Print Friendly and PDF

Pioneer Settlement

From 1790 to 1820, at least 800,000 people moved into or through Western New York. Many settled in the Genesee Country.

After the American Revolution, when land in Western New York opened up for settlement, men and women left their rocky farms in New England and moved west. Pennsylvanians and Marylanders migrated from the south.

The pioneers who rushed to clear and develop this rich frontier were all hoping to improve their lot. Some would turn back. Some would be struck by Genesee Fever, a form of malaria. Some would move on to Ohio and Michigan. But many would stay

They sought out land agents, choosing from unsold parcels, eagerly making down payments for acres, and beginning to tame the wilderness. To make their titles good, they eventually had to produce and market a surplus of field and forest products. Theirs was to be a commercial, not a self-sufficient economy, and in the coming years, they would turn to the villages for the assistance of merchants, craftsmen and professional men to form a vibrant society.

The roads had to keep up to accommodate the increasing trade these settlers brought with them. The New York Legislature authorized a road to be surveyed in 1794. By 1807, there were turnpike companies slated to cover 3,000 miles throughout the state. Some 40 hamlets and villages in the Genesee Country were providing economic services and other community functions by the 1820s and 30s.

The pioneers by necessity were resourceful, self-sufficient and independent. Their homes, like the functional Hetchler and Kieffer Houses seen in the Pioneer Settlement, were modest, with simple gardens and crops to grow basic food. None of the early settlers could foresee all that lay ahead in the Genesee Country — the dynamic changes that would come about during the growing years of the Republic.

Campbell House

Campbell House

built c. 1806, Caledonia, NY

This house was originally located on Spring Street, about two miles from GCV&M, just north of the Village of Caledonia.  The timber framing is somewhat unusual for the Western New York area. It is a series of eleven closely spaced H-shaped frames with no lengthwise timbers between the sill and the plate at the top of the wall. This framing technique is typical of the Dutch tradition and is found in New Jersey, and along the Hudson River from New York to Albany.

Otherwise, the house followed the “English” tradition, with a large central chimney and a floor plan of two rooms on each floor. The framing of the wing (on the right end of the house) is “post and beam,” which is the more usual method in the area.

The house was considerably modified over the years. In 1857, the house was remodeled in the Greek Revival style. The central chimney was removed, the front door was moved to the left gable end, the roof of the wing was raised, new front stairs were installed and the floor plan changed. Remarkably, with all these changes, much of the original structure survived, including siding, flooring, windows and some interior trim.

The museum is restoring the structure to its original design. The Peter Campbell House remains a work in progress as we are able to show visitors the various stages of house building. There will also be exhibits of the tools and techniques of timber framing, finish carpentry, window making, masonry, plastering, etc.

Col. Nathaniel Rochester House

Col. Nathaniel Rochester House

1797, Dansville, NY

In 1810, Col. Nathaniel Rochester left his comfortable circumstances in Hagerstown, MD, to move north to the 155 acres in Dansville, NY, that he had bought on his first trip to the Genesee Country in September 1800. The perilous 275-mile journey north through almost impassable mountains took three weeks.

On horseback the Colonel led a procession of carriages bearing the younger children and women of the household and three great Conestoga wagons with household goods, his 10 slaves and some of his neighbors who came along to help. The Colonel moved north, he said, "to escape the influence of slavery, to set his slaves free and to rear his family in a free state."

In Dansville, Col. Rochester purchased from David Scholl a plank house, believed to have been built around 1797. Now at Genesee Country Village, evidence revealed during its 1989 restoration suggests it may have had a dependent structure — in which case, the Colonel's large family and the contents of the Conestoga wagons would have been less crowded.

Once settled in Dansville, where he had purchased most of the water rights on Canaseraga Creek, Col. Rochester erected a large paper mill and a gristmill. In the meantime, he began to survey the 100-acre tract at the falls of the Genesee River that he and his colleagues had purchased in 1803, and which contained the ruins of Ebenezer Allan's primitive mills.

After five years in Dansville, Col. Rochester moved to a large farm in East Bloomfield, NY, and continued his work laying out what would become the Village of Rochester. In 1818, he and his family finally moved near the falls into a house with a large garden and grounds sloping down to the river. In 1824, he erected a brick house on higher ground where he resided for the rest of his life.

