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
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.
As Independence Day approaches, we're stepping back into the turbulent time of the Revolution. We’re so far removed from those days that the Boston Tea Party, the ride of Paul Revere, the Battle of Bunker Hill are events usually romanticized in our imaginations. For us, it’s difficult to understand the reality of those times with its limited communication, resources, and transportation. The War was hard-fought by both regular army soldiers and thousands of volunteers. They were ragtag bands of farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, teenagers—just ordinary men who left families and businesses to put everything on the line to win America's freedom from Great Britain.
Digging into the Wallace (Wallis) family history, I found insights into the volunteers who fought alongside the regular army. Henry Wallis, my husband’s fourth great-grandfather, was one of those men. Henry served the United States various times over the eight years of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). He was an early settler in the Town of Perry, and with his son, David established a successful farm just outside the Village of Perry in 1816.
Henry Wallis was born in Worcester, Massachusetts September 23, 1758. The Wallis family was well established there, the first arriving a few years after the Mayflower in 1620. The family was a large one with ten children, and they moved to Colrain, Massachusetts, around 1760. It was from this town that Henry mustered in as a volunteer in the Revolutionary War.
Since the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which was a complex and vicious struggle between France and England to control North America, anger fomented over Great Britain's unjust use of taxation and governmental control. The famous tea tax was implemented in May 1773, and the Boston Tea Party occurred on December 10, 1773.
Here is a transcribed portion of some of the resolutions the town of Colrain, MA, passed as war threatened. There is no doubt as to the mindset of Americans at this time in 1774.
First.—Resolved, That as freemen and Englishmen we have a right to the disposal of our own, are certain there is no property in that which another can of right take from us without our consent, and the measures of late pursued by the Ministry of Great Britain, in their attempts to subject the colonies to taxation by the authority of British Parliament is unjust, arbitrary, inconsistent and unconstitutional
Secondly. –Resolved, That by landing teas in America imposing a duty by an act of Parliament (as is said), made for the support of government, etc., has a direct tendency to subvert our Constitution and to render our General Assembly useless and government arbitrary, as well as bondage and slavery which never was designed by Heaven or earth.
Sixthly. –Resolved, That we will not, by ourselves, or any under us, directly or indirectly, purchase any tea, neither will we use any on any occasion, until that unrighteous act be repealed, and will use our utmost endeavors with every person in our town as we have opportunity, that they shall do the same; and those that buy and sell teas contrary to our true intent and meaning, shall be viewed as enemies to their Country, and shall be treated as such.
Men with military experience from the French and Indian War began training and organizing volunteers—minutemen. Muskets and shot were gathered, houses on higher ground became forts as fences were constructed to help defend these lookouts. Women readied pots of boiling water to throw on enemies from second-story windows. Riders galloped from nearby towns to spread the news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—“the shot heard around the world” on April 19, 1775. The War was on.
Henry, an 18-year-old first volunteered on June 1, 1777. He was a farmer, living at home when he served ten weeks under Captain Agrippa Wells (a Colrain resident) in the Massachusetts State troops. He marched from Colrain, MA to Fort Edward, NY, which was around 80 miles. There the state militia joined the U.S. Army to fight the Battle of Fort Edward, which ended in retreat. The dilapidated house named Fort Edward was in such bad repair the men weren’t able to defend the area and retreated some 20 miles to Bemis Heights, near Stillwater, NY. Battling both the Six Nations tribes and British, Henry returned safely to Colrain after this first campaign.
