The Great Bend of the Tonawanda

Old Mill Dam on the Tonawanda

Old Mill Dam on the Tonawanda


Growing up along its muddy banks, the term “great” never came to mind. I can only imagine in the time of the Seneca it was more impressive. Two of their ancient footpaths converged here, and it was the location of an Indian camp they called DE-O-ON-GO-WA, or The Great Hearing Place. Only one to two feet in width, and worn down 4-6 inches into the ground, these Indian footpaths led across the virgin wilderness of New York State, and became the thoroughfares that would later become Route 5 & 63.

The grassy clearing along the North Bank, was also frequented by Butler’s Rangers during their loyalist raids into New York and Pennsylvania during the revolution. Which may, or may not, explain why I grew up with a distaste for Canadians.

In 1802 Joseph Ellicott chose this spot for his office of the Holland Land Company, and Batavia, Genesee County, and Western New York were born. A Mill Dam was built in 1801, and a lumber mill, and grist mill soon followed. Ellicott moved into his stone land office in 1815, and it still stands today. Built from local Onondaga limestone, it may stand another 200 years.

The Holland Land Office in 1967

The Holland Land Office in 1967


When the Erie Canal was being planned, Ellicott lobbied hard to have it routed through Batavia. But the Tonawanda lacked sufficient flow, and the rise of the Onodaga Escarpment proved enough of a barrier that the canal was routed to the north of town in 1825, using 18 mile Creek as it’s main source of water. As a final injustice, the waters of the Tonawanda would be siphoned off to Oak Orchard creek to provide more flow to the canal.

After the loss of the canal, the future for Batavia did not look bright. But where geology and fate conspired against the village, technology and entrepeneurship prevailed. In 1832 the Tonawanda Railroad was incorporated, and in 1837 the first trains ran from Rochester to Batavia. The line was eventually extended to Attica six years later, and Buffalo in 1853, and the Tonawanda Railroad was absorbed into the New York Central. In the end, the railroads would triumph over the canal, despite the state government’s attempts to recoup their massive investment in the ditch.

NY Central Station - Batavia 1910

NY Central Station - Batavia 1910


The railroads were a boon. Batavia became a stop on the famed Water Level Route from New York City to Chicago, with a four track mainline running right through the heart of the city, crossing the Tonawanda just south of the mill dam. These were the years of Batavia’s rise. The Courthouse was built in 1841, and by 1890, the city was home to a thriving industry of farm machinery, and carriage parts manufacturers. Batavia boasted a population of 6,000 people, two breweries, and both a weekly and daily newspaper. It was the county seat, and the place that farmers came to shop, and bring their produce to market.
The Old County Courthouse

The Old County Courthouse


Immigrants arrived from Ireland, and later Poland and Sicily to work the factories. They were not met with kindness, but instead by a “Know-Nothing” fervor that sought to keep the unclean, lesser races of Eastern and Southern Europe out of the U.S.

But that was a long time ago. And as I have noted before, time has not been kind to Batavia. The post war years saw significant decline as manufacturing moved to warmer and cheaper climates. A wrong headed urban renewal gutted the historic downtown with the best of intentions. Now the city is hoping to merge with the thriving township that encircles it, in the hopes that the tax base of big box stores, and chains out by the Thruway can help float the cost of keeping up the decaying central core. I hope they succeed. Much beauty still exists there. And like a boxer that doesn’t know when to stay down, Batavia keeps getting up off the mat to take more punches. The result isn’t pretty, but it is admirable.

Keep getting up Batavia, and keep swinging. This old coot would be proud.

Joseph Ellicott

Joseph Ellicott

Advertisements

Silent Summer

tree lined street
It’s summer on the Front Porch. If there was any doubt, last week erased it. Juicy summer mornings, and overripe evenings filled with the songs of catbirds. God turned on the air conditioning in Minnesota over the weekend, and the breeze this morning is fresh and cool. Sitting in the rocker, listening to the insistent chickadees, and prideful cardinals, I am reminded of how much our avian population has been restored in my lifetime. Since the publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962, and the subsequent banning of DDT, the population of bald eagles and other predators has rebounded. It’s not an uncommon sight to see bald eagles soaring overhead, or egrets and herons flying low over the backyard on their way from pond to pond in search of frogs.

