Many interesting businesses developed in the Genesee Valley in the 19th century and one of those was created by Miss Ellen North of Geneseo. Born in 1857, she was the only child of Mary and Albert North. Albert’s parents were early settlers in Geneseo, coming to town in 1817. Ellen’s grandfather, Henry North, established a successful merchandising business and was prominent in local politics. John Young, Ellen’s maternal grandfather, was New York State governor in 1846. Ellen enjoyed a life filled with distinct advantages and was educated both in the U.S. and France.
In 1889, Albert North purchased a beautiful sprawling Queen Anne home located at 34 Main Street. Ellen, an old maid by society’s standards, still lived with her parents. By 1893 a deep economic depression had crippled the U.S. economy. Banks failed, stock prices crashed, businesses teetered, many closed their doors, and people scrambled to put food on the table. It was a dark time, but the 36-year-old Miss North saw opportunity instead. Her idea was to turn a hobby into a cash business to shore up her family’s finances. Since her friends and family always enjoyed her jams and preserves, why not put up more jars and sell them? Fruit was plentiful in summer and fall, and with minimal starting capital, she decided to try her hand as a commercial jam maker.
Hiring a few women, Ellen began the Geneseo Jam Kitchen in her home. The ladies produced fine jams, jellies, and preserves at reasonable prices using local fruit—strawberries, cherries, and currants. The Kitchen’s offerings were an immediate success, and the business grew exponentially. Workrooms were added to the house, and within a few years, she moved the business next door to accommodate its needs. By 1899, Ellen employed 50 women at the Geneseo Jam Kitchen. The company received eighteen tons of currants from a 16-acre tract in Mt. Morris (said to be the largest plot of currants in the world), 8.5 tons of cherries, and 300 bushels of strawberries from other local growers, which were delivered annually to supply the Kitchen. Stores throughout Western New York eagerly sought Miss North’s tasty products for their shelves.
Miss North carefully guarded her recipes and kept her products to the highest standards. The Geneseo Jam Kitchen used nothing artificial in any of its products. Only pure sugar and the freshest fruit available went into the delicious jams and jellies. Employees prepared and cooked the fresh fruit within 12 hours of picking. Eventually, customers had more choices, including orange marmalade, mincemeat, pickled pears, brandied peaches, and sauces. Business was booming! At one time, 52 different products were available. Her marketing plan targeted the overworked homemaker with the tag line: “Cheaper than you can put them up in your kitchen.” It worked splendidly.
Ellen, whose attention to detail never flagged, also designed a special jar to hold her jellies. It was one you could flip over, tap the jar with a knife, and the contents would slide out whole, making a beautiful presentation on your china plate. These jars were copyrighted and shaped like a cowbell with a wide mouth.
By World War I, the business once again needed more space. In addition, the company had government contracts to produce sweet toppings for our soldiers. This demand required her to convert to quantity production to fulfill the contracts; however, she insisted the excellent quality be maintained. As a result, the U.S. Army ordered millions of tins of jam. Miss North then purchased the Bonner Hotel located at the corner of University Drive and Main Street. The building was used for storage and offices but is no longer in existence.
The tins of jams and jellies were wildly popular with soldiers, and they often sent letters of thanks to Ellen, some even hinting at romance. She commented to the Democrat & Chronicle that she’d have an “interesting human-interest scrapbook by the end of the war.”
In 1922, the sole proprietorship was incorporated, with Miss North still at the helm at age 65. A tall woman, she was of regal posture with a gold ear trumpet and was always noticed, as you might imagine, when entering a room. She had the first floor of the Bonner Hotel remodeled into a tearoom to promote the great variety of products the Kitchen now produced. Her energy decreased over the next couple of years, and she retired from active management of the company in 1925. Vice-President Richard MacKenzie took over and became the majority stockholder. In 1930, MacKenzie sold out to L. Charles Mazzola. Mazzola had worked in the food processing industry for over 20 years. This transfer occurred during the Great Depression, and the company struggled to survive but seemed to be in the black by 1937. Mazzola sold the company to Edward Spencer, who continued to purchase fruit and tomatoes from local farmers and expanded its product base. More attention was given to canning vegetables, especially tomatoes. The company was sold again after Spencer’s tenure.