On September 1, 1777, Henry served seven weeks under Captain Hugh McClellan, another resident of Colrain. McClellan’s Company of Volunteers marched immediately back to Bemis Heights. The men were put under the command of General John Fellows, who quickly retreated nine miles toward Shaftsbury, VT. The army stayed in that area for two weeks before marching through the woods about 12 miles opposite Saratoga, NY. It was here at the battle of Bemis Heights the Americans finally turned the direction of the War. The British sought control of the Hudson River to cut off the New England colonies from the western frontier beyond the Hudson. General Horatio Gates determined to turn back the redcoat tide, which he did on October 17, 1777. This victory must be partially credited to the unsanctioned efforts of General Benedict Arnold, who led a surprise attack on the British. His actions sent the British troops into confusion and secured the American advantage. An American army surgeon, James Thatcher, M.D., kept a detailed diary about the War and writes about this battle. Here is an excerpt from Dr. Thatcher’s diary:
General Arnold, in consequence of a serious misunderstanding with General Gates was not vested with any command, by which he was exceeding chagrined and irritated. He entered the field however, and his conduct was marked with intemperate rashness; flourishing his sword and animating the troops, he struck an officer on the head without cause and gave him a considerable wound. He exposed himself to every danger, and with a small party of riflemen rushed into the rear of the enemy, where he received a ball that fractured his leg, and his horse was killed under him.
Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga convinced the French to enter the War to aid the Americans. I can imagine the cheers of Henry’s cadre of volunteers when they received the news they’d won the day. After Burgoyne’s surrender, Henry again made the long march back to Colrain to help ready the farm for winter. It was crucial to secure what crops they could to survive the long winter.
Captain James Walworth of Colrain put out the call for volunteers in July 1779, and Henry joined the troop that set out for New London, CT. Meeting up with more men under Elihu Porter, they rendezvoused at Norwich Landing, NY, where Colonel Peas of the regular army was in command. Henry, now 20-years-old, kept guard at Roger’s Point for the two months he was there.
His final stint began in July 1780 under Captain Isaac Newton in a regiment commanded by Colonel Seth Murray. The regiment marched to Claverick, NY (back of the Hudson), where they camped for a week. Then it was on to Fishkill and then to West Point, where General Benedict Arnold was in command. Henry was shifted to various locations around West Point—Verplanck’s Point and King’s Ferry. It was during this time that Arnold turned traitor. General Arnold felt he hadn’t received enough recognition for his efforts and entered into secret talks with the British in 1779. He promised to surrender West Point to the British for a hefty fee and a command in the British Army. The plot was uncovered, and Arnold escaped to the British. Henry says in his pension affidavit that he “saw the boat and crew on their return from the British ship Vulture, which put Arnold on board of that vessel.” What an event to have witnessed!
The Revolutionary War in Western New York
One of the best accounts of what happened in New York and Pennsylvania's western frontiers is in Moses Van Campen’s biography, Sketches of Border Adventures in the Life and Times of Major Moses Van Campen. I highly recommend this book which is available online at Internet Archive. The fight for American independence tragically took the lives of many women and children. The British hired the Senecas, Mohawks, and other Six Nation tribes to destroy villages, farms, and everything in their path. Then, for payment in rum and empty promises of land, the tribes executed the British order. Ebenezer “Indian” Allan played a prominent role in this slaughter.
The British soldiers were no better in their ruthless killing and burning of settlements without regard for the helpless. The fight was intense along the waterways and thick woods with small bands of Americans who quickly learned guerilla warfare against a seemingly numberless foe. Crops were destroyed, food stores ruined, livestock shot. Starving, frightened mothers gathered their children to run to any nearby fortified house for shelter. Farmers secretly tilled land in hollows, attempting to eke out a crop of grain and corn to sustain life. It was unimaginable hardship in those years. Van Campen’s biography states:
The unexampled barbarities committed by the Indians and British, led General Washington to turn his thought to this part of the great American conflict. With little outlay of means themselves, an immense destruction of life and property resulted from their murderous inroads; leading him to believe that the most effective remedy would be to strike a blow at their homes, and break up if possible, those hives that sent forth these swarms to prey upon the defenseless.”
After the War
The surrender of Cornwallis to Washington at Yorktown, VA, on October 17, 1781, brought the bloody conflict to an end, although there were skirmishes for another two years. Cash was scarce after the War, and the former colonies scrambled for alternatives to pay those who had served. New York decided to offer large tracts of land in the western frontier (up to 600 acres) to veterans from any state who’d fought in New York. Albany was eager to see state population growth and the wild and fertile river valleys to the edge of Lake Erie cultivated.
