthouse dome is a symbol, not only of her status as the seat of county government, but also of her proud memories.
For in this stately village under its canopy of old trees, lived men who in their time played colorful and important roles in the history of the state and nation. Here mighty financial enterprises were spawned, strong politics brewed, traditions born, fortunes made—and lost.
Albion is the queen of Orleans and her throne is the Courthouse Square where ever echo the distant drums of history.
* * * *
That square was Albion's cradle. It was there in 1811 that doughty William McCollister raised a log hut, the first dwelling on the site of the present village. Neighbors were few and far between and life was lonely in the backwoods. When the next year McCollister's wife sickened and died, there were no boards for her coffin. So the settlers hewed and split planks from the standing trees for a rough box. There was no minister so a neighbor read the burial service.
Around 1802, Joseph Ellicott, agent for the Holland Land Company, visioned a busy port on Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Oak Orchard and laid out a village there which he called Manila. He built a highway along an old Indian trail from that point to Batavia. Ellicott's port never materialized but Albion's Main Street today follows the road Ellicott built.
After McCollister, a handful of other pioneers built cabins amid the mud and stumps.
Then, Clinton's Ditch was dug and breathed life into the tiny settlement. A thriving town, which her settlers called Newport, sprang up on the banks of the Erie.
When in 1825 De Witt Clinton rode the Seneca Chief from Lake Erie to the Atlantic at the completion of the Grand Canal, his flotilla passed through Newport in the night and the townspeople sat up for the celebration and hired two fiddlers that they might dance away the waiting hours.
Joseph B. Achilles, Orleans County historian, has found out that the cannon, which lined the entire length of the canal to relay the salute to Clinton's triumphant parade, were captured from the British by Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie. They were taken from the government depot at Erie, Pa., to the Brooklyn Naval Station, to be scattered by boats along the canal for the celebration of its opening. One of Joe Achilles' many historical objectives is to find out what finally became of those guns.
* * * *
In 1824 it was decided to form a new county out of the fast-growing northeastern part of the Holland Purchase. A dispute arose over its name. The followers of John Quincy Adams wanted their leader honored. The cohorts of Old Hickory wanted it called Jackson. A compromise was evolved and the new county was given the picturesque Old World name of Orleans.
Then came the fight over the county seat between Newport and Gaines. It's an oft-told tale how Newporters wined and dined the commissioners who came to pick the site; how they showed them a busy mill with wheels turned by a swiftly flowing stream. It was a shrewd trick. A few days before the mill had been idle and Sandy Creek dry. The creek had been dammed and the mill wheel set to going to impress the commissioners. So it was that Gaines lost the county seat to its younger, smaller rival.
Because there was another Newport in the state, the name of the growing canal town was changed in 1828 to Albion, the ancient name for England, meaning "white." Maybe the pioneers of English ancestry who renamed the village were thinking of the chalky cliffs of Dover in the mother land.
The eventful year of 1828 also saw the opening of the first Albion stone quarry. The industry was the commercial backbone of Albion for nearly a century. Once a huge slab from the Brady quarry was loaded on a flat boat and taken to Albany to become the top stone of the State Capitol's steps. Albionites will tell you their town had more quarries than Medina. Medinans will tell you their stone was superior. The rivalry was intense. It does not matter any more. The once busy quarries along the canal are nearly all deserted now.
In 1833 Caroline Phipps borrowed $4,000 and Phipps Union Seminary, a day and boarding school for young ladies, began its long stay on the Square. In 1837 the Albion Academy was organized.
The young queen of Orleans was assuming it cultural tone.
Two early merchants, R. S. and Lorenzo Burrows, founders of a family long influential in the village, built a brick block that still stands after 120 years, with its curious little offices and stores facing the canal. They brought the first one-horse spring wagons to the region. Previously there had been only sleds and lumber wagons.
A more elegant era had dawned for Albion.
As the years went by, the town gained financial and political prestige. The Heelpath on the south side was lined with warehouses, stores and grog shops. The Towpath, opposite, was jammed with mules and horses hauling the produce of a growing land. In 1853 the railroad came, to give a new transportation outlet for the quarry-orchard country.
In 1859 Albion was the scene of a catastrophe. As a feature of the county fair, a Brockport daredevil advertised he would walk a tight rope across the canal. So many crowded the bridge in the village to watch the spectacle that the span gave way, plunging 250 persons into the water. Fifteen bodies, mostly of young people, were taken from the wreckage of the bridge.
Fortunes were being made in Albion. Her financiers invested heavily in the International Bridge at Niagara Falls; the quarries and the orchards flournished. The quality folk out South Main Street bought finer carriages and smarter horses, hired coachmen-gardeners, built ice houses and new cottages at the lake. Albion's political bosses made their influence felt in state party councils.
The queen was sitting grandly on her throne.
* * * *
The quarries brought a racial mixture; first the Yorkshiremen who spoke an English barely intelligible to Western New Yorkers; then the Irish, later the Poles, and finally the Italians. The Poles today have a sizeable colony, not so large as Medina's, but they maintain their own church. The Italians are more numerous and form a considerable portion of Albion's 4,660 population (1940 census).
After the quarries closed, things were quieter along Erie water. More and more retired farmers came to live in town. Death and financial reverses left their mark on South Main Street. Some of the mansions were torn down; others passed out of the hands of the Old Families.
But don't get the idea that Albion today is any deserted village. It is in the heart of one of the state's richest fruit, tomato and pea producing belts. It is the trading center for a large rural area. It has an extensive canning and food industry.
Above all it has the old traditions. They will never die.
