A blog about a first-time house owner learning to maintain his backyard, and thoughts about nature, science, history, and life.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Freeville History: Come One, Come All

I grew up outside of Philadelphia in the town of Hatboro, so named because local hatmakers made hats for soldiers in the Revolutionary War.  The next town over, site of my high school, is known as Willow Grove.  For much of the 20th century, Willow Grove was a tourist destination - a popular day-trip for the denizens of Philadelphia.  They would take the train and the trolley to Willow Grove Park, an amusement park where John Philip Sousa made occasional appearances with his band.  Up until the early 1970s or so, "Life was a Lark at Willow Grove Park".  The park was eventually torn down, and the location was later turned into a popular shopping mall.

Similarly, believe it or not, my tiny village of Freeville was once a popular day-trip tourist destination for folks as far away as Pennsylvania and Buffalo.  You see, during the railroad era, Freeville sat at the junction of two major rail lines.  One ran roughly north-south, from Pennsylvania to the village of Dryden, through Freeville, up to the village of Groton, and then continued north to Lake Ontario.  A second line ran from Ithaca to Cortland, which is roughly a southwest-to-northeast route.  They met right in Freeville, not far from the current junction between Route 366 and Route 38, the major intersection in town.

If someone came to Freeville for the day, what did they do?  Well, there was a park, Riverside Park, near the current site of Finger Lake Physical Therapy.  This was the age of oration, so one of the highlights of the park was an auditorium where speeches were given on Sundays.  There was also a boardwalk, picnic tables, swings, row boats, and perhaps the highlight, a dock where patrons could board a steamboat that plied the waters of Fall Creek between the old mill dam (the current site of Mill Dam Park), and the old bridge across Fall Creek on the road to Groton, which was north of the current Groton Road, Route 38.  The steamboats would have passed right by my backyard!  This is a bit hard to believe, because this summer when I moved here, the creek appeared to be barely deep enough for a kayak, much less a steam boat.  The village historian thinks that the creek may be a bit lower nowadays because there is a sizable Cornell farm upstream that may be drawing off water from the creek.  Of course, back then, the dam was still in place, and it likely kept the waters higher as well.

Here's an excerpt from a document that I've just obtained, "Life Along Fall Creek in Freeville in the Past", by village historian Joan Manning:

"There was also Harris Rowe's, Riverside Park, with its ticket stand near the street [Main Street] and park on the lots where the Park-It Market [Finger Lakes Physical Therapy] and its parking lot are today.  Along the bank over-looking the creek, pleasant rustic seats and picnic tables under the trees invited those who had come for the day.  There were cinder paths, and board walk.  There was a broad, low-roofed auditorium where there were political and semi-religious talks given on Sundays.  East of these buildings was an oval goldfish pond, and just below it, toward the water was a refreshment stand.  On the higher ground, in the western corner, stood a long scaffold of big steel swings.  A wooden dock stretched along the bank of the creek.  Tied to posts along the dock, were a number of gaily painted rowboats, always in demand on nice Sundays.  Couples would sit on the dock or out on the creek in rowboats.  At the east side of the Park stood a sizable boat-house, home of the steam launch 'Clinton'.  It made regular trips to the mill dam and back to the Brooklyn Street bridge (that bridge crossed Fall Creek from Fall Creek Rd. straight across to Brooklyn Rd.), turning about at each end of the trip by being snubbed to a stout post.  The fare was five cents a trip.  A plume of black smoke rolled out behind [the] steam boat and people waited on the dock for a ride."

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