Share this article

print logo

History, mystery and good food

Buffalo started in Batavia.

Sort of.

Here's the deal. Or, actually, the deals. The state of Massachusetts sold land it owned in New York to land speculators Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham in 1788. The purchase included about 6 million acres, roughly from Seneca Lake to Lake Erie and from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania line.

Phelps and Gorham were unable to make their second payment on the land, so in 1790, Massachusetts sold some of the same land, 3.75 million acres, the land west of the Genesee River, to Robert Morris, a Philadelphian who was probably the richest man in America.

Morris then sold the land to a group of Dutch bankers, who subdivided it and sold it to settlers. Their company had several offices around Western New York, but in 1815 they opened the Holland Land Office in Batavia, and most of their business was conducted from there.

That building still stands and is now the Holland Land Office Museum, a six-room repository of 11,000 artifacts about the history of Batavia and Western New York.

The least appealing but perhaps most interesting item in the museum is a gibbet, sometimes mistakenly called a gallows. On a gallows, a trap door opens beneath the condemned person who then drops. On a gibbet the rope making the noose around the neck of the condemned extends over the top and is pulled down on the other side, usually by a counterweight. Six men died on the gibbet when it was located in the Genesee County Jail, a few hundred yards from its current site.

The first time it was used, in 1807, the rope broke, and according to a leaflet at the museum, the condemned man "shouted that, because he killed two people he should be hanged again. The Sheriff got another stronger rope, and on the second attempt the rope didn't break." Unfortunately for the photographically minded, the gibbet is located in a room too small to permit capturing the whole thing in a single shot.

The museum includes a room dedicated to Barber Conable, 10-term congressman from the area; a bust of Terry Anderson, a journalist who was raised in Batavia and who was held hostage by Hezbollah in Lebanon from 1985 to 1991; and the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to Charles F. Rand, a Batavia native who was the first person to enlist in the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. He received his medal for action at the First Battle of Bull Run.

Batavia also has a strong connection to novelist John Gardner, who grew up nearby and who graduated from Batavia High School. He's buried in the city's Grand View Cemetery, and one of his major novels, "The Sunlight Dialogues," is set in Batavia. If you go to the Genesee Community College Web page and hunt around a little, you can find the John Gardner Appreciation Page, which includes a map of the city highlighting the novel's primary locations.

Worth a trip, specifically, is the Pok-A-Dot restaurant, just a bit south of downtown. It's an old-fashioned greasy-spoon type of place (not everyone considers that phrase a compliment, but I do) where for $3.45 I had a plate overflowing with two eggs over easy, home fries and rye toast. It's served all day.

In the novel, Batavia Chief of Police Fred Clumly visits the Pok-A-Dot in his attempt to get incriminating information on a character known as the Sunlight Man. The novel includes numerous side stories and long philosophical discussions between Clumly and the Sunlight Man -- as well as visits to such Batavia sites as the New York State School for the Blind, the Veterans Affairs hospital, the Genesee County Jail, City Hall, the First Presbyterian Church and the Richmond Library. A devoted fan of the novel can spend a full day wandering around the city following its plot and characters.

If you're in a wider literary mood, you should visit the Present Tense bookstore, just north of downtown. It's an independent store, the kind now found largely in smaller cities, those too small to attract the big chains. There's a small art gallery on the second floor. On the first floor I found three Gardner titles, a generous selection of other books with local ties, a sizable children's section, and the ambience you'd expect in a small-town business.

Want to know how to get to the bookstore? Get a copy of "Flight of the Darning Needle," a chapbook of poetry by Erica Caldwell, co-owner of the store, and read the last poem, "Directions to the Present Tense" (which might get you lost, since like many poems it deals with a metaphor). The chapbook includes photographs by the store's other co-owner, Darrick Coleman, Caldwell's husband.

Also buried in Batavia -- or maybe not -- is William Morgan, who helped, without trying to, change presidential politics in the United States. Morgan, a Batavia resident, threatened in 1826 to publish a book exposing secrets of the Masons, who at the time had significant political influence. Several presidents (among them George Washington) had belonged to the Masons. Some Masons were alarmed at this, and Morgan was kidnapped and never heard from again.

The uproar over the kidnapping, and probable murder, of Morgan destroyed the Masons as a political force. There's a body buried in the Batavia Cemetery that was once said to be Morgan's, but most historians today believe it is someone else. But there is a 37-foot-tall monument to Morgan in the cemetery.

While in Batavia, make sure to stop in Oliver's -- one of the great chocolate stores in Western New York. It also contains a small ice cream parlor. Being in a mildly wise-guy sort of mood, I pointed to a sign behind the counter and asked for one of the vanilla shakes for 10 cents or hot fudge sundaes for 20 cents. Seems like they've been out of those for decades. So I settled for a $2.40 scoop of cashew-glazed ice cream on a cone. It was worth every penny.


If you go:

To reach downtown Batavia, take Route 33 east. It becomes Main Street. Or take I-90 to Exit 48, go south on Route 98, and in about a mile and a half you'll be on Main. The Holland Land Office Museum is at 131 W. Main St. It's open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday,; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays in the summer. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children, $5 for families.

Oliver's is about a one-minute drive west of there, at 211 W. Main. There's a small shopping mall downtown, just east of the museum, and if you go to the back of the mall and across the parking lot, you'll find Present Tense Bookstore at 101 Washington Ave. To go to the Pok-A-Dot restaurant, go east on Main a few hundred yards and turn south on Liberty for two blocks. The restaurant is on the corner of Liberty and Ellicott.

To find Grand View cemetery, go east on Main another few hundred yards, veer northeast on Clinton, go about a half of a mile. The cemetery will be on your right. Batavia Cemetery is in the southeastern part of the city, along Harvester Avenue.

There's plenty of free parking at all the locations.

There are no comments - be the first to comment