March 1995

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The Branchport Connection

John Nicholas Rose

1799 - 1870


Verne M. Marshall

"Full many a Rose is born to blush unseen." With a nod to the poet, this phrase might well describe the life of John Nicholas Rose. So little is known about him, in contrast to his brother Henry, that one may conjecture that John avoided the limelight as a way of life. He did not keep a journal, as did Henry, although he farmed as assiduously and successfully as Henry. His name appears infrequently in the newspapers of the time. His consuming interest, aside from farm and family, was St. Luke's Episcopal Church. Here he displayed a generosity and zeal for the pioneer church that guaranteed its robust survival. But in most situations, John deferred to his more assertive brother, although two years Henry's senior.

John was born on 18 December, 1799, in Virginia. After graduating from Union College in Schenectady he was lured away from the family homestead at Rose Hill by the challenge of establishing a farm in Jerusalem, Yates County. He settled at the first "Esperanza" in 1823, on land purchased from John Beddoe. He borrowed $9,000 from his wealthy father in 1825, and had done well enough to repay it completely by 1833. The bond was interest free. Marriage to Jane Eliza Macomb of New York City took place in 1829, after which the young couple began their grand project, the building of Esperanza.

Much has been written about this imposing mansion, situated high above Keuka Lake with a panoramic view to the south. Its classic Greek Revival architecture fulfilled the Roses' desire to recreate the ambiance of the Old South. The four pillars are really large pine trunks, bricked over and stuccoed. There are nineteen rooms. Frances Dumas, in A Good Country, A Pleasant Habitation states "Esperanza completed in 1838—the center of an attempt to transplant a Virginia-style plantation system to upstate New York. The attempt can't be said to have been successful, but the residents of their mansions (Hampstead and Esperanza) were certainly living in the grand manner: in 1855 they employed coachmen, nurses for their children, cooks and farm managers: all occupations unique to the county in the 1850's."

John and his brother Henry led strikingly parallel lives. They married Macomb sisters; they were both childless; they were "gentlemen-farmers," and they opened their large comfortable homes freely to numerous nieces and nephews. Esperanza, completed in 1838, was the scene of grand parties and elegant balls. It was rumored to have been a station on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Novelist Hughes Mearns, in Richard Richard, 1916, wrote that "Red Jacket" (his name for Esperanza) was one of the last 'stations' before Canada, spiriting negroes from the South." If true, the story substantiates the fact that the Rose family generally were liberal in the matter of slavery. Curiously, no mention of the Civil War can be found in any of their family memorabilia; one may assume that a certain ambivalence toward the conflict with their ancestral homeland dictated a "low profile." Only one relative, a nephew of John's named Augusta (?Augustus) Porter Rose is listed as having been in the military; he served in the 18th Virginia Infantry and Imboden's Cavalry, C. S. A. and died in 1868. (Christine Rose)

John Nicholas Rose, looking like a pious parson in his photograph, nevertheless was forced to run a "tight ship" in managing the household. In those pre-telephone days, often the first indication of a visit was the carriage turning into the steep driveway. The load of relatives and trunks was amply accommodated, and massive amounts of food were provided. Brothers from Geneva and third cousins from distant Williamsburg were all royally welcomed. Guests typically stayed for a week or two, although John and Jane frequently visited Geneva "family" at Bell Farm for one-day stays. An 1868 letter from Branchport mentions "Arthur just walked up from Dresden [about 10 miles] and he will take the boat back to Geneva." (Presumably after another 10-mile walk back to Dresden!)

Jane, John's modest wife, having come from New York City, must often have felt lonely and isolated in her rustic surroundings. She corresponded widely. In hand is a letter from a sister in Michigan, cross-written in order to save space; a certain degree of concentration is needed to decipher it! Jane also cherished a letter edged in black from another sister, telling of her anguish over the recent loss of her husband. The intensity of the writer's emotions, and the felicity of her words, make this letter worth preserving here:

My dear sister Jane—

No comforting words come to me, as I try to write to you. Have we not lost our dearest and best? That cheery voice, that ever ready smile, will greet us no more.

His was the happiest temper I have ever known—he gave light and warmth and sweetness to the atmosphere of his home as the sunshine does—as days go on dreary desolate days, I miss him not less but more—nothing does me good but quiet and silence—I like to go away and be alone with my memories and thus school myself to face my altered life. All winter he has been gay and happy—the girls are remembering now how often I called upon them to rejoice with me in their father's health and cheerfulness.

My love to John and Julia,

Your sister, Nannie

Esperanza has had a checkered history since it passed out of Rose hands—a poorhouse, a museum, a winery, and, at present in a state of limbo. The reader is invited to make the pilgrimage to Branchport, to see Hampstead and Esperanza still brooding over their sweeping vistas, and to indulge a romantic vision of the bustling activities swirling about these august homes 150 years ago.

John and his alter ego Henry were frequently called upon to referee difficult legal problems. As substantial landed gentry their advice was widely respected throughout Jerusalem township and the young Yates County. They avoided public office, however, choosing to lead lives of quiet refinement on their estates. John sold 362 of his 800 acres to his nephew, Robert S. Rose, and another 185 acres to his wife's nephew, John N. Macomb, Jr., who lived with them. Young John eventually became the manager of Esperanza farmstead. Also living at Esperanza, in 1850, were Robert and William Sill, sons of John's deceased sister Susan.

John Nicholas Rose died on 7 November, 1870, and was carried across the valley and up to the old Beddoe Cemetery in the woods. The death of this modest man of boundless integrity was a loss keenly felt by all who were privileged to know him. His devoted brother Henry, faithful as ever, acted as Executor for the estate, making certain that Jane would live out her days comfortably. She lived on at Esperanza 21 more years.

1994, Verne M. Marshall
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