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  

“Genesee Fever” and other Illnesses in Early Rochester

One of the greatest hardships to be overcome in early Rochester was illness. We have already seen how the building of Hamlet Scrantom’s first home was delayed because its construction crew fell ill. This was no doubt due to “Genesee fever,” a common umbrella term for a variety of maladies that came with accompanying fevers. Most likely the cause was either typhoid or malaria.

In April and May 1812 (the time was Scrantom was moving to his new home) typhoid was making an appearance in the Genesee Country. Later that summer, dysentery was common. The following year, typhoid recurred, affecting principally the lungs and the brain of those afflicted. As terrible as that sounds, the latter condition was commonly less fatal than typhoid, which affected the throat alone. Symptoms included chills, pain in the head, back, loins and side; and coughing up blood.

By 1820, other illnesses had made their way to the area. These included pleurisy (a form of pneumonia involving inflammation of the lining between the lungs and the chest wall), measles, whooping cough and a reappearance of dysentery.  Tuberculosis (then known as “consumption” or “the King of Terrors”) was a common visitor. So too was smallpox (despite the fact that even then a vaccine was available).

Genesee Fever-cholera

1832 Handbill for preventing Cholera

The aforementioned illnesses affected individuals, rather than the community as a whole. The first major ailment commonly seen as an epidemic occurred in 1832, when Rochester was visited by cholera. Death was a common result. In the first few months of the epidemic, 57 people died of the disease, and in July of that year, 11 deaths were reported in one day alone. The same thing happened in August. Infants and children were common victims. One thousand people (10% of the population) fled the village to avoid the disease, and those with nowhere to go locked themselves in their homes. Normal village life temporarily came to a stop. By the time the scourge had passed in September, 400 cases had been reported and 118 deaths had been attributed to the disease.

Medical practice at the time was rather primitive, and by modern standards almost barbaric. Bleeding was not uncommon. Bleeding involved opening a vein in the forearm or neck (either with a needle or leeches) and releasing enough blood until the patient fainted. Another common treatment was administering an emetic (a substance to induce vomiting) or a laxative. One did not want to have to be under a doctor’s care in early Rochester!

Before the advent of modern medicines and vaccines, the most effective method for dealing with illness was prevention. The marshy land around the village was drained (depriving mosquitos of breeding grounds). Strict ordinances governing trash and latrines were imposed. When individual cases of communicable diseases were uncovered, the person was “quarantined” in an isolated house away from the village. Concerns about the local water supply were addressed by public support for digging private wells. Despite these precautions, cholera and other diseases continued to be a frequent visitor to Rochester until the 20th century.

Christopher Brennan

Published in: on May 9, 2017 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

A House is not a Home: a Strange Structure in the Seventh Ward

Rochester has no shortage of interesting  historical buildings, but I recently learned about one of the stranger structures dotting the city’s landscape, thanks to a chance encounter with Jeremy Tuke of the Rochester and Genesee Valley Railroad Museum.

When Jeremy found out that I worked for the Local History division, he asked if I had ever seen the Victorian house behind the Cumberland Street Post Office.

I hadn’t.

And knowing that the neighborhood between the post office and the railroad was largely industrial, I was intrigued by the existence of such a building.

When Jeremy showed me a photo of the edifice, I became even more intrigued.


“How on earth did this house end up in the middle of a modern industrial park and what was its story?” I wondered.

I decided to find out.

The brick building in question, then numbered 32 Chatham Street, goes back at least to 1875, when it belonged to a Mr. Thomas.


carver_1875 plat map

City of Rochester Plat Map, 1875.

Soda Water peddler, Henry Klein, purchased the property in 1884 and remained there through the beginning of the twentieth century.

The residence gained a new neighbor in 1910, when the two homes on its right side were torn down and the Michael-Stern annex factory was erected in their place.

carver-1910 top map

The house, now numbered 52 Chatham Street, next to its new industrial neighbor. City of Rochester Plat Map, 1910

Perhaps the proximity to the factory displeased the home’s owner at the time, as two years later in 1912, Abraham Joffe sold the house to the B’nai Zion Society for its Hebrew Library.

B’Nai Zion then renovated the home to include an assembly hall as well as separate chambers for reading and games. The establishment, which featured publications in English, Yiddish and Hebrew, served simultaneously as a circulating library, a Jewish School and a settlement house, helping the Jewish immigrants populating the neighborhood acclimatize to their new American surroundings.

