Our Early Beginnings
Part I of the History of Lancaster Village as We Near Our Sesquicentennial
by Harold Huber
In order to place the history of the Village of Lancaster in its proper perspective, and to describe, as briefly as possible, the succession of events leading to its incorporation in 1849, we are dependent upon historians, who admit that there is little except tradition or inference upon which to base the history of our area prior to 1620.
In 1534, only 42 years after the discovery of America, the French explorer Georges Cartier had sailed up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, and taken possession of all the country round about, on behalf of the King of France. He attempted to colonize the area, but in 1543, his efforts were abandoned. In 1603, the celebrated French mariner Samuel Champlain led an expedition to Quebec, and made a permanent settlement there.
From Quebec and Montreal, which was founded soon afterwards, the Frenchmen later followed the St. Lawrence to Lake Ontario, and, after a portage around Niagara Falls, to Lake Erie. Thus it was that French fur traders and missionaries reached the borders of Erie County, far in advance of any other explorers.
According to Crisfield Johnson's Centennial History of Erie County, published in 1876, three French Catholic missionaries were the first Europeans to visit our region. This occurred about 1620, the year of the Mayflower landing in Massachusetts. The missionaries, who came from the French settlements in Canada, found what is now Erie County occupied by a large and powerful tribe of Indians known variously as the "Kahquahs," the "Attiwon Daronks," or the "Neuter Nation." The latter appellation came from the fact that the Kahquahs managed to live at peace with fierce neighboring tribes, which included the Eries, the Algonquins, and Hurons, and the five nations which then comprised the Iroquois confederacy.
In 1628, King Charles the First of England granted a charter for the government of the province of Massachusetts Bay. The territory which it included extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific, making a colony 154 miles wide and some 4,000 miles long. What is now the County of Erie, and the rest of Western New York, was included within its limits.
The gentle and friendly Kahquahs, with their neighbors, the Eries, were annihilated by the Iroquois some-time between 1640 and 1655. From the time of this massacre, and until it was sold to the Holland Land Company, the Erie County area was occupied by the Iroquois.
About at the close of the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts ceded to the United States all claim to the territory west of a line drawn south from the westerly extremity of Lake Ontario, or about the present westerly boundary of Chautauqua County.
In 1788, Massachusetts sold all of her land in New York State, about six million acres, to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham for one million dollars. The purchase was subject to the Indian right of occupancy. When they were unable to make the payments they had agreed upon for their purchase, Phelps and Gorham were released from their contract, and Massachusetts resold the land, in five tracts, to Robert Morris of Philadelphia, known as the financier of the American Revolution. Morris sold off the easternmost of these tracts in five parcels. The remaining four, which constituted the "Holland Purchase," were sold in four conveyances, made in 1792 and 1793, to several Americans, acting as trustees for a number of Hollanders, who, being aliens, could not hold the land in their own name. The seller (Morris) agreed to extinguish the Indian title to the land, but this was not accomplished until 1797.
Early in 1798, the New York State Legislature authorized these aliens to hold land within the State, and, in the latter part of that year, the American trustees conveyed the Holland Purchase to the real owners, who became historically known as the "Holland Land Company," although there was no incorporation, and no legal company by that name.
In 1802, the County of Genesee was created by the State Legislature. One of the townships in the new county was Batavia, which consisted of the entire Holland purchase, and the State reservation along the Niagara River. In 1804, the Legislature divided Batavia into four townships, one of which was Willink, containing, among other present towns, the towns of Lancaster and Clarence. In 1808, there was a reorganization of the counties and townships in the Holland Purchase, which made Lancaster a part of the town of Clarence.
The first purchase of land in the Lancaster area recorded in the books of the Holland Land Company was made in November, 1803 by Alanson Eggleston, the price being two dollars per acre. Amos Woodward and William Sheldon are recorded as buying land a little later in the same month. They were followed in 1804 by Warren Hull, Matthew Wing, Joel Parmalee, and Lawson Egberton. Soon after came David Hamlin, William Blackman, Peter Pratt, Edward Kearney, Elisha Cox, and Zophar Beach. The first settlement on the site of the village was made in 1807 by Edward Kearney, who built a log house on what is now St. Mary's Street, near Aurora Street.