On May 19, 1939, Ellen North passed away after a brief illness. She was 81. The Geneseo Jam Kitchen continued to operate for another decade following the founder’s death. During World War II, the company once again supplied our troops, but economic woes took a financial toll after the war. It filed for bankruptcy in 1949, and the final settlement took place in 1951. What began in Ellen North’s kitchen in 1893 was no more, but 56 years isn’t a bad run at all. Ellen proved herself an extraordinary businesswoman known for her generous hospitality and work at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Geneseo. Miss North improved the village and county’s economy, provided employment for many women and men, and was known internationally for her fine sweetmeats. An exceptional life, without a doubt. She is buried next to her parents in Temple Hill Cemetery.
Association for the Preservation of Geneseo
Genesee Valley People 1743-1962, Irene A. Beale
Livingston County Historian
The Livingston Republican
Democrat & Chronicle
The Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Letchworth State Park provided a venue for various purposes during their short existence. The last of these was housing 200 German prisoners of war from 1944-1945.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the last time we had taken foreign prisoners of war was during the War of 1812. The government was unprepared for the influx of Italian and German prisoners when Great Britain couldn't house anymore in 1943. American military success in North Africa yielded large numbers of German POWs and made it imperative the U.S. transport POWs to U.S. soil.
The Geneva Convention of 1929 was the framework all nations were supposed to work within to treat POWs, but we know that the Axis powers disregarded the rules much of the time. However, the U.S. intended to set the example with humane treatment in hopes that our soldiers held in German POW camps would have better conditions. The camps were first established in the southern states, but eventually, POW camps were constructed in almost every state.
Fort Drum near Watertown, NY, was the first to receive POWs in New York State and then Fort Niagara early in 1943. Fort Niagara was the POW headquarters for Western New York. The prisoners arrived on the Liberty ships, which had transported soldiers to the Europe Theater, and had few passengers for the return voyage, making them the perfect solution. The number of prisoners constantly increased, and the need for more camps snowballed. Additional camps were designated in Attica, Geneseo, Hamlin Beach, Rochester, Medina, Oakfield, Stony Brook and Letchworth State Parks. In May 1944, the construction of a barbed-wire fence to enclose a compound around CCC Camp SP 49 located at the Lower Falls commenced. POWs began arriving in June. Two hundred German POWs were now temporary residents of the park.
The Letchworth Farmers' and Canner's Cooperative formed to manage the use of the Germans. With the scarcity of young men at the time, farmers and factories were without enough labor to produce the food desperately needed for the military and civilians. Rationing of food and other goods was a way of life during the war, making food production a high priority.
The largest farms which contracted with Birdseye-Snider to supply vegetables to its canneries received help first. Work details of five prisoners accompanied by one armed guard were organized to help harvest crops. Other crews were sent to the local canneries as laborers on the production lines. The system worked well, and as time went on, arrangements became quite casual in many cases. Most of the prisoners were quite content with their lot. They worked hard, but were treated well, had plenty to eat and recreation time.
One crew of POWs was gathered to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to build the camp in Geneseo in 1944. The camp was located on a slope west of SUNY Geneseo. After clearing the land, the prisoners constructed eleven prefabricated buildings. Nine were for barracks, one for a mess hall, and one was outside the compound to house military police.
When winter came, the men were busy with construction and maintenance projects provided by the park administration. The barracks in the park were small, housing 20-50 men according to one former German POW, who returned in the 1980s to see the park. Each barrack was set up in military-style with cots around the perimeter of an open room. A coal stove provided heat, there was electricity, and hot-and-cold running water. The Germans were able to organize recreation and entertainment for themselves, write letters, and read during their non-working hours. The food was ample and good—certainly better than what they would be eating on the battlefield and the camp had a translator. Sunday worship services were held for them too. The men received about 80 cents a day for their labor, paid in canteen coupons. This way, they could purchase cigarettes, candy, and other sundries with their wages.
Stony Brook State Park housed Italian POWs at its CCC camp. These men also worked in the canning factories and farms in and around Mt. Morris. It was reported that the Italians were elated to be in the U.S. There were stories of Italian soldiers immediately surrendering on the battlefield when they realized they were fighting Americans. They were weary of the fighting and couldn't wait for a cruise ticket to the U.S.