As the factory next door changed hands over the next few decades—it alternately housed the Seneca Camera, Cluett-Peabody, and People’s  Outfitting companies–so too did the ethnic and racial background of the area’s inhabitants.

By the 1930s, many of the neighborhood’s original Jewish residents had relocated to the Joseph, Park and Monroe Avenue areas and the homes they vacated were largely purchased by Italian immigrants.

As such, the Hebrew Library’s location on Ormond Street (as Chatham Street became known beginning in the 1930s), was no longer ideal. B’nai Zion left the building in 1937.

carver-1935 top map

The Hebrew Library at 52 Ormond Street and the Cumberland Street Post Office, which opened in 1934. City of Rochester Plat Map, 1935.

It found a renewed purpose via another religious organization a few years later.

In 1943, the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester purchased the edifice to serve both as a parish hall for nearby St. Simon’s Church and as a recreational outreach center. The diocese christened the building Carver House, in tribute to both the rector of Christ Church, Reverend Charles Carver, and  George Washington Carver of the Tuskegee Institute.

Though it initially also provided services to members of the armed forces, Carver House was ultimately founded to tend to the social, recreational and educational needs of the local black community (African Americans formed the majority of the neighborhood’s residents by that time).

The building’s four decade long existence as a socio-religious institution ended and its history with the adjacent factory merged –literally and figuratively– in 1951, when the Great Lakes Press Company, (which then occupied the plant) purchased the Carver House.

Great Lakes Press sought to expand its lithographic printing venture, which had found increasing success creating an assortment of products ranging from ice cream cartons to Disney jigsaw puzzles.

But curiously, rather than tear down the neighboring 19th century house and build anew, the company decided to absorb the former residence into its factory.

carver_sanborn close up

This Sanborn Fire Insurance Map depicts the original plant and residence (renumbered 192 Ormond Street by this time) in pink and indicates that a doorway was built between the two structures.  Additional concrete sections of the plant (in blue) were then built around the original factory and house between 1951 and 1960.



This current shot of the building shows how it was “attached” to the adjacent brick factory.

While the Victorian house on Ormond Street was salvaged, many other residences in the surrounding neighborhood were not as fortunate.

Most of the original homes in the area were demolished in the latter half of the twentieth century under the guise of urban renewal and the hopes of rebranding the area as an industrial district.

carver-1900 top mapp

The neighbourhood as it appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century. City of Rochester Plat Map, 1900.

carver-alt 2017

The area in 2017. The section of Ormond Street (formerly Chatham Street) below Central Ave is now just an entrance to the industrial park lot.

Set within a landscape that has endured drastic changes over the last hundred years, the Victorian residence wedged inside an industrial complex serves as a unique relic of this 7th Ward neighborhood’s roots.


-Emily Morry

Published in: on April 29, 2017 at 1:40 pm  Comments (5)  

Rochester’s First Settler: Hamlet Scrantom (1 December 1772-10 April 1850)

In previous blog posts, we have noted that the first settler on the Hundred Acre Tract was Hamlet Scrantom (1 December 1773-10 April 1850), whose cabin sat on the site of what is now the Powers Building in downtown Rochester. Who was he?  What do we know of his life, and what legacy did he leave behind?

Hamlet Scrantom-portrait

Original Rochester pioneer, Hamlet Scrantom (1772-1850)



Scrantom was born 1 December 1772 in Durham (Middlesex County), Connecticut, the son of Lieutenant Abraham Scrantom (1749-1836), a Revolutionary War soldier, and his wife Hannah Camp (1753-1810).  Hamlet married Hannah Dimick (22 May 1774-6 February 1862) on August 20, 1794 and with her had seven children who lived to adulthood: Delia Scrantom (later Mrs. Jehiel Barnard); Henry Scrantom; Elbert W. Scrantom; Edwin Scrantom; Hamlet D. Scrantom; Hannah Scrantom (later Mrs. Martin Briggs); and Mary Jane Scrantom. The couple also had another son, Hamlet T. Scrantom, who died at the age of five.

In 1805, Hamlet and Hannah moved to Turin, New York, where he became an important figure. He served as a Justice of the Peace and a side judge of the county court. A side judge was a non-lawyer who served as an assistant judge, often judging matters of fact (as opposed to interpreting the law). Hamlet also worked as a local land agent and town supervisor of Turin the year before he left for western New York.