In 1808, Benjamin Clark, Pardon Peckham, and Elias Bissell came into the town of Lancaster from Connecticut, and located themselves about a mile east of its center, near Cayuga Creek. That same year, a road was laid out from Buffalo, through the Cayuga Creek settlement, and thence eastward. Also in 1808, the first saw mill in the township was built at what is now Bowmansville. Historians differ as to whether Daniel Robinson or Calvin Fillmore built the original mill, which in 1810 or 1811 was sold to Benjamin Bowman. The transition in nomenclature from "Bowman's Mill" to "Bowmansville" becomes apparent here.
However, at this point in time, the principal influx of newcomers was to the southern part of the township, previously referred to as the Cayuga Creek settlement, or, more briefly, "Cayuga Creek." Among the new settlers were the Johnsons, the Carpenters, the Fields, the Paines, and the Hibbards.
In 1811, Ahaz Allen built a grist mill, the first in the territory of Lancaster, on the site of Lancaster Village.
The mill and dam, which was the predecessor of Mook's mill and dam, was the first on Cayuga Creek. At about the same time, the first store was opened by another settler named Alfred Luce, somewhere in the vicinity of Aurora Street and Broadway. Not long afterwards, Joseph Carpenter bought from Edward Kearney a large log house which stood near the present site of the Municipal Building, and opened it as a tavern. The mill, store, and tavern formed the nucleus of the present village.
Thirty-two men from the Cayuga Creek settlement served their country during the War of 1812. Two were killed in battle, one died of wounds, and another was wounded at the battle of Queenston. After the war, the little settlement on Cayuga Creek began its peaceful growth. The first Christian parish (Presbyterian) in the township was organized in 1818 at the Johnson schoolhouse. The first post office was established in 1824. It was located near the present site of the Kotansky Lumber Company, and bore the name "Cayuga Creek." Thomas Gross was the first postmaster.
The Erie Canal was opened in 1825. A line of stagecoaches, called the "Pioneer Line," was established about 1827, to run from Buffalo, through Lancaster, and thence to the east, and the influx of immigrants began. The first church building in the area later incorporated as the village was built in 1832. It was the beautiful Lancaster Presbyterian Church, which still stands today at the corner of Broadway and Lake Avenue.
Upon the formation of the Town of Lancaster from the southerly part of the Township of Clarence on March 20, 1833, the name of the Cayuga Creek post office was changed to "Lancaster," and the movement toward incorporation began.
On March 10, 1849, a Court of Sessions for Erie County granted the petition of five Lancaster men for determining, by referendum, whether a specified territory of 489 1/2 acres in the Town of Lancaster should become incorporated as the "Village of Lancaster." The petitioners were John L. Lewis, Milton McNeal, Ebenezer Briggs, Frederick Kircholder, and John Clark. Their petition for incorporation, dated March 7, 1849, was accompanied by a map of the proposed village, showing it as a rectangular tract of land 102 chains long and 48 chains wide, bounded on the north by the Attica and Buffalo Railroad. A census of the area proposed for incorporation listed the names of 124 families, representing a total population of 677 persons.
Balloting on the court order took place on April 4, 1849, in the home of William Curtis. During the six-hour voting period, a total of 89 qualified electors cast their ballots, and, when an official tally was taken that evening, it was learned that Lancaster had voted in favor of incorporation by a count of 61 to 28.
At the first village election, which followed on the 14th of July, 1849, the successful candidates were Ira Sleeper, John Parker, John McLean, David R. Osgood, and Charles Kurtz. After this first Village Board organized, and made its appointments, John M. Safford became the first tax collector and Henry L. Bingham the first village clerk. E.M. Safford became the first village assessor, William H. Grimes the first treasurer, and Truman Luce the first "pound master," whose duties were to enforce the first village ordinances regarding animals running at large. In 1850, William H. Bostwick was named first village president.
This was the general picture when the Village was born a century and a half ago, and thus did our venerable forefathers lay the solid groundwork which makes it possible for us to celebrate the Lancaster Sesquicentennial in 1999.
