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.
The iconic vista of the Portage Bridge high over the Genesee River is unforgettable for any visitor to Letchworth State Park. It’s certainly a favorite place for me. And if you’re lucky enough to see a train cross the bridge—that’s a special treat. However, people have been amazed by the bridge, which is now in its third iteration, since 1852, or 169 years. It’s a destination of longstanding, one that captured imaginations and was a photographer’s dream subject, even in those early years.
The First Bridge
Expansion of the Buffalo & New York City Railroad system prompted plans to lay track from Attica, New York, to Hornellsville, a distance of 60 miles. It was to bolster the New York Central and Erie Railroads lines as train travel became more popular. This new “road” entailed crossing the Genesee River at Portage, and the bridge’s designer, Col. Silas Seymour (1817-1890), had the project of a lifetime. The bridge was to be 800 feet across and 234 feet from the riverbed to the track. Col. Seymour, a civil engineer, designed the bridge so that any piece of timber could be removed and replaced without any danger to the stability of the structure. Seymour went on to have a notable career with several railroads and was the New York State Engineer and Surveyor from 1856-1857. And in 1852, he was the engineer of the world's largest wooden bridge.
The railroad gave the contract for the bridge construction to Lauman, Rockafellow, and Moore. The work was commenced on July 1, 1851, although the gathering of the timber and other materials had begun two years before. It was a massive project, and the contractors advertised for 100 bridge builders, 100 masons, and 800 handymen who could drive iron bolts and handle timbers. The highest wages were promised, ranging from $1.25 - $1.75 per day.
Lauman, Rockafellow, and Moore hired a large group of Irish immigrants to begin the work, but they were disgruntled over the wages within days and went on strike. A day’s work was often 15 hours, making the hourly wage just 8 cents. No wonder they were angry. The contractors ignored the strike, hiring a contingent of Germans, which set a riot into motion on July 7, 1851. The Germans were working on the bridge’s foundation at the riverbed when Irishmen began rolling boulders on them from the banks above. The Wyoming County Sheriff’s Office was sent for, and eventually order was restored, although a deadly riot ensued between law enforcement and the Irish first. The following morning twenty arrests were made, and several of the rioters were seriously injured. Those arrested were transported to Warsaw for trial, except for two who died. One man was discovered below the falls with a gunshot wound to his head (hmmm), and another succumbed to injuries received in the violent uprising. The judge released all the rioters after their trial. Most of the Irish crew immediately left Portage after the incident, and the contractors hired a new workforce.
By the end of July 1852, plans to celebrate the bridge’s completion were in full swing. Pedestrians could now walk across the magnificent bridge to enjoy the views of the canyon and beyond. However, everyone was talking about the amount of material used to construct the bridge. It was mind-boggling.
The stone abutments in the river reached 30 feet, the trestles 190 feet, and the trusses 14 feet. Estimates said that the bridge could carry 3,100 tons as well as its own weight without difficulty. The structure was tested on August 14, 1852, with its first successful train crossing.
On August 25th, the bridge was dedicated with an impressive array of dignitaries and invited guests on hand. Excursion trains from Buffalo and Hornellsville transported hundreds to the celebration at special fares, promising a same-day return in the evening. Thousands gathered to gaze at the engineering wonder and watch as the “first” train crossed the bridge filled with VIPs. Governor Washington Hunt, railroad executives, George B. Chace of Castile, and railroad investors were some of those first passengers.
George B. Chace, a wealthy Castile farmer and successful investor in the railroad, provided a 3,600-pound ox for the feast served from the large mess hall constructed for the workers. The menu was spectacular with several courses, a vast selection of boiled fish (salmon, two kinds of trout, striped bass) and lobster, roasted and boiled meats--beef, chicken, turkey, ham, lamb, mutton. Side dishes were rice, mac and cheese (it was macaroni au gratin on the menu), and pork and beans. For dessert, there were pies, rice pudding, ice cream, and that perennial favorite, calf’s foot jelly. There were also fresh fruits, nuts, and raisins. The banquet was catered by Bloomer’s Restaurant in Buffalo, which was considered the best restaurant in the city. Long tables were set up through the woods to accommodate the vast crowds. Governor Hunt and Lt. Governor Patterson spoke, as did a great many others that day. Between speeches and all that food, people must have been almost comatose by the end of the festivities. The articles written about the occasion were romantic, with flowery descriptions of the scenery and the activities. It really was the most significant event to happen in Wyoming County at that time.