Why the family left Turin in 1812 is not clear, but former City Historian Blake McKelvey believed the heavy snows in the Tug Hill plateau led the family to seek a “milder climate.” In any case, that April the family set out with their possessions in a covered wagon drawn by two oxen. They arrived in Rochesterville on May 1st, only to discover a half-constructed cabin. Construction had come to a halt on the new home due to illness (likely malaria or typhoid). Once the workmen recovered, construction continued. In the interim, the family occupied a cabin owned by Enos Stone (the land agent for Colonel Rochester), whose home was not in the Hundred Acre Tract, but on the east side of the river, about where Stone Street (named for him) and the South Avenue Garage are today. The Scrantom family moved into their new home on July 4, 1812.

His first priorities after moving in was to clear the land around his new home, kill the snakes and plant a crop for the family, but his stint with the Stone family was not wasted.  He operated Stone’s sawmill on the east side of the river, before transferring his services to Francis Brown’s mill at the main falls in 1813. Over the years, he invested locally in land, worked as a grocer, established Rochester’s first bakery with Jehiel Barnard, and operated a boarding house. He also worked as a sales agent for the construction company working on the Erie Canal.

Hamlet Scrantom-cabin

Model of Hamlet Scrantom’s cabin, the first home built by a white settler in Rochesterville

His charitable endeavors were also impressive. He was one of the original congregants of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and in July, 1820 he pledged $7.00 (“in flour or goods”) to build the present church building. He also served as the sexton of St. Luke’s from 1826 to 1833 (caring for the church building and its surrounding property). He was also one of the organizers of the first school in Rochesterville. In 1847, he co-founded a new organization called The Pioneer Association. Membership was open to those who had lived in the area for 25 years or more (i.e. since 1822). Hamlet Scrantom served as its first President.

Hamlet Scrantom died in Rochester at the age of 78 on April 10, 1850. Those seeking his legacy need only look around them.  Scrantom recruited others to join him in Rochester and his continued and successful presence drew others in his wake.  He contributed to the development of village, including the milling industry (hence Rochester’s earliest nickname as “The Flour City”). He co-founded St. Luke’s (now St. Luke’s and St. Simon’s) Episcopal Church, Rochester’s second-oldest congregation, as well as the Pioneer Association, helping to preserve the earliest history of the community.  He also helped to establish Rochester’s first school, providing a legacy of knowledge and skills to all the settlers’ descendants.  While he accomplished none of these things alone, he was instrumental in seeing them done. We would not be where we are today without him and his efforts.

Christopher Brennan


Published in: on April 18, 2017 at 3:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Life in Rochesterville, 1812-1827

Rochester’s first permanent settler, Hamlet Scrantom, settled here in 1812, the site being what is now the Powers Building at the Four Corners (the intersection of West Main and State Streets). On March 21, 1817 Rochesterville was incorporated as a village (losing the “ville” suffix five years later).

What was life like in the earliest years of the village? Fortunately, some early residents left memories of those days. Near the end of his life, Edwin Scrantom (9 May 1803-3 October 1880), son of Hamlet Scrantom, left recollections of the earliest days in the village:

“It was a wild and deserted place. It was more. Not merely was it a wilderness and … cheerless in daytime and doubly dark and dreary in the night, but clustering on either side of the river and running from it for a goodly distance was a thick jungle of all kinds of dogwood, elder, birch and choke-cherry … brambles and blue-beech … in to whose tops were matted ivy and wild grape vines, and under this tangled canopy wild beasts crouched and serpents innumerable crawled. That was Rochester in 1812.”

The Scrantoms had hoped to have a home waiting for them when they reached the settlement, but they were sorely disappointed. The Scrantoms found “the logs rolled up for the body of the house with an opening left for a door and another for a window, but without roof or fireplace or floor.”   The delay was caused by workmen coming down with what later settlers referred to as “Genesee fever” (likely malaria or typhoid). Following recovery that work resumed. The Scrantoms moved into their new house on July 4, 1812.

Even after construction, life was not easy. Says Scrantom:

“Mosquitos … annoyed us much and nightly we were obliged to kindle smoldering fires on the outside to prevent their eating us up alive. In the daytime, we could hear and see in the neighboring swamp the wild deer as they came to the deer lick near the corner of [West Main Street] and [North Plymouth Avenue], and at night we could hear the mournful hoot owl, the sharp barking of the fox, and occasionally the howl of the wolf.”


