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A History of the Town of Lancaster

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A History of the Town of Lancaster

by Edward J. Mikula

Bowman's Mill, Lancaster

In 1793, the Holland Land Company bought about 3,000,000 acres from Robert Morris. Theophilus Cazenove, agent of the Company, selected Joseph Ellicott to survey the land. He laid the land out in ranges, divided by transit lines. Transit Road follows one of these lines. The east and west boundaries of present Lancaster, according to the Holland Land Company's survey lines, are range 6, Township 11. The Holland Land Company office was first at Clarence Hollow, then later moved to Batavia. The Lancaster area was a part of the larger town of Clarence until 1833, when the Town of Lancaster was created by the New York State Legislature.

Settlement in this region began along creeks and Indian trails which early settlers later used as highways. For this reason, the first settlers came to the town of Clarence near the old Iroquois trail, now Route 5. From there some people moved south to the town of Lancaster, then a part of Clarence. The first settlers in the town of Lancaster were Alanson Eggleston and the Woodward brothers, who settled on Ellicott Creek, where Bowmansville now stands. This was in 1803. In 1807, Edward Kearney and several others built homes near Cayuga Creek, near the present day St. Mary's Street. Shortly after that, Ahaz Allen built the first grist mill on Cayuga Creek where Mook's Mill now stands. These early settlers paid two dollars an acre for the land. The Holland Land Company laid out a road from Alden to Buffalo in 1808, following Cayuga Creek.

The first settlers in the township were of New England origin and they organized the Presbyterian Church in 1818 and built a meeting house in 1832. They came here, attracted by the fertile, level land of this region. One group, including the Blackmans, Peckhans, Bissels, Johnsons, and others, settled on Alden Road (Broadway, U.S. Route 20) near the present Schwartz Road corner. There the first school house was started in 1810 with Miss Freelove Johnson as teacher.

When the War of 1812 came to Niagara Frontier, it spread panic in the little settlements east of Buffalo. Refugees of burning Buffalo fled to Williamsville, Clarence, and Harris Hill. In Cheektowaga, at one outlying farm, the men of Lancaster gathered and kept watch all day and night until the danger of invasion by British troops was gone. The frontier was quickly rebuilt and resettled after the War.

New Englanders continued coming to the area after the War of 1812. Around 1830, there was a new group coming in large numbers. The Germans - a few from Pennsylvania, and others directly from Germany - began coming into the region. They were primarily farmers, although many of them turned to the new industries. The Germans who first came were Protestant and formed a German Luthern Church about 1835, as well as a German Methodist Church. The New Englanders had added a Methodist Episcopal Church in 1837 to the little community.

The area remained a simple farming center. The mill established by Allen and the tavern run by Carpenter near the ford in Cayuga Creek determined the importance of this settlement. All farmers had to come to the mill to have their grain ground. A general store was also started here. The tavern was an important center of community life, and was encouraged by the Holland Land Company which sometimes gave free land to tavern keepers to build along new roads and thus draw new settlers into these parts. In 1823, the United States government recognized the growing community by establishing a post office here, calling it Cayuga Creek.

The next group to come in large numbers were Germans from southern Germany, the Rhine Valley, and the Alsace Lorraine region. Driven out of their land by undemocratic government and crop failure, they came here for a new start in life. They founded St. Mary's German Roman Catholic Church in 1851. Many were skilled craftsmen in wood working and tanning, which added greatly to the prosperity of the community. The Irish came in at this same time, attracted to the area by the jobs on the railroads. They had been forced to leave their homeland by bad government and failure of the potato crop. They settled in the north end of the community, which was for a while known as Irishtown. Later they bought stores and other business enterprises and became leading citizens.

Fred Handel's Blacksmith Shop, Lancaster, 1886

One of the most interesting groups to come to the town was the wealthy Dutch group in 1849, including the Vanpeyma, the Koopman, the Idsardi, the Zuidema, and the Dykstra families, plus their Dutch servants. Merchants in the Netherlands sold their businesses and ships to come to America, bringing with them money to invest in plants here, or to buy farms or stores. They have left a record of the trip in a diary, a typescript which is now in the Buffalo and Eric County Public Library. A translated copy is in the files of the Lancaster Historical Society.

By 1849, the settlement at the bend in Cayuga Creek was a thriving industrial and trading center. In that year it was incorporated with a government of its own as the village of Lancaster.

At first the industries in the village of Lancaster were to supply local needs, as was true in any new community in that period. A grist mill and a sawmill were necessary for a farming community. A slaughterhouse was created on Erie Street by a German, Schrankel, to prepare meat for local use. Because of the abundance of hemlock bark in this region and a great need for leather on the farms, the tanning business became important. The most important tanning factories were the ones which stood where the Legion Building now stands and the one bought by Koopman and turned into a soap factory where the Redman Lodge stands today.

