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Virginia Gibbs

Ardent Preservationist


Bill Treichler

from the October 1989 issue of the Crooked Lake Review

Virginia Gibbs is Yates County Historian and a person with many interests, but she is particularly concerned with preservation—saving historic buildings and sites, and conserving the natural beauties of the areas of Yates County. She likes to think of her office as a nucleus for local preservation.

Her great project now is to carry through a study of the history and development of the area from the first settlements in the 1780s to 1945. Each of the nine towns as well as the four villages of the county will be reviewed. She is having research carried on about the local economies, the social activities, and the attitudes and aspirations of the different groups of people and the individual families who came to live in these towns and villages. She is limiting the study to the time from the first European penetrations of this territory until the end of World War II. This study will be made more visual by as many as eight maps for each town showing the changes at different intervals. The maps will show how in earlier times the whole area became populated and in later times how the populations remained nearly the same or shifted or declined. A draft of the material has been prepared down to 1855.

Another project of Virginia Gibbs that will go along with the more detailed survey is a book containing many photographs of Yates County localities. Mrs. Gibbs sees this publication as a "coffee-table book", one with pictures of famous places and beautiful scenery that will encourage residents of the county to become preservation minded.

In all these projects of preparing studies of the development of the towns and villages in Yates County she has been assisted by Frances Dumas who is the Assistant Yates County Historian. Fran does the research and much of the writing. Fran produced the whole series about the mills along the Keuka Outlet and is working now on the maps and materials for the town and village study.

In addition to these general projects for the area and to her regular work of assisting people with genealogical or local history research, Virginia Gibbs is much taken up with her desire to see some of the famous landmarks of the county and Penn Yan saved—like the Empire State Winery Building that is unused at the present and stands between Lake Keuka and Highway 54 close to Red Jacket Park in Penn Yan. She is also concerned about what will happen to the Main Street Bridge if it has to be strengthened. The piers of this bridge which spans the Keuka Lake Outlet in Penn Yan were built from stone blocks originally used to construct the locks of the Crooked Lake Canal.

The Outlet of Keuka Lake which runs nearly six miles to Lake Seneca at Dresden is another strong concern of Virginia Gibbs. She is treasurer of the Keuka Lake Outlet Preservation Area Commission. This group has been responsible for opening and keeping up the county owned Outlet Trail that runs the length of the ravine between the lakes and follows much of the way along the towpath of the abandoned Crooked Lake Canal. The canal opened in 1833 and connected Lake Keuka with the rest of the canal system of western New York. It was never a paying venture and was finally abandoned by the state in the 1870s.

Yates County officials have considered assuming title to most of the land in the outlet gorge for the county, but there are questions of future responsibilities for wastes that are still on the property from earlier dumping. There is also the problem of finding a way to best utilize the energy of 500 or more cubic feet of water that passes any spot along the channel each second, rushing down a total drop of 273 feet from one lake to the other—a very considerable source of power. Should the Outlet be preserved as a wild beauty spot or should the optimum amount of energy be saved from the overflow of Lake Keuka? Virginia is very much involved in the Outlet project.

Virginia Gibbs is a practising conservationist, not a pent-house environmentalist that fusses over every use of any bit of land. She lives on a small farm, has a greenhouse, raises herbs, and until very recently milked a cow twice a day. On her farm she produces certified organically-raised blueberries. She s a member of the Natural Organic Farmers Association of New York.

Her oldest daughter, Martha, who lives with her, and does the cow milking now, has a flock of 115 sheep that includes such breeds as: Cheviot, Romney, Clun Forest, Tunis, and even Black Hebridean. Martha raises sheep with wool of different colors for spinning. She also has Angora goats and does free-lance photography.

Another daughter, Alice Ann, is Coordinator of Recreation at William Smith College in Geneva. She coaches the top women's soccer team of the Division III Colleges in the United States.

Virginia's daughter Vallie, teaches at the Keuka Lake School for Handicapped near Branchport. Amy lives near Himrod, and Lyn lives in West Virginia. Mrs. Gibbs has six grandchildren.

She has been Yates County Historian since February, 1980, almost ten years now. Much of that time she was also director of the Oliver House where she began in 1977, succeeding Frank Swann in both positions. In her time at the Oliver House it became the exclusive home of the Yates County Historical Society.

Virginia Gibbs is enthusiastic about all of her interests: from old houses, Yates County landscapes, the early families of the county, the settling of the villages, to the status of the Outlet. Almost any weekday you can find her in the Historian's office, downstairs at 110 Court Street in Penn Yan, amid files, maps on the wall and papers piled on tables and desks, but ready to converse on any of her favorite subjects, that is, preservation.

© 1989, Bill Treichler
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