Artist’s rendering of earliest Rochesterville, with the Half-Constructed Main Street Bridge in the Foreground, and Hamlet Scrantom’s Cabin in the Background

Another early pioneer, Jesse Hatch, provides a description of a developing Rochester in 1823, six years after the village’s incorporation:

“No paved streets – sidewalks made of slabs liable to be removed by heavily loaded trucks, conveying logs through the streets. During the rainy season in fall and spring, vehicles of all kinds might be seen in front of the [Reynolds] Arcade, floating up to their hubs in a sea of mud – there was a tan bark pile at Front and Corinthian Streets – the streets were filled with teams and wagons, laden with lumber from Allegheny County, tan bark from eastern towns, farm produce from the surrounding country, prairie schooners bound for the West and with an occasional run-away, frightened by the fife and drum of the military company on parade.”

“There were few dwellings … The Catholic Church at Platt and Frank Streets [the former St. Patrick’s Cathedral, no longer existing] had the forest for a background. The business part was bounded on the north by The Mansion House [tavern] at State and Market; on the south by the canal; on the east by the river and the west by Fitzhugh Street. The Eagle Hotel at the Four Corners had a watering trough in front of it. On approaching the village via the Buffalo Road (West Main Street) in winter, frequently a stream of teams loaded with firewood would force the traveler to fall in line, waiting for a place to pass.”

Life in Rocville- 1814 map

Map of Rochester, 1814.

Let us all give thanks for pioneers who laid the foundations of the city we know today.

Christopher Brennan

Published in: on April 11, 2017 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Whatever Needs Doing: Jehiel Barnard (17 August 1788-7 November 1865)

To imagine life in Rochesterville is to imagine a community far different from what we know today. Aside from a few scattered cabins and the then-new Main Street bridge over the Genesee, the land was mostly wild, with primeval forest and wild animals on the prowl, such as snakes, deer, and bears. It was a world not for the old and settled, but for the young and adventurous. It required someone to do whatever needed doing: a person much like Jehiel Barnard.


Jehiel Barnard and wife, Delia and family on their 50th anniversary. Source: Rochester Historical Society Publication Series vol. IX (1930).

Jehiel Barnard was born in Hartford, Connecticut, son of Aaron Barnard and Mary Nancy Brown. At a young age the family moved to Nine Partners (Dutchess County, New York), where Jehiel grew to adulthood and where he learned the craft of tailoring. How he heard of the settlement on the falls of the Genesee River is not known, but it is clear that he was the second settler in the community after Hamlet Scrantom, arriving here 1 September, 1812.

He quickly established himself in the new community, erecting a tailor shop not far from Buffalo and Carroll Streets (today West Main and State Streets). The structure became the village’s first tailor shop, shoemaker’s shop, school, and meeting house, where all important village discussions took place. It also became the first church in the new settlement.

The latter function came about through the efforts of Mrs. Hannah Scrantom (Hamlet Scrantom’s wife) and Mrs. Julia Wheelock, who asked Jehiel Barnard and Warren Brown to conduct religious services for the community of ten families in the spring of 1813. There was no formal liturgy as such, the service consisting of extemporaneous prayer, hymn singing and the reading of published sermons. The impromptu church continued for well over a year.


This map of Rochesterville ca. 1814 depicts Barnard’s building (14) on Buffalo (Main) Street near Carroll (State) Street. Source: Rochester Public Library Local History map collection

Despite these nascent signs of civilization in the new village, one nevertheless needed to be a hardy soul to live here. One day following religious services, Barnard wandered over to the Genesee Falls where he encountered six rattlesnakes. He killed all six, for which he received 6 shillings bounty money.  As if nature’s dangers weren’t perilous enough, one needs to remember that Lake Ontario was a battleground during the War of 1812. Barnard was part of an improvised militia of 32 men that confronted the British Navy, dodging cannon fire on Lake Ontario.

Following the war, Barnard opened a bakery with Hamlet Scrantom, who ran a general store where the Powers Building now stands. This business partnership later led to a romantic one with Delia Scrantom (Hamlet’s daughter, July 30, 1795-August 6, 1881). The couple was married October 8, 1815, the first wedding in the new settlement. It is said that an old left-handed fiddler named Noble was hired to play at the reception following. It is not known if Jehiel accompanied Noble, but he was known to play the bassoon and also sang in a musical group that frequently performed at the tavern owned by Abelard Reynolds (the founder of the “Reynolds Arcade”).