But there is another sound missing from the summers on the front porch, and it is not the result of DDT or pesticides. When I was out riding on a sweltering afternoon last week I was struck by the emptiness of the neighborhoods. Block after block in the suburbs, there was little movement, or noise but the hum of air conditioners. Where are the children?

Growing up on Prospect Avenue, summer was one long pickup game. Wiffle ball in the backyard, skidding contests on the gravel driveway, kick the can, SPUD, Hide & Seek, Red Rover, or toy gun battles raging up and down the maple lined sidewalks, we spent all day everyday outside. Hot afternoons only meant someone’s Mom would call us up onto the porch for lemonade and shade, or maybe a run through the sprinkler. But at some point in the last 30 years, things have changed.

The streets are now empty. Where are the children?

Is this the result of two parent wage earning families? Are the kids off at a daycare, or baby sitter? Surely thats part of it. But I think there’s more to it than economics. Something has changed in the way we as a society view our streets. As parents we insist that our kids stay in our yard, or it they venture to the house across the street they stay in the front. We don’t let them ride their bikes in the street, or play in it, despite living on a cul-de-sac. We have no sidewalks in our neighborhood, which is the norm for any housing built since 1950. At somepoint in my lifetime we have decided that our streets are dangerous places not suitable for unattended children.

Now Mrs. 20 Prospect and I are retro-grouches. We chase the kids outdoors all the time, and limit their daily intake of videogames, and TV to less than 1 hr. We are lucky enough to get by on one income, and decidely closer to “cheapskates” than “materialists” when it comes to spending money. We are front porchers. But we have bought into the fear of kidnappers, and child predators that permeates society. We hold our kids close, and won’t let go. In my mind I know this is the right thing to do, but in my heart I think that we have lost something.

It is the loss of community, documented so well by Robert Putnam, and others. Without the bonds of trust between neighbors, our streets take on a foreign “otherness”. Growing up, Prospect Avenue was an extension of our yard that ran 10 houses in either direction. Mom knew the neighbors, and as kids we knew that Onalee, or Maude, or any of the old ladies on the street would be quick to come to our rescue, or call in the airstrikes if they caught us up to no good. This circle of trust on my own street has now shrunk to the boundaries of the yard.

And so kids today grow up in isolation. Families are smaller, friends are something you see on organized play dates. Baseball is something you play on organized teams. Play is scheduled, and organized. Gone are the vast empty afternoons waiting to be filled with your imagination. The summers have fallen silent. If only we could ban some pesticide to return the laughter of children to our streets. The world would be a better place for it.

The Rowell Murder 1883

Around the corner from 20 Prospect, on the corner of Ellicott and Richmond Avenues, stands the stately Rowell Mansion. An impressive edifice of yellow brick, with large columns and an elegant portico, it commands the top of the hill looking out over centennial park and the NYS School for the Blind.

The Rowell Mansion

The Rowell Mansion

The mansion has undergone some significant restoration in the 1990’s, but back in the 1970’s it did not always look so nice. The yard was surrounded with overgrown shrubs, and the bricks had been discolored with age. At night, it was a dark and gloomy place. All children grow up telling stories of the local haunted house. To the kids in our neighborhood, this was the place. We used to tell each other stories about a murder that had occurred there, and about blood stains and screams that could be heard in the entryway. On Halloween night we would dare each other to walk up the front steps and ring the door bell. I never could muster the courage to, but those that did would say that when they stepped onto the porch they could hear a gunshot, and screams.

Little did I know…

There really was a murder in the foyer. And the story was far more intriguing than our childhood imaginations could even concoct.

On the night of October 30th, 1883, Edward Newton Rowell shot and killed Johnson Lynch of Utica, after catching him in the act of adultery with his wife Jennie. The plot twists and turns are significantly convoluted, and deserving of a southern gothic novel. This is the stuff that Faulkner, O’Connor, Wolfe, Harper Lee and Capote would draw upon in the 20th century. The suffocating social mores of small town life in the Victorian era. The passion of gas lit evenings, and dark tree lined streets. A scent of powder and perfume, the scratch of corsets and high collars, the electricity of a forbidden touch. Rage and jealousy, a gunshot in the darkness, and screams piercing the quiet of an autumn evening.