Kieffer House

Kieffer House

built c. 1814, Rush, NY

Like Nicholas Hetchler, whose one-story log house anchors the Pioneer Farmstead, Martin Kieffer moved from a settled area of southern Pennsylvania to carve a farm out of the Genesee Country wilderness. And like Hetchler, he built his dwelling of logs, using the same dovetail-like joints favored by the Pennsylvania Germans.

Kieffer's house is a full, two story home. The house contains eight rooms, its regularly spaced window and door openings forming a symmetrical facade. An enclosed stairway opposite the front entrance leads to the second floor.

At an early date, lath and plaster were applied to the exposed beams of the ceilings, the interior of the log walls and the first floor beaded partitions. At about the same time, the exterior of the log walls was covered with clapboards, accounting for the present excellent condition of the squared timbers. Since they disguised the early condition and character of the building, all these improvements were removed during the restoration process.

Kieffer's two-story log house was located near Honeoye Creek in the Town of Rush in Monroe County and lay in the path of the Genesee Expressway (now Interstate 390) during its construction. The New York State Department of Transportation, recognizing the structure's rarity, made it available to the museum in 1974.

Pioneer Farmstead

Pioneer Farmstead

Hetchler log house - built c. 1809, interpreted 1820, Scottsville, NY; 

Early framed barn - built c. 1820, Ontario County; 

Log smokehouse - built c. 1810, Monroe County

Corncrib - reconstruction

On the lea of Flint Hill, just below the village, are seven structures serving the needs of the pioneer farm family. The squared oak timbers of the one-room log house were laid in about 1809 by Nicholas Hetchler, who first settled in the Genesee Country in 1787. Dovetail joints where the timbers overlap at the corners are typical of log house construction in Hetchler's native southern Pennsylvania. A portion of one wall of solid stone masonry that provides a fireproof back for the hearth is characteristic of other early log homes in the Genesee Country, as is the clay-lined wooden chimney.

Carving a farm from a wilderness, the settler used his ax to clear the native forest. Logs not needed to build his cabin could be burned to give him his first cash crop — wood ashes from which he could prepare potash. Grain could be sown between the stumps. With a snug cabin, enough plain food for his family, some winter feed for his livestock and a little cash to buy the essentials he could not produce himself, the pioneer farmer in the Genesee Country had made a modest beginning.

The log house was presented to the museum by Arthur Burns, whose family had occupied it for nearly a century in its original location just outside the village of Scottsville, NY. The excellent condition of the logs results from their long confinement within either frame additions to the house or clapboards applied to the exposed exterior walls.

Contemporary accounts and inventories of similar log homes document the simple furnishings with which the house has been provided. Open-hearth cooking and other activities are demonstrated daily at the Pioneer Farmstead during the museum season. Visitors will also find typical farm animals — chickens, pigs and cows — running freely or secured in pens that were part of the farmstead.

Blacksmith Shop

Blacksmith Shop

built 1830, Elba, N.Y.

He might have been preceded by the innkeeper and the storekeeper, but the blacksmith was the first tradesman to set up shop in the emerging village. He supplied goods and services basic to the welfare of any early community, large or small.

Even the tiniest hamlet included at least one blacksmith. The smith shod horses, made hardware, repaired wagons and plows — everything of iron that the farmer or the villager could not repair himself. His trade was often combined with that of the wheelwright, with whom he might collaborate in making wagons and carriages.

Levi Rugg, whose shop is now in Genesee Country Village, was engaged in the two related occupations — smithing and wagon repair. His wagon shop was handy to the cobblestone blacksmith shop, then owned by blacksmith William Bradley. And Rugg's own smithy was across the street from Bradley's. This congestion of like and competing enterprises was common in the world of the blacksmith, and illustrates some of the economics of the early 19th-century village. There may not have been a blacksmith shop on every corner, but in the average village there were more blacksmith shops than cobbler shops.

Rugg eventually bought the cobblestone shop, moved his operations into it, and ran a general blacksmithing business there until his death in 1875. Two succeeding smiths worked in the shop until well into the 20th century.

Rugg's shop from Elba, N.Y., is representative of a nearly unique regional architectural expression — the cobblestone building. Beginning in the 1820s and until around the middle of the century, cobblestone structures were built in western and central New York State by the hundreds.