In 1853, the Cascade House was built near the depot at the east end of the bridge. Excursion trains regularly ran, catering to the tourist trade, and the hotel was well situated to provide accommodations for those who wished to linger in Portage.
Numerous repairs were made as the years passed, and talk of replacing the bridge began to circulate in the early 1870s. An iron structure would be less maintenance and safer, proponents argued. While the discussion went nowhere because the public loved the wooden bridge, a destructive fire forced an immediate decision the night of May 5 and early morning of May 6, 1875.
Watchmen were responsible for checking the bridge for any sign of fire every time a train crossed over. On May 5, 1875, at 10:40pm, William T. Davis performed his routine check after a westbound train made the crossing. The watchman found no embers or cause for concern. He left at midnight—the end of his shift, and the next watchman, Pardon Earle came on duty. He began his safety check of the bridge after an eastbound train passed around 12:50am. Walking west, he saw nothing to alarm him as he completed the inspection, and the watchman began his return eastward. Earle glanced back toward the west again, shocked to see a small blaze on the decking. He ran to stomp it out, and his foot went right through the deck. Rushing back to get the hose and hook it up to a water pipe, he found that the faucet wouldn’t turn on. It may have rusted shut from disuse. At that point, there was no other recourse but to sound the alarm to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, there was no way to save the world’s largest wooden bridge.
W. P. Letchworth was awakened around 4:00am and rushed out onto the lawn of the Glen Iris to watch the terrible spectacle. The entire bridge was ablaze; the falls eerily lit up as the flames raged above, consuming the timbers which dropped into the river. The sounds were terrible—cracking and groaning as the mighty structure gave way.
An enterprising photographer, L. E. Walker hurried to the scene and was soon advertising his stereographic views of the destruction along with his previous ones of the intact bridge. Before and after photos—American entrepreneurship.
The Second Bridge
Plans to replace the bridge commenced immediately. Train travel wasn’t impeded since the railroad had three other routes to use by this time, but the crossing was an important one. There was no question that the new bridge would be iron, and architect Henry C. Brundage was hired to design it, along with civil engineer Andrew Trew. The new bridge was to have six wrought-iron towers set on stone piers in the river. The towers were of differing heights, built according to the shape of the riverbank, and iron latticework stabilized the structure to withstand high winds. The bridge would rest on these towers that were independent of each other, so the others would stand if one or more failed. The railroad nixed the idea of a comfortable pedestrian walkway and carriage-way, allowing just a narrow access walkway for maintenance. The purpose of the second bridge was merely a railroad crossing and not a tourist attraction.
Watson Bridge Works, bridge builders in Paterson, New Jersey, was manufacturing the iron for the bridge, running the foundry 24 hours a day to complete the order. There was a scare at the outset of the project when a fire swept through the complex of factories at the foundry’s location the night of June 28th. The fire started in a silk factory on the third floor above the ironworks. The water supply gave out before the firemen were able to get it under control, and the silk factories on the upper floors were destroyed. However, firefighters were able to salvage the first-floor foundry. Despite the setback, a quarter of the 1.6 million pounds of the required iron was delivered to Portage by the end of June. On July 29th, construction crews completed the last span of the viaduct. At 6:00am July 31st, the first trains successfully tested the new bridge. Trew, the project’s engineer, had several different combinations of trains and loads pass over to test the strength and stability. Declared safe, five freight trains with 100 cars each then crossed to make deliveries in Hornellsville. After that, the bridge was back in business, and the remaining work to be completed was the walkway and railing, which workers began at once. Watson Bridge Works had built the new bridge with uncommon speed with no significant delays or serious injuries to workers. It was quite an accomplishment. The cost for the new bridge was estimated at $100,000, about half the cost of the wooden bridge. The final touch was painting the bridge. The Geneva Gazette October 8, 1875 edition reported that the posts were painted black; the bridge itself was red, and the railing white. It must have been quite a sight.
