“When the canal town was very young, the Indians called it ‘The Red Village’ because there were so many brick houses.”
– Arch Merrill, 1945
Many of those brick houses still stand proud in Brockport. The quaint architecture has these days given rise to a new catchphrase for the village, “The Victorian Village on the Erie Canal.” Recognized on both the New York State and National Historic registers, Brockport’s commercial district with its brick façades has an undeniable small town America flavor – evocative of a lively village Main Street as it “used to be.”
Businesses abound in Brockport’s Victorian structures – hair salons, gift boutiques, bike shop, restaurants and galleries. There’s coffee at Java Junction, tea at The Red Bird Tea Shoppe and confectionaries at Seaward Candies.
The Lift Bridge Book Shop, with its bright canal-era mural, offers lectures, classes and workshops in addition to its huge selection of books, which includes many children’s titles. One visitor called the Lift Bridge “a toy store in disguise.” The Strand movie house operates in a building, which has housed a theater for more than a century. Brockport historian Jackie Morris said that it’s the second-longest continuously running theater in the country.
SUNY Brockport students roam Main Street, patronizing its eateries, the music store, specialty shops and a saloon – or three! “The décor and memorabilia at Jimmy Z’s Texas Hots is like a big version of my bedroom with booths in it,” said Jimmy Zisovski, the restaurant’s young owner. Barber’s Grill & Tap – “where every hour is happy” – is Brockport’s oldest tavern. Its interior remains virtually unchanged since the pub opened in 1929, with its woodwork, tin ceilings and original booths still intact.
The area’s first settlers arrived just after 1800. With the construction and sudden boom of the Erie Canal around 1820, the bustling community of Brockway’s Port took shape. Named for early pioneer Hiel Brockway, the settlement was incorporated as a village in 1829 and its name shortened to Brockport.
A testy rivalry between Brockway and another early founder, James Seymour, led to a unique village feature that exists to the present day. Brockway owned all the land west of Main Street, Seymour possessed everything to the east. As the town grew the adversaries agreed on very little, not even a logical street layout. Thus, no thoroughfare west of Main lines up with any street to the east, and all bear different names.
The Erie Canal era kept Brockport humming with industry that fashioned everything from farm implements to shoes to glass bottles to pianos. The canal carried wheat produced throughout the area, to consumers across the country and around the globe. “Queen Victoria insisted that all her pastries be made from western New York wheat,” said historian Morris. “She considered it to be the best in the world.”
In 1846, legendary inventor Cyrus McCormick entrusted production of his first 100 reapers, wheat harvesters that could do the work of many men, to Brockport’s Seymour & Morgan Iron Works. The first field of wheat cut by a factory-produced machine in the United States was harvested by a McCormick reaper on a Brockport area farm.
During the late 19th century, Brockport was proud home to Mary Jane Holmes
(1825 – 1907), one of the most widely read and prolific writers of the Victorian Age, second only in book sales to Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the den of her “Brown Cottage” on College Street, Holmes wrote dozens of novels and short stories – flowery, sentimental, melodramatic. An admiring nationwide audience eagerly sought out her new work. “Although busy and celebrated,” Morris said, “she was always charitable and active in village affairs.”
The first “College of Brockport” began admitting students in 1835, with the distinction of being the first institution of higher education west of Colgate University. The school has evolved through the years as Brockport Collegiate Institute, Brockport Normal School, and today The College at Brockport, State University of New York. From humble beginnings, the campus has grown into the expansive, innovative and dynamic institution it is today.
Brockport hosts an array of traditional activities throughout the year – summer concerts, a weekly farmers’ market, Arbor Day tree planting, a Fourth of July celebration, a community barbeque and music festival, and Christmas tree lighting, among them.
A number of these take place around the new welcome center and waterfront plaza dedicated in 2005. With its park-like setting and convenient hookups, the center received an Erie Canalway Heritage Award of Excellence in 2009.
We’ve had visitors from many states, Canada, and Europe – including a Scandinavian couple traveling the world in a homemade wooden boat,” explained lifetime Brockport residents and center volunteers Jim and Charlene Whipple. “People love to stop along the canal to enjoy the flavor of Brockport and the convenience and range of available services.”
If founders Hiel Brockway and James Seymour were able to leap forward almost two centuries to stroll along local streets today, they would surely be in awe of Brockport’s bustling landscape. The habitual rivals might even find areas of agreement in the progress made – maybe!
For more information, visit www.brockportny.org.
by James P. Hughes