Avon

A view of downtown Avon from Circle Park, an oasis at the village center.

I sit on a verandah, inhaling an atmosphere medicated by gas from the springs … in the midst of bounteous grain fields and rich pastures … in this nook in the garden of the Excelsior State.
– A visitor’s correspondence from Avon Springs to the New York Daily Times, July 16, 1855

This visitor’s quaint description of the early 19th century health spa at Avon Springs is a bit at odds with the name given to the same pungent mineral springs by native tribesmen of the Seneca Nation. They called it Canawaugus, or “Stinking Waters.” The Senecas drank of (and bathed in) the healing waters long before Avon became a fashionable resort and trendy stop along the turnpike for weary travelers. Its amenities and medicinal springs rivaled those at Saratoga.

Activity at Avon Springs peaked prior to the Civil War. More than a dozen hostelries were built in and around the village – The Livingston House, Congress Hall, The United States Hotel, Knickerbocker Hall and the White Horse Tavern among them. “Those were grand days,” says Maureen Kingston, Avon’s town historian. “The spa offered bathhouses, bowling alleys and landscaped gardens. The inns provided fine food and plush accommodations, and in 1836, Avon Springs Downs racetrack and grandstand were laid out for added excitement.”

The dust of arriving carriages settled long ago. Avon’s spa days receded into the mist of history, but the grounds of Avon Springs are still there, still used and still appreciated. In the 1960s, the Village of Avon purchased the dormant land, formed a park commission and revived the property as The Avon Driving Park. Open to the community, over its 56 acres are baseball fields, a skating rink, walking trails, a gazebo and picnic pavilions. Owners still train their horses on the old racetrack oval. If you catch a whiff of sulfur, don’t be surprised. The original mineral springs continue to bubble up here and there around the property.

The village is proud of all its parks. Wadsworth Park’s natural walking trail connects the Driving Park to a green area at Avon’s Five Arch Bridge, a landmark railroad structure dating to the 1850s. A canoe and fishing access park stands beside the Genesee River at the site where Gilbert R. Berry established a tavern and trading post in 1789. Avon’s first settler, Berry transported wagons across the river with an ingenious pulley-operated ferry years before a bridge spanned Genesee waters.

But Avon’s heart and soul is Circle Park. Its towering Civil War monument, gardens and “urban arboretum” oblige visitors to slow for a moment on busy Routes 5 and 20 to savor the village’s New England flavor. Eleven species of trees from Norway maples to red oaks to lindens abound. The Avon Garden Club oversees the colorful flower beds and hanging baskets. “Circle Park is almost a sacred space in Avon,” Kingston explains. “A tranquil spot perfect for a Memorial Day service or Christmas caroling … a place that families come home to. More boisterous ‘tent events’ are held elsewhere.”

Boisterous? Avon’s annual Corn Fest sponsored by the Rotary Club in mid-August fits that bill just fine. Sweet corn has been an area staple since the days of the Native Americans, so of course there’s corn on the cob, kettle corn, corn fritters and a corn-eating contest. But that’s only the beginning. Almost 200 vendors line both sides of Genesee Street with a wide variety of food, crafts and local products. There’s ongoing entertainment on three stages and games aplenty. “We celebrated our 25th year in 2011, and the festival continues to grow,” says Tom Vonglis, event chairman. “Best of all, the funds generated allow Avon Rotary to support many, many worthy causes. The Corn Festival is attended by about 15,000 people annually … it’s an affair that really draws the community together.”

History continually blends with the present in Avon. The White Horse statue stands at East Avon’s four corners, where it once embellished the long departed White Horse Tavern, but fine meals and lodging still evoke days gone by at the historic Avon Inn (ca. 1820). Modern town offices exist amidst the wood and brick of the Opera Block building constructed in 1876. Mayor Tom Freeman, a lifetime resident, values Avon’s knack of merging yesterday with today. “We’ve managed to revere our past, and at the same time, steadily progress with an eye to the future. Through it all, the town and village have maintained a stable size and a consistent flavor.”

The several thousand residents of Avon have forged a unique harmony – residential, farming and commercial. Traditional homes dominate its streets, and rich farms roll over the surrounding countryside. Business hums along in its Kraft Foods plant (the only manufacturer of Cool Whip in the world), The Barilla America Inc. factory (Barilla has only two pasta-producing facilities in the United States) and The Star Headlight and Lantern Company (a family-owned manufacturer of vehicle safety lighting products since 1889).

For a newcomer wanting to learn more about Avon, a strategic stop at the Village Restaurant – known locally as “Bone’s” – might be in order. There, I unearthed a number of interesting local facts while chatting with “regulars” Jerry, Marty, Dan and Dr. Bob.

They first told me the juicy Wahlburgers and handcrafted root beer, savored throughout the Rochester area, were created in 1955 at Tom Wahl’s original location in Avon. Tom Wahl’s maintains its 1950s flare, even providing outdoor concerts during the summer months. I also learned that John Hubbard Forsyth, an adventurer and “restless medical student” from Avon, went west to battle for Texas independence. On the 6th of March in 1836, with almost 200 others, he lost his life defending the Alamo from the onslaught of Santa Anna’s Mexican army. We went on from there to discuss much more than burgers and heroes.

Whether it’s a cup of coffee with Bone’s regulars, or a chat with Maureen Kingston at the Town Historian’s Office, a leisurely stopover in Avon pays dividends. Take a historical walk, stroll the weekly farmers’ market or roam the lively Corn Fest in August. Spend an evening under the stars at the multi-screened Vintage Drive-In Theater in East Avon – one of just over 20 left in the state. If time allows, simply settle for a while with a good book amidst the shady trees and flower beds in Circle Park. And think of Avon the next time you top your favorite dessert with a dollop of Cool Whip.

For more information on the town of Avon, please visit the following websites:
www.avon-ny.org
www.avonhistorical.org
avonrotary.org/cornfest.php
avonfarmersmarket.org
avonny.org


by James P. Hughes