Repair and maintenance of the bridge continued, and the railroad replaced the piers in 1886. A terrible train accident near the bridge on March 22, 1890, kept the popular destination in the news. The Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad now navigated the rails there. At 9:30pm that fateful Saturday night, a fast-moving, northbound passenger train ran head-on into a southbound freight train on the curve traveling from Nunda just north of the bridge. Due to a mix up in orders between Olean and Rossburg, the freight train didn’t receive orders to give the right-of-way to the passenger train, and the passenger train received no notification that a freight train was on the track. Fortunately, there were few passengers, but the engineers, brakemen, conductor, and other train personnel—seven in total were killed. Two female passengers were slightly injured. The wreckage of the engines and 15 cars kept crews from Olean busy throughout the next 24-48 hours, removing bodies, rescuing the injured, and getting the mangled trains hauled away.
The coroner’s jury was unable to determine blame between the two dispatchers. The state railroad commission later became involved in the matter as other fatal accidents had occurred due to wrong instructions from dispatchers. Changes to improve safety were implemented, and one was that dispatchers couldn’t work more than 12 hours. What an excellent idea! Other accidents occurred near the bridge—some involved men who imbibed too much at the Cascade House and wandered onto the tracks only to be hit by a late-night train.
In 1902, there was talk of replacing the bridge again to accommodate a double track, improve the grade and move it further away from the falls. The plan never left the board room. The public likely pressured the executives to let it remain. Otherwise, passengers would lose the fantastic views on their rail journey and if that is the case, the public won. The iron bridge was in service until 2017 when the beautiful arch bridge was constructed over one of the world’s most beautiful chasms.
Author’s Note: There were a couple of tales surrounding the wooden bridge that are suspect. There was a rumor a 16-year-old boy designed the wooden bridge—that was just a good “story.” Col. Seymour designed the bridge with assistance from other engineers. The other was that several people died from food poisoning at the bridge festivities in 1852 because the beef (that huge ox) was tainted. I have been unable to find any corroboration for that particular tale. However, given that the celebration was in August, it was 1852 with no refrigeration other than chipped ice, food sitting out on tables for long periods of time, it’s entirely possible.
Democrat & Chronicle, March 24, 1890
Buffalo Morning Express, August 30, 1852
Buffalo Courier, June 30, 1875, August 4, 1875, November 1886, April 3, 1890
Geneseo Republican, July 1851
Belmont Courier, March 7, 1902
Buffalo Weekly Courier, June 23, 1875
The Evening Post, July 14, 1851
Genesee Echoes, Mildred Anderson
Headline from The Castilian November 18, 1904
Caused the Murder of Dr. Alfred Silverheels the night of Sep.30.
BURIED IN POTATO FIELD
James Jemison Accused Of the Murder by His Wife and Daughter,
Is Still at Large, but Authorities are Making Every Effort to Find Him.
In November 1904, the Castile postmaster received a letter from Tommy Silverheels inquiring as to the whereabouts of his brother, Alfred. The last Tommy knew, Alfred had been living in the Castile area for several months. He was concerned that Alfred had met with foul play since no one had heard from him in weeks. The last information the Seneca man had from his brother was that he was living near the Glen Iris, William P. Letchworth’s home. The postmaster notified Wyoming County Sheriff Richardson about the missing man, who began an investigation. The missing person inquiry soon reached the desk of the Indian Commissioner, J. O. Spencer in Salamanca, New York.
A few weeks before, Tilden Jemison had made a strange report to the commissioner, accusing his father, James of Silverheels' murder. Although the commissioner had issued an arrest warrant for Jemison, he'd had no success in locating the fugitive, and he sent word to the sheriff about the situation.
The sheriff wasted no time in fetching Matilda, James Jemison’s wife, son Tilden, and daughter Laura from the Tonawanda Reservation. The trio confirmed the story of Silverheels’ demise. Richardson then took them to the small house near the dry bridge above the Glen Iris, along with two Seneca hunters to see if they could locate Silverheels’ remains.
They soon found the body of Alfred Silverheels in the garden buried among the potatoes. A stone boat had been dragged over the grave to help conceal it. Opening the shallow grave, they found Silverheels buried face down, strapped to what looked like bed slats, accompanied by a moldering loaf of bread at the man’s feet, a bag of tobacco, and some wood shavings (The bread, tobacco, and wood shavings were part of a traditional Seneca burial). Laura and Matilda directed law enforcement to the riverbank below the Glen Iris and there they found Silverheels' clothes scattered amongst Letchworth’s garbage. (Sorry—garbage was tossed down to the riverbank in the old days.) Dr. L. C. Broughton of Castile performed the autopsy, determining that the unfortunate Silverheels had been shot in the back, buckshot spraying through his heart and lungs, causing his immediate death.