The presence of enemy soldiers in the rural communities along the Genesee didn't seem to rattle the residents. Each of the camps was isolated from the population, the newspapers barely mentioned their existence, and people accepted that laborers were necessary. These men were young, healthy, and willing to work. The girls in Geneseo seemed to enjoy flirting with the young men while they worked in town, and there were some incidents of escapes and even arrest of locals in aiding the escape of POWs.
In August 1944, three prisoners from the Letchworth camp managed to escape. The FBI initiated a manhunt, and citizens were instructed to be on the lookout for the escapees dressed in POW garb. Their descriptions were provided for the newspapers. In November 1944, 36-year-old Hans Geisser slipped away and was found at the CCC camp near Gibsonville the next day. This camp housed the young women who signed up to work in the canneries for short periods during WWII. Also, in November 1945, two women were arrested for aiding a POW's escape. Margaret Wilson of Gainesville, mother of two children, and 19-year-old Alice Fisher of Perry were arrested and jailed in the Monroe County jail for transporting POWs out of the Geneseo camp. The ladies claimed innocence, insisting they were on a date. Quite a date! Unfortunately, I didn't find the outcome of their charges, but likely they were dropped or the women received fines.
When the camps closed after the war, most of them were dismantled, which was the fate of Camp SP49. Little remains, if anything, of the camps along the Genesee. There are few records about the camps and fewer photos; the inspections and other official reports are with the National Archives. This fleeting encounter between enemy soldiers and the people of Western New York almost disappeared, but a few glimpses remain into a unique moment of Genesee Valley history.
The Troy Record, November 22, 1945
Buffalo Courier November 22, 1944
Buffalo Courier August 4, 1944
Letchworth State Park History.com
Genesee Valley Events 1668-1986 by Irene A. Beale
MAZUZAN, GEORGE T., and NANCY WALKER. "Restricted Areas: German Prisoner-of-War Camps in Western New York, 1944–1946." <i>New York History</i> 59, no. 1 (1978): 54-72. Accessed September 3, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23169531.
Ashcroft, Jennie. WWII POW Camps in the United States, Fold3.com
August in Western New York means it’s time for county fairs. They are a long-established tradition in New York State that began as early as 1793. Generations of Western New Yorkers have participated in this icon of rural life for over 175 years.
History of the County Fair in New York
The history of American agricultural fairs is traced back to Elkanah Watson, who hailed from Massachusetts and was the founder of the Berkshire Agricultural Society. His concept was successful in Massachusetts and exported to the Genesee Valley by Charles Williamson, a land agent for the British Pulteney Association. This association was a group of British land speculators who purchased 1,000,000 acres of land in Western New York in 1790 from the 6,000,000-acre Phelps and Gorham Purchase.
Williamson, who was employed to encourage settlement of the Genesee Valley and sell the vast acreage, decided that a fair would expedite matters. In 1793, he organized the Williamsburg Fair and Genesee Races in what is now Groveland, NY. The fair featured horse racing, a popular sport that offered a winning purse of 50 pounds. There were also foot races and shooting matches. In addition, livestock was offered for sale—cattle, horses, and sheep. Williamson held another successful fair in Bath, NY, three years later, which ran for almost a month. Diverse entertainment was offered to spectators, who traveled in from all directions for some fun. Plays performed by a troupe of actors, along with a variety of contests, kept people coming back. Williamson had a famous mare, Virginia Nell, who raced for a large purse of 1,000 pounds. There likely were many wagers on the races. While the fair cost over $100,000 in today’s coin, Williamson shrewdly turned a profit for his bosses. Land sold, and the population of the Genesee Valley grew.
In 1819, New York State formed an Agricultural Society to promote best farming practices to improve crop production and the husbandry of livestock. They handed out $10,000 to local agricultural societies for premiums at fairs and expanded their support in 1841 by giving premium money to county agricultural societies. 1841 is significant because it was the year Wyoming County was officially organized as a separate county set off from Genesee County.
Wyoming County Fair
In 1843, the Wyoming County Agricultural Society was formed, and in 1844, Warsaw hosted the first fair on September 30 and October 1. The Society’s single objective was to promote agriculture in the county. The fair celebrated agrarian achievements of growing the largest pumpkin, the best apples, or wheat. It provided a venue for farmers to examine new equipment, superior breeds of cattle and sheep, better varieties of grain, vegetables, and fruit. Of course, some fun was in order and horse racing and other contests were consistently popular with everyone. For example, in 1845, there was a plowing contest to see who could plow a ¼ acre the fastest, which was 75 minutes that year.
