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It's taking a park to find rowing magic anew; Old First Ward legacy warms families' hearts

A new park that will open Tuesday in the Old First Ward is a verdant homage to a rowing club that was a flourishing community hub and turned out some renowned athletes in the 1880s and the 1920s.

Mutual Riverfront Park features a brick boathouse that resembles the one from the old Mutual Rowing Club, which stood nearby, and a building for the Waterfront Memories and More Museum. The 1.3-acre park will open with a public ceremony at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

The park sits on land that the New York Power Authority bought in 2009 to store its ice boom. With input from Valley Community Association Executive Director Margaret "Peg" Overdorf and then-Assemblyman Mark J.F. Schroeder, now the city comptroller, the Power Authority abandoned its plans to simply lay the ice boom along the shore and instead hid it behind a decorative wall and invested $2.3 million in the neighborhood park.

For descendants of the champion rowers who made South Buffalo proud, the park is an apt salute to the championship rowing teams and the neighborhood that supported them.

The Mutual Rowing Club members "would just walk their boats across South Street near Hamburg and put them in the water," says Jack Driscoll, who treasures the 1920 city championship silver trophy won by a team that included his father, Dennis Driscoll. "And it's come full circle now, they are doing it today again. You see crews in the Buffalo River, which we call 'the crick.' "

The second Mutual clubhouse at 150 South St., built in 1891 after the first one burned, had design elements that are reproduced in the new boathouse, including a semicircle sunburst design over the doorway.

In meetings with the Power Authority, Overdorf says, she requested that the building be a replica of the old building that had been the center of so much neighborhood activity.

The building next to the boathouse will include displays and research materials from Waterfront Memories and More at 208 Elk St.

"There are many, many people interested in the area, so that's why we wanted to put the museum there. They can come in and research their family history and genealogy," Overdorf says.

In the museum, she says, "we plan to feature different shows about every three months."

Volunteers are already stepping forward to allow the museum to be open more than two days a week, she says, and "we have tied in with the Fordham University and Buffalo State College graduate museum studies programs, and they are going to help us with the layout and the features, and make it a little more professional."

Joan Graham-Scahill, who works at the museum, grew up two doors away from the Mutual Club and is the granddaughter of William P. Sullivan, who once served as president of the club.

The nearly forgotten rowing boom that gripped the city around the turn of the century involved hundreds of competitors and thousands of spectators. "There were about 22 rowing clubs that we've come up with, but at the end the three big ones were Mutual, Celtic and Light House," Graham-Scahill says.

Many of the men who rowed for Mutual were also grain scoopers who worked long hours, six days a week. The rowing club may have been sponsored by the men's employer, Mutual Grain Elevator. Driscoll says, "The Mutual Elevator was owned by Pillsbury, and it still stands there on Ganson Street."

The Hoffstetter family also cherishes an ornate silver trophy won July 4, 1905, by a four-man crew that included Henry Hoffstetter. Although Gert Hoffstetter said her father-in-law died before she married his son, she heard about him from her sisters-in-law, his daughters.

"They were very proud of him and what he had accomplished," she says. Their aunts also kept the memory of Henry Hoffstetter alive for Gert Hoffstetter's children, Joe, Robert "Ollie" and Ellen Keane. "My aunts used to talk about it and remind us that the clubhouse was at the foot of Hamburg Street," says Joe Hoffstetter. "We knew that rowing was a very big thing back in that era."

Driscoll's father regaled him with stories of the club. "It went far beyond the rowing," he says. "They had picnics and dances there. My father told me they used to have waltzing contests there, where they would mark the heels of the dancers with chalk, and if a chalk mark hit the floor, you were out of the contest."

His father also shared stories of how the men prepared for races, Driscoll said:

"He told me there were two flights of stairs in the Mutual, one up and one down, and they used to run up and down the stairs as a way of conditioning. Now this is really reaching, but he also told me they used to run to Angola every Sunday, they would run between two telephone poles and walk to the next one, then run to the next two, all the way to Angola."

Two of the top athletes to come from the Mutual Club were Willy Aman, who competed in Philadelphia and New York in the 1880s, and Edward "Algie" McGuire, who won the nationals in 1923 in Baltimore, Graham-Scahill says. "They would say they would race against anybody but Willy Aman; that's how good he was," she says.

"It's important that somebody from this area, and from down at the crick, ended up winning a national singles rowing championship," Joe Hoffstetter says.

As society changed and more people had cars, the rowing craze waned. "The last Mutual regatta we found was in 1924, but they were still rowing after that," Graham-Scahill says. "I have a cousin who remembers them being out on the water, and she's in her 80s."

Graham-Scahill recalls the old clubhouse, abandoned and decrepit, being torn down in the 1940s.

Now the Mutual name is resurrected on a handsome sign over the main entrance to the park, adorned with crossed oars.

The park paths are made with environmentally friendly water-permeable pavers, the plantings are native and there is a rain garden to collect runoff. The park features walking paths, a wall around a small courtyard for seating and chess tables. Six interpretive signs on large blocks of Medina sandstone from the site tell the story of the neighborhood, the grain elevators, its industry and the Mutual Rowing Club.

A neat path leads to a kayak and canoe launch. Although the launch is not large enough to handle racing shells, they will pass the park from the nearby Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Club.

The opening of Mutual Riverfront Park will usher in an active week for Overdorf and other people involved with the Valley Community Association. The second Buffalo River Fest to be held on the water, at Buffalo River Fest Park, runs Friday through Sunday at the park on Ohio Street near Michigan Avenue.

The festival, which will include music and other entertainment, food and drinks, crafts and merchandise, runs from 6 p.m. to midnight Friday, 9 a.m. to midnight Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Rides on the Edward M. Cotter fireboat will be available at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; to reserve a spot, call Overdorf at 823-4707, Ext. 2.

Rowers from the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Club will race in sprints Friday evening, with viewing available from the boardwalk at River Fest Park. From noon to 3 p.m. Sunday, rowers will revive an old-fashioned type of race that would have been familiar to Mutual rowers and fans. They will drop an anchor with a stake tied to it into the river off River Fest Park, then race down, turn around the stake, and return to the starting point.

"It's very hard for the big long shells to make the turn," Overdorf says, "so that should be exciting."

Jack Driscoll and the Hoffstetter family are delighted with the new park, which revives memories of their ancestors' glory days. "This means wonderful things are happening over there," says Gert Hoffstetter.

Neil Keane, husband of Ellen Hoffstetter Keane, said, "Rowing fell by the wayside for a number of years. Now it's back."

email: aneville@buffnews.com