When Uncle Sam sought to build a concrete monstrosity of a postoffice near the square, the village fought successfully for a building in keeping with its dignified and historic surroundings. Good taste always has been a hallmark of the Albion scene.
I mentioned to an old resident plans of a canning company for a major expansion in the frozen food field and wondered if "that would not help Albion?"
The old resident gave me a sharp glance and there was a touch of scorn in his voice as he replied: "It might make Albion BUSIER, if that is what you mean."
Main Street merchants may not share his views. But in old towns like Albion there persists in many hearts the unorthodox idealogy that mere bigness, bustle and material growth are not the Alpha and Omega of life.
What of the dramatis personae who have trod the Albion stage? Joe Achilles dug up from his treasure trove of local history an advertisement dated 1853. It read:
"Having completed extensive arrangements for manufacturing and greatly enlarging warerooms at Nos. 4 and 5 Clark's Block, we now offer a large and elegant assortment of cabinet furniture, mattresses, etc., of superior workmanship.—We are also prepared to furnish coffins and a good hearse and carriage."
In big letters was the firm's name: G. M. PULLMAN & CO.
Yes, it was the same George M. Pullman who became a titan of industry, who founded the sleeping car company that bears his name. But in 1853 he was a young cabinet maker in Albion. He helped his father move buildings, too, and that year took a contract to remove certain structures that obstructed the enlargement of the Erie Canal. Five years later he left for Chicago and began work on his pioneer sleeping "palace.
His parents are buried in Mount Albion Cemetery and one of the six churches within a radius of two blocks from the Courthouse is the Pullman Memorial (Universalist) Church, his gift to the town in which he lived as a young man.
Another young man left Albion before the Civil War. His name was Rufas Bullock, and he went South to Atlanta, where he became an express company executive. During the war that antebellum carpetbagger was acting quartermaster general of the Confederate Army and in reconstruction days was elected governor of Georgia. His reign was short and stormy. When Negro members were expelled from the legislature, he petitioned Congress for their restoration. He was repudiated in the next election, resigned his Office and hurried North. He later returned to Georgia and became a railroad president and textile manufacturer. In 1902 he came back to Albion to spend the rest of his days.
At one time the upstate leaders of both political parties were Albion men. The Republican was Noah Davis and the Democrat was Sanford E. Church. Both were lawyers and jurists. Davis presided over the trial of William M. Tweed in 1873 and sentenced that Tammany grafter to 12 years in prison and fined him $12,000. The sentence later was overturned on a technicality but nevertheless Tweed died in Ludlow Street jail. Judge Davis also presided at the trial of Ned Stokes for the murder of Jim Fisk, New York's most sensational case of the 1870s.
Judge Church was the second of his name to attain distinction in politics and the law. He served as lieutenant governor of New York as well as state chief justice. He once received some complimentary votes for the Democratic presidential nomination at a national convention. A grandson carries on the family name and tradition in Albion. And the noble old white colonial home of the Churches, near the Courthouse Square, is one of the town's showplaces.
Elizur K. Hart was the son of a pioneer and in his time a financial power. He was a director of the International Bridge Company, a banker, one of the few Democrats ever elected to Congress from the district and an one time co-owner of the Rochester Post Express. The huge turreted Hart mansion has been torn down but on from 1811, when Joseph Hart settled in the wilds, the family has been one of consequence in Albion.
Years ago a youth with a superb tenor voice tended bar briefly in Albion. His name was Chauncey Olcott.
"Ask Mr. Foster" was a household word some 30 years ago. The man who originated it and the travel and information bureau of which it was a symbol was an Albion native. Ward Foster left his father's hat store in the village to open a pharmacy in New York and eventually to found the agency that had branches all over the world. In one year three million people "asked Mr. Foster."
Albion also was the birthplace of Actor William Hodge, who starred in humorous roles. Albion people recall, a little wryly, how when Hodge was playing at the old Lyceum in Rochester, they sent a delegation to the city with a big floral piece to honor the native son. Hodge made a speech thanking the "people of Rochester" for their tribute and never mentioned Albion.
Of late years a man from Albion has attracted national notice—in an unusual field. He is Charles W. Howard, probably the best known Santa Claus in America. He was born and still lives on the farm that has been in his family since Holland Purchase days. When be was in fourth grade, he was picked, because of his chubby and cherubic countenance, to play a Santa Claus role. He's been doing it ever since. He likes children and he likes to make toys so the role came natural to him. For nine years he was a department store Santa in Rochester and Buffalo. He was so successful that he was asked to teach other Santas his technique. So he opened a school in his Albion home. In 1938 he stepped into the national limelight when he conducted a "Santa Claus College" in Santa Claus, Ind. Among his pupils were James Cagney and Edward C. Robinson of Hollywood, Calif.
* * * *
Dr. Benjamin Howes is hardly a national figure but he is a colorful one locally. This former Army veterinarian, who rides like a Cossack, although he is in his seventies, lives at nearby Carlton. There he has a remarkable collection of agricultural and kitchen implements going back to frontier times. Straight and trim, he is a familiar figure on horseback in all Albion parades and celebrations.
There's Charley Palmer, who spends much of his time digging for Indian relics, particularly in the Shelby area and who has many friends among the Tonawanda Reservation Indians. His barn in Albion houses many trophies, including rare Indian pottery.
Albion is a different sort of town. Her people have varied interests. Go to the Town Club where the business and professional men meet for luncheon and you hear talk that is not confined to the weather, the prospects of the tomato and apple crops or village gossip.