Henry, who married Sabra Dodge in 1784, accepted the offer from New York, moving to Burlington in Otsego County in 1796. From there, the Wallace family moved several more times until Henry purchased farmland in Genesee County in 1816. (The property became part of the Town of Castile in 1821 and in 1841 Wyoming County was formed.) The family found a permanent home in the Genesee Valley, and some of Henry's descendants are still there, 205 years later.
Major Moses Van Campen’s life after the War was similar to Henry Wallis’ experience. After marrying, Van Campen moved his family northward to Almond, NY, in Allegany County in 1796. Traveling up the Chemung and Canisteo Rivers on flat-bottomed boats with all their household goods was a dangerous trek through Six Nations country.
Henry and his family went by ox cart through the wilds of New York to claim his land the same year. Both were men of faith, starting churches--Henry in Perry and Moses in Almond. They worked hard to build a good life for their families and the generations to come. Henry and Moses had very different responsibilities during the War. Still, the goal was the same—America’s freedom, which is our privilege to enjoy today 245 years later because of their service and those who followed their example in every war to follow.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
For purple mountains majesty, above the fruited plain.
America, America, God shed His grace on thee
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.
Beer’s 1880 Wyoming County History
Henry Wallis Revolutionary War Pension Affidavit and Supporting Papers
Sketches of Border Adventures in the Life & Times of Major Moses Van Campen
The Early Settlers of Colrain, Massachusetts, Charles McClennan
James Thatcher, M.D. Military Journal 1775-1783
Wallace Family Archive
U.S. Census Records, 1790, 1820, 1830, 1840
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
With the Erie Canal’s opening in 1825 and its success in moving goods and people across New York State, canal enthusiasm ran high. Western New York residents, with the support of the press lobbied for another canal to complement the Erie Canal. It would start in Rochester and extend to Olean, New York near the Pennsylvania border. The dreamers envisioned a canal system that would eventually link to the Mississippi River, enabling a steady flow of products throughout the young United States. The rich produce of Western New York, along with timber from New York and Ohio, and coal from Pennsylvania needed transportation to urban markets. A canal along the Genesee River seemed to provide the needed solution.
The Genesee River was designated as a public waterway in 1818, but it was a fickle one, becoming too shallow for boats especially in the summer—and there was the problem of the falls in the Portage area. Rafts and shallow-draft boats could navigate between Rochester to Geneseo or Mt. Morris, but the springtime was the only reliable time for transportation. Citizens further south were unhappy that they had no way to find markets for the abundant produce that was grown in the Genesee Valley, along with furs, potash, and timber. They began lobbying for a canal as early as 1823.
Businessmen in several western counties organized, urging the legislature to at least explore the idea. By 1830, the state approved a survey of the proposed 124-mile canal, but neglected to fund the project sufficiently. The survey project was finally fully funded in 1834, when a group called the Canal Congress initiated a barrage of petitions that buried the state senate in paper. Engineer Frederick Mills was contracted to perform the survey work and gave his estimate of $2 million dollars for the project. Political wrangling commenced in the state legislature, until at last in 1840, the massive project was underway. Elisha Johnson, from Rochester, New York was hired on as the canal’s chief engineer.
The biggest challenges facing Mr. Johnson were working around the Middle Falls and dealing with a section of high ground in Oakland. Men and shovels dug through the issues of the Oakland area, but Mr. Johnson failed in his first attempt with the Middle Falls. He hoped a tunnel could be bored through the shale mountain to carve out the canal. This ended badly. The shale proved unstable and there were deadly cave-ins during that experiment. In the end, crews went around the mountain and not through it. Despite the challenges and difficulties of terrain, the canal opened in 1841 through to Dansville, and by 1856 it successfully reached Olean. Instead of the estimated $2 million price tag, the cost had risen to $6 million.