When it all was over, Batavia had held the limelight of the national media for a sensational trial in the old courthouse. Shocking revelations of behavior of upstanding citizens had come to light, and the murderer came away from the ordeal as the most sympathetic character of the story. Rowell was acquitted, and later divorced his wife. He went on to raise their two daughters himself, and kept his mansion on the corner. He split from his treacherous business partner, and founded his own rival company. He built a business empire out of the Rowell Box Company, and overcame the scandal to achieve great wealth and status.

It is a story as epic as a Greek tragedy, and as American as “Gone with the Wind”. That it is little known in the town in which it occurred is astounding. I am tempted to try to write a novel of historical fiction around it, if only to give it the place that it deserves in our collective history.

UPDATE – 2013: I did write the novel!

http://www.amazon.com/Box-Shaped-Heart-Thomas-C-Gahr/dp/0615807232

cover

Requiem for the Barn

Farmland and weathered barn in the Catskill country New York State June 1943 Kodachrome transparency by John Collier - Courtesy of Shorpy.com

Farmland and weathered barn in the Catskill country New York State June 1943 Kodachrome transparency by John Collier - Courtesy of Shorpy.com

One of my favorite memories of growing up were visits to my friend Dan’s family farm out on Bank Street Road. His family had lived and farmed the land for 5 generations, although by the 70’s they were leasing their fields to the Hawley’s to farm. The farm predated the Thruway, which cut through their property, and backed up to the Community College. A fine piece of land with fields, woods, and a man made pond stocked with bass.

On summer days we’d walk down the lane to the pond, through rows of corn stalks, usually accompanied by the family dog. We’d catch grasshoppers and crickets in the field and throw them into the pond to watch the fish jump at them. Starting in about 5th grade we’d camp overnight in the woods down there, about a half mile from the house. It was my formative experience of camping, not with parents, but with two close friends. Hard to imagine parents letting fifth graders camp out alone in the woods these days.

For a city kid like me, the trips out to the farm were special. I loved the smell of dust and cobwebs in the barn. I was always envious of Dan’s family, and their connection to the farm. It may have been my imagination, but it seemed like that connection instilled a certain patience in his family. It was something we didn’t have living cheek to jowl with the neighbors at 20 Prospect.

One of the little mentioned aspects of the decreasing rural population, and the industrialization of farming during the last half century, has been the effect on the rural landscape. Not the natural landscape per se, but the human landscape. While the fields are larger, and more productive than ever at yielding crops, there are fewer and fewer house and barns interspersed within them. Driving across the open prairie of Minnesota and Iowa you can see the islands of trees where once farmhouses stood. Look close enough, and you can often find the remains of foundations, or outbuildings amongst the weeds and brush.

Growing up in Western New York I can remember family drives where my Dad would always point out ghost signs painted on barns. Faded billboards advertising Mail Pouch Tobacco along the side of rural highways. As I have grown up, I continue to look for them, but have noticed how one by one, they have disappeared, slumping slowly to the ground, or sagging like a swaybacked old nag.

chew mail pouch

What farms are left have either worked to keep up the old barns, or replaced them with new sheet metal pole barns. A much cheaper, and more practical construction, but one that lacks the romance of a faded red barn. At our own ancestral home on 20 Prospect, our barn was pulled down in the mid 80’s after about 100 years of service housing carriages, horses, and the assorted flotsam and jetsam of a century of inhabitants. Near the end the roof was full of holes, and raccoons wood peek out from time to time. It had developed a significant list to starboard, but it still took significant coaxing to pull the thing down. When we surveyed the remains it was amazing the workmanship that went into it.

Not to belittle the work that goes into putting up a sheet metal pole barn, but there is a lot less craft involved, and something about that makes me kind of sad. As one by one our barns succumb to weather and gravity, I can’t help but think that a part of our past is being lost. In 100 years the old red barn will be a registered landmark that people will be working to save. Let’s hope there’s still some left to preserve.

