Visits to Museums

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NSG Visit, April 22, 2006

Exploring Penn Yan’s Museums

and Nearby Millsites


Donovan A. Shilling

More than thirty members of the New Society of the Genesee ventured from across Western New York State to visit the mill sites and museums that reveal the story of Yates County's vibrant history. Driving through showers the morning of Saturday, April 22nd, 2006, we arrived at the Oliver House Museum at 200 Main Street by 10:30.

Our museum guide, Idelle Dillon, Executive Director for the Yates County Genealogical & Historical Society, was charming, witty and knowledgeable, offering our group a wealth of tales about the events and personalities that were a part of Penn Yan's colorful past.

The museum, once the home of Dr. Andrew Ferguson Oliver (1792 - 1857), was erected in 1852. While listening to Idelle's interpretive comments, we learned that the home holds 80,000 artifacts. Some of these were visible in the museum's six Victorian-style first floor rooms that held many by-gone treasures including a piano forte made by Jason Neilson in 1830, the original desk used by Dr. Oliver, brass candlesticks dating to 1760, and a vintage Edison Victrola. The walls in the museum's two parlors were hung with large, gilt-framed paintings of various, notable Penn Yankees.

Other rooms held interpretive displays of the life and times of Jemima Wilkinson (1752 - 1819), the "Publick Universal Friend," and Seneca Indian relics found at campsites in Yates County. On the second floor of the Oliver House we were shown additional mementoes of the past that included early deeds, cemetery records and historical documents, plus period furnishings and a large collection of vintage costumes.

Idelle then escorted us to the L. Caroline Underwood Museum in a home adjacent to the Oliver House. Within this building were the offices of the Society. Other rooms were filled with many collections, some from Ms. Underwood who was a teacher who had a passion for collecting. Among private local collections on display were postcards of Penn Yan, match book covers, dolls in native dress, milk bottles, Wade figures, lunch pails, beer glasses, perfume bottles, trivets, coins, trading cards and several cast iron fire engines, c. 1895, produced by Ives and Phoenix and loaned to the museum by Lewis Gracey, an avid collector of fire-related memorabilia.

We left Idelle about 12:30, thanking her for her hospitality and informative comments, and drove to Millers's Essenhaus, a Mennonite-style restaurant on Route 14-A just north of Penn Yan. After a substantial meal and much conversation, Gary Bogue, our impresario for this event, directed us on a route that would take us to two falls on the outlet of Keuka Lake along which mills and other early enterprises had been established.

Traveling through rain and muddy roads leading to and then paralleling the Outlet, we found the Seneca Falls gateway and drove along an access road to a parking place close to the Outlet Trails exhibit building between the falls at Seneca Mills and the cascade farther down the Outlet. There we were introduced to Leona Jensen, a volunteer, former Board Member and Secretary of the Friends of the Outlet. She provided a considerable amount of historical information relating to the many mills once thriving on the Outlet's waters that drop 300 feet between Keuka and Seneca Lakes. The Friends of the Outlet maintain the six-mile Outlet Trail that runs between Penn Yan on Keuka Lake and Dresden on Seneca Lake. The trail follows the tow path of the Crooked Lake Canal and the road bed of the Fall Brook Railroad, both long-ago abandoned.

Leona took us then to view the cascade and the remains of early grist and sawmills and later manufactories at this site. In 1903 the Taylor Chemical Company here was the world's largest producer of carbon disulphide first used as a pesticide and later in the manufacture of rayon yarns. Until some years ago, a tire recapping facility operated here. All is ruins now.

From the cascade site we followed the trail back to the west, past where our cars were parked, upstream to the Seneca Mill site. Here the followers of Jemima Wilkinson built, in 1790, the first mill. It had a 26-foot-diameter overshot water wheel and two sets of grinding stones. That mill burned in 1825 and was immediately rebuilt. Later there were mills on both sides of the stream. There was a plant for pressing linseed oil, a large grain milling complex, then a paper mill. The water power here with the potential of a forty-foot head of water was used continuously from 1790 until 1958. On this afternoon the torrent of water down the Outlet plunged over a fourteen-foot-high ledge and swirled between rocks and remaining walls—a natural, unused source of clean power.

The excursion was well planned by Gary Bogue, a native of the area and a valuable resource on Penn Yan's past. Thanks Gary for a most memorable day.

© 2006, Donovan A. Shilling
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