April 1992

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Reminiscences of a

1915 Centenarian


Robert G. Koch

A century after he was born in western Massachusetts, John S. Wilson reminisced about his early life in Rochester, which began in 1822, at the age of seven. "Most of the [12 day] journey…was made in the daytime, and…we passed through a very wild country, heavily timbered with occasionally…a settler's home." In the transcription of his memories in the publications of The Rochester Historical Society, he recalls how "…we came down into the village from some hill or elevation, and…I could see the oil lamps burning at the street corners; old whale oil lamps, set on rough posts."

They settled for a time with an uncle's family, where the seven Wilson children bedded down in a loft with 13 cousins. Once the Wilsons were on their own, the centenarian recalled "…the large hook which hung from the fireplace on which…[hung] the turkey or sparerib…[which was swiveled from time to time]. There was a big oven by the side of the fireplace, and, I have never seen as many pumpkin pies laid out as…my mother would draw from this…oven on baking day. I used to help my father put on the logs; very often we had to get up in the night and go carry in the fore and back logs; they were too heavy for one man to handle. One of my particular duties was to go up Spring Street to the …'Indian Spring,' and get the drinking water. We frequently had Indians come to the house and stay overnight, sleeping on the floor. They did not frighten us, and we used to think they were pretty good boys. While I was still a little boy, a crowd of these Indians who stopped with my father gave me a dog, and he was the best dog I ever had…"

As for the Rochesterville of Wilson's youth, the streets were more often than not muddy—the present State Street was in part a corduroy road—and there were no sidewalks. But there were compensations in the excitement of a busy canal town and occasional vistas and visitors. "Upon the summit of the hill at Mt. Hope" Wilson remembered "…a tower containing an elevator, and for a piece of money [of unremembered amount] they would elevate the visitor to the top of that tower for a view of Rochester and surrounding country. This was called the 'Fandango.'"

Young Wilson was especially attentive to the arrival of famous visitors. He was ten years old when Lafayette made his triumphal tour along the Erie Canal. "My best view of General Lafayette," Wilson recalled, "was when he was going away. I stood on the aqueduct only a short distance away from him, and he stood on the rear of the packet bowing and smiling as the packet pulled across the aqueduct [which still supports Broad Street over the Genesee]. The one thing which…stands out…in my mind concerning General Lafayette was his chapeau. He had no uniform, but I do remember his headgear."

Somewhat later young Wilson was on hand when Daniel Webster visited Rochester. "[H]e came here over the old Tonawanda Railroad from Batavia. A number of us boys got on our horses and rode out to meet the train…riding on the tracks, and then when we saw the train coming, we turned around and rode back ahead of [it] on the tracks. I had a pretty good horse in those days, and all the other boys became frightened and after a while they rode off the side of the track, but I kept right ahead of the train, and beat the train into the station."

Wilson later apprenticed to a silversmith on South Clinton Avenue who was a "religious man…He spent more time teaching Sunday School to the Indians [within a hundred mile radius] than he did on his business…The Indians frequently came to the shop and slept there overnight, but," added Wilson, "we never had any trouble with them. They conducted themselves properly and respected and loved this man [Samuel W.] Lee very much."

Young Wilson also joined a militia artillery company that trained in the field at the corner of Alexander Street and East Avenue, in the Front Street area. "We had a brass cannon, shooting a six-pound ball…This cannon was loaded from the muzzle, and we used to have the powder in a bag, and ram that in good and tight, and then put in the ball, and ram that down with some wadding; then we had a piece of sharp wire which we pushed through the touch hole and pierced the bag of powder, and then put in the fuse, and stood off a little way and touched it off. We practiced shooting a good deal [in the 1830s]…and went up Plymouth Avenue to a point on the west side of the river, near the bend in the river, and shot across the river toward [the present-day University of Rochester and Mt. Hope Cemetery] at a [painted wooden] target set in the hillside…The gun used to carry nearly a mile, and we felt very proud of possessing a brass cannon. I don't remember whether we hit the target very often," centenarian Wilson recalled in 1915, "but I do know the same target lasted us a long time, and I remember that a good many of the balls used to go clean over the hill."

© 1992, Robert G. Koch
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