The carefully selected stones came from two principal sources — the shores of Lake Ontario and the drumlins left by glacial retreat. Students of cobblestone architecture recognize distinct phases in the art — from the first simple coursing of medium-sized cobbles, to the later patterned coursing of small and sometimes specially shaped cobblestones. The Rugg Blacksmith Shop, typical of the earlier phase, was built about 1830. The inside walls are rubble masonry.

Brewery and Hop House

Brewery and Hop House

Brewery (Reconstruction) c. 1803 appearance; Geneva, NY

Hop House Built c. 1870, Greece, NY

When the Scottish nobleman Thomas Douglas, the fifth Earl of Selkirk, was traveling and observing industries across New York State  in 1803, he visited Geneva, NY. There he found 13 distilleries and one brewery. Douglas prepared drawings and descriptions of the brewery, situated on the western shore of Seneca Lake and owned by Walter Grieve. Douglas’s detailed records were the basis for the design of the reconstructed 19th-century brewery at the museum. 

Genesee Country Village & Museum is the only museum in the United States to showcase a working 19th-century brewery. Its 1803 themed brewing demonstrations rely on gravity during much of the process, with liquids either pumped by hand or ladled into troughs throughout the building. From the pump logs that move water and wort to the dry barrels that hold the malted grain and the wooden mash rakes, everything in the brewery has been crafted by hand—including the 250-gallon copper brew kettle. Portions of Rochester's old Enright Brewery (closed in 1907) and an early timber-framed structure near West Bloomfield, NY, were merged to form the present building.

Beer was a welcome supplement to the pioneer's basic diet. But among all the choices of alcoholic drinks in the early 1800s, beer was not particularly popular. Instead, many Americans preferred to quench their thirst with homemade hard cider, perry (fermented pear juice), spruce beer or one of several distilled drinks—whisky, rum, gin or brandy. Virtually all Americans, regardless of age, gender, race, class or religion, consumed distilled and fermented beverages.

Despite the growing number of breweries in New York in the early 1800s, hop culture was slow in taking root. By 1850, however, New York State was a leading producer. Once harvested, hops were stored in a two-story hop house like the one at the museum, built in the 1870s. Two furnaces helped dry the hops. Once dried, they were packed in barrels or bales before shipping.

Land Office

Land Office

built c. 1835, Alloway, N.Y.

The success of some Genesee Country land agents was not matched by other large-scale speculators in wild New York lands. Among the long-range losers were Oliver Phelps, his partner Nathaniel Gorham and Philadelphia banker Robert Morris.

Land speculation was a hazardous business. Absentee landlords were soon disenchanted when their expectations for quick profits from wholesaling large tracts to land-hungry investors proved wishful.

Resident-agent Capt. Charles Williamson recognized that to boost sluggish sales, he would have to sell modest parcels to individual farmers. To expedite such sales, Williamson enlisted sub-agents to establish offices in other regions of his territory and to set about making "improvements." But time ran out on the freewheeling Williamson, and he was replaced with a more conservative and practical promoter, Robert Troup.

One of Williamson's sub-agents, who Troup retained, was 24-year-old Henry Towar. By 1794, he had built a gristmill, sawmill and clothiery (for carding and dressing spun wool) on the Canandaigua Lake outlet — and raised a log house for his land office.

First known simply as Towar's Mills, the settlement was renamed Alloway, after Towar's birthplace in Alloa, a town near Edinburgh, Scotland. When Towar arrived in Alloway, unimproved land was selling for $2 an acre and money was scarce. Payments could be made in wheat delivered to the gristmill.

With help from his brothers and sons, Towar prospered in Alloway. He built a handsome house. His village, strategically located on the main road connecting Sodus Bay on Lake Ontario with Geneva on Seneca Lake, seemed destined for importance. But the Erie Canal, and later the railroad, bypassed Alloway, which subsided into a quiet rural hamlet.

Toward the end of his active career, Capt. Towar erected a smart little Greek Revival building for his land office. When its days as a land office ended, it served as a doctor's office, a butcher shop and a filling station. Today, it has reassumed its first purpose and has been provided with the tools of Capt. Towar's trade — maps, charts, ledgers, a letter press, a safe and surveying instruments.

Quaker Meeting House

Quaker Meeting House

built 1854, Wheatland, N.Y.