Tilden, Laura’s half-brother, who lived with his mother on the reservation most of the time, recounted visiting his father and helping dig potatoes in the farmhouse’s garden plot on October 7. He said the Jemison family had taken Silverheels into the household earlier in the year as they camped along the Genesee River. They made baskets to sell, and there was no trouble between them. When the weather turned colder, the vacant farmhouse provided a warm and secure place to spend the winter. When Tilden asked where Silverheels was now, Jemison replied, “I’ve scart him so that he’s gone to another country.”
James Jemison readily told his son about the shooting and where he’d buried Silverheels. Laura and Matilda then shared they'd been forced to help Jemison with the burial. Tilden swore his father warned them, saying, “If you tell—three of you will be killed.” Tilden further stated he knew his father had sold a shotgun to a man named Ed Christian on October 10. After the sale of the gun, his father left for Canada while Tilden, Laura, and Matilda returned to the safety of the reservation.
A manhunt was initiated for Jemison in Canada with a $100 reward offered by the Wyoming County Sheriff for his capture. The Jemison family sat in the Wyoming County Jail as material witnesses. The sheriff took no chances on his witnesses disappearing as the law attempted to discover the truth. It didn’t take long to find Jemison who was hiding out in Caledonia, Ontario on a reservation. On November 22, 1904, a heavily armed posse of provincial officers took Jemison into custody without incident, surprising him at the farmhouse where he was staying.
The newspapers reported Jemison was a large man, a towering 6’ 3” and 250 pounds. That was quite an exaggeration since the state prison log records his height at 5’ 9 3/4” and 187 pounds. However, Canadian authorities took no chances, training their guns on the suspect when he opened the door. He was manacled and hauled away to a Canadian cell to await extradition to the United States, which didn’t take long.
Wyoming County District Attorney J.N. Knight promptly received the desired murder indictment, and the trial was docketed for January 1905. The highly publicized trial captured the attention of the media and public alike. Crowds filled the courthouse each day to hear the scandalous story. The court provided a Seneca translator for Jemison, which added to the exotic atmosphere of the trial for the onlookers.
Testimony soon brought to light that Albert Silverheels, a man in his fifties, had been carrying on an intimate relationship with Laura, who was only sixteen. Her father had demanded that Silverheels marry the girl legally, and the bad blood between the men grew after Silverheels refused. Jemison also became suspicious of Silverheels as he observed his interactions with his wife and daughter. Mr. Jemison believed the good “doctor” was flagrantly cuckolding him. Anger and jealousy continued to grow during September 1904.
On September 30, after an especially ugly day of Jemison drinking and fighting with Matilda about her lack of morals and cooking skills, Silverheels apparently inserted himself into the situation. When Silverheels went to the kitchen to check on Matilda, Jemison took his shotgun and blasted him in the back.
The jury found Jemison guilty of second-degree manslaughter and he was sentenced to ten years at Auburn Prison. The district attorney was disappointed by the verdict, hoping for a first-degree murder conviction. Surprisingly, upon reflection the judge and many others felt the sentence was too harsh, and a successful petition was presented a couple of years later which reduced James Jemison’s sentence to five years.
In April 1910 at age 48, Jemison was released on parole and returned to Castile. He went to work for Albert Preston, who lived near the farmhouse where the crime occurred. Jemison had certainly improved himself while incarcerated. He learned to read and write while at Auburn, and he’d also become a shoemaker. He disappears from the records in 1910, the federal census being the last record I’ve found, which places him as a hired man with the Prestons. No further mention of his children, their mother, or Matilda, Jemison's second or third wife was found.
At the time of the murder, it was reported that James Jemison was a descendant of Mary Jemison, which from my research is entirely possible. On a personal note, because I’ve been fascinated by this case, my husband and I took a hike deep into the woods near the dry bridge a couple of years ago. We found the remains of the farmhouse’s foundation, which is almost completely swallowed up in the undergrowth—fading away with time.
The Wyoming County Times
The Western New Yorker
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
Buffalo Evening News
1905 New York Census
1910 U.S. Census
New York Auburn Prison Records
Below are snapshots of the Auburn Prison Log when Jemison was admitted. He was prisoner 28235.
