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

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

"It is the loveliest study you ever saw," Mark Twain wrote to a friend about the octagonal hilltop pavilion his in-laws provided him in 1874. Located at Quarry Farm, just outside the town of Elmira in northwestern New York, Twain's aerie commanded ravishing views of farms and hills retreating into blue mists. To the north lay Seneca Lake, one of 11 slender bodies of water that give the Finger Lakes area its name. "When the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightning flashes...and the rain beats upon the roof over my head—imagine the luxury of it," Twain exulted.

The author spent 20 summers there. Five mornings a week, after a breakfast of steak and coffee at his in-laws' house, he would tuck a bundle of papers under an arm and trudge up the hill to his study. Puffing away on cigars, he wrote as many as 65 pages a day by hand. It was here that Twain wrote much of his two masterpieces, Tom Sawyer, published in 1876, and Huckleberry Finn, in 1884. (The pavilion was moved to nearby Elmira College in 1952.)

Twain is but one of many historical figures linked to this fertile 4,692-square-mile corner of New York state, anchored on the north by Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, and on the south by smaller cities such as Corning, Elmira and Ithaca. A short list of other notable names includes the women's rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton; banker Frederick Ferris Thompson and his wife, Mary Clark Thompson, who oversaw the creation of one of the nation's great gardens; William Pryor Letchworth, a manufacturer turned pioneering environmentalist who restored a deforested wasteland into the graceful state park bearing his name; and Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who led scores of runaways to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Driving north from Twain’s pavilion near Elmira (pop. 30,073), I pass century-old stands of oak, and fields of corn stretching to the horizon. At an overlook on Seneca Lake, I see why the Iroquois believed the Finger Lakes were created by the Great Spirit's hands as he spread them upon the land to bless it. Geologists offer a more prosaic explanation: ice age glaciers gouged the terrain as they advanced and retreated millennia ago. In the early 1800s, the watery network they created became the basis for the Erie Canal system connecting the area to the Hudson River and New York City. "When the canal opened in 1825, this region became the nation's breadbasket," says local historian Frances Dumas.

Manufacturing and commercial wealth followed. Twain, as it happens, had married into one of the richest Finger Lakes families. His wife, Olivia, was the daughter of Jervis Langdon, a shopkeeper turned millionaire coal merchant. Like many local entrepreneurs, Langdon held socially progressive views. A fervent abolitionist, in 1838 he offered shelter in his home to a runaway slave, the future intellectual and political leader Frederick Douglass. To Twain, "whose own father had abused and sold slaves and helped send abolitionists to prison, the Langdons were a revelation," wrote Geoffrey C. Ward and Dayton Duncan in their 2001 Twain biography, Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography.

Some 70 miles north of Elmira, near the far end of Seneca Lake, I arrive at Seneca Falls (pop. 9,412), where Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) sounded the call for equality of the sexes. She and her husband, Henry, moved to this mill town in 1847. Their modest house at 32 Washington Street, where the Stantons raised their seven children, is now a museum full of such curiosities as a plaster cast of the interlocking forearms of Elizabeth and fellow suffragette Susan B. Anthony.

For Elizabeth Stanton, accustomed to Boston, Seneca Falls came as a shock. The dearth of intellectual and cultural life left her, she said, with "mental hunger." She was appalled by the domestic violence among her neighbors. "If a drunken husband was pounding his wife, the children would run for me," she recalled. Only a year after moving here, Stanton joined local women and their spouses over tea to discuss ways to "remedy the wrongs of society and of woman in particular." On July 11, 1848, they placed a notice in the local Seneca County Courier newspaper, announcing "a convention to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of Woman" at Seneca Falls on July 19 and 20.

At the convention, 68 women and 32 men passed all 11 resolutions before balking at the one calling for women's suffrage—a privilege then not granted anywhere in the world. "The right is ours," Stanton told the conventioneers. "Have it we must. Use it we will." In the end, the measure was approved, probably thanks to Stanton's friend Frederick Douglass, who convinced the gathering that without their passing the right to vote, Congress would never grant the other rights they sought. Today, Wesleyan Chapel, where the convention was held, Stanton's house and other properties constitute the Women's Rights National Historical Park.

At the time Stanton was battling for equality, just 15 miles east, on the edge of Owasco Lake in the town of Auburn (pop. 28,080), Harriet Tubman was championing another great crusade—the end of slavery. Herself an escaped slave from a Maryland plantation, Tubman made 19 clandestine trips to the South to lead some 70 slaves to freedom. When the Civil War ended in 1865, she moved into an Auburn house provided by her friend William Seward, a passionate abolitionist and secretary of state for both Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson. Tubman would live there until her death, at age 93, in 1913, eking out the funding to turn the house and its 26 acres into a nursing home. "In the last five years of her life, she opened her home for sick and elderly former slaves," says Christine Carter, the guide at the Harriet Tubman House, a 1952 replacement for the original.

William Pryor Letchworth had unlimited means to underwrite his passion—the environment. Having amassed a fortune from the manufacture of metal components for harnesses and wagons, the lifelong bachelor retired at age 48 to his country house, Glen Iris, to devote himself to philanthropy. In 1906, in a move that outflanked an electric power company wanting to build a dam on the property, he donated 1,000 acres for a preserve that would become Letchworth State Park. Located 35 miles south of Rochester, the park (which adds slivers of land to this day) had incorporated most of its 14,392 acres by the early 1930s. During the Great Depression, the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees here by the tens of thousands. Letchworth State Park stretches 17 miles north to south, but averages only 1 mile in width. Its axis is a gorge carved out by retreating glaciers and deepened by the Genesee River. At some points, the height from riverbed to gorge summit reaches 600 feet, earning the park the sobriquet "The Grand Canyon of the East." Three impressive cataracts punctuate the river. The Lower Falls lies at the base of a 127-step stairway down the gorge. "You can see why they are my favorite falls," says park manager Roland Beck. "Most visitors never make it down here." Beck lives year-round at Letchworth with his wife and three children, in a house on a bluff overlooking the Genesee, miles away from the nearest community. "I have no neighbors, but some people don't consider that a minus," he deadpans.

How New York's Finger Lakes Inspired American Notables
"Imagine the luxury of it," Mark Twain (in his study near Elmira, 1903) wrote of the area's appeal. Mark Twain Archive, Elmira College

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.

After her husband's death, Mary traveled the world collecting new landscaping ideas. The Italian Garden’s fleur-de-lis-shaped flower beds are planted each year in 15,000 annuals. The Rose Garden contains several thousand new and antique cultivars in shades of crimson, pink, white, yellow and peach. But the Blue and White Garden—featuring pale lilies, forget-me-nots, larkspur and delphinium growing next to a veranda—is more intimate. "This was Mary's favorite," says Sonnenberg horticulturist Dan Camenga.

The Thompsons and their Finger Lakes estate were products of the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain and the title of the 1873 novel he wrote with Charles Dudley Warner. The phrase evokes the conspicuous consumption of the post Civil War newly affluent. Yet the Thompsons epitomized an even smaller elite, characterized by a distinctive vision and a passion for experimentation, attributes they shared with such major Finger Lakes figures as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William Letchworth—and Twain himself. Perhaps it has to do with something in the water.

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