Willow Dale Observatory, W.S. Van Duzee, M.D. Lancaster, about 1880

The glass factory is the most famous of Lancaster's early industries. It was founded originally by eight glass blowers from Pittsburgh about 1849. It changed hands many times, with the townspeople buying stock in it each time. The best known owners were James and Gatchell. The factory stood on what is now known as James Place. The Glass Works produced bottles until 1904. The buildings were torn down in 1912. To this day, residents digging or planting lawns find interesting pieces of glass. In 1907, the Lancaster Industrial Glass Company was formed. Buildings housing the new automatic glass machinery were built. In 1921, this plant on Sheldon Avenue was purchased by Dr. William More Decker and for nine years it produced the famous Hygeia nursing bottle. In 1929, the plant was sold to Hazel Atlas. In 1956, the plant was sold to the Continental Can Company and in 1963 to Brockway Glass. The factory finally closed its doors in 1965, thus ending a 116-year tradition of glass making in Lancaster.

An organ factory was started in 1866, and employed the skilled German cabinet-workers of this region. One of these organs was in St. Louis Church in Buffalo before it was destroyed by fire. This and the glass works were, of course, producing goods not needed entirely within the town, as the products of the early grist mill had been. There was also a brickyard, and several others have been added from time to time. They supply necessary building materials for a community.

Two different lumber yards had bedstead factories connected with them. The Stafford Factory was on Aurora Street and part of the building remains as the lumber yard there. The other, run by Knaubers, was north of the Erie tracks.

Many women conducted little schools for children in their homes. In addition, there was at one time a girls' school, an academy, on the edge of the village on the Batavia Road. St. Mary's began a parochial school in 1874, and at the turn of the century St. Mary's was the first parochial high school in the State of New York.

Lancaster Baptist Church

Lancaster's second expansion period came in the 1890's. It was brought about by the erection of the New York Central Railroad Shops on Ellicott Road near Transit Road. The little village which grew up around these shops, partly in the town of Lancaster and partly in the town of Cheektowaga, was named in honor of the president of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, Chauncey Depew. By the end of the year 1893, Gould Coupler Company, Union Car Company, and National Car Wheel Works had been opened in Depew. A brass works was burned and almost immediately rebuilt in 1895 because of the need of this metal in the new industries. The year before, Lancaster had had a disastrous fire which destroyed the Cushing Block, the soap factory, and several stores. This was a time of prosperity and expansion. Businesses were rebuilt, and that time a landmark, the Town Hall, was built.

The Buffalo, Bellevue and Lancaster Electric Railway was started in 1893, and the loop through Depew was built the next year. Northern Depew was also served by the Buffalo and Depew trolley line between 1896 and the 1920's. The last trolley run in Lancaster was on June 5, 1931, thus ending the trolley car era.

Bowmansville home of Theodore G. Lewis, M.D.
Lancaster-Cheektowaga School District No. 4 one Room School, constructed about 1863

This expansion meant that many people were needed to fill the jobs. The Polish had begun to come to America after 1880, driven out of Europe by persecution and the fact that it was impossible for them to acquire land of their own. They came to the Buffalo area because their friends had sent back word that there was money to be made here and land that could be bought. Now many went to work in the shops in Depew. In the same way, many Italians left Europe after 1890 to find a better place to live. They came to this region because they could get jobs in the factories. Others who came to work in the factories were the Czechoslovakians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Russians, and Yugoslovakians.

Depew Grocery Store, 1937

Since World War II most of the town's residents have come from other states or cities because of employment opportunities on the Niagara Frontier; people now come as individual families, giving Lancaster a housing boom much like the boom of the early 1890's.

Symington-Gould Plant, Depew, 1957

Our industries today produce very little for local consumption. We are more dependent on the Niagara Frontier and the outside world. Our population, however, to some degree, still shows the result of these different groups who were attracted here to make new homes.

Lancaster Machine Knife Works, incorporated in 1896, was originally engaged in the manufacture of wood working machinery. After it was reorganized in 1899, the production of woodworking machinery was suspended and the entire effort was concentrated on machine knives, used in planing mills, box factories, paper mills, and metal cutting.

Presently our leading industry Scott Aviation, which started with the manufacture of tail wheels and steering wheels for light aircraft, is now a well-known manufacturer of high altitude equipment and resuscitation devices used the world over.

Published by THE BUFFALO AND ERIE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY in commemoration of THE ERIE COUNTY SESQUICENTENNIAL 1971. The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society disclaim responsibility for the statements, whether of fact or opinion made by the author.

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