August 1990

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Penn Yan

and Keuka Lake

from Country Margins and Rambles of a Journalist, 1855


Samuel H. Hammond

I am at Penn Yan, the county seat of Yates County, a neat and prosperous village in one of the smallest, but richest counties of the State. The farms around it are productive, admirably managed, and the farmers are rich. In no part of the State has there been a more rapid progress in improvement and wealth made. It is a pleasant thing to see the great fields of grain, of wheat just ready for the harvest, of barley ripening for the sickle, of oats yet in their coat of green, and corn even with the fences, just in the gorgeous livery of a thrifty growth. Time was when Penn Yan by no means enjoyed the best name in the world for morals. It was once emphatically a hard place, a place of horse trading, horse racing, card playing, of drinking, and the other proclivities which go to make up an evil reputation. But all these things belong to the past and Penn Yan is now as distinguished for its public virtue, its high tone of public morals, as it was, in days long gone by, for its evil practices. Churches and school-houses, and the persevering effort and example of good men, have wrought an utter revolution in its moral character. Its vices have been forsaken, its evil practices abandoned. The bad men who stained its reputation with their evil courses, have passed away, or forsaken their bad ways. Penn Yan is a sober village, full of enterprise, energy and industry, where the right tone of morals prevails.

In sight of Penn Yan is the Crooked Lake. This beautiful sheet of water has, to me, a thousand charms, and as I look upon it a rush of pleasant memories come clustering around my heart. I was reared upon its banks; I have floated a thousand times upon its surface, and bathed and fished in its waters; I have caught hundreds of salmon trout out in the deep water, and thousands of yellow perch and sunfish along the shore, or on the points of the bars, where the aquatic weeds grow thick and luxuriant, like a cane-brake or a wild meadow away down in the water.

I remember when my father's log house stood at the head of the lake, some forty rods back from the shore, with a gentle slope of meadow to the water's edge. Great maples that had been spared when the old forest trees were swept away, stood a few rods apart in that meadow, spreading abroad their leafy arms, and rising in the summer time like pyramids of green towards the sky. Midway from the door to the lake was a cluster of some half dozen of these beautiful trees, from among the roots of which a cold pure spring came gushing up, and ran in a little brooklet over a bed of pebbles to the lake. It was a new country then. No highway or road extended beyond my father's clearing. He lived eight miles from a mill, and the same distance from a store or a physician.

But all this is changed now. Where then was that meadow, and fields full of stumps, or old primeval woods, is now a thriving village of some fifteen hundred busy people. All the ancient landmarks have been removed. Civilization, in its onward progress, has swept everything that then was to oblivion. The old maples are gone, the clustering plum trees, the tall sycamores, the hickory, the butternut and the wild cherry trees are all gone. That beautiful spring is in the cellar of a village store. The house that "I was born in" is gone, and its place occupied by a pleasant village residence.

This was a beautiful sheet of water long years ago, when there were few clearings along its shores, and it is a beautiful sheet of water still. The forest that grew in dense luxuriance to the water's edge, by its gigantic growth indicated the strength of the soil. Where that forest stood, are now rich farms, giving back wealth to the descendants of the hardy pioneers that swept it away. The scenery around this lake is most beautiful—not like that of Lake George, where rocks and mountains are piled up in stately barrenness, opposing their bald heads to the storm, or hiding their summits in the mists of heaven. The scenery of Lake George is grand, sublime; but is the grandeur of sterility, the sublimity of desolation. Civilization can never beautify or adorn its rugged acclivities; agriculture cannot thrust its sickle into ripened grain, nor the ploughshare penetrate the granite soil that surrounds it. It may be a resort for the traveller in the summer months, to enjoy the freshness of the mountain air, and the coolness of the mountain breeze, but civilization cannot winter there.

The scenery about this lake is of a different character. It speaks of wealth, of comfort, of intelligence, of civilization and progress. The farms that stretch away in gentle acclivity from the shore are rich in agricultural products, great fields of wheat, just passing the yellow ripeness, waving like an ocean in a gentle breeze. Meadows, which are now being shorn by the mowers—acres upon acres of oats and corn, now in their richest robe of luxurious green—pastures where flocks and herds are grazing. Painted houses and great barns, patches of woodland left to supply fuel, and timber for fences and building. These make up the landscape that skirts the Crooked Lake. There is no lack of secluded bays or shaded nooks, into which the little row-boat may glide, nor rugged promontories covered with stately trees, beneath the shadow of which one may luxuriate, safe from the noonday heat, and refreshed by the cool breeze that sweeps over the water.

More Selections from Country Margins and Rambles by Samuel H. Hammond
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