Every so often, I love to check out the little towns of Western New York. As I travel southeast I find that some towns still flourish, but nostalgia fills me for those that are no more: I mourn for them.
There may be a name on the map or roadside sign indicating where they were, but the main streets have been replaced by truck stops, ugly as sin, or chain stores, each more boring than the last. These little centers of civilization defined the way we were when we were modest, humble people, before progress complicated things.
The Holland Land Company's plan for this area granted large tracts to people who were capable of building both a lumber mill and a flour mill. The early settlers shaped out of the earth and water everything they needed to live in the physical world. They had to create the very roads they traveled on. This became the nexus of a village, an infrastructure. I am sure they never thought about it, but while they were going about this, they fashioned the tissues of our society, the traditions, the culture. Love of country and a willingness to suffer for it were nurtured.
A nice example of this is the story of Eli Griffith, who was one of 10 brothers. He settled along the banks of Wiscoy Creek, especially desirable because there is an average drop of 17 feet to the mile, making a mill site possible every half mile. For this he was granted the area including Pike Village.
Besides building two mills, he became the justice of the peace and a pathmaster, whose job it was to "brush out" roads. This involved felling trees, pulling stumps and collecting brush to fill in the low spaces. Logs were then laid on top and eventually gravel completed the chore. Records were kept and settlers served at road building in lieu of taxes.
During the War of 1812 when the British burned Buffalo, Griffith mustered militia and marched north to our aid. Can you imagine this fellow running two mills, holding court and brushing out roads, dropping everything and whipping a militia into shape so they could walk all the way to Buffalo to help us? On the way back the poor guy drank some bad water and died intestate, too busy to make out his own will. His story comes from the writings of Robert French in "Historical Wyoming" in Warsaw.
Another tale I like to tell is the one of the 136th New York Volunteers in the Civil War. At one point the counties of Allegany, Wyoming and Livingston were called upon to enlist a regiment at Camp Williams, a temporary site in Letchworth Park. Men from all the little towns and hamlets in those counties poured in, reaching the 1,000 needed in a few days. Soon another full regiment, the 136th, was enlisted here; including my great-great-uncle John Ryan, 18, fair-haired, blue-eyed and slim. Music and picnics saw them off. Trains took them to Washington, D.C., but from there on they walked.
They wintered in Virginia, mostly doing picket duty on the Rappahannock River. This was the muddy season and these slim youngsters had to pull ordnance that was stuck up to its axles. Sanitation was poor and many died of cholera, including my young uncle. They were at Chancellorsville, then Gettysburg, eventually marching with Sherman all the way to the sea, at one point covering 454 miles in 64 days.
Returning home with little fanfare they resumed farming. These men and the little towns that produced them are inspirational.