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NSG Visit May 23, 1998

In Yates' Land of Jerusalem


Donovan A. Shilling

It's not every day that one gets to visit Jerusalem, maybe not the holy city, but surely a seat of religion. At the invitation of society member Jane Davis, Historian for the Town of Jerusalem, 24 members of the New Society of the Genesee were rewarded with a day (Saturday, May 23, 1998) that proved both historically fruitful as well as scenically inspiring. We met at Jerusalem's Town offices in Branchport, New York. The solid field-stone building, once a school house, had been transformed into a very serviceable quarters for town business and place to gather historic documents and items of the area's rich past.

Jane Davis greeted us warmly, inviting us inside. Here she showed us the rooms and exhibits, and when we were all seated, distributed maps and other handout sheets to acompany her presentation of Branchport's history. Jane circulated mounted photographs showing sites along the west fork of now Keuka Lake, Branchport homes and business buildings.

Using maps, Jane oriented us to both Captain John Beddoe's 7000-acre purchase and to Jemima Wilkinson's section, about half the size of the Captain's. The Captain's holdings encompassed much of what is Branchport today and surrounded the west finger of Crooked Lake. Jemima Wilkinson's parcel, purchased in 1794, is to the north, near the east side of Sugar Creek. It was here that Jemima wished to "withdraw to where no human foot had entered. " The hamlet of Friend is found within this tract today.

Another of Jerusalem's noted citiaens was one of the "first Americans" SAGOYEWATHA, also known as the Seneca Chief, Red Jacket. He was born near the shores of Keuka Lake in what is now Jerusalem. AHWENAYOHN, his mother, has been remembered with a great boulder as her monument close to Basswood Creek.

Due to an abundance of prime lumber near the lake, the area around what is now Branchport thrived from the 1820s through the 1850s on logging and lake shipping. From the land surrounding Stever's Hill Road logs were slid onto Campbell's Beach. Here rafts were formed, assembled in a natural basin created by a sandbar. The rafts were drawn around the Y of the lake to the Crooked Lake Canal, lowered to Seneca Lake, and then through the Erie Canal to the Hudson, and down that river to Yonkers. There in the ship yards of Paddock & Nichols the tall poles felled in Branchport became masts for graceful river schooners.

Lake boats stopped at a wharf constructed in the Branchport Basin. In 1902 the 65-foot ship, West Branch was launched by the Crooked Lake Navigation Company. Alonzo Springstead helped construct another vessel called the Cricket. Philo Lee was captain of this 85-foot, short-lived boat which burned in December, 1909. Photos of other Keuka Lake water craft can be seen on the walls of Branchport's Town Hall. Jane's husband Gordon has a whistle from a lake boat and he sounded its call along with the blast of a whistle from a steam traction engine for us, supplementing boiler steam with compressed air.

The Episcopal Church, the houses of Thomas and Peter Bitley, Solomon Weaver's brick Italianate home, and the house cut in half for George Weaver's home and the Lyman Beddoe Hotel are still standing today, though several are much changed by time and the remodeling whims of their occupants.

A remarkably clear photograph of the Burtch Brothers Store revealed their store sign advertizing that they carried grocerics, dry goods, wallpaper, and paint. The store carried the name from 1898 to 1970, and is still in business on Branchport's four corners, as the Crooked Lake Mercantile. Another photograph harkens back to the town's old blacksmith shop with its room for bean sorting. A companion photo shows a line of women, seated on high stools, removing any foreign material that had been inadvertently harvested along with the dried beans.

I especially enjoyed the Branchport to Penn Yan trolley pictures. The small trolley car reminded me of Fontaine Fox's famous "Toonerville Trolley. " The eight-mile line, built in 1897, not only provided transportation between the two towns, but also conveyed the young and the young-in-heart to the Electric Park for dancing, picnicking and other high jinks.

Among the photos shown, were those of a disastrous fire that occurred on May 31st, 1893. That's when the basket factory burned as well as Philip Wheeler's wood-working mill and shop. Two tired looking firemen appear in one photo alongside their steam driven engine pumper, that John Topham believes was manufactued by the Silsby Company of Waterloo.

Jane Davis showed us more early photographs: the Episcopal Church in Branchport, nearby Esperanza, Larzelere's Tavern built in 1826, the Botsford stone house and Jemima Wilkinson's house.

Mrs. Joseph E. Florance is the present owner of the Friend's house. She invited us to visit her house. On the way there after lunch near Kinney's Corners our automobiles climbed Davis Road to reach what seemed the zenith of Jerusalem. There we saw a spectacular, panoramic expanse of Keuka Lake and its bordering hills of Spring green which we could continue to view and enjoy as we descended to Branchport. From there our caravan drove up the Guyanoga Valley to Friends Hill Road, and followed it through Mennonite farm country to the Wilkinson House built in 1814.

The Florances bought the house in 1949 and painstakingly restored it. Today wide green lawns surround the three-story forty-by-fifty-foot frame building. Eight-inch-wide rabbeted and lapped clapboards glisten with their fresh coat of white paint.

Rena Florance, alert and lively at 82, welcomed us at the porch door. Within, we saw an 1948 photo of the house devoid of paint yet sound and square. For almost fifty years Rena and until recently her husband Joseph have been stewards of the property, keeping it in a high state of preservation. The house was wired for electricity and many of the floors were stripped of their green paint revealing wide boards of red pine.

Each of the four rooms on the first floor, and on the second floor, of the main house are twenty feet square, and all have a fireplace. A ten-foot-wide main hallway on both floors connects the rooms and are connected themselves at the west end by a stairway with a cross landing just above an exterior doorway at the end of the hall. It is said that Jemima used this landing to address her followers: the men assembled in the lower hall, and the women seated in the upper hall. Jemima had a wonderful retentive memory, could quote almost any passage from the Bible and often held her audiences in awe as she inspired them to lead a righteous life.

Dr. Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr. a former professor at Keuka College and later at Elmira College toured the house again with us. His book Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the definitive story of her life and times, will soon be reprinted by the Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society.

During our tour of Mrs. Florance's house, Dr. Rolf Zerges invited the society members to drive a short distance to Larzelere's Tavern which he bought and refurbished with small changes to serve as a bed and breakfast now titled Olde Tavern Inn. Looking through the inviting and comfortable lodgings in the historic building was an additional treat and finished a full day of learning the history and seeing the magnificent sights of Branchport and its neighboring countryside.

© 1998, Donovan A. Shilling
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