St. Helena was another ghost town along the Genesee River that saw its heyday in the 19th century. Located in the Town of Castile, St. Helena was part of Mary Jemison’s (White Woman of the Genesee) land that was given to her by the Seneca Nation in 1797 after she refused the opportunity to go back to white society. Given almost 18,000 acres that stretched out alongside the Genesee, she called it the Gardeau Reservation. Sections were sold off in 1823 after complex arrangements were made through the Senecas and the U.S. government to allow Mary to complete the sale to Jellis Clute, Micah Brooks, and Henry Gibson.
The community of St. Helena was settled in 1826 as the forests were cleared, and the river was used to transport goods northward. Named after the island of Napoleon’s exile, the settlement was designed by an English engineer, who created three zones—residential, commercial, and industrial, a rather modern layout for the time. It was comprised of three streets: Main, Water, and Maiden Lane. In 1828, the New York State Legislature granted Rosel Curtis, John LeFoy, and Joshua Smith the right to build a dam on the river to power their mills. The men also had to construct a lock to allow river traffic to pass through. The town had mostly Baptists and Methodists at the time, who met on alternate Sundays at the schoolhouse until the Baptists built the Oak Hill Baptist Church in 1828. In 1835, a latticework bridge was constructed across the river, which afforded residents from Livingston and Wyoming counties easier access to both sides of the Genesee. Increased traffic through the village meant increased commerce, which was welcomed.
By the 1850s when the Genesee Valley Canal was in business, there were now several saw mills and a grist mill. It also boasted two general stores, a hotel, a blacksmith shop, woodworking shop, a cider mill, and schoolhouse. There were approximately 25 residences at that time. New York State dredged the river from St. Helena to York Landing to facilitate St. Helena and Gibsonville in using the canal to ship their goods of wheat, flour, logs, staves, tan bark, and whisky. The future looked bright for the river towns, but it quickly evaporated when the Civil War began. The first post office was established in 1854 and closed in June 1867. It briefly reopened in February 1897, but was shutdown on June 2, 1897. From then on the mail was delivered by the post office in Castile.
In 1865, the dam was flooded out and never replaced. Business dwindled over those years. Residents moved away and neglected homes rotted into the ground. The area was subject to great flooding in the springtime—the Genesee raging and sweeping away the bridge time after time. The last bridge, which was of iron was torn down in 1950. In the 1920s, Rochester Gas & Electric bought the village site and rented land out to the remaining family, the Streeters. Finally, they threw in the towel and left the lonely spot. In 1952, in anticipation of RG&E’s plans for a power dam, the cemetery residents were removed and reinterred at Grace Cemetery in Castile. Ninety-two bodies were moved, many of them children. Measles and whooping cough were dreaded childhood diseases, which quickly took the lives of many young children in the 1800s and early 1900s.
Here's one of the colorful stories about life by the river, which made the Buffalo papers.
Considerable excitement arose in St. Helena over Alva Clark shooting his wife on October 11, 1894. Apparently, the couple’s son had just returned from hunting, and asked his father to put away the shotgun, while he got a pail of water for his mother, who was doing laundry. As the dutiful son pumped the water outside, he heard a gunshot and ran back to the house. He found his mother with her shoulder blown away, her jugular vein and lung exposed with blood everywhere. The doctor and constable were immediately sent for from Castile. Dr. Harding, who attended the poor woman, stated the injury was fatal as he picked 17 pieces of bone from the gaping wound. Alva told authorities he was kidding around and said “what if I shot you?” to his spouse right before the blast. He hadn’t meant to really shoot her.
Despite the horrible injury, Mrs. Clark made a remarkable recovery and she exonerated her husband, stating it was truly an accident. We’ll never know for sure what Alva Clark’s intentions were that day, but no doubt there was talk about the incident for years afterward. As an interesting footnote, Alva died in April, 1896--no cause of death given, and Belle Clark remarried a Piper from St. Helena in 1899. Her youngest son, Otto Clark owned the two photos of the school, which are in the slideshow below.
Today, there’s nothing left of St. Helena, but the area is accessible in Letchworth State Park on Trail 13. This is only a snapshot of St. Helena’s short, but storied history. If you’d like to dig further, I recommend Mrs. Anderson’s books below, along with Arch Merrill’s book.
Resources: The White Woman and Her Valley by Arch Merrill
Genesee Echoes by Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
St. Helena, Ghost Town of the Genesee 1797-1954 by Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
Buffalo Courier, October 12, 1894, October 27, 1894
One of the “vanished villages” along the Genesee River is Gibsonville. The long-ago thriving town was located in the Town of Leicester in Livingston County. Its former boundaries are within Letchworth State Park now, and a historical marker shows its location.