You will hear about the gallows on which the last man was hanged in Orleans County back in the 1880's and which now reposes in the attic of the jail; about the old Opera House and the stars who played there; about the old canal days when boys who are now grown men used to throw stones at the mule drivers just to hear them curse; of the freight packet Frankie Reynolds, that stopped at every canal town with its cargo of groceries, hardware and beer.
* * * *
In Barre Center, four miles south of Albion, there's an old brick and frame house that once was a tavern and that contains a hidden staircase and a hidden room.
When the present owners, Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hakes, took over the property, they were no little surprised on opening what they took to be a cupboard door, to find steep, cowbwebby stairs leading up to the attic. And at the end of the stairway is a brick walled cell in the middle of the upper room under the ridge pole.
The answer to the mystery probably is the Underground Railway by which fugitive Negro slaves were spirited to freedom across the Canadian border in pre Civil War days.
* * * *
It's quite a hike, at least a mile and a half, out to George Mac Farland's place on the Butts Road east of the village. But I felt it was worth it.
MacFarland, in his ninetieth year, with broad shoulders and blue Irish eyes that look searchingly into yours, is probably the last of the old time quarrymen. When he was a young lad, he drove mules hauling his brother's boat from Albion to Albany and return. One trip was enough. "I never was so glad to see the Courthouse dome at Albion as when that was over," he said.
He began his half century of quarrying in the early 1870's as waterboy in one of the Albion pits. All day long he heard little but Gaelic spoken by the gang he served. Then he became a stone cutter and in 1877 went to the Ohio quarries. Twenty years later he returned to Albion. The industry then was its zenith along the Canal. MacFarland staved in the quarries until they closed.
He told of the live frog the stone cutters found when they split a great slab years ago. "Some people thought the frog had been there thousands of years. Others said it never happened; that we made it up. But I saw it with my own eyes. I think it is easily explained. There was a crevice in the stone and water coursed through it. The frog might have passed into the fissure when tiny. He may have lived there only a matter of months or a few years. But he was there all right and it caused a lot of talk in the quarries at the time."
MacFarland looked out toward the canal. "Once there seemed to be tows passing all the time. Now you rarely see one," he said.
He remembers wild nights in the now so serene village. "You could hardly go uptown nights when I was young without seeing two or three fights. Sometimes they were mass battles when the stonecutters came down from Medina looking for trouble. They generally found it."
"One night—I think it was Fair time or the Fourth of July—there were lots of people in town. A big farmer from Waterport was full of hard cider and challenging everybody in sight. In one set-to, he lost his hat. I picked it up. It was a fine black felt and I thought I'd be decent enough to hand it to him. I made my way through the crowd to the Waterport bully. He was crazy drunk. Without a word he hit me a blow that almost knocked me down. I was young; and pretty husky those days.
The bully was standing in front of a many-paned store window; I let him have it and he went bang through that window, but not before he had torn my Sunday coat nearly to shreds. The sheriff picked him up and put him in the lockup. When he sobered up, I refused to press charges—when he agreed to pay for my torn coat. We became good friends after that."
George MacFarland did not say who paid for the window.
* * * *
In the evening my friend, Morris Wright, drove me up to Eagle Harbor on the canal just west of Albion.
We passed along a street where the old trolley tracks that led to the abandoned Fair Grounds still are visible. The Albion Fair once drew people from all over the countryside. Changing times and the popularity of the automobile killed it, as they have so many other fairs. But Albion men still fancy good horseflesh and several trotters are stabled on the otherwise deserted grounds.
Nearby is the State Training School, for mentally defective women. It was opened in 1893 as the Western House of Refuge for Women. It has about 300 Inmates. The school is so sequestered and aloof from the village that its presence causes hardly a ripple in the community.
We stopped before a lovely Colonial farmhouse on a hill above Eagle Harbor. There Mark Cole lives. He is an unusual personality with many interests. A former member of the State Assembly, he is now attached to the Internal Revenue Bureau.
The home in which he live; has been in his family for more than a century. His grandfather, Charles A. Danolds, looks down from the wall of the high-ceilinged, spacious living room. Danolds had a contract for work on enlargement of the old Erie Ditch. As an old, old man, he saw the work begun on the Barge Canal.
Mark Cole recalled that then the old man said "Give me some of my Irish diggers with picks and shovels and wheelbarrows and they'd do a better job than all this machinery."
Eagle Harbor once was quite a port with mills and docks and warehouses. Cole remembered when canal boats would lay up there for the winter and the mules and horses would be stabled in the neighborhood.
Cole collects many unusual things. He gave me "A Poetical Geography and Arithmetic in Verse," all in rhyme. He has a little book with "Thomas Jefferson" written on the flyleaf in the authenticated handwriting of the Sage of Monticello.
* * * *
When I left Albion by bus early the next morning, I cast a parting glance at the silvery dome shining above the trees of Courthouse Square.
"History and class" the canal man had said of Albion.
He was right as rain.
On the Square
THINK there is nothing so American about America as her villages of the 1,000-1,500 population class.
Their name is legion. They are on the rocky sea coasts, on the treeless plains, amid the wooded hills, on the banks of the proud rivers and the nameless creeks—and beside the still waters of the Erie Canal.
They exude peace and a sense of restfulness. They keep green a serene and unhurried way of life that our fathers knew. They raise few racial or class harriers. They accept a person for what he is. He is a neighbor, clothed in the dignity of his individuality, not an atom tossed about in a sea of other atoms. They approach the democracy of the American Dream.
In such villages, under spreading old trees, jaded folk may, for a little time, escape the sound and fury of urban "civilization," the pushing, callously impersonal crowds, the reeking motor fumes, the incessant, often senseless, race against time.