Part 2 - Community Advancement, Conflagration & Deluge
In 1851, there were 14 brick buildings in Lancaster Village; wood was commonly used as fuel for domestic purposes; the tower of the Roman Catholic Church was nearing completion; the New York Central was the only railroad that ran through the Village, coming through on the line of the present ErieLackawanna tracks; the main artery of travel between the Village and Buffalo was what is now Broadway; and George Bruce organized the Merchants Bank (the communitys first), in a brick building now threatened by the Broadway project.
On April 12, 1861, a cannon at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, fired the shot which opened the Civil War. As everywhere in the Union, the wars outbreak precipitated furious discussions in Lancaster between Southern sympathizers and their opponents, the anti-slavery faction. Town Line, more violently partisan than the Village, actually voted to secede from the Union, and, technically, this little hamlet remained out of it until 1946 when, in a widely publicized election, it voted to rejoin (see January/February 1996 issue of The Lancaster Legend). About 125 Lancaster men went to Civil War battlefields, and 30 more were drafted on April 11, 1865, after General Lees surrender at Richmond on April 3. When the fighting men returned, no outstanding postwar incidents occurred, and the hard feelings between Northern and Southern sympathizers gradually disappeared as the war became history.
The 1866 census placed the population of the village at 1,518, and of the township at 4,112. At a meeting in March 1867, the Village Board voted in favor of street lamps, which were duly installed. They were oil-burning lights, which served until 1897, when the first electric carbonarc street lamps made their appearance.
In 1874, Lancasters first fire department, the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, was born.
A resume of the Lancaster business structure in 1877, published in Smiths History of Buffalo and Erie County, presented this picture: "There are now, in the Village of Lancaster, two flouring mills, one carriage factory, the Lancaster glass works, one iron furnace, three breweries, two planing mills, one tannery, one malt house, one bedstead shop, two cabinet shops, three tin shops, two meat markets, one drug store, four general stores, three grocery stores, two tailor shops, one harness shop, three hotels, four blacksmith shops, one basket shop, and numerous saloons.
The 1880s showed a period of community advancement, with improved business in general. Roads were improved, new building construction got under way, and the first train on the newly laid Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad tracks arrived in Lancaster on May 14, 1883.
Flames made the headlines in the 1890s. On April 4, 1894, fire broke out in the barn of Mrs. E. Mosack, at the rear of her butcher shop on Central Avenue. Fanned by a high wind, the flames quickly engulfed all of the buildings on the west side of Central Avenue between East Main Street (Broadway) and West Main Street, then swept down the south side of West Main Street to Jacob Stephans store, where they were halted by a heavy brick fire wall. However, a wind shift carried the fire across Central Avenue to the east side, where three buildings were consumed, thence around the corner to the north side of Broadway. Since there were no water mains and no fire hydrants at that time, the blaze was out of control until Buffalo firemen, who had been called upon for help, arrived with their apparatus to assist the local department. The house and barn of Dr. Samuel Potter were the last buildings to be destroyed. Damage was widespread, and was estimated at $100,000.
Another section of the Central Avenue business district was destroyed by fire on October 21, 1896. The flames broke out in an unoccupied soap factory on Central Avenue, completely destroying it, and spread to Mautes hardware store, Balthasars hotel, and a barn at the rear of the Cushing Block. Total damage was estimated at $45,000.
This second conflagration in the heart of the business district in a little over two years sparked a public demand for water mains and fire hydrants which the Village Board could not ignore, and before 1896 came to an end, water mains were being laid in the downtown area. In 1900, the water mains were extended, and fire hydrants installed, on all populated streets in the Village.
Other fires that made history during the 1890s destroyed Soemanns brewery at East Main and Court Streets on September 16, 1894, and Cushings ice house on Lake Avenue on August 17, 1898. The plant of the Lancaster Machine Knife Works on Court Street burned to the ground on March 12, 1899.
When President McKinleys Congress declared war on Spain as the century drew to a close, Lancasters spirited and patriotic male citizens were quick to volunteer. The war was of brief duration, beginning in April and ending in August of 1898. At least 20 local men were involved in the conflict.