By 1803, a number of members of "The Religious Society of Friends," commonly called "Quakers," arrived from New England to settle a few miles north of Canandaigua in the small community of Farmington N.Y., where they organized a "Monthly Meeting." The following year, some of the Farmington Quakers moved to land just west of the Genesee River in the present Town of Wheatland, Monroe County. They were soon joined by other Quaker families from Chenango County in central New York. The "Wheatland Meeting" was organized and, in 1825, a small frame meeting house was put up. A cobblestone meeting house followed in 1834.

Some buildings are simple in the extreme. The interior of the meeting house (which has separate entrances for men and women) was divided by partitions that could be opened or closed, depending upon whether the men or women were to meet separately or together. The hard wooden benches have been reproduced from surviving examples of originals. Facing the seated congregation is a stepped platform across the front of the meeting house, where the older Friends sat. Two stoves, two wood boxes and two sets of shelves for books completed the interior arrangement.

The meeting was "laid down" (to use the Quaker term) in 1873, when the size of the congregation dwindled, and the structure was converted to farm use. In 1967, it was conveyed to the museum by Mrs. Richard Field, a descendant of one of the first Wheatland Friends.



built 1822, Rush, N.Y.

Genesee Country settlers from New England brought with them a century-and-a-half-old tradition of public education. In 1788, the Adams family from New England built a log house along the trail leading from Canandaigua to the Genesee River. James Sperry, an early settler of Ontario County, recalled that when his family arrived in the same area in 1794, there was already a school near the Adams residence, kept by Laura, one of the Adams daughters. "The next spring," Sperry recounted, "a seven by ten log schoolhouse was built one and a half miles southwest."

Sperry also recalled that, in 1797, "a young man with a pack on his back came into the neighborhood ... and introduced himself as a school teacher from the land of steady habits; proposing that they form a new district, and he would keep their school." When his proposition was accepted, he helped build another log schoolhouse. "In this school," Sperry fondly remembered, "most of us learned for the first time that the earth was round." The promulgator of that heresy, who went on to become Justice of the Peace, a member of the legislature and a Congressman, was Micah Brooks, who gave his name to the Livingston County hamlet of Brooks Grove where once stood the church now on the square at Genesee Country Village.

Not all schools and scholars were lucky enough to have uninhibited and inspiring teachers like young Micah Brooks. Most teachers were only lightly qualified, having received little, if any, professional training. In some instances, teachers were held in low regard; in other cases they might stand next to the parson in the respect of the community. The wages for male teachers were from $8 to $20 a month; for the women, they were from $4 to $10. Teachers of either gender were boarded around the district, some getting along well enough, others nearly starving.

It was in such schoolhouses as the one-room building on the slope below the village that a great majority of Americans received all their formal education in the early 19th century. At times, as many as 60 pupils crowded into a single room. A child might enter when he was 3 years old. By 7, he was studying grammar. Then he would learn to write and how to "do sums." When he reached 10, his attendance was apt to be irregular, since he was then old enough to work on the farm. In some districts, there were two terms, winter and summer, the winter term nearly always was taught by a man, the summer term by a woman when the men often were engaged in farm work.

The long benches and rude desks in the Red Schoolhouse (c. 1825, from near Avon, N.Y.) have been reproduced in accordance with evidence found beneath overlays of wallpaper and paint on the wooden wainscot. The high homemade desk on a raised platform affords the teacher a position of authority.

Shaker Trustees' Building

Shaker Trustees' Building

built 1839, Sonyea, N.Y.

In 1776, the Shakers founded their first community at Niskayuna (now Watervliet) near Albany, N.Y. There, rejecting the ideas of personal property and predestination, they followed Mother Ann's teaching: "Hands to work, hearts to God." Visitors to Shaker revival meetings spread the word, and other Shaker communities were begun throughout New England.

During the early years of the 19th century, the Shaker movement spread westward through upstate New York, Ohio and Kentucky. In 1826, a small Shaker community was founded at Sodus, N.Y., on a broad bay of Lake Ontario graced with rich soil and protected from unseasonable frosts. The announcement of a proposed canal through Shaker lands alarmed the Believers (who preferred to live apart from "The World"), and they sold their property to the canal company in 1836.

The next year, the Society purchased more than 1600 acres in the Town of Groveland in Livingston County, at a site the Native Americans called "Sonyea," or "The open spot where the sun shines in." This was far from the worldly influences of the proposed (but never developed) canal back at Sodus. Ironically, within a short time, "The World" floated right past the Shakers on mule-hauled boats as the Genesee Valley Canal was constructed along the edge of the new Sonyea colony.