Businesses sprang up in the canal towns all along the way to the Southern Tier. There was great anticipation that the Genesee Valley Canal would grow the economy of these rough places, and prosperity would reach everyone. The canal carried both passengers and freight. People were eager to travel, with plenty of entertainment at every stop. Preachers took advantage of the crowds to preach the Gospel and warn against liquor, while owners of public houses selling liquor urged passengers to come in for drink or two of whisky or ale. A bugler on the boat announced its arrival at a stop and purveyors of food were quick to meet hungry passengers at the dock. A ticket from Rochester to Olean would cost you $4.27, and there were tariffs on transporting goods.
The boatmen were a rough and ready lot. The boats which plied the Genesee Valley Canal were said to have been well built, clean and attractively painted. They were round at the bow and square at the stern, about 80 feet long and 14 feet wide, with a cabin at the rear for living quarters and one at the other end for the crew and horses. The boats could carry up to 90 tons and often transported 50 to 80 thousand board feet of lumber or as much as 50 cords of wood. (A Personal Look at the Genesee Valley Canal)
Travel on a passenger packet boat wasn’t exactly elegant or comfortable, but many preferred it to their only other option which was the stagecoach. Bathroom facilities were primitive and unhygienic, sleeping arrangements were makeshift berths, and the speed of the boat was quite leisurely. All drank water from a community cup and men spat their chewing tobacco on the floor, avoiding the cuspidor for some reason. Horses and mules pulled the boats up and down the two-way canal, providing employment for young boys.
Edward Quested from Portageville was one of those boys. He is my husband’s great-grandfather. Edward, who was around 11-years-old in 1860, secured a job as a mule driver of a stone barge for the bluestone quarry. This is where his future grandson, Robert Wallace (my husband's father) would work in the next century. According to Bob’s recollections in an article for the Historical Wyoming, Edward received about twenty-five cents a day driving mules on the towpath of the Genesee Valley Canal as they towed barges from the quarry. The locks of the canal were constructed of bluestone and the waterway ran in proximity to the stone-finishing mills on the Genesee River.
During the 1870s, Edward was still working on the canal. He was regularly employed by McConnell Pitkin & Co. of Rochester. Robert Y. McConnell, who was a well-known contractor, also owned an interest in the Portageville bluestone quarry. Bluestone was transported via the Genesee Valley Canal and McConnell Pitkin was mostly likely responsible to dredge the quarry’s section of the waterway. The Portageville area was especially challenging because of a slide area and flooding.
From an account in Edward’s journal, it appears he began working on the canal in May of 1870 on the dredge. The dredge most likely was a crane with a bucket operated by a steam engine. Canals had to be dredged regularly to keep sediment, rocks, and other debris from clogging up the waterways and damaging boats. From documents in Edward’s files, it seems he became a competent engineer on the equipment. Apparently, he left McConnell’s employ in December 1876, and received a glowing letter of recommendation from the company. He was an “engineer having charge of a 60 horse-power engine and boiler in which capacity we have found him faithful, sober, trustworthy, and competent.” The “sober” part was actually very high praise as drunkenness on the job was a huge problem for the canal, railroad and other seasonal occupations in this time period. (You'll find photos of these documents in the slideshow below.)
Edward was working for McConnell again in May 1877 and received a letter from Robert Y. McConnell which had instructions for him to move a derrick to a new location near one of the docks. He also had authority to charge materials to McConnell at Beardsley’s General Store in Portageville. He seemed to be the company’s “man of business” there since the company was headquartered in Rochester.
The rise of the Erie railroad in the 1870s brought about the abandonment of the canal in September 1878. The expense of maintaining the canal was prohibitive, besides trains were much faster and more comfortable for passengers. The railroads were open year around, which wasn’t possible for the canal. The canal also brought health issues. Malaria was a problem—stagnant water and mosquitos are a bad combination. Although residents along the canal fought vigorously to keep the canal open, the state was done. Within a few years, the towpath became the bed for the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad. Later it was purchased by the Pennsylvania Railroad, then Rochester Gas & Electric became the owner. Today it is the Genesee Valley Greenway, a recreational trail following the old towpath. The canal was by no means a failure, but served its purpose in its time. Thanks to the diligent work of the Friends of the Genesee Valley Greenway, today it provides an excellent outdoor experience for residents and visitors alike.
