Refurbishing the Memorial Pioneer Log Cabin and its later addition the Pioneer Museum is typical of the projects that Richard and Alice Sherer take on and carry through.
Dick has been Steuben County Historian for two and one half years now and Urbana Town Historian for eight years. He is always busy responding to queries from people about family ancestors or questions about some building or place. Among his friends and acquaintances he is thought of as a walking encyclopædia of historical information. He not only knows who built every building, it seems, in Hammondsport, but he also knows how many times it has been moved or a story about someone who lived in the house. Dick is a very entertaining conversationalist and story teller. He gives frequent talks to groups, often about the boats on Lake Keuka, or the early wine industry.
Richard Sherer was born in Bath and lived there through the time he went to the sixth grade, so Bath is a special interest of his. He likes the stories of Bath's history and the old houses and the buildings along Liberty Street and around Pulteney Square. Dick is familiar with the towns and villages of Steuben County and its historic landmarks. His general interest in New York history includes more than Steuben County and takes in at least all of the Genesee County.
Dick recalls that he liked history studies best in school. He says that he has always been a compulsive reader. Dick estimates that he has now about 1400 books and he thinks that he has read most of them. Oh, maybe not the 41 volumes of the bound Congressional Globe from 1791 to 1832. But he has read through the New York State Agricultural Society Yearbooks from 1845 to 1890; all of the bound copies of the Hammondsport Herald from its beginning in 1874 to 1932.
About 30 years ago he made a list of all the books on history that he would like to own, 20 of them. He has now all but one, Travels through the United States of North America…in the Years 1795, 1796, and 1797. It was written by LaRochefoucauld Liancourt and published in London in 1799.
One of Dick's recent acquisitions was the bound 1833 issues of The Genesee Farmer. In it he discovered William Warren Bostwick's first letter to the editor of The Genesee Farmer modestly apologizing for writing, and expressing doubt that grape growing will ever amount to much in this area but, nevertheless, offering some of his ideas and thoughts on grape culture. In the same year and volume Bostwick is back again with more on grapes, and on beekeeping, and dahlia raising, and mulberry propagation for silk production. The Reverend was obviously a dedicated horticulturist. A friend of Dick's mother gave him this book and it led to his search for more volumes of The Genesee Farmer. He has four other years now.
Dick has not only read most of the books he owns, he has also copied out in longhand more than a thousand pages of excerpts and page references.
Grape culture, Dick says led him into his history studies. He moved back to Bath in 1955 to join his father in a gas and oil distributorship. Alice and Dick looked for a place to live and bought the stone house back off the Pleasant Valley Road that had been built by Herman Lobeck in 1891. The house came with 25 acres of vineyard. Dick says, "I didn't know anything about grapes and I had to rely on my neighbors. Occasionally their advice was contradictory. One of his neighbors, well, really two, Gerald and Alberta Smith, brother and sister, taught him the practical side of grape growing. The Smiths lived in a secluded valley farm behind the Sherer's vineyard and went through Sherer's property to the road.
One day Gerald said to him, "The fellow who owned this place before nearly finished off these grapes, and it looks like you will."
"Well, what should I do? I really don't know anything about pruning grapes."
"What are you doing this winter?"
"Not anything in particular."
"Well, we'd better go through them."
So that winter Dick trimmed his grapes along with Gerald who was so crippled with arthritis that he could hardly get one foot ahead of the other.
He did know how to raise grapes, Dick says, as many as 8 tons to the acre.
They left the trimmings in the vineyard and every time Alberta went anywhere she pulled out the brush from between two rows and when she came back she pulled the other way the brush from another two rows. Alberta walked nearly every place she went, not hesitating to walk to Bath or Hammondsport—no doubt accounting, at least, partially for her being still alive today.
The Sherers and the Smiths were close neighbors and friends who helped each other.
Dick wanted to know more about grape culture and he met Seaton C. Mendel who was then vineyard consultant to the Taylor Wine Company. "Zeke" Mendel suggested that Dick read the old New York State Agriculture Yearbooks to learn more and gave him the 1860 volume. Dick went through it and wanted more. He was talking about looking for more of these yearbooks with a fellow Rotarian in Bath who said, "Maybe I've got some; come over and see. When we bought Carter Kingsley's house it was filled with books and I moved them to the barn. We invited Cornell to come over and they took a few. You might find some you want."
Dick went over, spent a whole afternoon looking at books and probably didn't see a quarter of them. They were stacked 4 and 5 feet high in a large area of the barn. finally he said, "I'd like to look at more of them. Can I come back?"
"Why don't you buy them?"
