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NSG Visit September 6, 1997

Legends from the LeRoy House


Donovan A. Shilling

The early morning rains had cleared away to sunshine when 23 members of The New Society of the Genesee met on September 6, 1997 to tour The LeRoy House, the fine old mansion and headquarters of the LeRoy Historical Society at 23 East Main Street, just one block east of the bridge on Route 5 spanning Oatka Creek.

The building is large and nearly square, with smooth-plastered walls and the roof ridge parallel to the street. The end gables and eaves are trimmed in the classical manner. There are three south-facing windows above, and two large windows below on either side of a classic Greek one-story entrance porch whose deep entablature is supported by four Doric columns arranged in pairs.

After viewing the outside, we entered the central hallway where Lynne Belluscio, director of the museum and our guide for the day, invited us to be seated in the front parlor. There Lynne told us the history of the house and described its many features.

She told us that in 1793 Herman LeRoy, a wealthy New York City importer and land speculator was a partner in the purchase of approximately 85,000 acres of land from Robert Morris. This tract, in the shape of a triangle, extended south from two points along Lake Ontario. LeRoy had also with various partners bought other parcels of land for what became the Holland Land Company tract.

There is no record that Herman LeRoy ever visited his holding. An existing settlement along Oatka Creek was named in honor of LeRoy in 1813. About 1822, on the site of the original land office, he had built for his son Jacob this residence that also contained rooms for carrying on business. The front room across the central hallway was the office for the land sales and later for a banking business. Behind it was a strong room, and behind it, stairways leading up and down. The dining room is in the back corner; the kitchen is in the basement. There are other storage rooms in the cellar and bricked vaults once used for land-office records.

The front and back parlors on the east side of the house, where we were seated, have fireplaces and broad windows. Between the rooms is a wide passageway with flanking built-in closet and cupboard spaces. Both sitting rooms are filled with early furniture, including an 1879 Steinway piano, and many curios.

Across the back of the house there was a wide veranda with, at one time, two long, latticed galleries extending back from the house enclosing a courtyard. Beyond the courtyard was a flower garden and farther back was a vegetable garden and an orchard with fruit trees. Jacob had the gardens planted, and a high stone wall built to enclose the gardens and the house, soon after his arrival.

On the second floor there is a wide hallway and four corner bedrooms, one of them furnished as a nursery. This morning, sunlight shown into the children's room and the hallway and other front bedroom through wide windows. The house had been designed, and is now furnished for comfortable living.

The LeRoys, who were of French Huguenot descent, are remembered for their hospitality and generosity. Mrs. LeRoy had studied music abroad and she played the organ at St. Mark's Church. Jacob built a grist mill on the creek in 1826. His brothers Edward and Daniel also came, Daniel opening a store in the village, and Edward farming for awhile at Canawaugus. There is the tradition that their sister Caroline Bayard LeRoy visited and that Daniel Webster came to see her. Legend says that they did their courting on the mansion's back veranda. They were married in 1829 and did return to LeRoy for a grand reception.

When the land was all sold, Jacob LeRoy and his family returned to New York City. He sold the house to his friend, A. F. Bartow, who further improved and beautified the place. Bartow sold it, ten or so years later, in 1856, to Dr. Samuel Hanson Cox, who had been invited by the Ingham sisters, Marietta and Emily, to be the chancellor for their Ingham University. The reverend gentleman walked about the village spouting Latin and Greek, Lynne told us, causing some of the villagers to take a skeptical view of him.

The Inghams had started their college in the Bayard mansion just across the wide avenue from the LeRoy house. Ingham University was the first women's college in the United States to confer a four-year degree. At one time it was ranked with other outstanding women's schools, but later the school declined and closed.

Dr. Cox sold the house, in 1865, to the LeRoy Academic Institute and it was known for many years as the "Academy Boarding House. " Later it became a residence again, then a boarding house, and now, fittingly, it is headquarters for the LeRoy Historical Society. Many of the portraits hanging in the rooms were done by Phineas Staunton who was the husband of Emily Ingham. Paintings of both Marietta and Emily hang in the parlors.

Behind the LeRoy Historical Society headquarters is the Jell-O Exhibit Gallery, reached by the "Jell-O Brick Road" sidewalk. Inside, the exhibit, "Jell-O Jubilee," celebrates with posters and displays the 100 anniversary of "America's Most Famous Dessert. " In the year 1897, Pearl B. Wait, a carpenter and part-time patent-medicine man, concocted a fruit-flavored dessert using gelatin to which his wife May gave the name Jell-O. He sold his patent to a fellow LeRoy townsman, named Orator Frank Woodward in 1899 for $450. Woodward who also sold patented remedies, Kemp's Balsam, Lane's Cold Tablets, and Raccoon Corn Plasters, had formed the Genesee Pure Food Company to produce and sell his coffee substitute Grain-O. Sales of Jell-O were slow at first but with national advertising they reached one million dollars by 1906, the year Woodward died. His wife Cora Talmadge Woodward took over as president. The family changed the company name to Jell-O Company, Inc. in 1923 and then sold in 1925 to Postum Cereal by an exchange of stock that began the formation of General Foods Corporation.

After we had visited the Jell-O Museum our group followed Lynne Belluscio on a car tour of nearby sites connected with the Underground Railroad. From the LeRoy House, which had been the home of Rev. Samuel Hanson Cox an outspoken and widely-known abolitionist, we passed the location of the store where Seth Gates had argued against slavery. Then we travelled along Berndt Road, East Bethany Road, and Keeney Road, mentioned in accounts of the escape route. We stopped at the Langworthy Cemetery, then drove by the stone house where Elijah Huftelen lived. He had helped Daniel Macdonald aid the fleeing slaves, and he wrote booklets about the Underground Railroad that were published around 1900. We then drove on past the Selden homestead and the J. R. Anderson house which are associated with people who assisted the fugitives. The Society has a handsome and informative folder with pictures and a map titled "The Underground Railroad in LeRoy. "

Following our ride we all ate lunch at the Creekside Restaurant in a long dining room with the stone walls of an old mill, and windows overlooking the dam and millpond on Oatka Creek. Joann Minor made all the arrangements for our delightful LeRoy visit.

© 1997, Donovan A. Shilling
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