The wedding took place at the home of Francis Brown at the corner of State and Brown Streets. Brown was the proprietor of “Brown’s Race” (still surviving at the High Falls) and a prominent man in the early community.  In fact, on May 5, 1817 Brown was elected the first supervisor of the village. Among those elected to serve on the new village board was Jehiel Barnard, who later that year served as tax collector for the village.

Jehiel Barnard died 7 November 1865, nearly a month to the day following his 50th wedding anniversary. His remains are buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery, next to Delia who survived him another 15 years, dying August 6, 1881.


-Christopher Brennan

Published in: on April 4, 2017 at 9:00 am  Comments (1)  

Four Female Firsts: Trailblazing Women in Rochester’s history

Susan B. Anthony may be the most famous woman in Rochester’s history, but the area has also been home to a host of lesser known women who went on to become pioneers in a wide range of fields and disciplines. Here’s a look at the groundbreaking lives of four former residents.


Antoinette Brown (from: Stanton, Anthony & Gage. History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 1 (1887). 

Born in Henrietta, Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921) was the first officially ordained female minister in the United States. A member of her local Congregational Church, Brown was drawn to the ministry at an early age. After much lobbying, she was allowed to enroll in the theological program at Oberlin College in 1847, but did not receive formal recognition for completing the course. Four years later, she was given a preaching license by the Congregational Church, after which she took a position in South Butler, New York. In addition to this achievement, Brown was also active in the women’s rights movement, and spoke at a number of the movement’s national conventions. She was one of the few original suffragists to witness the enactment of 19th Amendment and cast a vote in 1920.

firsts_adamson dolley

Sarah Adamson Dolley (from Rochester Historical Society Publication Series VII, 1928)

After being rejected by 13 colleges on account of her sex, Sarah Adamson Dolley (1829-1909) went on to become the first woman in Rochester and  one of the first women in the United States to graduate from medical school. Upon earning her degree from the short-lived Central Medical College in 1851, she opened a practice with her husband in Rochester and became a prominent national leader on the topics of health and social reform. She also made a tremendous impact locally. She was helped establish the local chapter of the Red Cross, organized a free dispensary for women and children in 1866 and in 1907, became a lifetime member of the Rochester Academy of Science (the first woman to hold the honor). When she passed away in 1909, she was the oldest female physician in the country.

Nellie L. McElroy (1875-1937) became the first policewoman in New York State and the tenth in the United States when she was appointed to the Rochester Police Department on September 23rd, 1913. Her casework dealt largely with the criminal offenses of women, and she ultimately ended up serving as both a beat officer and a social worker to the many at-risk women she came to mentor.


McElroy (far left) at an army food sale in 1919.

Focused on preventing crime rather than policing it, McElroy deterred countless young people from vice and helped rehabilitate local families during her 23 year service with the Rochester Police Department.


A circa 1910 image of Blanche Stuart Scott (D&C December 14, 1969)

Blanche Stuart Scott (1885-1970), known as the “tomboy of the air,” achieved several major “firsts” in her lifetime. The automobile enthusiast—she’d been driving in Rochester since she was 13–was the first woman to drive a car across the country, completing the journey in 69 days in 1910.  She was also the first female to solo pilot a plane in the United States. Though she never became a licensed pilot, Scott conducted the first long-distance flight by a woman, traveling 60 miles in one hour. A firm believer in women’s self-sufficiency, Scott contended, “women should wake up and take serious, intelligent, articulate interest in what makes the world tick.”


-Emily Morry

Published in: on March 28, 2017 at 3:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

“So It Is Best to Call It Rochester:” How the Community Came to Be

Did you ever wonder how Rochester came to be and how it got its name?

The original inhabitants of the land surrounding Rochester were the Seneca Indians, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, otherwise known as the Haudenosaunee (“The People of the Long House”).


A map of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase, second survey, showing the Genesee Valley from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border.

When established as colonies by the British crown, both New York and Massachusetts laid claim to land occupied by the Seneca. In a treaty signed December 16, 1786, the two states resolved their differences. The land henceforth would be recognized as belonging to New York, but Massachusetts would have first rights to negotiate with the Indians for the land and settlement therein. Massachusetts later sold their rights to Oliver Phelps (October 21, 1749 – February 21, 1809) and Nathaniel Gorham (May 27, 1738 – June 11, 1796). The land comprised 6 million acres, spanning from the mouth of Sodus Bay to the Pennsylvania border.


