August 1990

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Our Old House

in Branchport


Ralph S. Wilkes

The old house held a strange fascination for us long before we ever had an idea that someday we might own it. Located on the south edge of Branchport, without being ostentatious it stands out by being distinctly different from every home around it. We had admired the rugged fieldstone construction and the contrasting white Victorian trim that graces the sharp peaks at the ends and extends around the house beneath the overhang of the roof. The slate shingles do not go down all the way to the lower edge of the roof; there is a distinctive boundary of red-painted metal about two feet wide with dozens of little metal squares standing up from it at a right angle in patterned rows about a foot or so apart, each about the size and shape of the business end of a garden hoe. These, we learned, are so placed to block an avalanche of snow and ice that might otherwise slide down the roof to strike and injure some hapless person or, at the very least, tear down the gutters that extend all the way around the house.

A row of maples at each side of the spacious lawn and some stately hemlocks at the north boundary parallel to the long driveway serve to heighten a first impression. Upon entering the driveway and approaching the house, one realizes that only half of the lawn is on the side toward the road; a similar expanse slopes gently to the bay on the east side.

One day in June 1973, a year or so before our retirement, my wife learned that the house was for sale.

We lost no time in calling the realtor and a week or so later the place was ours.

We employed a painter, a plasterer and paper hangers to do the most urgent jobs to make the inside more liveable according to our tastes, sold our former home, packed and moved, all within a period of a month. From that point on, we tackled most of the repair and improvement jobs and hired outside help only then we ran out of time or lacked the skill to take on the task at hand.

From the first, we tried to learn all we could about the history of the house—and what a fascinating history it had! From the abstract of title, old maps, relatives and others who knew the original owners, and from newspaper items, we pieced together a story that stretched across a period of more than a hundred years for the house and longer for the people who lived in it.

Dr. James Cadmus Wightman married Elizabeth Merrill, a native of Rushville, in early 1857 and came to Branchport that same year to carry on a medical practice that spanned a period of more than fifty years. At a time when requirements for entering the medical profession compared poorly with those of the 20th Century, he was unusually well prepared for his chosen field. Born in Ontario County near Rushville in 1819, he showed evidence early in life of being a diligent student. After completing his public school education, he entered Colgate University and after graduation he attended the American Medical College in Philadelphia where he studied medicine and surgery, then went on to post-graduate studies at other medical schools.

He soon established an extensive medical practice and in 1867, ten years after moving to Branchport, he purchased more than twelve acres of land which extended along the shore line of Crooked Lake (it hadn't yet become Keuka Lake) for about a quarter of a mile north from Basswood Creek, the brook which today separates Camp Good Days from the homes along the bay to the northward. It was on this property that he had his home constructed, probably around 1868 to 1870 or shortly thereafter.

I wish I knew more about the plans for the house and the details of construction. Was the plan taken from some other house or did Dr. Wightman and the builder design it? We have not learned the name of the builder and know only that he lived in the area. We have been told that most of the stones for the foundation and walls came from the bed of Basswood Creek which was at the south boundary of the property. Comparing the type of rock and considering the nearness of the source, this seems entirely plausible. While the house has stone and mortar walls 18 inches thick, all outside corners are of brick, an unobtrusive change from the stone, and one which assures neatly squared corners.

We have never known the reason for the several places in the stone walls where the two inch wide edge of a plank stands bare against the stone work, a foot or two long in one place, perhaps ten feet in another. Several visitors, including builders and architects, have advanced their theories. Perhaps it was to secure the scaffolding during construction. Possibly they are expansion joints. They may have been placed there to simplify the job of attaching a porch roof or some other addition. There are strong refutations for all three—it is still a mystery.

The Victorian character of the wood trim, particularly at the peaks and on the front porch, are in keeping with the time. Victorian and Italianate styles were popular in the post-Civil War period and there are several examples of both in the Branchport area.

A house can often tell a whole lot about the people who planned it and who lived in it. One may wonder, just as in the planning of "Monticello" by Thomas Jefferson, whether Dr. Wightman decided on many of the details, large and small, despite his busy professional life. We may well suspect that he did, having learned of his many activities and interests outside of his profession. A friend and biographer, Miles A. Davis, stated in 1918 in the doctor's obituary, "Dr. Wightman was an omnivorous reader and an incessant student all of his life. Few men attain and retain in mind such a fund of information. He drew rich stores from his knowledge of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and other languages while reveling in the fertile fields of English literature."

Upon entering the front door into the hallway, one admires the discriminating choice of fine woodwork. The varnished chestnut framing around the door and hall window, the wide baseboard, the decorative frame of the coat closet, and especially, the curving balustrade and stairway immediately catch the eye of the visitor. The stair rail, itself, appears to be cherry, polished to satin smoothness by the generations of hands that have since moved along it. Instead of spindles, the baluster consists of slats an inch thick and about four inches wide, dozens of them sawed to an attractive design. Upon entering the living room, one sees a somewhat similar design with different proportions repeated above the wide archway that separates the living room from the traditional parlor of the time.