Now I don't have in mind one of those gone-to-seed, tumble down places already in the clutch of rigor mortis. I am thinking of a village that pulses with life, whose curbs are lined with farmers' cars; whose high school resembles a baronial castle; whose fire hall is replete with shiny, modern apparatus; whose pride is boundless in its athletic teams, bands, volunteer fire department, veterans' posts and churches.
Of course, I have in mind a particular community as a symbol of those thousands of others that just get under the four-figure wire in the census derby.
This particular village has a distinctive public square, green with shrubs. The business places of the town flank it on four sides. At its head in a tall church tower the village clock ticks off the long years. It is a little bit of old England in the pleasant and typically American orchard country of Western New York, beside the Ditch that Clinton built 120 years ago.
The village's very name brings to mind bright red berries, green leaves and Christmas time although they have naught to do with its name.
Like a convention orator, I've kept you in suspense too long. It is time to name my candidate.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Holley, N. Y.
* * * *
In the beginning there was only the shadowy hemlock forest where stands the village today.
Holley is in the township of Murray at the eastern rim of the county of Orleans. In 1812 Stephen Lewis and William Rice made the first clearing in what is now Holley. Two years later John Reed had 16 kettles going at his salt works at the old deerlick near a tiny settlement called Saltport.
In 1817, when the Grand Canal's route was assured, sagacious Aerovester Hamlin bought 100 acres there. In 1822 he laid out a village around the square. He visioned shops and dwellings lining three sides and canal docks and warehouses on the east. Then there were only six buildings in the settlement. But when the Ditch was completed through Saltport in 1823, things began to hum in the clearing and Hamlin's dream came true. He built a mansion on an eminence east of the canal where he could watch the busy docks and square.
The salt works languished and died. The hemlock forest was, transformed into a multitude of logs floated off on canal rafts. The name of the village was changed from Saltport to Holley in honor of Myron Holley, one of the fathers of the canal. He never lived in the village that bears his name. He was variously a resident of Canandaigua, of Lyons and of Rochester, where he died.
Myron Holley fought for the canal beside De Witt Clinton in the stirring legislative battles of 1817-18. When their fight was won, he became a canal commissioner and no man played a greater role, save Clinton, in its construction. He rode on horseback from place to place, sleeping wherever night overtook him, in workers' shanties, in vermin-infested inns, under the stars. He cast up his involved accounts by candlelight. After the canal was built, his enemies had the Legislature call him on the carpet for an unaccounted $30,000, out of all the millions he had handled. In the end Holley's integrity was vindicated.
He was a warrior in many camps, a leader in the anti-Masonic and the temperance movements, a man of outspoken views. But above all, he was a powerful figure in building the canal and it is fitting that today a canal town bears his name.
* * * *
The quarries were opened and the railroad came to enhance Holley's prosperity. The orchards flourished and the farmers made the good earth do their bidding. In the early days, all the village's commercial tides eddied around the Clinton Ditch.
In 1856 the bank of the canal gave way and the waters poured into Card's Gulf, sweeping away a boat and taking one life. In 1866 fire ravaged the business district on the square.
When in 1856 the canal was enlarged, the route was changed to its present course north of the village. But the old Clinton Ditch stayed for half a century as a slip connecting the newer canal with lumber yards and warehouses in the town. An old drawing in the weekly Standard office, shows the village in panorama with its main waterway and tributary, giving Holley a Venice-like aspect.
The old slip carried pleasure craft, as well as cargoes of lumber and grain. When the Rochester, Lockport and Buffalo trolley line was built and the Barge Canal expansion was begun, it was abandoned. But the outlines of the ditch are still visible, back of the stores on the east side of the square. A stone house, still standing east of the old ditch and known as the Miller place, was once a canal grocery.
The present lift bridge and frame canal building are bordered by some of the best kept grounds along the state waterway. Once the site was called Podunk. Now the canal has little influence in Holley's life and only when some political spellbinder, seeking votes, comes by canal boat for a rally, does Podunk awake from slumber.
* * * *
Podunk has a special place in the memories of Mr. and Mrs. Egbert R. Cain of Mulberry Street, Rochester. On May 12, 1903 they were married at the bride's home in Holley and after the ceremony, the younger guests flocked to the railroad station to bestow the usual shower of rice and other parting attentions. But the bridal party fooled them by boarding a steam yacht at Podunk for Rochester. It had never been done before, according to the oldest inhabitant.
So the old canal, you see, has been a "honeymoon trail," too.
Holley has also been a favorite spot for firemen's conventions, carnivals, celebrations and sporting events. Pete Esse of West High Terrace in Rochester, now 70, remembers a Fourth of July celebration in Holley at the turn of the century when a bicycle race fro Holley to the Ridge was a feature. Esse and some 40 other speed kings of Rochester and vicinity were entered.
It was a blazing hot day and the farmers, along the line, wishing to be helpful, stood beside the route with buckets of water with which they doused the racers. They overdid the attentions. Pete Esse remembers after 45 years what the dousing did to his racing tights.
* * * *
The word vinegar does not ordinarily carry a pleasant connotation. Yet the pungent odor of vinegar wafted over Holley is a pleasant one and moreover, it comes from what the villagers claim is the largest vinegar works in the world.
The industry began at Clarendon, three miles south of Holley, more than a century ago, when the Pettingill brothers, David and T. E., started a combination saw, flour and cider mill to fit all the seasons. Around 1872, Walter S. Pettingill, son of David, and Ogden S. Miller converted the business into a vinegar factory. In 1888, to save the haul to railroad and canal, the plant was moved to Holley. Walter's son, Benjamin M. Pettingill, one of Holley's leading boosters, operated it prior to its sale to the Duffy-Mott interests with which he is now associated.