While negotiating with the Seneca to release their claim to the land for white settlement, Oliver Phelps suggested that the Iroquois might benefit from a grist mill to grind their corn (a job traditionally done by the women of the tribe). When the Indians agreed to release 288 square miles for this purpose, Phelps gave 100 acres of the land to Ebenezer “Indian” Allan (September 17, 1752-April 13, 1813) to build both a grist and a saw mill. The grist mill was on Race Street between Aqueduct and Graves Streets in downtown Rochester, now the approximate location of the Thomson-Reuters Building (formerly Lawyer’s Cooperative Publishing Company, which fronts on Broad Street). The mill opened in 1789 but never prospered and soon was abandoned. Allen’s mill and the 100 acres of land surrounding it became the nucleus for what is today downtown Rochester.

Due to financial difficulties, Phelps and Gorham failed to meet their financial obligations to Massachusetts and the state reclaimed its rights to the land. The Commonwealth then sold its rights to Robert Morris (January 20, 1734 – May 8, 1806), a major financier of the American Revolution.  An agent for Morris, Samuel Ogden, sold the land to a group of British investors known as the Pulteney Association.

Given the abortive efforts of Indian Allen’s mill, one can track Rochester’s real founding to the November 8, 1803 signing of a sales agreement between the Pulteney Association and the three co-founders of Rochester: Colonel Nathaniel Rochester (February 21, 1752 – May 17, 1831); Major Charles Carroll (November 7, 1767-October 28, 1823); and Colonel William Fitzhugh (1761-1839), all of Hagerstown, Maryland. The three friends had heard about the opportunity from Charles Williamson, an agent for the Pulteney Association (and for whom the town of Williamson, Wayne County, is named).


The three came north in October 1803 to review the land, and while speaking with agents for the Association asked about possible mill lots. They were directed to Indian Allen’s old property and explored the territory as far north as Hansford’s Landing (near the present intersection of Lake Avenue and West Ridge Road). Believing the area held promise, they agreed to purchase 100 acres for $1,750 ($17.50 per acre). The final payment was made June 22, 1808.

Rochester was the senior partner of the trio, and Carroll and Fitzhugh agreed to let Rochester take the lead in developing the town. Before serious development began in 1811, the settlement was referred to informally as “The Falls” or “Falls Town”; however, when the time came to formally name the community, the other partners agreed to name the village after the senior partner, so Rochesterville it became.

Whenever persons would later accuse Col. Rochester of vanity, he would reply wittily, “Should I call [the village] Fitzhugh or Carroll, the slighted gentleman would certainly feel offended with the other; but if I called it by my own name, they would most likely be angry with me; so, it is best to call it Rochester and serve both alike.” The New York State Legislature formally recognized and incorporated Rochesterville on March 21, 1817 (the “ville” suffix being dropped five years later).


Beginning of the act incorporating Rochesterville.

So, today, on the first day of spring, feel free to sing “Happy Birthday” to Rochesterville, the foundation for all we know today.


-Christopher Brennan

Published in: on March 21, 2017 at 9:00 am  Comments (1)  

Dublin: Rochester’s Irish Neighborhood

The earliest settlers of Rochester are commonly pictured as Yankee pioneers from New England, with a few Southerners thrown into the mix. As we have seen through the lens of Austin Steward and Daniel Furr, there were African Americans here within a few years of the initial settlement. Added to the ethnic mix of the village was a population of native Irish, concentrated in a neighborhood called “Dublin.”


The Dublin neighborhood, as depicted in a map created during Rochester’s sesquicentennial. 

Dublin was located on St. Paul Street between Lowell Street and Central Avenue. The neighborhood extended east from there as far as Clinton Avenue. Its origins date to 1817 when an Irishman from County Laois (pronounced “Leash,” and then called “Queens County”) sailed for Québec.

While in Canada, James Dowling (1795?-September 15, 1852) heard of a grist mill and saw mill by a set of large falls on the Genesee River. Seeking to improve his situation, he made his way to Rochester, arriving July 14, 1817. Soon thereafter he purchased an acre of woodland from Nathaniel Gorham on the west side of St. Paul Street (at Dowling Place, where the Genesee Brewery now stands). The cost of the land was $100. Dowling paid $10 down, with equal payments to be made thereafter. It is said that at least one of his payments was made in-kind, as he paid village clerk Elisha Ely with a big fat goose!


The Genesee Brewery, site of James Dowling’s home.

