NUNDA — The Nunda Area Historical Society recently hosted a tour down the Genesee Valley Greenway, sharing the history of the small towns that grace its path.
The Genesee Valley Greenway is one of hundreds of greenways developed across the nation to enhance the old canals, abandoned rail beds, and riverbanks. It passes through scenic woodlands, river and stream valleys, rolling farmlands, steep gorges, and historic villages located in 16 towns in Monroe, Livingston, Wyoming, Allegany, and Cattaraugus counties.
Nunda Area Historical Society President Tom Cook gave a presentation at the history museum called “Ramblings Through History: Genesee Valley Greenway and the Town of Portage” on March 13.
Cook focused on Nunda, Oakland, Short Tract, Portage, and Letchworth State Park.
The area got its humble beginnings from the Seneca village called Onandao. In time the villages would be shifted around the valley in the 1700s. One of the most famous stories connected to Native Americans in the area revolves around that of Mary Jemison. Her late 1700s cabin is still honored within Letchworth State Park today.
Cook said the Hunters Hollow was one of the first settlements in the area in the early 1800s. Messengers Hollow would become Oakland in the 1850s. This too was one of the earliest settlements in the area.
“Once the Genesee Valley Canal came in the settlements had everything they needed coming to them, so the little towns were booming,” Cook said.
One of the most fascinating stories of the area involves a murder in 1865. Cook said that Henry Devoe was a wealthy man in the 1860s.
“Henry Devoe is a part of the Portage history, because of the way he died. He was a wealthy farmer who was boasting about his money in a local bar. A man named Henry Wilson broke into the house, and was standing at the foot of the bed with a gun. He told Devoe that he wanted the money. Devoe told him he had no money,” Cook said. “Wilson shot Devoe and killed him in his bed. He ran out of the house, and there was a $300 reward for his capture. This kind of thing never happened. Henry was caught just as he was about to get on a train, and taken to Geneseo Court.
“The trial was on the front page of the newspaper. The account of the murder was given in great detail. It was discovered he was a mass murderer, since he killed two other people. Henry was a drifter,” Cook continued. “It didn’t take long for them to make the decision to hang him. Hundreds of people gathered in the cold to watch him be hung. In those days parents would take their children to watch the hangings.”
They left the body of Henry Wilson hanging for about 35 minutes before putting him in a coffin. Journalists were able to take photos of his dead body in those days. While in jail Henry Wilson wrote his life story. After his death his body was on exhibit in a local storefront for the public to see until it disappeared. To this day no one knows what became of the murderer’s corpse.
Cook mentioned the canal route and locks through the area in the 1830s. It was prominently built by Irishmen in that time frame, and they had to cut through the hills to get the canal built in time.
“The Deep Cut ditch is one of the most amazing things ever built,” Cook said. “It is 73 feet deep and 400 feet wide. The Irishmen were the ones who built the canal, and many of them stayed in town after it was built. They kept the locks going from Nunda to Portageville. If you are from the area and have Irish blood, chances are your family goes back to the canal days.”
One of the most famous taverns in the area was first owned by Prosper Adams, who sold it to William Marks, who sold it to Philip Burroughs. This homestead/tavern now belongs to the Willett Family. It is considered one of the most elegant homes in Portage.
Another prominent landowner of the day was George Williams. He was a land agent in the early 1800s who lived in a log cabin. He tussled with the Seneca village at the time, and they became lifelong friends. Williams was once the Oakland Post Master, but gave up the job to Russell Messenger of Messenger Hollows.
Perhaps one of the most infamous properties owned by George Williams was the Cascade House. At a time he owned property at Letchworth State Park, but this property was eventually sold to William Letchworth. Williams wanted to turn that area into another Rochester-type metropolis.
Cook told the history of the Camp Portage, which was chosen to train the Civil War soldiers for two months. Afterwards more than 400 of those soldiers died in war. It was determined that a soldiers picnic would take place to honor the survivors, which lasted every year until 1940 when the last soldier, Charles Peck, passed away.
If you visit the Parade Grounds now you will see a giant monument that was put there to honor the Civil War soldiers in the 1930s. There is no photo of the camp itself in its day, but a local man was paid to take photos of the soldiers.
John Failing Barber bought property in Short Tract from George Williams in 1820. This would became the Barber House or Chestnut Place. Barber made all of his money in the oxen and lumber business. This home passed hands in the family until 1992. It was turned into a tenant house until eventually being vacant. It is now sitting in decay in Short Tract as a reminder of a time long ago.
Becky Stephens brought a photo taken by a woman in Hornell of the Barber House to share at the program. Stephens lived in the old Barber House when she was five years old.
“I still remember living in that house when I was a child. We were not allowed in the back part of the house. I remember a giant cherry wood staircase in the front entrance. My family rented the house in the 1990s,” she said. “I went back to see it again last year, but it had been badly vandalized. The cherry staircase has been stolen from the home. There are big holes in the floors, and it is all falling apart now. Everything is gone inside that house now.”
Stephens said she wished she could buy her childhood home back and restore it to its original glory.
The Nunda Area Historical Society is raffling off a rare Mary Jemison painting by Robert Griffing for $5 a ticket or five tickets for $20. The drawing will take place June 12. The big summer event takes place July 18 with a society trip to Chautauqua Lake. The society will leave at 8 a.m. and return to Nunda at 6:30 p.m. Anyone interested in going can contact the museum. The trip includes a ride on the Chautauqua Belle, chicken barbecue, and a trip to the National Comedy Center in Jamestown. The next program at the museum is April 14 at 2:30 p.m. with The Charlie Chaplin Mutual Film Comedies by Dennis James.
The Nunda Historical Society is located at 24 Portage Street in Nunda. It is open every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon and the first Sunday each month from 2 to 4 p.m. You can call 585-465-0971 for any questions or visit http://www.nundahistory.org