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THE HISTORY OF THE HAMLET: MORE THAN JUST A NAME ON A MAP

They had names like Johnny Cake Ridge, Noodletown, Cabbage Patch, Big Job, Poverty Ridge and Robbers Row.

Niagara County's vanishing hamlets were not even big enough to be incorporated into villages. They were the close-knit communities of early pioneers, named after the settlers themselves, the homelands they left behind, ethnic heritage, their poverty, current endeavors, hopes and dreams.

Cabbage Patch was an Irish shantytown off Highland Avenue in the current City of Niagara Falls, said former county historian Dorothy Rolling, who has researched the history of hamlets.

Noodletown was a railroad crossing in the Town of Wheatfield where trains picked up wheat bound for mills to be processed into noodles and pasta.

Johnny Cake Ridge, in the current City of Lockport, was named after early settlers who used large amounts of cornmeal, according to Rolling. The hamlet of Elberta in the Town of Wilson was named for the Elberta peaches that trains would pick up and transport to packing houses.

"These hamlets were the crossroads of Niagara County," said Rolling, who is now historian for the Town of Niagara.

"They were the hubs of pioneer communities in the days when businesses, schools and churches were within walking distances of their homes."

Several hamlets literally were crossroads, like Molyneaux Corners, Warrens Corners, Comstock Corners and the still-bustling Wrights Corners, each named after the settlers who first put down roots there.

Rolling said when she was county historian, she would come across the names on old maps and saw the importance of preserving them.

"Someday these places won't even be on maps," she said. "I've tried to identify them, put them in a geographical area and explain their origin."

Rolling's dossier on the "Crossroads of Niagara County" is now a permanent document in the county historian's office in Lockport.

Compiling the list and locations of hundreds of hamlets that were scattered throughout the county's 10 towns, along with explanations on their origins and strange names, was a big job, she said -- much like the now vanished hamlet of Big Job.

The northeastern corner of the Town of Lewiston was swampland when settlers in the early 1800s set out to put a road through there. Today, Moore Road is just another small stretch of asphalt in a huge county, but building it was a big job, Rolling explained.

The City of Lockport had its own unique hamlets or districts, where the names speak for themselves. In Mutton Flat, on what is now East High Street, early settlers raised sheep. Blue City was an early 1900s settlement of Polish laborers who helped build the Erie Canal and the locks.

"It was a honky-tonk and a rough place," noted John Hall, a Lockport apple grower who is researching the history of hamlets in the town. "They were good workers though."

Lowertown is still a distinctive part of the City of Lockport -- a section of it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places -- but Robber's Row, Johnny Cake Ridge and Rattlesnake Hill have become lost in time.

One of the more vibrant hamlets in Niagara County was Rapids in the southern end of the Town of Lockport. It was named after the fastest-flowing section of Tonawanda Creek, which had been designated an Indian fishing ground by Joseph Ellicott of the Holland Land Co., which surveyed most of Western New York.

Today, it's a picturesque bedroom community just over the Tonawanda Creek Bridge in Niagara County. Jay Roszman, 84, a decorated World War II veteran, lives on Tonawanda Creek Road, next-door to what used to be his great-grandfather Peter's blacksmith's shop. His grandfather, Frank, made wagon wheels in the shop, and his father, Donald, went back to blacksmithing. Roszman took over the business after he got out of the Army and built truck bodies. Today, the building is a welding and repair shop run by his son, Jeff.

Roszman and his wife, Audrey, sit on their front porch, under the shade of the maple and black walnut trees, and remember the Rapids of yesteryear. "Many of the old residents have passed on or moved to Florida," Audrey Roszman says wistfully.

"Oh, that Mabel," reminisces Jay Roszman, "she was a good girl."

Mabel ran the local tavern, when Rapids was a rollicking mill town.

Claude Dietz's father, Oliver, ran the cider mill, which is now an abandoned building on the bank of Tonawanda Creek across the street from Roszman's house.

"I have many fond memories of Rapids," said Dietz, who worked in the cider mill and now lives with his wife, Suzanne, a mile up Rapids Road. "We miss the people."

From one end of the county to the other, hamlets and people have disappeared.

About 150 years ago, there was a South Pekin. Today there's barely a Pekin, a hamlet squeezed between the sprawling towns of Lewiston and Cambria.

"People settled here in 1809, and it became a thriving community," said Marcia Rivers, who was raised in Pekin and still lives there.

There were several shops, taverns, a hotel, church, school, post office, fire hall and a blacksmith's shop.

"There were four main hubs of activity in Pekin," said Rivers. "The church, the school, the fire hall and the Grange, a family-oriented fraternal organization."

Pekin was a station stop from the 1830s to the 1850s for the Strap Railroad, which ran from from Lockport to Niagara Falls -- first horse drawn, then a steam engine.

In 1864, the post office moved to South Pekin, the name of which was changed to Sanborn, after the Rev. Ebenezer C. Sanborn, pastor of the Methodist Church. Today, residents of the hamlet of Sanborn, unlike Pekin, still have their own post office.

In 1856, there were 43 post offices across Niagara County, including Pekin and South Pekin, said Vernette A. Genter, the first and current historian of Niagara County's first town, Cambria. Today there are 15 post offices in the county, plus five in the City of Niagara Falls.

"When the school closed and became centralized with other area schools, life in Pekin changed dramatically," Rivers said. "We lost that sense of community."

The fire hall and the church -- Hope United Methodist -- are still there, but little else from the old days. Schimschack's Restaurant now commands the prime location, with a panoramic view of the Niagara escarpment, the reason for the hamlet's original name of Mountain Ridge. In 1831, the name was changed to Pekin, and even Rivers, who is the deputy historian for Niagara County and historian for the Town of Lewiston, doesn't know the origin of the name.

At least Pekin survived. Many pioneer hamlets in Niagara County are gone, swallowed up by the cities and towns.

The Town of Cambria's Molyneaux Corners at Ridge Road (Route 104) and Plank Road, just west of Route 93, was a regular stagecoach stop during the 1800s with as many as 12 coaches a day passing through. It was the site of the Molyneaux Hotel, built in the early 1800s, which burned down in 1928.

William Molyneaux was the first postmaster in the Town of Cambria. Today residents of Cambria get their mail in Lockport

Today, the once-bustling corner contains the Ridge Family Restaurant & Tavern, two or three old houses and a closed antique shop. The settlers it was named after are buried in Molyneaux Cemetery, just west of the intersection.

The United Methodist Church, which was built in 1832, is the only substantial vestige of the hamlet of Warrens Corners at the intersection of Routes 93 and 104 in the Town of Lockport. It was named after Ezra Warren, who came to the Niagara Frontier to fight in the War of 1812. The century-old Warren's Corners Country Shop is an abandoned shack with wooden barrels and wagon wheels still perched on the verandah.

Amateur historian Hall, who owns Hall Apple Farm in the Town of Lockport, has the handwritten diaries of his great-great grandfather, great-grandfather and grandfather. A sixth-generation link, Hall's son, Robert, works on the apple farm.

Hall's great-great grandfather, Titus Hall, and Titus Hall's nephew, Sylvester Flagler, became early settlers after walking from Greenwich in Washington County just north of Albany to Lockport in 1826.

"There are a lot of stories about hamlets like Rapids," Hall said. "It was a colorful period of time that is now lost. The communities now are little more than names on a map."

e-mail: bmichelmore@buffnews.com

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