Holley is set in a rich orchard and vegetable country. Apples and tomatoes are prime crops. The village has a large canning factory. Once the dried apple industry was a considerable one and shipments of dried and barrelled fruits by canal were heavy. Now it's all by rail and truck.
And the only relic of the abandoned interurban line is an old brown R. L. and B. car, standing idle in a farmer's yard, just east of the village.
Many Italians came in the 1870s and 80s to work in the eight or nine stone quarries of the town. After the quarries gave up the ghost, the Latins remained to till the soil and work in the food plants. They are a highly regarded segment of the community. For years their Mount Carmel Society was active in every civic endeavor.
* * * *
The first real old time canaller I met after leaving the tug was Albert Lavendar, who lives on a farm southeast of the village. He is a rugged man in his seventies with vivid recollections of his boating days.
He was born at Shelby Basin on the banks of the canal and as a boy of nine drove mules on his father's boat across the state—at the prevailing wages of $20 per month and keep. Throughout his youth, he worked on the canal in season, turning to the barreling of apples in the fall.
"Fights? Well, it was hard to keep out of them," Lavendar grinned reminiscently. "Generally they happened when boats tried to `hog the locks' and beat the other fellow through. Smart captains used to have a piece of silver ready for the lock tender. That got results."
Lavendar told how the canal boats sometimes were "frozen in" and had to tie up for the winter wherever the ice trapped them. Once he was caught with a load of grain right in his home town of Holley, "a good break."
He recalled the generally "good grub" on the boats although the crews sometimes tired of too much "Black Rock turkey," which was canalese for salt pork, "streak o' lean and streak o' fat."
Who'd think you'd meet in Holley, N. Y., a distinguished English geographer, who is in the British Who's Who and is currently an exchange professor at Bowdoin?
Dr. John Fleur is his name and he has been a professor of geography at Manchester University for some 15 years. He and Mrs. Fleur were house guests of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Pettingill. The professor has a white Van Dyke beard, he speaks in the precise, deliberate British manner, the horrors of the Nazi blitz have lined his face and all in all, he is a very interesting man.
I fancy Dr. John Fleur of Manchester University felt rather at home in Holley, with its public square, its trim lawns and hedges.
The Holley Standard of Sept. 17, 1870, carried this item:
"Mr. E. D. Olds, host of the Mansion House, has been improving his premises and slicking up generally. Not the least of these improvements is a new sign."
There was no mention of the two young Olds boys that were romping about the Mansion House, now replaced by a modern hotel.
One of them, the late George D. Olds, became president of Amherst to climax a distinguished career as an educator.
The other Olds boy, the versatile Nathaniel S., who will be remembered by old time Rochesterians as a reporter on the Post Express and a historian, went to New York years ago to engage in sales promotion work. For some years under the pen name of the Stroller, he has written a column for the Greenwich Villager.
Greenwich Village seems a far cry from Holley Village, but Columnist Olds only last March lamented bitterly that he could obtain in the metropolis no Northern Spies, "the best of the upstate apples," which were among the fondest recollections of his boyhood in Holley, N. Y.
Thus do memories of his bucolic youth haunt a sophisticate far from the blossom country.
In 1860 a boy was born in a Clarendon farmhouse who became a famous naturalist, big game bunter and taxidermist. Carl Akeley, even as a school boy, was forever mounting birds and one of his early collections some eight years ago, after his death, came to light if, the neighborhood and now is housed in New York's Museum of Natural History.
Two other native sons who attained the top rung of the Rochester financial ladder were the late Thomas W. Finucane and the late John N. Beckley.
Maybe Holley, at Orleans eastern gate, should be annexed by Monroe County. I found the tie that binds the village to the city on the Genesee far stronger than any bond with Albion, the shire town to the westward.
* * * *
Time seems to stand still at the old canal port of Hulherton, between Albion and Holley.
There for a little way the Towpath is just as in the days of yore. There stands an old time canal grocery, a landmark along the Ditch, little changed by the years.
At Hulberton decades slip away and in fancy you see the mules and the horses plodding again along the Towpath. Collars hide terrible shoulder galls on some of them. The drivers spur them on with whip and picturesque profanity. The mules bray, sensing that their six-hour shift is done and it is time to change teams. Drivers grab them, not by their heads, but by their tails and ease them from boat to Towpath to stable. Fresh mules are "tailed" aboard to take their places.
The lines of boats trading at the canal grocery of J. Moore & Sons extend almost as far as the eye can see. Moore's is known all along the Ditch. It sells everything for the canal trade, towlines, pitch for calking boats, horse collars, fish, sugar, brown and white, in barrels, fresh fruit, wood for cook stoves.
Every boat owner has credit at Moore's. They'll pay up at season's end. Moore's loses few accounts. Canallers are honest in the main.
A hay press is in operation at Moore's. The hay, when baled, will be sold, along with oats grown in the countryside, to the boat men. Farmers from miles around trade at Moore's. The quarries are going full blast and there are many stone boats on the Erie.
But that scene lives only in the halls of memory. Only recently the last of the Moores, John C., retired from the business his family had operated so long. A tradition of the old canal has gone.
The canal itself is streamlined and singularly quiet. Hulberton drowses beside the Towpath, dreaming of the brave days of old.
Reapers and Romances
WHEN the canal town was very young, the Indians called it "The Red Village" because there were so many brick houses.