The frontier village had its beginnings with the building of a sawmill erected in 1792 on Silver Creek by the infamous Indian “Ebenezer” Allen—we can save his story for another day. With the commencement of the sawmill, settlers began constructing homes and businesses in the area, which included Henry Gibson of Canandaigua--hence Gibsonville. Amos Austin and Josiah Wilson, joined Gibson in taming the wilderness of the Genesee Valley, starting businesses. The river afforded excellent transportation of goods up and down the long valley, and those early settlers believed the new town would become a city. It was a prime spot to make a home and a living.
In 1796, a two-story inn was built, and it quickly became a social hub for dances and parties. Mildred Anderson wrote about the hostelry in her book, Genesee Echoes. It was a well-made building constructed from solid oak, sheathed with two-inch planks, and sided with pine timber. The bar room was where men conducted business transactions and had a beer at the same time. Named the Jane Grey House, it was visited by Mary Jemison, Red Jacket, and many famous personages of the time who attended various functions there. Soon a paper mill, grist mill, rug factory, and a woolen mill added to the commercial prosperity, along with a post office and school. Early settler, Oliver Taplan came to town and opened a cooper’s shop to supply barrels, and John Anderson started a blacksmith business. Mr. Powers, who owned the paper mill, did a brisk business with his product. At the height of operation, the paper mill produced 3,000 pounds of paper a day, and a team of oxen hauled it from the valley to be sold to distributors in towns and cities of the region. Trapping was another profitable venture, and a steady stream of trappers came through Gibsonville seeking to transport their goods to Rochester.
Reportedly, an acre of land valued at fifty-cents an acre increased to $170 per acre during this economic upswing. At the height of its population, there were around 200 residents. Mrs. Anderson also mentions some interesting remnants of stories that included robbery and murder in the rough-and-tumble days of the early 1800s. A rich Frenchman and a peddler of lace and notions met their doom there. There was even a ghost or two involved afterward. No doubt, it was a dangerous place with villains and upstanding folks alike creating a new town.
The opening of the Genesee Valley Canal tolled the death knell for the village as river traffic slowed significantly. Although the canal itself was short lived, the years of its operation brought many Gibsonville businesses to a halt in between 1840-1878. The grist mill was eventually converted to a paper mill, which continued operations until it burned in 1894.
A handful of people lived in Gibsonville into the 20th century, but they eventually abandoned it as Rochester Gas & Electric bought up land in anticipation of building a dam. Most of those who stayed into the 1920s traced their lineage back to the pioneers who came in the late 1700s.
The tiny town was briefly revived with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933. Barracks were constructed at the town site, housing some of the men who built the beautiful stone walls, cabins, roads, and much more that we enjoy in the park today. Not only did the men labor in construction, but classes were given in mechanical drawing, engineering, cooking, typesetting, shorthand, bookkeeping, and many other subjects. Well-qualified men, who diligently sought to improve the lot of these young men, provided the training. The camp even produced its own newspaper at one time, and it also boasted a gymnasium and auditorium, which gave the workers a recreational outlet. The village was once again booming in a different manner during the Great Depression.
After the CCC left, the buildings became barracks for women between the ages of 18 and 35 in 1944. These young women worked at various canning factories in the area 40-48 hours per week. The requirement was a stay of two weeks to work at a factory for the war effort. They were called “Gibson Girls.” This was to be the last hurrah for the feisty pioneer village. After WW II ended, the camp was torn down and the last house in Gibsonville was razed in 1954. Today, you can still explore the area on Trail 19 in Letchworth State Park.
Genesee Echoes, Mildred Lee Hills Anderson
New College is Budding Forth, The Perry Herald, 5 February 1935
Sleepy Historic Hamlets, Buffalo Courier-Express, 12 April 1936
Knowing Perry, The Perry Herald, 18 November 1954
Today’s Gibson Girl is a Real Worker, The Perry Herald, 14 June 1944
One of the most influential and successful businessmen in Castile, NY, between 1861 and 1908 was Willis Frederick Graves. Born on January 14, 1831, in the Town of Eagle, Willis was the second child of Ralph Graves, who had relocated from Vermont in 1819.
