Special Report


The roots of the women's suffrage movement can be located here: in Seneca Falls, the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated, with Susan B. Anthony) is a historic landmark. Of the right to vote, Stanton declared: "Have it we must." (Library of Congress)
"Imagine the luxury of it," Mark Twain (in his study near Elmira, 1903) wrote of the area's appeal. (Mark Twain Archive, Elmira College)

How New York’s Finger Lakes Inspired American Notables

New York’s breathtaking Finger Lakes district has influenced historical figures from Mark Twain to Harriet Tubman

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Not far from his house, Beck leads me to the park's Gardeau Overlook, above the home of Mary Jemison, a European captured and adopted at age 15 by Native Americans in the mid-1700s. Jemison eventually married a Seneca and raised seven children along the Genesee. Today Seneca leader G. Peter Jemison, 61, a grandson eight generations removed, lives some 35 miles northeast of Letchworth at Ganondagan State Historic Site, within the town of Victor (pop. 11,474). Before European settlement in the late 1700s, Ganondagan was home to some 4,500 Seneca who lived in 150 bark longhouses. Thanks to Jemison and his fellow tribe members, a full-scale replica of a longhouse was erected and opened to the public at Ganondagan in 1998.

"We wanted to give people a sense of how our ancestors had lived," he says. The longhouse, 65 feet long, 20 feet wide and 25 feet high, is fitted with four smoke holes in the roof. Elm bark covers outer and inner walls and the roof. The floor is made of pounded earth. Dozens of raised platform beds line the walls. An assortment of gourd bowls, baskets woven from wood strips, corn-husk mats, fur blankets, snowshoes and lacrosse sticks are stored on ledges reached by notched wooden ladders. A bark-skin canoe hangs from the ceiling.

Jemison describes himself as a "faith-keeper," whose duties include organizing dance performers and banquets for festive and religious occasions. "Members of your clan ask you to become a faith-keeper, and the only choice you have is to say you are ready, or not yet," says Jemison. "I was only ready when I was 50."

Lately, the Finger Lakes have drawn other keepers of faith as well—Amish and Mennonites seeking to preserve a way of life that took root centuries ago. Since the early 1970s, some 600 younger families of these devout Christian sects have moved here from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in search of affordable farmland and residences. Their red barns, silver silos and white fences have brought vitality into local agriculture. In Penn Yan (pop. 5,119), a village on the northern end of Keuka Lake, horse-drawn carriages now clip-clop through leafy neighborhoods.

"We complain that our horses eat us out of farm and home, but we hear that gasoline has gotten really expensive," says Mennonite Pauline Weaver, owner of a country store, Weaver-View Farms, renowned for its quilts. Pauline's husband, Ken, manages the family’s adjoining 200-acre dairy farm. Pauline moved here from Pennsylvania in 1989 to instruct Mennonite children at a traditional one-room schoolhouse. "My goal was to be an old-maid schoolteacher," says Pauline, who wears a white bonnet, ankle-length dress and, incongruously, black-top sneakers. But in 1990 she married Ken Weaver; today, the couple has six children. "For us it's not a large family," she says.

Selling a quilt that an artisan has worked on all winter gives her great pleasure, she says—except when a buyer complains that he or she could buy a bed for the $500 the quilt costs. "It makes my blood boil," says Pauline. "They have no idea how much effort went into creating this work of art."

Most of her customers are area visitors who have wandered off the wine trails. Wine-tasting has become the region's most lucrative and popular tourist attraction. In the United States, only California's Napa and Sonoma valleys produce more wine than the Finger Lakes region. Long underrated, local vineyards have begun to garner international attention.

Château Renaissance is a small winery owned by Patrice DeMay, a 48-year-old French expatriate, at the southern tip of Keuka Lake. In France, says DeMay, bureaucratic regulations stifle small businesses. Here, he can label his bottles "champagne," an appellation reserved in France for the sparkling wines of the Champagne region east of Paris. "One French tourist even threatened to report us to the French Embassy," says DeMay. "I told him to go ahead." DeMay has little cause to worry. He sells only 4,000 to 5,000 cases each year, none destined for France. Although the United States now recognizes French claims over the champagne designation, DeMay and other longtime U.S. producers have been exempted by a grandfather clause.

Some of DeMay's equipment is so antiquated that replacement parts have to be custom-made, some by a workshop at the Corning Museum of Glass, in Corning (pop. 10,608), 15 miles west of Mark Twain's studio. Sheathed in glass and flooded by sunlight, the museum draws 325,000 visitors annually to see its collection of more than 40,000 glass objects representing 3,500 years. Some even include hieroglyphs and sarcophagus inlays, all made of glass excavated from sites along the Nile. "Many more ancient Egyptian glass pieces have survived than from the Middle Ages, because in ancient times people were buried with these objects," says curator Tina Oldknow.

For almost a century, until the market for decorative glass declined in the 1960s, Corning was the epicenter of fine glass-cutting in America. Crystal chandeliers, vases and wine glasses from its workshops graced post-Civil War country estates, including the Sonnenberg ("Sunny Hill") Gardens and Mansion in Canandaigua (pop. 11,363), some 70 miles northwest. Here, between 1885 and 1919, banking magnate Frederick Ferris Thompson and his wife, Mary Clark Thompson, built a 40-room Victorian mansion and nine formal gardens on 52 acres showcasing a wide variety of gardening styles.


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