"I don't really have money to buy books."
"Maybe we can swap something. Let's go over to your house."
They went to Dick's house and his friend looked around, saw some things that interested him and then saw two guns Dick had.
"They'd look just great over my fireplace."
"Yeah, even up. A deal?"
Dick borrowed the The House of Shaw's truck. It took two loads to get the 6000 books home. There were 45 volumes of the Yearbooks, full of grape articles and a lot more. The 1861 book contained a detailed account of the first year of operation of the Pleasant Valley Winery written by John F. Weber, the first superintendent.
Also there were volumes 1845 to 1871 of the Transactions of the American Institute, a society of Hudson River valley landowners. Dick read through these, too, and in one was an account by A. C. Younglove in 1865 about grape culture in Pleasant Valley.
But there were more books: a three-volume set of New York history devoted to Steuben County. There were books inscribed by Robert VanVaulkenburg who had built the house at the corner of Rumsey and East Washington in Bath, who became a U.S. judge to the Florida Territory and, in 1865, ambassador to Japan .
Over the years the Kingsleys had gathered all these books. Likely when Carter Kingsley settled an estate he would be given books the heirs no longer wanted.
These books widened Dick's historical view. About this time he began collecting postcards and then photographs of lake boats and old buildings. Dick became a history addict. Reading all of these books and old papers not only increased his knowledge but it made him, through comparison of what he read in different books, a critical student of history.
Dick Sherer likes more than the records of the past. He has a large shop full of old tools and a barn filled with old store furniture and odd items of earlier use. He has the tools and the skill to save and preserve these treasures. Right now he is repairing a large leaded, stained-glass window. If you go to the Bath Fair and visit the Pioneer Museum, more than likely Dick will be playing the music box that produces tunes from a rotating metal disk. Dick got this going last year after it hadn't run for years.
If you see the Cooperage Shop at the Bully Hill Museum you will witness a completed project of his. Best of all is to have Dick show you just how the staves were rived and later shaped with a novel hand-operated planing jig ready to be fitted into a barrel.
Dick has a lot of projects he is working on now. A current one is preparing a booklet of a walking tour of Hammondsport. A more involved one is to go through all of the papers of Jim Drake, a former Steuben County Attorney and apparently an authority on nearly every past activity or industry in the county. In addition to Drake's legal opinions on county matters are his replies to people requesting information about early events. He wrote about churches, highways and toll roads, schools, fraternal orders and local industries. He wrote biographical sketches of politicians and he wrote yearly an essay he called "A Century Ago". Drake did work out a system for indexing his articles but they need to be sorted out and assembled into book form. There is easily enough material for a book on the highways of this area from the trails and plank roads and tollways to the middle years of this century. And there would be enough for several other books about life in Steuben County as Jim Drake saw it. Dick has already started work on Drake's papers, but he would welcome help. Perhaps the county historical society could publish these books.
Dick's newest dream would put many of his and other people's historical projects together. He wants to see a History Study Center, a library with reading and study rooms, established in the Balcom House that faces onto historic Pulteney Square in Bath. It is an ideal location and a very appropriate building—the home of an old and prominent Bath family—just the proper place for the study of area history. Dick envisions the History Study Center as a place where a library of history could be assembled. There are people who would likely contribute their books and papers to a library where they could be examined and read. Some of the rooms in the Balcom house are being vacated by the Board of Supervisors and would be ideal for the beginning of such a research center. The two floors on the south side could be used first and when the remainder of the house can be used there would be space for reading rooms, a genealogical file room, old-book storage and a meeting room.
It is very hard to keep up with Dick Sherer and his enthusiasms. He says that he gets up at 4:00 AM every morning. He must, he couldn't get done all the things that he does, otherwise. And he is always ready to give anyone who comes a generous amount of time to talk about history, or most any other subject, and always with a good story or two. He likes to play a game with himself which is to be able to put his hands almost immediately on the documentation that he might have in his study for any bit of information he is asked about. What he is looking for may be already in the pile on his desk, or over on a shelf, of in a file cabinet in a closet. Whatever he is looking for he usually has it in hand in less than a minute. Often finding one file leads him to place something else, too, for you to see. "Did I ever show you this property deed of 1829 from the Welles family heirs to Ezra Gleason?"
"Now here's the 1834 account book for the A. M. Adsit Company and it shows all the products that they were shipping out from Hammondsport to as far as New York City—they had an agent there—and just what they were bringing in goods into Hammondsport for sale here and in the surrounding towns, as far away as Angelica. They were doing an amazing business."
©1989, Bill Treichler