From the start, Willis proved himself an industrious worker on the family farm. He rapidly discovered the value of saving his money and the importance of an education. After exhausting the resources of the school library in Arcade, NY, he turned to private education. He earned enough money to attend Arcade
Seminary to be trained as a schoolteacher.
In 1849, he began teaching school near Arcade, working on the farm or selling books for supplemental income during school vacations. He soon moved up through the ranks to serve as principal at several different union schools in the region, including Sandusky, Pike, Centerville, Portageville, Attica, and Arcade. In 1854 he attended Normal School in Albany to complete his education. He also married Jennie Colton of Arcade that same year. While in Albany, he was employed at a piano factory, which eventually led him to the initiation of his musical instrument business at the beginning of the Civil War.
While teaching at Portageville in 1855, he ordered a piano from Albany, which was transported in the final leg of its journey on the Genesee Valley Canal. He later sold the instrument, which may have been the light bulb moment for him to alter his career path from education to retail.
W. F. Graves proved to be a gifted salesman, able to sell pianos and organs easily at a considerable profit throughout the state. He left education altogether in the early 1860s, selling a farm for capital needed to establish his musical instrument business in Castile. He was proud of the extensive floor space in his store to show off his wares, which enticed buyers from all around the area. As his reputation and fortune grew, piano and organ manufacturers visited his business, vying for contracts with him to sell their products in his establishment. Before long, he enjoyed customers in almost every state in the Union, acquiring the nickname “Piano King.”
Graves was a man recognized for his integrity. Willis was also a willing lender for mortgages and other debt instruments. He worked tirelessly to improve the business climate in Castile. He was extremely involved in village affairs, frequently lecturing about best business practices to his colleagues. Never satisfied with his success, Graves became a real-estate broker, amassing many properties in his portfolio. He owned farms throughout Wyoming County, the Wiscoy Hotel in Wiscoy, and several properties within the village of Castile. He was the ideal entrepreneur with well-diversified investments.
W. F. Graves was one of those larger-than-life people with a dynamic personality. Physically, he was a strapping tall man, reportedly weighing 245 pounds. He enjoyed robust health throughout his life and Castilians said he could move a piano by himself if necessary. His wife, Jennie bore him one child who died in infancy and the couple remained childless after this heartbreaking loss. Although rumored to possess a frail constitution, Jennie was an important contributor to his business.
Willis’ involvement in the Robert Van Brunt murder trial and the Roy family in 1887 did stain his reputation during that time. He publicly denounced both Maggie and Eva Roy—mother and daughter over their perceived immoral conduct in connection with the murder of Will Roy, Eva’s half-brother. Eva sued him originally for $30,000 and Maggie sued for $5,000 in February, 1887, only days after the conclusion of the trial. The case was resolved in September, 1887 for a measly $500. The judge threw out several of Eva’s causes of action, which quickly reduced the amount. The women may have achieved some satisfaction in their “win,” but for Graves, it was probably no more than a nuisance suit.
W. F. Graves enjoyed prosperity and fame until his death on the streets of Warsaw, NY on October 30, 1908. Graves suffered a stroke that claimed his life within minutes. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at $212,000, which in current valuation would be over $5.6 million dollars. A large, well-attended funeral was held at the Presbyterian Church in Castile, and he was buried in the Graves’ family plot, Arcade, NY.
Wyoming County History 1841-1880, F. W. Beers & Co.
The Daily News, February 26, 1887
Buffalo Evening News, September 9, 1887
Buffalo Weekly Express, September 29, 1887
Wyoming County Times, December 13, 1906
The Castilian, November 8, 1908
The Nunda News, April 24, 1909
If you've visited Letchworth State Park or are from Wyoming County, NY you're probably familiar with Mary Jemison a/k/a The White Woman of the Genesee. Hers is a fascinating story spanning the years before the Revolutionary War into the early 1800s. Mary's life is a Western New York legend, a rich part of the pre-Revolutionary War history of the beautiful Genesee River valley.
A daughter of Thomas and Jane Jemison, Mary drew her first breath on board the sailing ship William and Mary in the fall of 1743. Her parents, of Scotch-Irish heritage were Protestant settlers in Adams County, near Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
On April 5, 1758, Indians and Frenchmen descended on the frontier neighborhood, killing many and dragging off captives. Mary, her parents and siblings, several neighbors along with their children were among those captured. The settlers were forced to march many miles through woods and swamps. Their fate was almost certain death, but the second night on the march, Mary was given a pair of moccasins to replace her shoes. A young boy was also given a pair of moccasins that same night. Mary's mother believed her daughter would be spared because of this gesture, which proved to be right. Mary had to endure the sight of her parents' scalps hung to dry after that night.