Dowling cleared the forest around him and built a log cabin in which to live. He resided in the cabin during the winter; the rest of the year he worked on the Erie Canal and engaged in other public work projects. Around the area of the cabin, Dowling and his family had to be wary of rattlesnakes, as well as wild animals abounding in the nearby forest. Being north of the settlement of what is now downtown Rochester, there were no other settlers for miles.

Despite the hard and lonely life he lived, Dowling must have been happy in his new home, as within a few years his friends from County Laois joined him. Richard Story and Patrick McDonald and their families had sailed with Dowling to Québec in April 1817, but unlike Dowling, they stayed in Québec for a while before relocating to Rochester. Upon arrival, they each bought an acre on St. Paul Street and five acres each on North Clinton Avenue, embracing Baden Street, Vienna Street, Catherine Street, Kelly Street, and Buchan Park.

By 1827, there were 35 people in the locality, but they tended to be rather insular and protective of its boundaries. This trait can be seen most clearly in the early 1830s in the case of the horse-drawn railway that ran between Carthage and the canal aqueduct in Rochester.


The town of Carthage was then located on St. Paul St. between what is now East Ridge Road and Clifford Avenue.The railway’s horse-cars traveled through Dublin on their way to the route’s terminus located between St. Paul and Water Streets. As the district’s denizens believed the railway to be an intrusion on their boundaries, it was not unusual for the cars to be stopped while a battle ensued between the gangs of Dublin and the train driver and his allies. The railway survived less than a decade, ceasing operation about 1840, but faction fights continued for some time beyond the generation that initiated them.


-Christopher Brennan


Published in: on March 14, 2017 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

They Made you a Moron: a curious Rochester club


Rochester has had its share of curiously-named clubs. The Cheerio Club, the Zig-Zag Club and the Royal Order of Jesters rank among the most interesting monikers.

But I recently discovered my personal favourite when I looked through our pamphlet file collection and found the following:


The folder in question was filled with a series of meeting invitations, letters and other ephemera emblazoned with the club’s unusual name.

From the aforementioned invitations, I garnered that at least at one point in time the group held weekly lunch hour meetings at the Chamber of Commerce. Not the meeting site one would perhaps expect for a congregation of individuals calling themselves morons.

The club’s meeting topics evidently ran the gamut from local transportation to the City budget, again not exactly what one would imagine to be the preferred topics du jour of a collection of self-described imbeciles.


As I plumbed through the pamphlet file’s materials, it became increasingly evident that the group’s title had been chosen by someone whose tongue was firmly lodged in his or her cheek.

The Morons’ membership list from 1944, contained in the file, boasted the names of doctors, attorneys, superintendents, and librarians as well as that of former City Historian, Blake McKelvey.

Since the file did not include any information as to how and why this illustrious list of individuals came together, I did a little digging.

I uncovered an old Democrat and Chronicle article from 1956, which gave me some insight into the mysterious organization.

Apparently, the so-called Morons formed as an offshoot of a social worker’s club in the early 1920s.

Morons-social minded

The 1940-1941 schedule of Morons meetings.

The club’s name was suggested by Oscar W. Kuolt, then the General Secretary of the Council of Social Agencies. For choosing the winning moniker, Kuolt was awarded a free lunch, for which he was never reimbursed. The snub seemingly did not phase Kuolt, who later quipped, “what could you expect from a bunch of morons?”

Kuolt also served as the group’s first leader, or, “Juke,” a title inspired by a family of low mental abilities whose case history appeared in an 1874 report by the New York Prison Association.

The club’s “Juke” at the time of the D&C article’s writing was none other than Rochester Public Library Director, Harold Hacker.

The apparent mission of Hacker and his clubmates was to discuss city matters and social issues in a relatively informal manner, keeping no records or minutes to ensure that members felt free to be as open and frank as they so desired.

To be sure, members were encouraged to be as candid in their political discussions as they were in their treatment of fellow Morons.

A 1978 Democrat & Chronicle piece remarked that the members “knock each other with great glee…[and] treat each other with a certain lack of chivalry.”

This is evident in the numerous memos and poems populating the library’s “Morons” file.

Here is just one example, penned by former City Historian, Blake McKelvey in October, 1945:



I unfortunately wasn’t able to find any references to the group more recent than the aforementioned 1978 article, so it remains a mystery as to whether or not there are still Morons in our midst…

-Emily Morry

Published in: on March 7, 2017 at 2:59 pm  Comments (1)