For more Mail Pouch Barn photos check out the loving tribute at The Barn Journal

On Godfrey’s Pond

Trolling about The Batavian I discovered that Godfrey’s Pond hunting and fishing club outside of Batavia is celebrating it’s 100th anniversary this summer.

As the temperature here at 20 Prospect is soaring into the upper 90’s, with humidity torn from the pages of a Faulkner novel, it’s a good time to head out to the Pond for a dip. Growing up in B-town, we did not belong to the club. Not because we couldn’t have afforded it, many families did and still do. Just because my Dad was not a hunter or fisher, and my folks preferred to spend their money on family driving trips in the summer time. My trips to Godfrey’s came courtesy of the Carmichael’s up the street, who used to graciously pack the neighborhood kids into the station wagon and truck us out there on days like this to beat the heat.

Godfrey’s is a tiny little place when you look at it from this perspective…

Godfrey's Pond

Godfrey's Pond

But my memories of it are much bigger than an aerial photograph would indicate. The green waters of the pond were my only experience of lake swimming as a kid, which sounds odd to my Midwestern friends who grew up surrounded by fresh water lakes. There were few thrills as big as a jump off of the high board out at the pond. It seemed liked it was 20 feet in the air! I remember the seeming eternity it took to hit the water when executing a cannonball. I’m not sure if I ever had the guts to dive in head first from it.

When we weren’t swimming, we were hiking the trails, or sneaking up onto the train tracks. Our favorite activity was to hide when the engines passed, then jump out and try to throw rocks through the open doors of the boxcars. Looking back I’d like to grab myself by the collar and shake a bit of sense into me. God knows Mr. Carmichael would have taken a yard stick to our backsides had he known what we were up to.

As I grew older and drifted from the kids on the street, I still had occasion to go there from time to time with friends from school. I once remember being asked to go in the presence of another good friend of Sicilian descent. He declined to go along with us because his folks had never been allowed into the pond as kids. I can remember being floored by the revelation that only 20 years earlier Italian Americans were not welcome there. Having gone to St. Joe’s with lots of Italian and Irish kids, I had no idea that there was such discrimination in Batavia’s past. My folks had moved us to Batavia in the mid 60’s, and we had little personal history of the place before that. It was only in my teenage years that I began to realize the class divides within our town. Working class Catholic’s like us had once been pariah’s to the established WASP community. By the time of my youth, our class divides had turned into economic ones. Even Italian kids could grow up on Naramore Drive, and come to look down on the unwashed “greasers” from St. Anthony’s. Such is the price of progress.

Although I’m sure the folks at Godfrey’s don’t like to speak of it, the pond is a part of that regrettable past. It is a sad reminder that the warm memories of community we like to hold in our mind had flaws that time has blurred from our vision. It is something to remember, lest we start to imagine ourselves perfect. No, even innocent kids of 9-10 can do things they later come to regret, like heaving rocks at a passing train. If we air brush out the bad parts of our past we leave ourselves prone to repeating our mistakes. So I salute Godfrey’s on 100 years of history, and hold my bittersweet memories of the place with an asterisk alongside. Just as Shoeless Joe Jackson  may never be admitted to Cooperstown, but can be lovingly remembered for his talent and grace, so too will Godfrey’s remind me of both the grace, and sin within us all.

The iCubs are my Cubs!

OK, last post about Iowa. I promise.

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent the weekend in Iowa attending the Iowa Corn Indy 250 with my son. Saturday evening we took in an Iowa Cubs game at Principal Park in Des Moines. The Iowa Cubs are the AAA Farm club for the insufferable Chicago Cubs. OK, that was unfair. It’s not that the Cubs themselves, or even the organization are insufferable. Mostly its the Fans of the “Cubbies”. Not the real fans, whom I have been told exist, but the ones that show up in the Wrigley bleachers to take in the “scene”. Yes, it’s a free country, and bully for the Cubs in being able to separate young frat boys and sorority girls from their parents monthly stipend, but I still find them insufferable.

