story and photos by James P. Hughes
It isn’t going to be a tub set in the ground…but a beautiful sort of combination that man and beast can turn to on a hot day and get without cost an internal bath of cool spring water.
~ Publisher Charles H. Thomas (1912) ~
(Proclaiming a fund-raising campaign for a public drinking fountain)
Many a Finger Lakes village is noted for a unique feature, often one that leaves first-time visitors scratching their heads. “What is this? Why is it here? Is there a story behind it?”
Such an oddity stands firmly at the center of Wolcott amid a cluster of classic brick buildings, churches, and businesses. Just across the way is Northup Park, the focus of lively community events and celebrations. Venus, “The First Lady of Wolcott,” has proudly occupied that busy corner for more than a century.
Following a European trip, the influential Northup family encouraged and supported the addition of something a bit exotic to the center of their hometown. A public drinking fountain was chosen, but not just any fountain. In a year’s time a community campaign raised the necessary funds and in 1913 the “Venus Rising from the Sea” fountain made its debut – stately, ornate, and with a globe lamp curiously perched above her head. Often photographed, scantily clad Venus remains today. She’s periodically refurbished, brightly repainted from time to time, and a resolute symbol of the community.
Wolcott was settled by west-moving New Englanders taking advantage of land grants and eager to farm the fertile territory; acres far superior to the rocky soil they left behind. About 1805, early arrival Jonathan Melvin erected several mills along Wolcott Creek near its waterfall and built a frame house for his family. Local lore claims the home was painted black, said by Mr. Melvin himself to reflect his personality. Facts proved otherwise; he was known to be neighborly and generous, donating land for an early church and school.
Around its busy mills, Wolcott grew swiftly, first incorporating as a village in 1852. Commerce expanded and thrived along Main Street. Despite devastation wrought by four fires in the late 1800s, a number of period buildings survived and continue to house village businesses and offices.
Once a staple, a local theater lingers only as a pleasant memory in most villages. Yet in Wolcott the Palace Theatre has persevered, providing entertainment for generations at the corner of Main and Mill streets since the early 1930s. Locally owned, it remains a community asset, screening recent films each weekend evening as well as Sunday matinees. “Comfy seats and a great price” satisfy its loyal patrons. The Palace hosts special events as well. Among them, a Christmastime movie is shown each year for local kids and their parents sponsored by the Wolcott Lions Club – refreshments included!
Northup Park may be the “heart and soul” of Wolcott. Businesses, churches, and the village hall surround the island of green with its bandstand gazebo. The park and surrounding area are lively places – Wolcott Farmers’ Market every Thursday (June – October), the first two August Saturdays busy with a Wine & Jazz Festival, a Main Street car show, and more throughout the year.
When the local strawberry crop peaks in June, the annual Wolcott Strawberry Festival fills the park with food and entertainment throughout the day. Music drifts from the bandstand, choral to bluegrass. Crafters peddle their wares and a Main Street parade provides afternoon excitement. Strawberries, fresh and abundant, are the stars of the day. Take some home or enjoy them at the festival, poured over shortcake or a tasty sundae.
Decorated trees – many trees – sparkle in Northup Park at Christmastime. The Festival of Trees sponsored by the Wolcott Historical Society is an event that encourages (and receives) great community participation. The concept is simple but unique. In early December, local organizations and groups of every stripe deliver a tree to the park’s bandstand. The historical society handles the setups, provides the lights, and hooks up the power. Participating groups (usually a dozen or more) then return to decorate their trees for a festive lighting ceremony and competition the following week. With all trees ablaze, awards are presented, refreshments are provided at the adjoining Baptist Church, and (if his schedule permits) Santa arrives for a visit.
Sponsorship of the Festival of Trees came about as a “thank you” to the community from the Wolcott Historical Society. Until 2003, the society’s artifacts had occupied limited space at temporary locations. Fate stepped in. An original carriage house, all that remained of the Northup family’s showplace residence, was about to be razed. With community support, careful planning, and financial grants, the building was saved and moved across town to its present location on Jefferson Street. Volunteers stepped up to refurbish the building into the beautiful Carriage House Museum, a community asset archiving local history with its extensive and ever-expanding exhibits. Historian Norma Stewart speaks for the community: “We’re so proud to be here. It’s been a true labor of love.”
From Wolcott, the short drive to the Lake Ontario shoreline is a scenic one at any time of year. Apple blossoms in the spring give way to trees laden with ripe fruit in the fall. Roadside farm markets provide the freshest of whatever happens to be in season.
Along the shoreline itself is one of the more unusual spots in the Finger Lakes region, and one that to many is unknown and unseen – Chimney Bluffs. Pinnacled, uneven, and almost eerie, the bluffs rise high above the lake’s rocky beach. Formed and reformed by weather and erosion over thousands of years, the glacial deposits present a stunning sight. Local lore persists that during Prohibition (1920 – 1933), the highest bluffs served as “beacons” to mark landing points for liquor smuggled from Canada. As part of the state park system, hiking trails are available to view (and photograph) the odd peaks from almost any angle.
Specific dates and information for any of the village’s traditional community events can be found on the Wolcott Area Chamber of Commerce website. If dropping by, have a great time and enjoy what Wolcott has to offer, but don’t leave town without a “tip of the hat” to Venus at the village fountain. She’ll be waiting!