Passing the Time in Rochesterville: Leisure Activities in the Emerging Community

Think for a moment of the pastimes available to modern Rochesterians: sporting events, concerts, theaters, parks, libraries, museums, movies, television programs, and streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. The leisure options are almost limitless.

How did residents of an emerging 19th century village like Rochester relax?

Initially, they made their own fun. One of the earliest accounts we have for leisure activities in Rochesterville is a narrative that describes the citizens jumping (presumably in long jump contests) and racing across the Main Street Bridge.


Conclusion of a Foot Race (1913) at Genesee Valley Park

They also indulged in tugs of war. Instead of using a rope, however, the rivals used a long wooden pole, with the loser being forced to cross a predetermined line.

As the village grew, and particularly after the Erie Canal opened (permitting greater access to the village), visiting theatrical companies came to town. Like travelling circuses, they often put up temporary shelters for their productions. As the community grew further, and turnout justified the expense, permanent theaters were established (initially leased, later purchased or built from scratch).

The productions often stressed melodramas (i.e., plays emphasizing sensational situations that appealed to the emotions rather than subtle character development). In these plays, characters were often stereotyped, being either totally good or totally evil.

Some melodramas had local themes (e.g., “The Vale of the Genesee, or The Big-Tree Chief”); some of them did not (e.g., “Therese, The Orphan of Geneva”). Also popular were farces, absurd or nonsensical situation comedies involving elaborate plot twists, and ethnic and physical humor (e.g., “The Irishman in London”). Where appropriate, the productions included songs, either as part of the production or during intermission.

leisure- empire theatre

Empire Theatre ca. 1900 Featuring Productions of Farce, Melodrama, Vaudeville and Burlesque

Of course, not everyone was happy with these productions. A  letter to the editor of a local newspaper describing the interaction between audience and players provides a clue to another leisure activity of early Rochester. The letter, signed only “A Citizen,” complains these productions are “an evil that cannot be too highly spoken against.”

He notes “the most ridiculous and disgraceful raillery” being carried on by the audience, spouting “the most vile and wanton language.” Due to the noise of the crowd, many others in the audience had trouble hearing the play and left early.

What was the reason behind the unruly behavior? The Citizen attributes it to their being drunk. The pit in the theater was where the least expensive seats were situated, and  it also included a bar where liquor could be sold throughout the performance. To hear the Citizen tell it, many came to drink and not to hear the play. Debate about the use and abuse of alcohol would continue to be a source of contention in Rochester until the end of Prohibition.


-Christopher Brennan


Published in: on May 16, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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