IMG_2079

Luckily, Des Moines is not overrun with trust funders, or hipsters. Buying tickets at the walk up window, the only sections sold out were the General Admission family sections. Lots and lots of families in attendance. Yes, despite the economic Armageddon we have read about in the papers and the death of middle America, and decline of the Midwest, apparently someone forgot to tell these folks. Or maybe, just maybe, the news of our demise has been greatly exaggerated. In any case, it was a nice turnout for a hot June evening with the threat of rain hanging just off to the south.

Principal Park

Principal Park

Principal Park is located in lovely downtown Des Moines. Two words I never thought I would use in the same sentence, “lovely & Des Moines”, but I do so without Irony. It really is a nice place. Lots of civic treasures nestled along the banks of the Des Moines river, like sports arena’s, museums, gardens, and a zoo. The court house district is also the home of a vibrant nightlife of bars and clubs in authentic Midwestern style. Who knew?

Right Field Bleachers

Right Field Bleachers

The park itself is right at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon River. It was built in 1992 on the same site as the original Pioneer Memorial Stadium (b. 1947). Des Moines has had a series of different baseball clubs playing in the park up until 1969, when AAA ball came to Iowa. The original team was named the Oaks, but when they became the Cubs affiliate in 1981 some insecure bonehead in the Chicago organization decided that corporate branding was more important than history, and renamed them the Iowa Cubs. I think it’s very sad to see a great name like the Oaks be resigned to the dustbin in favor of more franchise-ification. But I suppose it’s been almost 30 years since the change, and I don’t even live there so I should just shut up about it already;-)

Who says they don't use wood anymore?

Who says they don't use wood anymore?

It’s a nice place to see a game. Nothing remarkable, or extraordinary about the place, which is to say I liked it. Not a bad seat in the house. The field is tiny, only 325 to the foul poles and 400 ft in straight away center field. Hence the height of the walls.

Kids enjoying the, er... game

Kids enjoying the, er... game

Out in right field is one of the more unique features I have seen at a ball park. A fountain for the kids to play in on a hot summer day. Nice touch, and located within sight of the bleacher seats so Mom and Dad can keep one eye on the game and one on the kids.

Oh yeah. The iCubs beat the Memphis Redbirds 4-0, and a great time was had by all.

Corn Fed Indy

Some photo’s from the weekend race in Iowa. We had a wonderful time. I can’t recommend the place enough. The Iowa Speedway really puts an emphasis on the fan experience, and the fans that turned out were well behaved. None of the unruly debauchery you’d get at a NASCAR race.

It had rained pretty heavily before we got there, and I didn’t have great hopes that they’d be able to get the race in.

A soggy Iowa Speedway at 9:30 am

A soggy Iowa Speedway at 9:30 am

After checking out our seats, and the midway, we headed to the Fan Walk in the infield. I was expecting the fan walk to be a pretty mundane experience, maybe a 100 yards of roped off area where we could squint to see the cars coming and going from the garages. After all, it was only $10 admission and my son was free.

I was not prepared for this…

The "Captain" Roger Penske - Team owner, Captain of Industry, Demigod...

The "Captain" Roger Penske - Team owner, Captain of Industry, Demigod...

We were actually inside of the garages. The access was incredible. I am not sure if I am more impressed with the IndyCar Series for allowing such access for the fans, or the fans for being responsible enough adults to have the access and not ruin it.

Scott Dixon's crew preparing the car

Scott Dixon's crew preparing the car

I was totally geeked out by the experience. My son loved it, and was impressed when we ran into E.J. Viso trying to get his scooter started.
Maybe that #13 is really bad luck.

#13 - E.J. Viso

#13 - E.J. Viso

We spent an hour wandering the garage area, looking for the rich and famous. In addition to Mr. Penske, and E.J. Viso, we saw Tony George CEO of the IRL, and Gold Medal winning Iowa gymnast Shawn Johnson. Alas, we did not see the other famous Iowan in attendance. I am refering to the Pressdog of course.

Shortly thereafter, the sun came out and the track crew had the track dried and ready to go on time. Much hoopla and introductions ensued, and 42,000 people were on their feet waving little green Iowa Ethanol Flags for the start.

green! green! green!

green! green! green!

happy race fans

happy race fans

Alas, E.J.’s day did not end so well.

if it weren't for bad luck...

if it weren't for bad luck...


Oh yeah, the race was pretty cool too.