Original street names throughout the Village underwent changes during the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, gradually acquiring their present identities. Some of the old names, and their current ones, are as follows: Briggs Street became Kurtz Avenue. Buffalo Road became Cayuga Creek Plank Road, then Buffalo Street, and now Broadway. Water Street became Aurora Street north of Broadway. Dutch Street became West Main Street. Railroad Street became Central Avenue. Factory Street became Lake Avenue. Sport Street became School Street. Poplar Avenue became Lombardy Street. Buck Street became Erie Street. Tannery Place became Legion Parkway. Medium Street became Garfield Street. Raynor Street became St. John Street. Blinkey Street became Lake Avenue, south of Franklin Street. North Church Street, later Foundry Street, became Holland Avenue.
Fires again raged in the community in the early 1900s. On February 3, 1902, flames destroyed the main building and two greenhouses belonging to S. B. Smiley. On November 20 of the same year, the plant of the Depew Knitting Mills was completely razed. On December 10, 1909, a disastrous fire severely damaged the American Malleables plant on Central Avenue, causing damage estimated at $200,000.
Installation of a public water supply system in 1900, and the ample supply of water which it provided, created another problem: the disposal of waste water, which could only be remedied by the installation of sanitary sewers. So, in 1907-1908, a sewer system and sewage treatment plant were installed, and financed by a $150,000 bond issue, which was the largest borrowing for Village purposes up to that time.
The gayest and most colorful celebration in the history of the Village up to that time was held from July 27 to August 2, 1913, when Lancaster observed its first Old Home Week (see page 5), in conjunction with a convention of the Western New York Volunteer Firemen’s Association. The newly completed brick pavements on Central Avenue, West Main Street, Aurora Street, Broadway, East Main Street, and Church Street were flanked with decorated columns, and exhibited with pride to the thousands of visitors who thronged to Lancaster to attend the convention and join in the Old Home Week celebration.
DOUGHBOYS, DEPRESSION, AND DELUGE
On Good Friday, April 6, 1917, the United States entered into World War I. True to precedent, Lancaster immediately went to the defense of its country. Before the machinery for drafting men into the service had been set up, eight local men went to Philadelphia, enlisted, and were accepted in the 9th Regiment, U.S. Engineering Corps. By August 1917, this group was overseas, and gained the distinction of being among the first American soldiers to arrive in France in World War I. Over a thousand men were drafted from Lancaster and the surrounding communities. The last contingent of 53 men to be drafted were waiting at the Town Hall for entrainment to camp on November 11, 1918, when news of the Armistice was received, and the entrainment order was cancelled.
In all, 428 men represented Lancaster, Depew, Bowmansville, and Town Line in various branches of the armed forces in the first World War. Of this number, 26 made the supreme sacrifice, and their names are inscribed on war memorials in their home communities.
Through the 1920s, Lancaster, like the rest of the nation, enjoyed the new worlds of recreation which were opened up by the evolution of the automobile, the radio, and the movies. But, when prices on the New York Stock Exchange hit bottom in October 1929, the fun era was over, and this Village was no exception to the average American community in suffering through the economic depression that followed the stock market crash. Unemployment, bank failures, and real estate depreciation resulted in widespread privation throughout the township during the 1930s.
One of the few community advances during the Depression years was the construction in 1936 of the Broadway Cut-Off, a strip of road and bridge which linked Aurora Street to Central Avenue, and eliminated the necessity of routing traffic over crowded West Main Street. Designation of Broadway as U.S. 20 followed the opening of the new highway link.