Today red roses bloom on the old Towpath in that "Red Village" which in its 123 years has played no insignificant role in the epic of America.
Somehow I like to think that the murky Erie water flows a little swifter there as if remembering the yesterdays when it bore away to the corners of the earth the products made upon its banks.
But maybe you've always thought Brockport was just an ordinary village?
Possibly you did not know that:
In Brockport were manufactured the first 100 harvesters made in the world.
The first large field of wheat ever harvested by machine was on a farm in the Town of Sweden.
Pioneer bean planters, corn drills, reapers with automatic rakes, grain separators and an amazing array of other implements that eased the lot of the farmer were born of Brockport's inventive genius and productive ability.
Nearly 40 of the best selling novels of the long Victorian age, were written in an old fashioned brown house In the village.
Brockport was once called the bean center of America.
Machinery produced in Brockport ended drudgery for thousands; books written in Brockport brought enjoyment to millions.
Has any village of 3,600 contributed more?
* * * *
Twice in recent years the national spotlight that seeks out the unusual has swung on the fruit belt village.
Remember the "White Indian" boys and Richard Marsh, the Brockport explorer who brought them out of the Panama jungles in 1924? And the furor their fair skin and yellow hair caused among scientists who finally labeled them albinos?
Remember the shaggy, black mongrel pup named Idaho that a Brockport youth brought home from a western CCC camp and the drama of 1936 when the dog, accused of drowning a 14-yeas-old boy swimming in the canal, won his fight for life while the nation watched a court of justice in Brockport's Village Hall?
But you say, Brockport's past may have been both important and colorful. What about its present and future?
Just try to find parking space on its Main Street in this year of 1945.
* * * *
After the canal surveyors had run their stakes south of the Ridge, shrewd pioneers reasoned that wherever the Ditch intersected the Lake Road, running southward from Clarkson, there would be the trading center.
Shrewdest among the pioneers were two New Englanders, Hiel Brockway and James Seymour. They became the most influential of Brockport's founders. They also became bitter rivals.
Seymour had settled in Clarkson and did his utmost to get that then thriving Ridge Road center on the Canal. He did succeed in swinging the waterway some distance to the north. No other Ridge Road village is so near the Canal as Clarkson. The route of the Ditch describes a considerable curve to reach Brockport, thanks to James Seymour.
Seymour bought land on the east side of the Lake Road, now Brockport's Main Street. Brockway bought on the west side. And thereby hangs a tale.
"East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet." And Seymour streets on the east never meet Brockway streets on the west—with two exceptions, State and Erie. None of the others intersecting Main Street downtown join. That zigzag street layout is a reminder of an old feud between two strong men.
In 1823 Brockport became the temporary western terminus of the Canal, instead of Rochester as first planned. The founders of Brockport saw to that.
Swiftly the Red Village rose beside the newly dug channel. The bricks that went into the stores and dwellings came from a bed north of Clarkson.
The settlement was named in honor of Hiel Brockway, who became the village magnate with his busy boat yard and his ownership of the Red jacket packet line. His great-great grandson, Lamonte Brockway, Rochester insurance and real estate man, told me that the village was first called Brockwayport, a name that was almost immediately shortened to Brockport.
Not so many years ago, cannon balls were found imbedded in old trees in Quackenbush's woods near the Canal. Some people figured a battle had been fought there, perhaps in the War of 1812. Historians deduced they were fired from the guns that lined the canal banks for the salute to the Clinton flotilla that opened the Ditch in 1825.
From its inception, Brockport in the town of Sweden has been the most important community in Monroe County west of the Genesee River. No one seems to know how the town came to be named Sweden. There is no record of a Swedish settlement.
In the early days business and industry centered around the canal. Throngs jammed the high bridge when Lafayette rode the waterway on his tour of 1825.
For many years until the tolls were abolished, all boats stopped at Brockport, for there was the office of the collector. The old toll office, back of the Dunn Block along the Heelpath, was torn down only a few years ago.
In 1844 a young West Virginia inventor, a former blacksmith, came riding into Brockport on horseback. His name was Cyrus McCormick. Thirteen years before he had invented as clumsy device for harvesting wheat. He spent years in Washington getting his patent and improving his machine that would do the work of seven men with cradles. He sought a factory that would make his reapers. In Washington he met Congressman E. B. Holmes of Brockport. Holmes told him about the Bacchus and Burroughs iron works in his home town which had been making farm tools since 1828.
McCormick gave the Brockport works an order to make 100 harvesters. They were unsatisfactory although one of them, taken to the Sweden farm of Frederick Root, is said to have harvested the first field of wheat ever cut by machinery in America.
But Brockport had another iron works, newly established, that took over McCormick's order. So it came about that in 1846 in a small shop beside the Canal, William H. Seymour and Dayton S. Morgan produced for Cyrus McCormick the first successful harvesters, 100 of them, the world had ever known.
One of those machines today is in the Henry Ford Museum.
McCormick moved on to Chicago and millions. From Brockport poured a steady flow of inventions that revolutionized the farm implement industry.
Farmer Root, whose grain had been harvested by the pioneer reaper, perfected a grain separator and cleaner. Seymour brought out for the harvest of 1851 the automatic raking reaper, "The Quadrant Platform," that has never since been materially altered; D. S. Morgan made and shipped to far corners of the world his Triumph reapers for 20 years. There were also the Gordon automatic grain binder and plow; the Johnson harvester; the corn drill, devised by Whiteside, Barnett & Allen; the first bean planter, invented by William Bradford.