Mary was adopted by two Seneca sisters who taught her the language and customs of their tribe. They gave her a new name--Dehgewanus, which meant Two Falling Voices. Jane Jemison's parting words to her daughter were to never forget the prayers she'd been taught and her own language. She never did forget, but Mary was wise enough to understand that her life was changed forever and quickly immersed herself in the ways of the Seneca. She married a Delaware warrior and bore two children. Her firstborn, a girl lived only a couple of days and then a son was born, whom she named Thomas after her father. Mary moved with the Seneca sisters and eventually took up residence in Little Beard's Town or present day Cuylerville, NY. Sheninjee, her husband went off to fight and never returned the summer of 1760. Many months later she learned he had died from illness in Ohio.
Around 1763, Mary married Hiakatoo, a well-known Seneca chief. He was much older than Mary--over 60 years old at the time and she was only 24. Six children were born to them, two sons and four daughters: John, Jesse, Jane, Nancy, Betsey, and Polly. She remembered her family in the naming of the children after those murdered in the raid during the French and Indian War.
Hiakatoo was powerful and a fierce chief. Reported to be over six feet tall, he provided protection and security for his tiny wife. They were married for over 40 years and by her account it was a happy marriage. Her children, although her greatest joy, were also a source of great sadness. Her son, John killed his two brothers in separate alcohol-induced fights. Thomas was murdered in 1811 and Jesse in 1812. The men were in their fifties at that time. John was eventually killed in a drunken brawl at Squawkie Hill Reservation. A link to the map is here.
Mary never went back to the white culture, although she was given opportunities over the years. Her adopted people, the Senecas were her family. However, she never referred to herself as Indian and all of her children were given English names. She became a highly respected woman among both the Senecas and settlers. In 1797, the Council of Big Tree was convened on the banks of the Genesee River, near present day Geneseo, NY. Land had been promised to Dehgewanus (Mary) and now that the Seneca Nation was in negotiations to relinquish over a half million acres of land to a land speculator, Robert Morris, it was time for Mary to select her land. A huge tract of land was eventually given to her - 17, 297 acres, an area six miles wide, 4 3/4 miles long on both sides of the Genesee.
Red Jacket, one of the Seneca chiefs, fought against Mary with great eloquence. However, Red Jacket lost the argument and Dehgewanus' claim was approved. Cabins were built for her children and herself on the Gardeau Flats. Her good friend and adviser, Thomas Clute helped her manage the tract of land and leases for many years.
In 1823, James Seaver interviewed Mary at the home of Mrs. Jennet Whaley in the Town of Castile. Seaver recorded that even at 80, Mary walked without assistance and she still had a peaches-and-cream complexion. Seaver's book, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison is a classic in Western New York history.
I highly recommend reading his book if you want to learn more about this fascinating woman. Seaver's formal style of writing may be a challenge, but his in-depth interview with the elderly Mary is riveting. Arch Merrill, a well-known WNY journalist in the 1940s and 1950s wrote several books about the history of the Genesee Valley and his easy-to-read style may suit you better. Merrill's book, The White Woman and Her Valley is also recommended.
Mary Jemison died at around age 90 on September 9, 1833 and was buried on the Buffalo Creek Reservation in Buffalo, NY. William Pryor Letchworth, who owned what is now Letchworth State Park, and which was part of Jemison's land, created a memorial to her in the park. In 1870, he had the Seneca Council House located in Caneadea, NY moved to his property and in 1874 received permission to move Jemison's remains to be re-interred near the Council House. A bronze statute of a young Mary was also erected in September, 1910 to honor the memory of this courageous woman.
Her life will always be one for the books. As Arch Merrill said in The White Woman and Her Valley,
"No frontier girl was ever forced to lead a stranger life. Mary Jemison's years were full of toil and woe. Yet she never lost her sunny smile, her fortitude or her abiding generosity."
Resources: History of Wyoming County 1841-1880, F. W. Beers & Co.
A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, James E. Seaver, 1824
The White Woman and Her Valley, Arch Merrill, 1955
Helpful Links: http://www.letchworthparkhistory.com/jem.html
Ebook Link to Seaver's book