Absorbing the Finger Lakes: Twenty Years of Wandering

James Hughes (far right) and his friends on an excellent adventure.
Story and photos by James P. Hughes

Legendary for his flowery rhetoric, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925) is perhaps the most remembered orator of his era. True to form, he portrayed a short visit to the village of Naples and its surrounding countryside as “a spread of poetry written by the Great Author of the universe.” Had Bryan traveled the Finger Lakes Region further, he might well have added to his eloquent description.

In 2021, Life in the Finger Lakes is observing its 20th anniversary. With perception, prose and photography, the magazine has highlighted and celebrated all the region has to offer … its natural beauty, its history, its people. It’s a welcoming area that represents many things to many people.

Once retirement arrived, spending more time absorbing Finger Lakes country was high on my priority list. Travels from lakeside to hilltop, from country lane to village, from the subtle to the grand have never disappointed. The publishing of freelance articles and photographs of my wanderings by the magazine has been both gratifying and a privilege.

So where to begin? In every season, the vineyards, waterfalls, quaint communities and crystalline lakes are remarkable … so much so that we too often take them for granted. While the natural beauty of the area is anticipated, in fact expected, there is so much more to discover.

Writing under the banners of “A Proud Community” and “Nooks and Crannies,” random travels left me with a wealth of material. At every stop, conversations with friendly, helpful folks typically led to insights and surprises … often unforeseen, always enjoyable.

Picking favorites is a difficult task … there have been so many. Allow me to ramble a bit with just a few memorable encounters.

A Jell-O museum? The classic American dessert’s quirky history, along with rare trinkets and early artwork, are celebrated at the Jell-O Gallery Museum in LeRoy. The sweet treat was created there, quite by accident, in 1897 by a local couple dabbling in their kitchen. “There’s Always Room for Jell-O.”

John Coffer lives in a remote, rustic cabin called “Camp Tintype” near Dundee, well away from the trappings of modern society. Known as the go-to “master” of the 19th century art of tintype photography, John holds workshops on his craft for students of every stripe from Civil War buffs to hobbyists to college professors. 

Sauerkraut. That delicious, fermented cabbage has been celebrated at a gala festival in Phelps for more than a half century. The focus is frequently on food at many Finger Lakes fests: apples, strawberries, corn, grapes, tomatoes, maple products, potatoes and garlic among them. Indulge!

An outhouse? Yes, but not just any remote, rickety outhouse! Situated in a brick tower at the stately Howe House Museum in Phelps, it is not your typical petty potty or common commode. No! This structure is a rarity, a peculiar privy … it is a two-story outhouse … two story! Ponder the logistics of that for a moment.

Jim Greengrass grew up in the Steuben County village of Addison and played five seasons of Major League baseball in the 1950s, with the Phillies and the Reds. During a long and enjoyable phone chat, Jim reminisced about the “wonderful memories” and his “happiest days” growing up in the small Steuben County village.

Che-qua-ga Falls. There are so many waterfalls, but the beauty, roar and mist of this 160-foot cascade dominate Main Street in Montour Falls. Che-qua-ga always makes its presence known and is so impressive and unusual that its image is used during opening credits of a popular Hallmark TV series.

In 1957, the “sleepy hamlet of Apalachin” unintentionally cemented a place in gangland history when dozens of prominent mobsters gathered at a remote estate to consolidate power within the American Mafia. Foiled by State Police, the “Apalachin Meeting” publicly exposed the extent of organized crime to the nation for the first time.

Even a simple tree may be notable. The Scythe Tree near Waterloo and its poignant Civil War era tale is a favorite. Another is the sturdy Robin Hood Oak. It grew from an acorn retrieved from Robin’s legendary Sherwood Forest by a Syracuse University professor in 1926, then planted upon on his campus return.

Invincible spirit? My neighbor, white-haired Lina Robertson, was discussing her former business career and retirement interests, from charity work to antique collecting. Then the sedate lady divulged an unforeseen surprise! As a post-World War I teenager, she had fearlessly “barnstormed” as a wing-walker, parachutist and aviatrix. At fairs and events during the early 1920s, the resolute Lina was colorfully touted as “Daredevil Dolly.”

Many, many years ago, two sisters shared a home on Rushville’s Main Street, a house that straddled the Yates/Ontario county line. To be “fair,” officials determined that the sisters must register to vote in separate counties … and to maintain that voting status must choose bedrooms situated on the “appropriate” side of the county line.

Business magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) is still considered “the richest person in American history.” Yet young John was born on a modest Tioga County farm near Richford. His unstable family’s vagabond existence led them to homes near Moravia and Owego before young “John D.” eventually set out to make his fortune.

Salt potatoes? In the bygone days of Syracuse’s booming salt industry, a worker’s lunch typically consisted of spuds tossed into the boiling brine, creating what persists to this day as a regional favorite – savory salt potatoes. Additional unique eats to sample for first time area travelers? Try white hots and grape pie.

Deftly woven into the Finger Lakes mosaic is the vivid red, white and blue of the American flag. In 1966, Congress declared “Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day,” the cemetery’s initial patriotic celebration was held in 1866 to honor fallen Civil War soldiers. In addition, our Pledge of Allegiance was authored by Francis J. Bellamy (1855-1931), a gentleman born and raised in Livingston County’s Mount Morris.

Curiosity led me to knock on the door of an odd, angular, Ontario County building. What was it? For owner Cheryl Rozell, it has been home since 1965, but from 1904-1930 was a station for the R. & E. Interurban Railway. After a tour of every corner of the curious residence, Cheryl sent me home with a box of her excellent homemade cookies!

Finger Lakes swim? Rejecting the climbing of Mount Kilimanjaro as somewhat prohibitive, I set out with retired friends in need of a challenging “Excellent Adventure.” We chose the task of swimming in each of the 11 Finger Lakes in one day… “swimming” defined simply as “getting wet.” With dexterity, fortitude and untold antics, we accomplished the venture, plunging into Conesus Lake on the west and finishing with Otisco on the east. A memorable day indeed!

The way is clear. Certainly, any Finger Lakes visit must include a sampling of its attractions, from wine tasting to local cuisine to countless photo ops. But like so many pebbles scattered across the ground, fascinating facts, stories and nuggets of interest abound just waiting to be gathered. Entering its third decade of publication, Life in the Finger Lakes magazine continues to provide a reliable road map for those discoveries.

During one of my conversations, a longtime resident characterized the Finger Lakes as an exceptional place, a region of “great variety with front porch friendliness.” I couldn’t agree more.   

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