D. S. Morgan made reapers until 1894. The next year flames devoured the plant. The huge Johnson Harvester factory succeeded the old Bacchus and Burroughs foundry and made thousands of machines beside the Canal from 1868 to 1882 when the plant burned down and was moved to Batavia. The year of the fire Johnson's had made 6,000 machines and at its peak employed 400 to 500 hands.
Well into the 1890s Brockport was a world center of farm machinery production. Disastrous fires, changing times and the development of the Western wheat fields ended her supremacy in that field.
* * * *
But Brockport went on making a remarkable variety of other things—the Ultra shoe, the Capen piano, the Gleason cooling board, a necessary adjunct for the embalmer. The Wheel Works made racing sulkeys with tubular frames. A. D. Daly evolved a combination footstool and cuspidor.
In the 1880s more beans were shipped from Brockport than any other point in America. There were huge warehouses in the village before that industry moved westward as had the others.
Today Brockport industry is centered around canning and cold storage plants. She shares in the new frozen food boom. A huge A&P cannery sprawls over many acres on the eastern end of the village and the frozen food plant recently absorbed the old Monroe County fair grounds. Hundreds live in Brockport and work in Rochester.
* * * *
During the years the Red Village was turning out reapers, pianos, shoes and cooling boards, a slim, well groomed, bewigged lady in a brown house in shady College Street was turning out best selling novels—38 of them in 50 years.
Mary Jane Holmes was the novelist's naive. It is a name that will awaken memories for most of us over 50. The others probably never heard of her. But in her time she had the biggest following for the longest time of any American author. Sales of her books topped the two million mark.
My grandmother doted on the saccharine, conventionally melodramatic love stories that flowed from the pen of Mary Jane Holmes—and so did yours. Lena Rivers, English Orphans, The Homestead on the Hillside, Meadowbrook, Bad Hugh—they passed from hand to hand in rural villages, in rough mining towns and in fashionable drawing rooms—from the Civil War past the turn of the century and the dawn of a new age in America. With that new age of movies, jazz, divorce, speed and noisy, smelly automobiles, Mary Jane Holmes, a pious Victorian lady, writing sweet unrealities in a quiet village, could have no part.
New England, born Mary Jane and her frail lawyer-husband, Daniel Holmes, came to live in the canal town in 1853. The author had already produced Tempest and Sunshine and was on the road to literary glory. New York magazines were running her stories in serial form.
She amassed no great fortune. She made enough to live comfortably; to travel abroad a great deal and to accumulate a large collection of curios from all corners of the globe.
Mrs. Holmes' vas active in village good works and the WCTU. She taught a Sunday School class. She never wrote a line that would offend the most puritannical.
She was pretty strait laced but she was warmly human, too. Brockport youngsters who got cookies and other goodies from the lady in the Brown Cottage knew that. She used some of their first names in her books although she placed all of the scenes of her romances in New England, the South or in Europe, never in Western New York where she lived most of her 79 years.
Mary Jane came back to the Brown Cottage to die in 1907 after a visit to her girlhood home in Massachusetts. Her funeral was the biggest Brockport ever knew. Messages came from all over the world. Metropolitan editors commented on the passing of one of America's most prolific and popular writers. Grandma, thumbing her well worn copy of Cousin Maude, could not believe that Mary Jane Holmes was no more.
* * * *
Old residents will tell you how when the crowing, of roosters disturbed her writing, Mrs. Holmes bought up every bird in the neighborhood.
Her wisp-like husband followed her in death within 12 years. Daniel Holmes was subject to intermittent sieges of malaria. Sometimes he had to be carried up the two fights of stairs to his office. The Baptist ladies had a chair placed on the church lawn so that he might stop there and rest.
The Brown Cottage, after his death, was divided and remodeled beyond recognition.
Mrs. Holmes' writing followed the pattern of the times. Her heroes were handsome and brave, her heroines paragons of virtue; her villains incredibly wicked and always there was the happy ending. Here is a sample of her literary style, from Lena Rivers, the story that has been enacted by thousands of "home talent" thespians and a few years ago was made into a movie:
"But at last, as days glided into weeks and weeks into months, hope died away and when the days grew bright and gladsome in the warm spring sun and when the snow melted on the mountain top and the first robin's note was heard at the farmhouse door, Helena laid her baby on her mother's bosom and without a murmur, glided down the darkening river whose deep waters move onward, ever onward, but never return."
A brutally realistic rewrite man would boil that 75-word sentence down into the simple statement that:
"Helena died in childbirth in the spring."
But our grandmothers liked Mary Jane's style better.
* * * *
For 113 years Brockport has been a college town.
In 1832 the Baptist Association of Western New York began raising funds for a Collegiate Institute. Hiel Brockway, father of the village, gave six acres of land southeast of the town and $3,000 in cash, with the stipulation that village children could always be educated there. Building began in 1834. But times were hard and the work dragged. Spiders began to weave their webs in the unfinished college.
In 1841 the citizens of Brockport bought the plant for $3,800 and founded a new Institute. On a Sunday in 1854 it burned down while the village was at church. It was rebuilt the next year. In 1867 it was turned over to the state for a Normal School after Brockport had outbid Geneseo and outmaneuvered the powerful Wadsworths.
Only recently the name was changed to the State Teachers' College and in 1939 a massive $1,100,000 red brick Georgian building supplanted the old Normal, where so many schoolma'ams and masters had been trained.
The College is planning further expansion. A score of houses bordering the campus are to be torn down to make way for a pretentious dormitory program.
