April 1990

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Harpending's Corners


Edwin N. Harris

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My Childhood

We have scanned some history of the ancient ones, the beginnings of my favorite small town and met some of its early settlers. Now to move ahead 100 years to my own time and introduce a few of my family and friends.

I was born January 29, 1918, the first child of George Mottram and Clara Harriet (Dillistin) Harris—there would be four sons—on a farm southwest of the crossing of Glen Road and Pre-emption Road.

The farm was located in the township of Tyrone in the northeast corner of Schuyler County about three-and-one-half miles southwest from the village of Dundee.

Our farm had been in the family since 1811 when it was purchased by Levi Price from Sam Harpending and his wife Hannah. When Levi sold a portion to Jonathan Losey in 1818, family ownership was interrupted until my mother's grandfather, Israel Dillistin, bought it back. Israel had married Harriet Witter Price, daughter of Levi and Sarah Price.

My paternal grandfather, George Burtin Harris, had married Caroline M. Price, Levi's granddaughter, all of which makes me my own cousin, or something. Thus the singing Welsh blood of the Prices came down to me from both parents. People have speculated about the results for me, with some misgivings.

The farm sat near the top of the glacial ridge that divides Seneca and Keuka lakes, and from the farmhouse there is a never-to-be-forgotten panorama of another long ridge some ten or twelve miles to the east that divides Seneca from Cayuga Lake. To me this ridge appeared to be a mountain stretching forty miles that wore wonderful colors ranging from blue to gold depending on the light and the time of the day. From the farmhouse, only part of that other ridge was visible because nearby woodlots closed some of the view. Through the openings I watched with wonder the Lehigh Valley Railroad's high-speed passenger train Black Diamond as it crawled silently north, or south, on a railbed half way between Seneca's lakeshore and the top of the east ridge. To me it was a picture in motion of a distant world. The train was hauled by a steam locomotive whose trailing smoke alternated from black to steam white as the engine devoured charges of black coal from its tender.

When I walked eastward on the Crawford Road on quiet days with the wind from the east I could hear the faint roar of the engine and the tri-noted whistle of the Black Diamond.

I vowed to explore that world. One day dad took me through Watkins Glen and around the end of Seneca Lake. I discovered to my surprise that the west ridge we came from now looked much the same as the east ridge had looked from there. Looking west there was a sunset instead of a sunrise to paint that ridge with equal glory.

In flights of fancy I saw myself as an early explorer that would seek new lands, watch for the isolated Seneca Indian families, follow their trails and hope to meet them. I did find a hollowed-out rock, and nearby its stone pestle, that ancient dwellers may have used for grinding corn or other seeds.

They were lying on the bank of a ravine formed by a brook that has for millenia carved ever deeper through shale rock as it flows eastward to join Big Stream to go on together to the west shore of Seneca at Glenora, that popular landing place for early settlers from across the lake. The little brook that led me to the stone artifacts springs out of a pasture lot about 200 yards west of the Pre-emption Road. I found the stones about a mile east of the road. It took me hours to drag them home.

From age ten or twelve until I moved from the area Stone Mill Gulley [as we called the brook] fascinated me, and I explored the old mill foundations many times. I followed the creek from where it passed our farmhouse, flowed under the Pre-emption Road bridge, to travel east over a mile. Water had carved the stream bed into the shale rock until it reached [to me] canyon-like depths at Big Stream. Hemlock, pine and other woodland trees at the tops of the ravine banks shrouded the bottom and made the place quiet and mysterious. On these trips I chose my footing carefully after the stream passed under State Highway 14A, for just before it joins Big Stream it passes through the curved, dark, echoing concrete tunnel that since 1902 carries New York Central's rail bed across the ravine, perhaps at some one hundred feet above.

For some ways the tunnel rises, then flattens in complete darkness before it bends downward and light appears again. I was alone on my first trip through, and I worried in the dark, wondering if there really was an exit. When I emerged into bright daylight, I found myself at a point on Big Stream about one-and-one-half miles downstream from Dundee—near the Stone Mill Road bridge and the remnants of the old mill.