The Wightman's had three children, a son who died at the age of nine, and two daughters, so the family needed a fairly spacious home. There were four rooms which probably served as bedrooms and a small storage room upstairs; the main floor had a generous size kitchen and a dining room in addition to the living room and parlor.

Every room of the house has shutters with adjustable slats on the insides of the windows, two panels on each side of each sash, hinged to fold into a niche at either side of the opening so they are hardly noticeable when folded back. During the winter, these shutters help to retain heat in the rooms; in summer, they shut out the sun to keep the house cool. In his wildest flights of fancy, the good doctor could hardly have imagined that they would some day be useful for reducing the outside light during daytime television viewing.

One resident of many years ago still recalls a brick privy, or outhouse, that survived until well into this century.

Fortunately, the several owners since the time of the original family, have added to the creature comforts of living without destroying the antiquity of the home. In the 1940s, one owner added a back porch at both the lower and upper levels. Gas lights gave way to electricity, and heating and plumbing facilities, as well as insulation, have been improved. We added a garage and shop, an iron railing around the concrete patio, and white outside shutters, the latter purely as a decorative contribution. Otherwise, the property remains much the same as during the last century—no picture windows, no pool, no garish trim colors.

When visitors ask how the house is heated, they are surprised by our answer, "a central oil burner, a stove on the face of the fireplace, and gas from our own gas well." The gas well was a venture of the Branchport Mining and Prospecting Company, founded in December of 1903, with William N. Wise, founder of the Hollowell and Wise Hardware in Penn Yan as president, and Verdi Burtch, a Branchport merchant and widely known ornithologist, as secretary. The other eight officers and directors were well-known members of the community. Stock shares were sold at $10 each and drilling started in 1904 on the property of Dr. Wightman, about 200 feet from the house. At about 315 feet, a strong gas flow developed and more stock was sold to provide funds for drilling deeper when it was believed possible to pipe the gas to homes in the Branchport community. Drilling proceeded (at a contract rate of $1.00 a foot) with satisfactory test lightings at various levels. At something over 700 feet, the flow was lighted again and it went off like fireworks, taking part of the drilling rig and derrick along with it. Attempts were made to put out the fire and cap the pressure by driving a wooden plug into the four inch casing, but this, too, blew out. Another plug was made and this also went skyward, but then the pressure slowly dwindled and it became apparent that the whole project was a bonanza that didn't quite make it. A gas line was run to Dr. Wightman's home, where it provided lights and partial heating. To this day, it still puts out enough energy to provide hot water throughout the year and to operate a floor furnace in the kitchen during the cold months.

An attic is often a place of mystery, a region of limited access where all the things are stored that "might be useful sometime." When I took up the attic floor boards in preparation for increasing the insulation, I hoped to find all mannner of treasures that would tell more about this old house and the people who lived in it. I found only a neatly lettered small sign, DR. J. C. WIGHTMAN, and a post card that had been sent to the family in 1900.

But for all that, a unique claim to fame could be made for this attic, according to old newspaper accounts, for it was in this space that the bones of the mother of Sagoyewatha, better known as Red Jacket, Seneca Indian Chief and famous orator, were stored for many years. As one of his many interests, Dr. Wightman studied Indian lore of this region. His purchase of twelve acres on the bay at Branchport included the site of a former Seneca Indian village. He came to know Asa Brown, a white man born in 1781, who had been raised in the home of Red Jacket's mother and it was he who showed the doctor the location of her grave. Fearful that the site would be lost, Dr. Wightman removed the bones and stored them until a suitable time for reburial. Actually, her remains stayed in the attic until long after the death of the doctor and were finally laid to rest with appropriate ceremony in 1933 beneath a granite boulder beside Basswood Creek. A bronze tablet on the boulder bears these words:


I recall with amusement the day we signed the purchase papers, when my wife and I excitedly telephoned our families in Baltimore with the news. We told a grandson, then about six years old, the story of Red Jacket and of the bones in the attic. His prompt reaction was, "Well, you won't catch me sleeping in a house like that!" He promptly forgot that statement on his first visit.

When I walk back down the long driveway after picking up the morning newspaper, I look toward the old house, austere in design and at the same time warm and inviting, with the sun sparkling on the ripples of the lake in the background. It takes no great stretch of the imagination to picture Dr. Wightman with his horse and sulky, coming up the driveway to make the scheduled round of house calls, visiting those people whole lives are dependent upon him.

This has been a great place to live, but there comes a time when it seems natural and logical and sensible to simplify one's way of living. The housework seems more pressing; the lawn and garden become more demanding. It is with reluctance that we watch the FOR SALE sign go up, but the time has come for a new family and a new generation to savor the joy and contentment of living in this old house.

1990, Ralph S. Wilkes

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