But the new road was severely damaged a year later when, in the afternoon and evening of June 21, 1937, the worst flood in the history of the Village wreaked indescribable havoc in the area along Cayuga Creek (see March and April 1995 issues of The Lancaster Legend). According to published records, the creek, after several days of rain, suddenly went on a rampage, reaching a depth of from 18 to 20 feet over the low water mark, and damaging or destroying everything on its banks. Much damage was done to pavements, sidewalks, water mains, sewers, and real property on Park Boulevard, Colonial Avenue, Cayuga Avenue, St. John Street, Broadway, Aurora Street, St. Marys Street, Walter Street, Legion Parkway, Oakwood Avenue, Lake Avenue, and Pershing Avenue. Rescue boats plied the flooded streets, and residents of the inundated areas who did not flee in time to escape the rising waters were rescued from their homes by firemen and other volunteers. A bridge of fire ladders was the escape route for one family from their home on Walter Street. The Memorial Building on Legion Parkway was badly damaged, and houses were washed from their foundations on Lake Avenue, St. John Street, and Broadway. The Village sewage treatment plant on Broadway was inundated, and equipment in the Department of Public Works buildings on the same site was severely damaged.
An appeal for the construction of flood control works to prevent a recurrence of the 1937 disaster was made to state and federal authorities, but the outbreak of World War II delayed action on domestic problems of this type. After the war, the Lancaster project was again pressed for recognition, and, through the combined efforts of local, state, and federal representatives, the Cayuga Creek Flood Control Project was completed by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1948 at a cost of about $1,000,000 in federal, state, and Village funds.
A new $80,000 post office building was built on the Broadway Cut-Off in 1938, and, in 1939, the old fire hall and the Village Inn were torn down to clear a site for the $127,500 Municipal Building, which was erected in 1940.
Part 3 : War, Prosperity & Village Decline
When several acts of German aggression were climaxed by the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, to launch World War II, the United States government made no pretense as to its apprehension. And, when a "defense" program, including the first peace-time draft, was drawn up almost immediately and laid before the nation, there was little hope among Americans that this country could escape involvement in another World War. Their worst fears were confirmed in every respect when, on December 7, 1941, it was announced that Japanese war planes had bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The full, dread import of the news that Japan had attacked a United States possession was recognized immediately, and in Lancaster, as elsewhere through out the nation, the realization came immediately that American blood would again be shed to fight a monstrous threat to world harmony.
After nearly four years of "blood, sweat, and tears," during which the flower of the community fought and died on battlefronts in every far-flung corner of the globe, it was over, on August 14, 1945.
The great celebration which followed was tempered with restraint--because 61 boys who went away from here to fight had laid down their lives to make this victory possible.
In 1949, Lancaster observed the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the Village. Directed by an energetic Centennial Planning Committee, composed of people from all walks of life in the Village, the celebration was held during the week of July 17th to 23rd, and attendance at the well-planned, weeklong program of events eclipsed any in the history of the Village up to that time. The growing pains of the century-old community were forgotten during a week which began with Sunday reunion services in all churches; progressed with a variety of events from Monday to Friday, which included daily parades in all categories; and ended on Saturday with a feeling of regret at having to leave the past and face the future again. Centennial committee members declared that the Volunteer Firemen's Parade on Friday evening, which attracted thousands of visitors, was the largest and longest parade in Village history.
On April 12, 1950, a disastrous fire ruined the interior of the Memorial Building on Legion Parkway, causing damage estimated in excess of $50,000. When fire insurance recoveries on the Village-owned building proved to be insufficient to cover the loss, members of Washington Post No. 287 of the Ameri can Legion, occupants of the building, pledged themselves, through the sale of bonds and otherwise, to underwrite the balance of the repair cost. Restoration and remodeling were completed before the end of 1950.
When the United Nations officially came into existence on October 24, 1945, it stated, as its purpose: "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which, twice in our lifetime, has brought untold sorrow to mankind."
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean army launched a surprise attack on South Korea. On the following day, the United Nations Security Council condemned the invasion as aggression, and ordered withdrawal of the invading forces. On June 27, U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered air and naval units into action to enforce the U.N. order. The British government did the same, and soon a multinational U.N. command was set up to aid the South Koreans. U.N. forces had routed the North Korean army, and were driving north across the 38th parallel, when Communist China sent several hundred thousand troops into the conflict in late October 1950. Battling forces were see-sawing across the 38th parallel when truce negotiations began on July 10, 1951. Truce talks dragged on for two years while belligerents negotiated; an armistice was finally signed at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, there were 33,629 battle deaths, 20,617 deaths from other causes, and 103,284 wounded in the Korean fighting, for a total of 157,530 United States casualties.
