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NSG Visit May 1997

Genesee Country Village

Scenes of Life 150 Years Ago

Re-creating a Nineteenth-Century Village

Donovan A. Shilling

On a bright Saturday morning in May 1997, twenty-six members of the New Society of the Genesee met at the Genesee Country Village & Museum, purchased pink entrance tags, and entered the exhibit area by way of the Flint Hill Country Store. We were greeted by Peter Wisbey, the museum's Curator of Collections, who gave us a background history of the recreated 19th-century Village and of the Gallery of Sporting Art and the Nature Center.

John L. Wehle, president of the Genesee Brewing Company, America's seventh largest brewery, had the inspiration in early 1966 to assemble existing buildings from western New York to represent a village from the last century. Mr. Wehle engaged people who had an appreciation of the accomplishments of the people of the last century and who also had a thorough knowledge of the living styles of that period, to search out choice buildings, acquire them and bring them to his property in Mumford where they were placed as they might have been 150 years ago in a rural community. Peter explained that the first buildings were situated around a square patterned on early Pulteney Square in Bath, New York.

Finding these representative buildings, restoring them to original appearances, and furnishing them must have been an engrossing and satisfying work. Stuart Bolger, who oversaw all the collecting and refurbishing, still comes to the Village almost every day. Furnishing the buildings appropriately was the accomplishment of Doris Hoot.

The structures were discovered in twelve upstate counties. The project took more than ten years and now includes a pottery and a brewery and a hop house and pioneer barn that have been constructed in the way they would likely have been built at the time the restored houses and shops were first framed. The Village contains 57 historic buildings, and is the third largest museum collection of buildings in America, following Williamsburg and Dearborn Village. It opened in 1976, the year of the bicentennial celebration.

Through the Toll House

Displaying our tags on a button or belt loop, some of our group crossed the Great Meadow with its gigantic bandstand in the center and entered the Country Village through a post house. They were met by a host of costumed helpers, eager to explain the customs and demonstrate the crafts that were a part of everyday rural life before the turn-of-the-century.

Some of our group boarded a green farm wagon with seats and handrails for a ride around the Great Meadow to Hill Street just beyond the hops garden and the Bookseller's shop. Here we went into the Greek Revival-style shop built in 1825 in Rush, New York. The shop now sells all sorts of books related to the history, culinary tastes and the local crafts of western New York in its original time period. We looked them over, purchased a genuine quill pen, chatted with the matron about the unusually pleasant day, then found our way to the blacksmith's shop. Here seventy-two-year old David Trescott was at work explaining to onlookers the skill needed to shape white oak wood strips into notched bands to hold together staves in kegs, pails, barrels and tubs.

George Eastman's Birthplace

We next strolled down a lane simply called "The Oxbow," over to a petite Greek Revival house. The cottage-like structure, dating back to 1847, had been moved from Rochester onto the village grounds in 1979. Originally it had come from Waterville, New York, and had been the home of Maria Kilborne, wife of George Washington Eastman. This small white house was the birthplace of George Eastman, who became well known as a Rochester industrialist.

The home's volunteer guide explained that the house still bore the original painted glass window lights that framed the main entrance door. It also held George Washington Eastman's original diploma written in elegant Spencerian script.

A carpet woven in Scotland covered the Eastman living room floor while a sea grass covering served their dining room, with both types of carpeting being very popular in the 1850s. Numerous other artifacts filled their diminutive home. Catching our eye was an extraordinary quilt finely sewn in what we were told was an "Indian Lake" pattern. We discovered that it wasn't old however, but was sewn together as a demonstration piece by the crafts people working at the Museum.

Our volunteer went on to explain that in 1862, when George Eastman was eight years old, his family moved to Rochester. Shortly after this his father died and his mother slipped into "gentile poverty. " When she opened her home as a boarding house to make ends meet, young George vowed that he'd become successful and see that his mother would never have to work from that time on. That he did!

The Octagon House from Friendship

Just next door, down a lilac-lined lane, stands a remarkable two-story, eight-sided house. It was built in 1870 for the Hyde family. Cost—$250. The handsome, pea green octagon house was transported to the museum in 1978 from Friendship, New York. We learned that such unusual homes were popularized by Orson Fowler (the phrenologist born in Cohocton) who in the 1850's, termed them "a home for all." By 1857 some thousand octagon houses had been built around the country.

Chief among the innovations in Mr. Hyde's four-triangled home were gas fire places, "gasoleer" lighting fixtures, running water, and even an indoor water closet. An ornate Victorian Estes organ is a prominent living room fixture. Next to it a peacock-feather-filled vase signifies good luck and the family's affluence, since, in Victorian times, the display of costly peacock feathers was a conspicuous show of wealth. A shadow box on the dining room wall holds a large hair wreath. Before people exchanged photographs, the gathering of hair from friends and relatives was a common practice. The strands were woven together and displayed as a kind of permanent memory and as a memorial to one's loved ones.

By now it was almost noon. We made our way back to the Flagstop refreshment stand to sit at shaded picnic tables and eat our lunches together. Lillian, Douglas and Sheldon Fisher, stewards of historic Valentown Hall, sat at our table and Sheldon entertained us with a detailed account of the illustrious Dr. Came and his traveling electrical "Science Show."

Our lunch time concluded with member David Minor repeating his presentation given earlier in the day at Rochester's annual Lilac Festival on the origin and travels from Asia to Europe to America of tulips and lilacs. Following David's talk we had the whole afternoon left to examine and admire the houses, shops, work places, gardens and lanes of handsomely recreated Genesee Country Village.

© 1997, Donovan A. Shilling
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