Canisteo – A Picturesque Village in the Valley

Behind the elementary school is Canisteo's famous "living sign." In 2004, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With its village green, cluster of local businesses, and quiet streets, Canisteo is small and comfortable – a pleasant Finger Lakes community. Perched midway between the southern tip of Keuka Lake and the Pennsylvania state line, it’s a village surrounded by lofty ridges and deep valleys, most with a creek or brook winding into the Canisteo River.

The creeks and their often hidden waterfalls provide ever-changing scenery throughout the seasons, and a peaceful place to cool off on a sultry summer day. They’ve been explored and re-explored by local youth for generations, but there have been a number of times when the valleys of Bennett’s Creek, Colonel Bill’s Creek, and others were anything but serene.

Five critical times from 1889 to 1972, fierce rainstorms sent water gushing through the glens, swelling the Canisteo River, each time devastating the village with floods. “The 1889 deluge was part of the same system that caused the famous Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania,” says local historian George Dickey. “And even extensive levee work completed after the ‘35 flood couldn’t fully hold back the waters that came in ‘72.” Each flood took its toll, but Canisteo has survived the decades.

A Touch of History
The first permanent settlers, among the earliest in Steuben County, arrived in 1789 in the vicinity of “Kah-ni-sti-oh,” a Native American village of Delawares allowed to live in Seneca Nation controlled territory. Homes were established, the broad fertile lands were farmed and lumbering became a main subsistence industry. Timber was sent down the Canisteo River to the Susquehanna and eventually to Harrisburg and Baltimore.

With the arrival of the railroads in the mid-19th century, Canisteo became a boom town. Area industry flourished – foundries, milling of decorative woodwork, production of advertising items and signage, three shoe factories, and more. A period document reflects an involved community: “Ever mindful of the spiritual and educational welfare of their families and children, inhabitants have made generous provision for erection of churches and schools.” By 1890, the town’s population had topped 3,000, commerce was humming along, and the imposing Canisteo House hotel stood at the village center. The three-story structure, Steuben County’s first brick building, with its wide porches and porticos, survived as the county’s oldest until it was razed in the 1990s. The Kanestio Historical Society, after surviving a severe fire, is back in business on Main Street preserving and displaying Canisteo’s long and rich history.

Random Sketches
Past to present, every village has an assortment of interesting nuggets blended into its history. Canisteo is no exception. During his 1911 transcontinental airplane flight, aviator Calbraith Perry Rogers touched down in a field just outside Canisteo, drawing the adulation of a large crowd. Rogers visited, tinkered with his plane, and then flew on to become the first person to complete a coast-to-coast flight.

Among a number of interesting homes in Canisteo is an imposing 19th century Victorian structure known as “The Castle.” Perched on a rise behind a substantial stone wall and steps, the residence, with its striking winding staircase and white Italian marble fireplace, has been owned over the years by a number of people, all mindful of the home’s grace. The long twisting staircase rises into the building’s tower, and is often colorfully lighted by the owners, in keeping with the season.

Canisteo has two banking institutions, not that odd for a small town, but this pair is pretty unusual. Separated only by a firewall, The Steuben Trust Company and Citizens & Northern Bank coexist with their front doors just steps apart. Differing architecture catches a visitor’s eye; vintage red brick Steuben Trust with its narrow windows and ornate trim, Citizens & Northern with its classic pillars and Greek façade. The Trust building is all that remains of a once impressive business block razed by fire in 1884. The imposing Greek pillars of C&N were added to a standard storefront around 1920.

“Any bad blood between bordering banks?” I asked some employees. “Not a bit,” was the answer. “We’re all friends … the worst that happens is a confused check casher that has to be sent next door on occasion.”

Fun and Fundraising
Along with traditional activities revolving around a town’s schools and churches, there’s usually one or more special times that help pull a community together. Two of these, “Canisteo Crazee Daze” and “Christmas in the Village” are sponsored by the Canisteo Community Support Group.

“CCSG is a charitable organization,” says its president Valerie Nixon. “Our goal is fundraising through various activities to identify and financially support needs within the community.” Since 1974, Crazee Daze has been a wide-ranging event in early June – parade, food galore, talent contest, dance, yard sales, and multiple vendors. Former businessman Tom Booth, a founder, believes Crazee Daze has been a great thing for Canisteo. “Over the years it’s drawn thousands … an enjoyable tradition, a plus for the village.”

Christmas in the Village kicks off the holiday season the first Saturday after Thanksgiving. A child-and-family centered event, Santa arrives on a horse-drawn carriage for ornament and cookie decorating contests, hay rides, and refreshments. Bright Christmas lighting adorns the downtown commons, aptly named “The Park.”

An Enduring Sign and Indelible Memories
Flying over these picturesque hills and valleys and glancing down, one will never wonder the name of the village whose streets spread out below. A “living sign” of several hundred carefully placed Scotch pine trees spells out “CANISTEO” in large green letters across a wooded hillside. The sign, conceived and created in 1934, is 400 feet wide and 60 feet high. It once appeared in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, the iconic newspaper feature that for decades traded on the bizarre, the unusual and the unexplained. Cartoonist Robert Ripley labeled Canisteo’s creation “the world’s largest living sign.” World’s largest? That claim may be a stretch, but eighty years later there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in New York state.

Radio talk show host and writer Bob Lonsberry vividly remembers climbing that hill to the living sign, and speaks fondly of his hometown Canisteo. “It’s a place of green hills and open hearts, a place where folks tend to be lean, weathered, and don’t sweat the small stuff,” says Lonsberry. “I have many memories of Canisteo, and every one of them is a joy.”


by James P. Hughes