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The Buffalo of Yesteryear: What's with those 'Ebenezer' signs in West Seneca?

One quirk of New York’s cartography is the state’s system of unofficial “hamlets,” or unincorporated communities within towns that do not have their own governments but nevertheless carry distinctive identities.

Some of Western New York’s hamlets, like Lake View and Derby, have their own post offices and thus are part of residents’ addresses. Others, like Cleveland Hill and East Eden, align with school districts and fire departments, respectively. But many are somewhat undefined; their significance is mostly historical.

The intriguingly named West Seneca hamlet of Ebenezer falls in the latter category. “HAMLET OF EBENEZER” signs greet visitors as they drive, ride or walk on Center Road, Seneca Street or Union Road near the Southgate Plaza. Residents can patronize businesses like the Ebenezer Ale House. Ebenezer Brook flows into Cazenovia Creek. An old school building on Mill Road, now used for town and West Seneca Central School District offices, still reads “EBENEZER SCHOOL DISTRICT.”

But what’s behind the funny name?

An old school building on Mill Road in West Seneca, now used for town and West Seneca Central School District offices, still reads “EBENEZER SCHOOL DISTRICT.” (Luke Hammill/Special to The News)

The Town of West Seneca wasn’t incorporated until 1851. But before that – between about 1842 and 1845 – hundreds of Lutheran German immigrants from a Christian group called the Community of True Inspiration settled in the area, according to the town’s official website. They were known as the “Ebenezers.”

The West Seneca Historical Society at 919 Mill Road is now housed in one of the handful of structures that survive from the Ebenezer period.

The West Seneca Historical Society is housed on Mill Road, in one of the few structures remaining from the Ebenezer period. (Luke Hammill/Special to The News)

The Ebenezers, according to the Historical Society’s website, “formed their own governing body and had essentially a communal society where jobs, goods, food and services were given to the community for use by all. The Ebenezers were well-known as excellent farmers and skilled craftsmen.”

The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. The application for the Register noted that it “retains its plain design and floor plan reflecting the lifestyle of the religious community for which it was built.” The application continued:

Streets in this area are laid out in an irregular grid, typical of 19th-century villages and hamlets in Western New York. The building is … a block and a half north of Seneca Street and a block east of Union Road. These streets are two of the town’s commercial thoroughfares, characterized mainly by mid- to late-20th-century auto-oriented development.

Many of the Ebenezers didn’t stay long, decamping for Iowa as population growth in West Seneca encroached upon their lifestyle. But their legacy lives on in the town’s hamlet.

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