At Sonyea, the Shakers developed a community of some 30 buildings, including a meeting house, mills, shops, barns and residences. But in 1892, the Sonyea colony, reduced in numbers, closed its doors and its members moved to the Shaker community at Watervliet, N.Y. New York State purchased the vacated property to use it as a center for the treatment of epilepsy. In 1984, the New York State Correctional Department took over most of the old Shaker settlement, at which time Genesee Country Village & Museum acquired the Trustees' Building.

The structure at the left in this old engraving of the Shaker colony at Sonyea is the Trustees' Building, one of the first to be built when the Shakers moved to the new site in 1837. For half a century, the building was the headquarters and residence of the colony's officials, both male and female. A kitchen and dining room were on the ground floor; the top floor served as an infirmary. In the office and store on the first floor, the Shakers conducted their business with "The World."

On the first floor of the restored building, a Shaker "store" has been replicated, based on illustrations accompanying 19th-century magazine articles about the Shakers. Other rooms contain excellent examples of Shaker-made furniture and artifacts. On the grounds, is a vegetable and medicinal herb garden with plants similar to those propagated by the Shakers for their seed business.

Toll House

Toll House

built c. 1850, Lima, N.Y.

Over the "Genesee Pike" traveled tens of thousands of settlers, some staying to take up land in the Genesee Country, others going on to Ohio and Michigan. More importantly, agricultural produce could now reach the Albany market, bringing cash and a greater promise of prosperity to the Genesee farmer.

Turnpikes and side roads alike were dirt, made as level as possible by removing stumps and stones, and by plowing, scraping and filling. In the rainy spring, the roads were muddy and barely passable; in the hot summer, they were dusty and heavy with sand; in the wet times of the fall, rutted and muddy. The best season to travel was when there was enough snow to use sleds and sleighs. Large and sturdy bobsleds carried massive loads of freight over the frozen and snow-covered roads.

Maintenance of the toll roads was the responsibility of their proprietors. Originally, public highways were constructed by the land companies to encourage settlement, agents for the companies offering settlers land in exchange for work on the roads. Later, when the roads were taken over by the state, they were maintained by laborers hired with road tax money or by farmers who preferred to work out their road tax with labor.

The Rochester and Hemlock Lake Plank Road Company, organized in 1850, ran one of many plank roads in the Genesee Country. The 23-mile roadway enabled teamsters to draw heavy loads of timber to the sawmills and lumber yards in Rochester.

However, the plank surfaces did not hold up long under the heavy wear from the iron tires of the wagon wheels, the iron horse shoes, and the decay from the weather, and they soon required repair and rebuilding. Most plank roads were abandoned by the end of the Civil War period.

The c.1850 Toll House at the threshold of the Genesee Country Village was the southernmost of the two Rochester and Hemlock Lake Plank Road Company tollhouses that flanked the village of Lima in Livingston County. The toll keeper, his wife, three children and a boarder shared its two rooms, kitchen and loft.

Heirloom Breeds...

Farmers needed livestock to work their fields, cows and hogs to provide dairy and meat, sheep for wool, and barns and sheds to house the animals. A number of animals inhabit the Village, including oxen, jersey heifers, hogs from England, and sheep from the Virginia coast. Considered a critical breed, the Village’s Hog Island sheep are descended from a semi-feral flock established on Hog Island, Virginia, in the 1700s. Today, these hardy sheep can still be seen at the Pioneer barn. The Pioneer farm yard also houses waterfowl, many of them heritage breeds threatened species. There are tufted Roman geese and cotton patch geese, Cayuga ducks, and several species of chickens.

...and Seeds

Surrounded by fields and pastures, gardens and orchards, barns and stables, Genesee Country Village & Museum features crops and animals grown and raised by settlers in rural 19th century New York.

Corn was the first reliable cereal crop the pioneers could produce on the land. But they soon discovered the fertile soil of the lower Genesee was best suited to cultivating wheat. The settlers planted flax and hemp for the production of clothing, oats for animal feed, and tobacco for their personal use. Today, corn, wheat, tobacco, oats, and rye can be seen in the fields near the Blacksmith Shop, while flax is grown behind Town Hall. The Village also grows heirloom vegetable varieties, including Danvers Half Long carrots, early Jersey Wakefield cabbages, and China Rose radishes at Jones Farm Garden.