Finger Lakes History: A Treasure Trove for the Curious Traveler
I have visited many wine regions around the country and would have never imagined that the one that would steal my heart would be located in rural upstate New York, only 5 hours from where I was born in Brooklyn. The Finger Lakes Wine Country region is beloved not just for the quality and variety of their wines, which are delicious, but also because of the communities that make up such an important part of this region’s success. The region has a lot to offer visitors and history buffs will find the area especially fascinating and worthy of exploration.
While some travelers believe that the richness of history only exists in far-flung places like Europe or Asia, which admittedly have many more layers of stories to tell than we do here in the states, I also believe that our history is not only interesting, but too often overlooked and forgotten.Though the outside consensus is that the rural areas of the United States don’t have much to offer the curious traveler, this has not been my experience at all, especial in the Finger Lakes. There are families whom have been here for generations and have endless stories to tell, like Meaghan Frank, the great-grandaughter of Konstantin Frank, a European immigrant who forever changed the landscape of winemaking in the Finger Lakes and across the country. To know the Frank history is to understand the evolution of Finger Lakes wine. Pleasant Valley Wine, the oldest winery in the Finger Lakes having survived everything from the Civil War to Prohibition, houses a wonderful catalogue of wine history in the region from 1860 to date.
And that is just two wineries among so many that have contributed to the area’s wine history.
But there is so much more than wine to learn from. Here are some of my highlights:
A strong Native American heritage
One of the most meaningful historic sites that I saw during my very first visit to the Finger Lakes was the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, NY. This site was once the most important Seneca towns in the 17th-century. It is now a center for education on arts, culture, and history with a focus on the full-sized replica of a bark longhouse where the Iroquois community once lived in peace for 350 years until it was destroyed in 1687.
The beginning of the Women’s Rights movement
In Seneca Falls, NY visit the Wesleyan Chapel where abolitionists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both anti-slavery activists and feminists, hosted 200 women for the very first Women’s Rights Convention which in effect kicked-off the women’s suffrage movement in the United States on July 19, 1848. It was here that Stanton wrote The Declaration of Sentiments, which took the Declaration of Independence to a whole new level by adding the word “woman” or “women” throughout. She also petitioned New York Congress to pass the New York Married Women’s Property Act. It would be 18 years after her death that women would gain the right to vote, thanks to that fateful meeting in the Finger Lakes. Visit the Women’s Right National Historic Park to learn more about the Women’s Rights Convention of 1848, when it all started. Also, visit the Women’s National Hall of Fame.
In Owego, NY there is a beautifully restored home from 1815 that was once the residence of Belva Lockwood who served as the Principal of The Owego Female Seminary, which was what the house served as at the time. She would later sell the home and pursue other ventures in D.C., such as becoming the first woman to be admitted to the Supreme Court Bar in 1879 and becoming the first woman to run for President of the United States both in 1884 and 1888. The home is now the Belva Lockwood Inn and visitors to Owego will not only be spoiled with a wonderful stay by owners Julie and Ike Lovelass, but you will also be walking away fascinated and a bit miffed that you had never heard of Belva Lockwood before nor of her life-long fight for equality.
When in Corning, NY stop in Card Carrying Books and Gifts to learn more about the women’s rights movement in and around the Finger Lakes and how they are contributing to the feminist movement in the area. Browse through their selections of progressive and feminist reading in every topic from parenting, education, and other social issues.
Pioneers of The Underground Railroad
In Auburn, NY, about an hour and a half from Corning, you will find the Harriet Tubman home. There are two restored buildings on the lot; a former home for the elderly and a brick house. It is here that Harriet lived and died as a free woman. She acquired the house through an illegal purchase made possible by then U.S. Senator William S. Seward who lived in the area. The house is one of the many links in the underground railroad, a 500-mile network of homes and businesses that assisted Tubman and other abolitionists in helping slaves escape to freedom in the North before and during the Civil War. The city of Auburn itself had a very active and free black population. Also interesting to learn was that Seward, who forever remained a huge supporter and advocate for Tubman and the underground movement, had run for president against Abraham Lincoln and was the one to convince Lincoln about abolishing slavery. On the same night of Lincoln’s assassination, Senator Seward also experienced an attempt against his life but survived the stabbing.
Though there isn’t a lot of documentation on all the locations that made up the Underground Railroad, cities such as Elmira were known to have had provided access to freedom for many slaves through its then powerful railway system which had the only stop between Philadelphia and Ontario and the Chemung Canal. Because of this, Elmira became known as the gate to everywhere.
Elmira is a complicated city historically speaking with having had a reputation as being home to the cruelest and most inhumane prisoner of war site during the Civil War, while also being home to the Woodlawn National Cemetery, where thousands of confederate soldiers who died in the prison camp are buried. That their remains are still there and buried so meticulously was all due to John W. Jones, a former slave who took it upon himself to bury them with the respect and honor that no confederate soldier would have shown him in turn.
“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” said Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.” (Quote source)
Like Tubman in Auburn, Jones was instrumental in helping in the escape of runaway slaves through Elmira.
Also in Elmira, you can take a Mark Twain tour and learn more about this world-renowned author, visit the studio where he wrote his most celebrated works, and even visit the gravesite where he and his family are laid to rest, also in the Woodlawn National Cemetery.
Visitors can get a sense of what travel along the Chemung River was like during Colonial times while paddling on a Voyager canoe which was used by fur tradesmen and travelers looking to settle throughout America. The tour is available through Southern Tier Kayak Tours.
Birth of Aviation
I had a moment where everything I thought I knew about aviation history, or rather, everything I have been taught about aviation history, was revealed to be only partially true.
Turns out, in fact, that Glenn H. Curtiss has been an under-appreciated pioneer in aviation with his more influential competitors the Wright Brothers having taken more of the glory. Incredible what powerful marketing can do. Before the Wright Brothers, he held the first officially witnessed flight in North America with a pilot’s license #1 in the U.S. Because he got his start in bicycle and motorcycle racing and manufacturing, his museum Glenn H. Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport has a beautiful collection of not just his aviation masterpieces, but also his two-wheel inventions.
Another must-visit for aviation history fans the National Soaring Museum in Harris Hill. The history of motorless flight started in Elmira when Harris Hill hosted the National Soaring Competition held in the 1930s. Gliding becomes even more important when it became a specialty program during WWII. This location remains the Soaring Capital of America and visitors can tour the museum as well as take rides over the fields and landscape of Finger Lakes, weather permitting.
These little historical gems are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to significant figures in history and the many powerful stories that have unfolded in the region throughout the centuries. Searching for these stories will lead you to all sorts of points of discovery where you will see a new place, maybe even a new lake and get to know the Finger Lakes for more than just what it serves in drinks and how it has influenced so much of our lives today.
All photography is property of the publisher and may not be used without consent. All opinions are my own.