I hope your appetite has been whetted to learn more about the canal. This blog has merely touched on a bit of its history. There are many online and print resources for you to explore its colorful story.
Resources and further reading:
Rochester History – The Genesee Valley Canal by Jim Warlick
A Personal Look at the Genesee Valley Canal by Ronald Taylor (Allegany County Historical Society)
Remembering the Genesee Valley Canal by Richard F. Palmer (Allegany County Historical Society)
Friends of The Genesee Valley Greenway
Genesee Echoes by Mildred Lee Hill Anderson
Citizens Argue to Keep Canal Open, Allegany County Democrat, January 19, 1877
Edward Quested’s Journal and Personal Papers (Wallace Archive)
Two deaths in the village of Castile in the fall of 1913 were connected to the Erie Railroad. The first was a murder in September, and the other was ruled an accident a month later. Both incidents involved members of the track gang who maintained and repaired the railroad tracks running through the south end of the village. The crime and the accident were also alcohol related. The tragic accidental death occurred late at night. One of the gang, after drinking heavily, wandered down the tracks in the dark and was hit by an oncoming train. His horrified coworkers found him the next day. The murder, however, spoke of the violence brewing under the surface of these railroad men.
Railroad crews were composed of men from disparate backgrounds, including many immigrants who needed an immediate job once they landed in the U. S. The crews were a transient lot, strangers thrown together to live for weeks in a railroad car set up as a bunkroom. Losing employment or seeking to supplement the family income often steered men to the railroad for a few weeks or months. The work was physically grueling as you can imagine--dealing with timbers, steel, and the tools to maintain railroad tracks. Drinking and fighting were commonplace in the rough groups that traveled the rails hoping to make a living.
In September of 1913, an Erie Railroad track gang was at the Castile Depot to perform repairs in the area. The bunkroom car was parked on a siding near the station. Several men, who weren’t working Saturday, September 20th, decided to visit Portageville to do some drinking. This included Daniel Reardon, a 50-year-old butcher from New York City and 37-year-old Maurets DeHaas, who was known as Morris Haas, along with several others. The men quickly spent their pay on whisky at the O’Donnell saloon, except for Reardon.
The group returned to Castile later in the afternoon, but DeHaas fumed over Reardon’s refusal to either lend him money or buy more whisky. DeHaas’ reasoning for such anger is unclear. Reardon went to his bunk to nap and DeHaas quickly followed him, evidently to do the same. But DeHaas reappeared a few minutes later, hanging about the depot as the rest of the men filed in to sleep it off.
The railroad agent, James A. Cleveland, and Silas L. Strivings, a respected Castile resident, watched the man walk toward the depot. Once inside, DeHaas excitedly explained that one of the men had committed suicide in the bunk car. The smell of alcohol was evident on DeHaas, and the men were skeptical of his story at first. Finally, Cleveland asked Strivings to accompany him to investigate since the worker was so agitated. They stepped into the dimly lit car, proceeding to the bunk that DeHaas indicated. The scene wasn’t pretty.
Reardon was without a doubt quite dead, his skull split open by two massive wounds. Blood and brain matter was spattered on the wall and bed. Cleveland and Strivings must have been aghast at the gory scene, trying to understand what had happened. It was clear no suicide had taken place, and Cleveland gave the alarm for the men to help him restrain DeHaas.
