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NSG Visit May 27, 2006

Erie Canal Brockport


Donovan A. Shilling

Members of the New Society of the Genesee were up early Saturday, May 27th to visit notable historic sites in Brockport, New York. Twenty-two members met at the Morgan-Manning House, 151 Main Street, to begin a tour arranged by Richard Reisem.

First, some historical background on the home and its owners: In 1846, Dayton Samuel Morgan and his partner, William H. Seymour, were operating a foundry in Heil Brockway's young village on the Erie Canal. They were approached by Cyrus McCormick to produce one-hundred of his newly invented reapers designed to harvest wheat. Before this a few early machines had been built by blacksmiths. When McCormick's patents ran out, the foundry continued to manufacture reapers—producing up to 3000 harvesters a year even before the firm moved to Batavia.

Also some trivia: Mr. D. S. Morgan was related to J. P. Morgan, and Mr. Jonathan Dayton, another partner with Morgan, had a city in Ohio named for him. Additionally, the D. S. Morgan Building in Buffalo was "the first steel framed structure in Buffalo."

For the beginning of our tour, we were met by Don Rensinger who guided us through the Morgan-Manning brick carriage house and showed us the horse accommodations—both straight and box stalls, the tack room, veterinary cabinet and grain bins. Iron lion's head posts cast in the owner's foundry were a part of the stalls' design. Two original surreys are also preserved in the barn. The handyman's room and other artifacts were on the second floor. Notable was the 130-year-old carriage house's clear-span construction that allowed it to be free of interior posts.

From the carriage house we walked to the front entrance to the Italianate Morgan-Manning House complete with its domed belvedere. Eunice Chesnut, historian for the Morgan-Manning House, greeted us. She is both charming and witty and a devoted interpreter for the house. As she took us through the rooms and hallways she explained the care taken to restore the the house to it appearance when the Morgans and the Mannings resided there. Dayton Morgan's daughter, Sara Morgan, the last of his seven children, married Dr. Manning, the village physician and a respected member of the community. Sara lived in the 1856 house until her untimely death due to a disastrous fire in 1964. The house, too, had suffered severely from the fire. It has been through the dedicated efforts and financial support of the members of the Landmark Society and the Western New York Historical Society that it has been so well restored and preserved. Even a remarkable, Da Vinci-like painting has been applied to a parlor ceiling. Many original artifacts and other period pieces furnish the house which is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Today the Morgan-Manning House is home to the Western Monroe Historical Society.

At noon we walked to the Merchant Street Smokehouse where we ate lunch on a porch adjoining the Erie Canal. While at lunch Richard Reisem introduced us to SUNY Brockport professor emeritus, Bill Andrews. A former village historian and author of two books on the village, Bill had a wealth of information to share. He told us stories of Brockport and challenged us with two of his own theories: He stated that "the defining moment in American history in the 19th century was the opening of the Erie Canal," and that the introduction of the reaper gave the North an advantage in the Civil War.

Mr. Andrews claims that the entire nation owes much to Brockport as being the major western terminus on the Erie Canal in 1823 until the construction of the whole canal could be completed in 1825. The canal fed many of the two million immigrants who came to this country on to the west and insured that those newly settled territories west of the Appalachians would be free states.

Additionally, he asserted that each reaper released five farm hands for service in the Union Army. More men available in the North overpowered the Confederates. Bill noted it was Brockport that made all the difference because of its importance on the canal and the reapers that were manufactured in Brockport.

Following lunch Mr. Andrews led our group on an architectural tour of his village. He first showed us the newly created canal-side facilities to accommodate boats touring the Erie Canal. He then pointed out the many fine details in the building facades of Main Street's historical commercial district. He proudly told us that the village had been selected as "A Preserve America Community" only one of five in the state. In the near future additional restoration will take place along Main Street making it even more attractive.

We thanked Bill for his tour, noting his enthusiasm and knowledge. We'd even learned from Bill that there are 263 communities that border the Erie Canal and that the canal is still crossed by sixteen lift bridges—one in Brockport!

© 2006, Donovan A. Shilling
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