By 1849, attendance was estimated at over 5,000 people for the two-day county fair. Warsaw remained the main venue for the fair until 1940, but the fair moved to other locations, including Perry Center, Wethersfield, Varysburg, Perry, Letchworth State Park, and Attica. Throughout the 19th century, departments were added to include homemade goods—preserves, cloth, butter, cheese, woodworking, and farm implements. In 1902, a Wild West show was part of the entertainment, and in 1911, the midway had electric lights, and numerous entertainment companies were booked to thrill fairgoers. This was when the association hired the Daredevil Tony Casterline and his flying machine to thrill the crowds. Casterline, the inventor of the “Loop to Loop” and “Loop the Gap” aerial maneuvers, fired up the Curtis aeroplane to show off his skills. However, because of soft ground, he could not gain enough loft to clear the telegraph wires on the west side of Liberty Street in Warsaw. Entangled in the wires, the airplane lost its propeller, and the craft's framework was significantly damaged. Fortunately, the pilot escaped with minor injuries. The fair was extended by a day so Casterline could make repairs and consequently a successful flight to the amazement of all. Unfortunately, expensive entertainment diverted the purpose of the fair and began to eat away at its resources.
By 1927, the fair association was in real financial trouble and couldn't pay its bills. The 4-H clubs held an exhibition and did so a few times until the fair association was solvent around 1935. Between 1931 and 1933, Perry hosted the event without much success, but the Great Depression was likely a factor. Times were exceedingly tough for everyone. There was no fair in 1934, and its future was bleak. In 1935, Perry Center was the host, and it appeared that the fair was on sound financial footing once again with good crowds. The committee refocused on agriculture, and eliminated the midway. In 1936, the fair was held at CCC Camp 76, near St. Helena in Letchworth State Park. The fair was advertised to have more than adequate space for exhibits and that the beauty of the park would draw more than Wyoming County residents. Newspaper reports heralded it a great success, but this was the only year it was held in the park.
In 1940, the fair moved to Pike. With the restrictions and shortages of many goods during World War II, the fair wasn’t held between 1943 and 1945. The reason was the shortage of gasoline and tires. Everyone was conserving during those hard, uncertain years of the War. Metal, gasoline, rubber, and even cooking fats were in demand to support the war effort. Wyoming County did its part and sacrificed much for victory. After the War, Pike seemed to be the perfect location, and in 1950, the fair association purchased ten acres for permanent fairgrounds north of Main Street.
The Pike Volunteer Fire Department graded the land for a cattle and horse show area, and they constructed bleachers to accommodate 500. Concession stands on Main Street were moved at this time, and lights were installed on the midway. After the Wyoming County Fair Association incorporated in 1951 construction began on a pole barn for livestock. The People’s Hall was completed in 1954 and more parking added in 1959. Unfortunately, in 1955 the livestock barn burned, but its replacement was constructed in 1956.
Much of the fair schedule we know today was set in 1958. Some of the highlights of fair week are the Grand Parade and Fair Queen competition on Monday, Firemen’s Parade on Tuesday, 4-H horse and livestock shows on Wednesday, the chicken barbeque and talent show on Thursday, the open-class beef show Friday. Tractor pulls draw the crowds on Friday and Saturday nights.
That’s one of the beautiful things about “Pike Fair.” You can count on it being the same year after year. Comfortable and reliable, like a well-loved pair of slippers. There have been improvements, new buildings, and exhibits over the years, but the fair still charges no admission and parking is reasonably priced. An array of farm equipment for sale greets you on Main Street; the Historical House demonstrates 19th-century farm equipment and cooking skills. The aromas of cotton candy, popcorn, and grilled meat waft down the midway. The Ferris wheel turns high above the grounds; the merry-go-round cheerfully spins, its music combines with the sounds of noisy game booths. Parents and kids eagerly examine the school exhibits looking for a blue ribbon on an entry. Flowers, quilts, jams, photography, embroidery, and other home arts are on display, waiting for judging. The livestock barns are full of cattle, horses, chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats—the odors are familiar, as are the sounds. Neighbors meet, and folks catch up on life when they spot a friend they haven’t seen in years. The county fair still promotes community, competition, and education. It’s a weeklong celebration of agriculture, fun, food, and laughter. You can’t beat it. Elkanah Watson sure had a great idea.