(No reliable statistics regarding local men who served during the Korean War were available for inclusion in this history.)
Elimination of the grade crossings of the New York Central, Lehigh Valley, Delaware, Lackawanna and Western and Erie Railroads at Central Avenue, which had been planned prior to World War II, became a major post-war project in the summer of 1950. Bids on the project, which was jointly financed by New York State and the four railroads involved, were opened in July, and work began in August. Local traffic was rerouted over temporary access roads as more than half the length of Lancaster's main north-south artery of travel was torn up. Many landmark buildings were either razed, or moved to new locations on side streets off Central Avenue, among them the old North End Fire Hall, which was moved from Central Avenue to a new location on West Drullard Avenue. A neighborhood park and playground, built and largely financed by the Citizens Hose Company on the front of the old American Malleables property, was devoured by the huge power shovels used to excavate the underpasses. The extensive project progressed during the winter of 1950, and throughout 1951 until December 17, when the regraded street was opened to traffic and the detour roads abandoned. Incidental work continued until September 1952, when the State accepted the project as complete.
The cornerstone of the new church erected by Our Lady of Pompeii parish at Laverack Avenue and Cowing Street was laid on October 18, 1953, and dedication of the edifice took place on July 11, 1954.
On February 21, 1954, fire destroyed the interior of the Western Auto Store on West Main Street, in a building which once housed the Lancaster post office.
The brick walls of the building resisted the spread of the fire to adjoining structures.
A night fire on October 19, 1956, damaged Young's Mill, on Court Street next to the Erie Railroad. The main ladder of the aerial ladder truck operated by Res cue Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 was wrecked at the blaze, and the use of a crane was required to remove the broken ladder from the roof of the building after the fire. The tall, frame structure, which housed the Natura Milling Company during World War I, and subsequently housed Knauber's Planing Mill, was not seriously damaged. Mechanical damage to the ladder truck was said to monetarily exceed fire damage to the building.
The severe winter of 1956-57 saw temperatures plummeting to lows of 20 degrees below zero in January 1957. On May 29, 1957, a new section of Walden Avenue, extending from Lincoln Street in Depew to Ellicott Place in Lancaster, was opened. This replaced an old section of Ellicott Road which was abandoned in the 1890s when the New York Central Railroad constructed its huge car shops and locomotive repair facilities in Depew.
On June 30, 1957, Lancaster's first outdoor public swimming pool was opened in what is now Keysa Park, on Vandenberg Avenue. The pool is the central attraction of the park, developed by the Town of Lancaster, which now includes a ball diamond, band stand, playground equipment, and picnic facilities.
In August, 1957, ground was broken for the A & P Store on Legion Parkway, on land once owned by Washington Post No. 287, American Legion, and known for years as Legion Field. The field, which was developed shortly after the construction of the Memorial Building in 1922, was known for years as the location for athletic events, including baseball and football games, and was the site for the many carnivals which were held in conjunction with civic celebrations. The size of the field was reduced considerably in 1948 to provide space for the Cayuga Creek Flood Protection Project, and its popularity dwindled from that time.
On September 11, 1957, the Marine Bank of Buffalo opened its Depew branch on Broadway near Cayuga Creek. The bank was to become the first business to be located in the D & L Shopping Plaza at the west village line of Lancaster.
Dissolution of the Village of Lancaster, and a return to total Town government, was proposed by a group organized in the Spring of 1958. The movement failed to gain the support which its promoters expected, and, after several public meetings, it lost its impetus and passed into history after a final meeting on June 25.
An event which occurred in Depew, but left an indelible mark on the history of Lancaster Village, was the opening of the Depew-Lancaster Plaza on May 11, 1960. The unlimited parking facilities at the Plaza, located on land reclaimed after the construction of the Cayuga Creek Flood Protection Project, soon siphoned off the parking-weary customers of Lancaster merchants, and the once-flourishing shopping area on West Main Street and Central Avenue went into a business decline. (1)