At the junction of the two streams the shale banks soar high above the road that drops from the west sharply to the bridge deck. After crossing the stream the road climbs up the east side to the farm home of Jeanette Pryor, my teacher, and her husband Lewis.

On some days other boys and I would fish for chubbs under the bridge until, bored with that, we scaled the slippery shale rock cliffs, a dangerous venture that killed one boy that I knew, when he lost his footing and fell to the stream bed below. Over years others had met the same fate. I gave up climbing Big Stream's banks after I froze on a spot about twenty feet from the top, unable to move up or down for what seemed an hour. Finally I gutted it out to the top and walked the long way around to get back to the bottom.

A few hundred yards upstream a large depression in the bedrock of Big Stream provided a swimming hole that we often shared with black snakes that grew to lengths of six feet or more.

I suppose the snakes were at the site 173 years ago when John Shannon hacked his way through the trees to build Stone Mill.

In a few years I learned that before the sawmills on Big Stream devoured the virgin forests, the now marginal farms had seen better days. There still remained some fine houses built in Neo-Grecian and Federal styles. Years of agriculture following the timber cutting left the steeper hillsides with only very thin topsoil over the yellow clay subsoil. I heard old timers say, "A crow flying over this hill has to carry his lunch with him nowadays."

Stafford C. Cleveland in his History of Yates County tells of the mills and other activities along Big Stream.

Big Stream furnished water power for a number of mills. By 1839 there was a sawmill and plaster mill at Seneca Lake, and moving upstream there was a woolen factory, a carding and cloth-dressing mill, three more sawmills, a gun shop, and another mill. Big Stream at one time was the biggest wheat market south of Rochester. The 1830 census lists the Town of Starkey population at 2,285.

Stone Mill sawmill, one of the best on the stream, was built in 1836 by Clarkson Martin on a site previously occupied by a mill owned by John D. Shannon, Jr. that he had erected in 1813. John Shannon in 1826 was killed when his team and wagon fell off the bridge into the mill pond of Timothy Hurd on the Lakemont-Rockstream road.

Long before white man appeared, Indans came to make salt from a spring on an eight acre island in Big Stream. About 1850 George Rose boiled brine with about twenty kettles. In 1865 J. T. Rapalee bored for petroleum and struck gas at 300 feet. A venture by several partners was formed to develop it and bored down to 800 feet where they were unable to keep out the flow of water and they quit.

I continued my explorations and solitary wanderings until I entered the eighth grade and went to school in Dundee. When winter came I stayed in town with "Aunt Zett," [Rosetta] Jansen, an ancient lady born in 1844, the fifth child of Uriah and Julia Ann Dillistin. She had married Daniel Jansen in 1864 and moved to Michigan but they come back to Altay, New York, in 1911. Daniel was a Dundee Telephone Company collector for many years, and it was said he walked to all the customers.

Aunt Zett lived a spartan life, rarely leaving her house, and she fed me a lot of oatmeal and salt-rising bread. Before daylight each winter morning, Floyd Matteson, a printer's devil and pressman for the Dundee Observer, came in to fill the coal magazine of the great upright cast iron stove that sat in Aunt Zett's living room. It was adorned with nickel plated shin guards and had ising glass windows in its doors. Late in the day Floyd, on his way home, repeated the process, and removed the ashes. For this I believe Aunt Zett paid him fifty cents a week. I slept on a narrow little couch between the stove and a wall.

In a year a school bus had a regular stop at Crawford Road that was within walking distance from our farmhouse, and I moved back with my parents. Three years later Aunt Zett died at age ninety one.

© 1990, Edwin N. Harris
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Memories of childhood are all the more vivid because they were written on blank pages, before our minds were numbed by the unending torrent of familiar experiences. —Stephen Chapman
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