by Sally White, photo by QKA Light Photography
Jan Carr couldn’t have known what awaited her when she decided to bid on the neglected Spence homestead at auction in Fall 1992. She wondered only why the other contractors weren’t bidding. Carr soon found herself owner of the unloved cobblestone house near Dundee – interior unseen – and the 16-acre property, equally neglected, that surrounded it. The historic cobblestone building was the beginning of her dream to create a retreat center where everyone could find respite in serenity, community and a natural setting.
All the woes that historic properties are heir to landed on the shoulders of friends who came to help. Even strangers were drawn by Carr’s dream and rallied to contribute labor by removing old wallpaper and plaster, refinishing and rebuilding floors, rewiring and replumbing. Some came from the Sisters of St. Joseph in Rochester, early and long-time supporters of the nonprofit organization Cobblestone Springs Retreat Center, Inc., that was created in 1996.
Three decades later, the restoration of the 5,000-square-foot “mansion” is all but complete. Its public rooms now approach their early glory, and its inviting bedrooms are ready to welcome retreatants and other guests, as it has for most of the last 20 years, even during reconstruction. The entire house now accommodates as many as 12 guests, whether they’re seeking solitude or gathering with friends and family.
Cobblestone Springs has always been about community – broadly defined – and about creating connections. Today, visitors participate in a variety of programs centered on four major themes: Community, Creativity, Nature and Spirituality. In recent years, activities have included building Native American-style flutes, plant-based cooking, monthly yoga classes, explorations of varied spiritual traditions and learning about edible and medicinal plants. All are welcome to join these programs and workshops, which are listed at cobblestonesprings.org.
After 175 years of history, the house itself commands respect, much as other places with sacred ambiance do. It has grandeur and depth, like a cathedral or old-growth forest that exudes peace and invites visitors into its embrace. The quiet serenity somehow encourages guests to set aside the weight of everyday responsibilities and commitments. Just the essence of Cobblestone Springs has been known to work its magic even on the most jaded and skeptical, softening hard lines and creating ease. That magic was built into it, in part, by the thousands of hours of generous volunteer labor and care that have gone into its restoration.
A retreat has the power to “[cause] the re-birth of our spiritual sense, quickening that which has grown dull and dead in us, calling it out into light and air, giving it another chance,” according to Evelyn Underhill. “Most of us are bitterly conscious of the extent to which we are at the mercy of our surroundings, which are ever more insistent in their pressure, less and less suggestive of reality, of God.”That quote was written in 1932, lamenting “the ceaseless chain of passing events.” How much more do we need the concept of retreat in today’s world? Abbot Delatte defines a retreat as an opportunity of “steeping our souls in the beauty of the mysterious.”
If it’s time for you to recharge and reconnect with your spiritual self or to relax with those close to you, consider a visit to Cobblestone Springs Retreat Center. The labor of many hands has bought this marvelous building many more years of life and service, history to share and new history to create.
History of the Spence Farmhouse
In the hills around the western shores of Seneca Lake sits a beautiful Greek revival cobblestone house, surrounded by rolling farmland. Dr. Henry Spence, a pioneer in eye surgery, built the house in the 1840s as the Spence homestead and as a place to serve his patients. Stones gathered in the nearby fields became the walls. Cobbles were shipped from Sodus Point to Starkey Point on Seneca Lake, hauled inland by ox teams, carefully laid in rows and became the house’s outer shell. A central hallway divides the downstairs into symmetrical halves. Dr. Spence consulted his patients in a front parlor and performed cataract surgery in one of the house’s two back wings. Bedrooms upstairs housed coalescing patients.
Generations of the Spence family grew up in the house, and although it has changed hands over the years, descendants have participated in its resurrection as Cobblestone Springs Retreat Center. In its later derelict days, high school students from Lakemont and Dundee snuck in to climb to the third-floor attic, where they used the grand ballroom as a basketball court.
The house has an aura of health and healing from its original intent to its purpose today. It has suffered insult and injury along the way yet now stands as a testament to endurance and vitality.
In 1978, the Spence House was designated to the National Register of Historic Places. Then-owner Robert Spence enjoyed showing its unusual features with guided tours. Ten such structures are in Yates County, with more than 700 in western New York. The Spence House, now Cobblestone Springs, is the only structure in Yates County open to the public (by appointment).