a celebration of the centuries

by Deb Hall and Tricia L. Noel

Wayne, Yates counties turn 200 years old

The world was a different place 200 years ago. James Monroe was our fifth president and Joseph Yates was New York’s eighth governor. The year was 1823, only about 40 years after the end of the Revolutionary War and less than 40 years before the Civil War. The nation was busy creating its identity with new industries, new territories and new citizens. Meanwhile, quietly nestled in western New York, two counties in the Finger Lakes Region got their start – Wayne and Yates.

Wayne County: Rich in Agriculture and History

Along the shores of Lake Ontario, about 25,000 residents built homes, started farms and businesses, went to school and church and raised their families on 1,380 square miles of beautiful rolling hills. Ye Hills of Wayne, as they are often called in poetry, are a distinct geologic feature of the region. However, the most prominent are Chimney Bluffs, a spectacular outcrop of naturally-formed sandstone and clay spires along the lakeshore. The influence of Lake Ontario on the climate is reflected in the concentration of orchards along the shoreline. As a result, Wayne County ranks third in the production of apples nationwide and first in New York State, along with sour cherries and pears. Today, the agriculture of the county is diverse including vegetables, soybeans, cattle and dairy. 

On April 11, 1823, Wayne County was officially recognized as the 55th county in the Empire State by an Act of both houses in the New York State Legislature. The northern sections of Ontario and Seneca counties were conveyed to include seven towns: Wolcott, Galen, Lyons, Sodus, Williamson, Ontario, Palmyra and Macedon. Today’s population is more than tripled at 90,000 with 15 towns and seven villages. The county’s history includes a variety of stories and characters from namesake Brigadier General “Mad” Anthony Wayne of the Revolutionary War to champions of the Underground Railroad, from unique manufactured items to religious revival. The founding of the county also shares its bicentennial with the 35-mile section of the Erie Canal between Albany and Rochester, which opened on September 10, 1823. Two hundred years later, Wayne County continues to provide innovation and relaxation to residents and thousands of visitors.   

Yates County: Small but Strong

The first non-native settlers moved into what is now Yates County in the 1780s with their religious leader, the Public Universal Friend. Hoping to set up a society all their own, they built the first of many mills on the Keuka Outlet and carved farms out of the heavily wooded landscape. At the time, most of present-day Yates County was in Ontario County, although physically isolated from the bustling communities forming in Geneva and Canandaigua. Eventually, despite not being part of the Military Tract, settlers from New England, New Jersey and downstate New York were drawn by the rich, plentiful and cheap land and the population began to climb. 

After the first few decades of settlement, Yates County’s population and size were such that there was a pull – mostly by Penn Yan merchants – to separate from Ontario County. The petitioning finally paid off, and the people were granted their own county on February 5, 1823, via an act signed by the governor, Joseph Yates, for whom the county was named. Penn Yan was selected as the county seat. The new county contained the towns of Benton, Milo, Italy, Middlesex and Jerusalem. Starkey and Barrington were part of Schuyler County and were added to Yates County in 1823. In 1832, Potter was carved off of Middlesex. Finally, in 1851, Torrey was formed, and Yates County’s nine townships were complete. 

Even after becoming independent, Yates County never lost its rural makeup. No communities larger than a village have ever existed within its borders. Farming was the mainstay of many Yates County residents, and remains so to this day. Despite its rural nature and small population – it is the currently the fourth least populated in the state – Yates County people have contributed greatly to history and society over the past two centuries. Local people spoke out against slavery and actively hid freedom seekers traveling through the county. Hundreds of men joined the Union Army in the Civil War. Hundreds of women campaigned for women’s rights and signed pro-suffrage petitions. the 19th and 20th centuries, first Danish and then Mennonite immigrants found a home here and enriched the local culture. Even though the community is small in population, it is big in importance. 

Deb Hall is a Wayne County Bicentennial Committee member.

Tricia L. Noel is the executive director and curator at Yates County History Center in Penn Yan.

A Stroll Through History 

The history of the Finger Lakes Region is as rich as it is expansive, encompassing 14 counties. Here’s a look at when each county was founded and a little history behind them.

1789Ontario County was founded. It originally encompassed all of western New York State, but was eventually divided into 14 separate counties.

1791Tioga County was created from Montgomery County.

1794Onondaga County was founded, originally comprising 1.75 million acres.

1796Steuben County was established.

1799Cayuga County was officially established on land carved away from Onondaga County.

1804Seneca County was founded by separating the western part of Cayuga County.

1808Cortland County was created from Onondaga County. The new county was named after Pierre Van Cortland, the first lieutenant governor of New York.

1817Tompkins County was established. Its name comes from former governor and U.S. vice president Daniel D. Tompkins.

1821Livingston County was formed from Ontario and Genesee counties. The county was named for Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence and negotiated the Louisiana Purchase.

Monroe County was founded in 1821 and named for James Monroe.

1823Wayne County, originally included in Ontario and Seneca counties, became its own entity.

Yates County was established using the southern part of Ontario County.

1836Chemung County was founded.

1854Schuyler County was created from parts of Tompkins, Steuben and Chemung counties.

A Call for Celebration

Everyone in the Finger Lakes is invited to help celebrate these counties’ milestone and participate in events throughout the year.

The bicentennial celebration of Wayne County will include a Birthday Gala with fireworks on May 13; a five-day, 200-mile Torch Relay around the county; a Family Fun Day at the County Fair and other celebrations that will take place in several towns and villages. Bicentennial Co-Chairs Gene Bavis and Rosa Fox invite the public to explore, discover, visit and join in celebrating all the history that is Wayne County. For more information on the county’s bicentennial events, projects and history, visit waynecounty200.com.  

The people of Yates County are taking time to celebrate with events and programs. On April 29, a newly-planted Wagener apple tree, a variety originally developed in Yates County, will be dedicated at the Yates County History Center. Local school children will receive a coloring book about Yates County history, written and illustrated by Keuka College student Cassian Allport, before the end of the school year. A bicentennial parade, complete with a bagpipe band, will take place on August 12 in Penn Yan, followed by fireworks and food. On October 7, a dinner of 1823 recipes will take place at the Elks Club in Penn Yan. Actors will tell historic ghost stories during Eerie Stories Along the Outlet on October 13. A Veterans Day gala will take place on November 11 at Seasons in Penn Yan. Keep an eye out for a traveling exhibit going around the county, courtesy the County Historian’s Office. Individual celebrations will be held by various villages throughout the year. 

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