In this year of war, men are virtually non existent at the Teachers College. But the girls are everywhere, on the streets, in the ice cream parlors, in the buses, to add charm and vivacity to the many-sided Brockport scene.
* * * *
Many of Brockport's citizens have been important. Others have been only colorful.
"Calico Jack" belongs in the latter category. She was born Emma Hunt. Her mother, Elizabeth Tripp Hunt, in 1860, started building "Hunt's Castle" on the Colby Road in East Sweden. After $20,000 had been put into the structure, with its 12 rooms, some of them 17 feet high and all with black walnut woodwork, and including two elaborate ball rooms, the funds gave out. So there were no front steps to "The Castle."
But it had a cupola and from there "Calico Jack," after her mother's demise, would spy on the field hands with a telescope.
No community knew a more bizarre character. She would ride to town on a cream-colored horse. She wore a costly sealskin coat. She smoked cigars and, according to legend, would light them with dollar bills.
After she went broke and the "Castle" was sold at sheriff's sale, "Calico Jack" moved to Rochester. Her last job was that of charwoman at the Central Station. The "Castle" is just a farm residence now.
* * * *
Horatio M. Beach, publisher and diplomat, in 1856 founded the weekly Republic, which survives today as the merged Republic-Democrat. The present operators have the surname, Blossom, an appropriate one in a land of orchards. P. A. Blossom has been the publisher since 1899. His son, E. M., is business manager.
Around 1880 Beach returned from a consular post in Germany and brought back what was hailed as the first internal combustion engine in America. Set up in the Republic office to power the machinery there, it was a monstrous thing with a flywheel weighing half a ton. It used illuminating gas for fuel. But it could generate only 3 horsepower!
* * * *
The Soldiers Memorial Tower, now a crumbling ruin in a desolate field, was a brain child of the same Horatio Beach. In 1882 he led a movement for a cemetery, centering around a plot for veterans of the Civil War. An iron railing was built around the field, some burials were made, a vault and a chapel were constructed.
In 1894 work began on the tower. It is 60 feet high, of Medina sandstone, with a battlement effect at its crest. Inside was a circular iron stairway that thousands have climbed to obtain a superb view of the countryside. At one time the New York Central Railroad listed the memorial as one of the scenic attractions along its route.
After Beach's death the cemetery enterprise waned. The remains were removed to other burying grounds, until only three graves, those of soldiers without known kin, were left. They are still there and every Memorial Day, the American Legion decks them with flags.
The vault has been razed and the chapel burned down. The tower is crumbling and massive stones have slipped down from the battlement. The circular stairway is rusting away. It is the most unusual war memorial I have ever seen.
When I was traveling the Long Level by canal tug boat, the captain pointed to the tower in the distance and said: "We have been wondering for years what that is—a monument, the chimney of a burned building, a smoke stack or what?"
I told him I'd find out. Well, Captain Tom, here's our answer.
* * * *
George Guelf is no ordinary villager. He is a naturalist who knows every tree, bush and bird of the region. A kindly, observant philosopher, he has lived all his long life in Brockport.
Ray Tuttle, a much younger man, is a sort of unofficial village historian. For years he has been collecting the lore of the community. Ray took George and me on a tour, pointing out interesting and historic spots. It was old stuff to George and highly fascinating to me.
From George's memories, Ray's scrap book, my own observations and other sources, I caught these random, kaleidoscopic pictures of life in the canal town:
Rafts laden with logs floating down the lakes and the canal all the way from Michigan in the 1880's to the Gordon saw mill … the old lift bridge manipulated by a series of weights … the tallyho from the Gordon stables … the bustle around the canal banks in the 80's and 90's, with the shoe factory by the high bridge, the harvester works, the Morgan reaper plant, the grain warehouses, the toll office, the 4,000-foot "railroad" from the Heelpath to the harvester works, with its flat car pulled by horses … The tomb stone in High Street Cemetery of Joseph Roby which tells that he was a participant in the famous Boston Tea Party of Dec. 16, 1773 and later a captain in the Revolution.
The Rising Sun district school, east of the village, so named because it faces the east and retaining its old title despite any slogan of the Nipponese … houses along the Towpath where now the roses grow … the old mule cemetery … the old county fairgrounds and George recalling how as a boy he helped clear pebbles from the race tracks that were to know so many flying hooves … huge drays hauling the mail from Moore's nationally known magazine agency … the old American Hotel, a relic of canal days with traces of old doorways at the level of the Clinton Ditch … it's the Hotel Brockport now but the old name is still sprawled across its front under the roof. …
Ward's Opera House, that burned in 1911, and Al Fields and the "Tom" shows and East Lynne and the show bands that serenaded the hands at the harvester and reaper works … the Winslow Music Hall and the RL&B trolleys clattering by … Old Home Week in 1911. … The steam freight packets, the Frankie Reynolds, the John Owens and the others at the busy docks. …
The big house where the politically potent Dailey boys, John F., Don, Vince and Murray among them, were born and the barley-laden wagons lined up for a quarter of a mile before the Dailey warehouses 35 years ago—the influence of the old families, notably the Morgans and the Gordons, extending beyond Brockport limits (Buffalo has a D. S. Morgan Building)—John Pallace, colorful politico and collector of the port, commuting between his Brockport home and his City office—the Garden Club planting a quarter mile of rose hushes along the old Towpath—the dog, Idaho, freed from prison" and dying under the wheels of a car.—The war days, the LSTs and the PT boats and die sub chasers gliding along Erie water, bound for battle on the seas—Elsie Blossom's painting of picturesque Water Street—the old and the new mingled in the port that the Indians called the Red village so long ago.
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