DeHaas resisted and shouted out that they’d receive the same treatment as Reardon. With the man in custody and five others in the car rousted from their alcohol-induced slumbers, the station agent summoned Sheriff George P. Bauer, District Attorney Michael L. Coleman, and the coroner, L. Humphrey to the scene to investigate. Daniel Reardon’s empty purse was soon discovered outside the door of the boxcar. DeHaas was consequently searched and three dollars found in his pocket. His coworkers eagerly told the Law that the man had no money on the return trip from Portageville. The three dollars must belong to Reardon, who was the only one with any money left.
DeHaas cooled his heels in the Castile lockup, awaiting transport to the county jail while the body and the car were further examined. The bloody ax was located on a bench at the end of the boxcar opposite from the Reardon’s bunk. After the coroner sent the body along to the undertaker’s, the sheriff and district attorney took the other five men to jail on suspicion of murder until they sorted out the facts of the incident. After the post mortem, Daniel Reardon’s remains were transported back to his wife in New York City.
The grand jury took little time to provide an indictment the following week, charging the railroad worker with first-degree murder. DeHaas pled not guilty at the arraignment, and M. S. Smallwood of Warsaw was the assigned defense counsel. The trial was set for November and Merlin Smallwood, Esq. scrambled to prepare a defense. Smallwood claimed he had a significant language barrier with his client, who said he was from Holland and spoke only Dutch. DeHaas’ English seemed rudimentary at best to the attorney. He also maintained his innocence and Smallwood believed his volatile client. Another member of the railroad crew was guilty, DeHaas assured his counsel, who mounted a vigorous defense for his client.
Rev. Imhof, a local pastor who spoke German, interpreted for DeHaas during the proceedings. After a string of witnesses testified to DeHaas’ violent temper and his threats upon capture, the outcome looked bleak for the defense. The defendant took the stand at the end to tell his side of the story. DeHaas offered a long tale about coming to America and leaving two brothers in Europe. He testified that he’d been a good guy, serving in Holland’s army for three years, and afterwards was a cook on a ship that ran between Rotterdam and Hoboken for five years. His life story wasn’t corroborated by anyone, which didn’t help his case, plus every coworker testified the Dutchman was guilty of murder.
Folks in Castile knew of the man who’d showed up in the spring of 1913, claiming he’d walked from New York City to Castile in six days. DeHaas had called himself Haas, working briefly in the area before disappearing, only to return using a different name a few months later. His third appearance was as part of Erie Railroad gang. DeHaas was composed in his manner on the stand, speaking in broken English. He declared he hadn’t killed Daniel Reardon and was innocent of the charge.
After a weeklong trial, the jury convicted DeHaas of second-degree murder, and the judge sentenced him to serve 20 years to life at Auburn State Prison. The day after the trial, DeHaas finally broke down and confessed to Imhof in excellent English that he’d killed Reardon in a drunken rage. This startling information angered his long-suffering attorney when he learned of the confession. If he’d known the entire truth, Smallwood told reporters, he would have asked for the reduced charge of manslaughter. It was too late and Maurets DeHaas could expect to live out his days in prison.
There’s a bit of a twist in this seemingly predictable outcome, however. Here’s the rest of the story about Mr. DeHaas. On December 18, 1919, the state transferred the prisoner from Auburn to Sing Sing State Prison in Ossining, New York. Five years later, on December 12, 1924, Mauretts’ sentence was suddenly commuted. He was a free man. What caused this generosity? For some unknown reason the New York State Prison system was anxious to rid themselves of Maurets DeHaas. The governor was agreeable to the commutation if DeHaas was deported and on the next ship to Holland. He was to stay in prison until passage was arranged. Escorted to the dock, DeHaas boarded a ship for home and was never heard from again. One wonders how Maurets DeHaas fared back in his homeland and if he was restored to his family. That remains a mystery.
Wyoming County Times, 20 September 1913
Democrat & Chronicle, 22 November 1913
The Buffalo Times, 20, 21 & 25 November 1913
1920 Federal Census for Sing Sing Prison
Sing Sing Receiving Blotter for DeHaas, 18 December 1919
New York State Commutation of Sentence, 12 December 1924
Democrat & Chronicle, 21 December 1924
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