story and photos by James P. Hughes
It’s a first impression that’s inescapable. The size, quantity, and elegance of the buildings along Clifton Springs’ main thoroughfare soar beyond expectations for a cozy village of just over 2,000 residents. Their heritage is evident … something very special must have happened here, and indeed it did.
Foster and the “Water Cure”
The pungent odor of sulfur once rose from the rocky brook that flows today under Main Street, bordered by parks and walkways. The sulfur springs were first discovered by medicine men of the Iroquois who, according to author Arch Merrill, “found that the ‘stinking waters’ had strange powers to heal the sick and refresh the weary.”
By the early 1800s, a scattering of pioneer cabins had risen about the springs. With the 1849 arrival of a young, enterprising physician, things would quickly change in that dusty hamlet. Dr. Henry Foster had a vision, and the sulfur springs in a pastoral country setting fit the bill. Foster purchased property and established his “water cure” venture, a sanitarium with sulfur baths, physical exercise, and rest along with proper medical treatment and deep spiritual healing. The grounds featured sylvan walkways among its ponds and flower beds. As it became widely known, “The San” was visited by thousands including noted figures of the day seeking the springs’ curative benefits.
Always open to new medical ideas, Foster’s business prospered as decades passed. In the 1890s, a stunning five-story towered brick structure was added, including a glass-enclosed solarium with a village view, a chapel complete with a Tiffany “Last Supper” mosaic, and other amenities. By then the enterprise was known as the Clifton Springs Hospital and Clinic. A recognized model of integrated medicine, the institution ever adhered to Dr. Foster’s founding philosophy: “Good medicine treats the whole person – body, mind, and spirit.” Next to the brook and springs stood Foster’s residence, a stately Victorian cottage, now home to the Clifton Springs Museum and Historical Society.
The Legacy of Foster and Others
Community pride has been a mainstay in Clifton Springs since its founding. Dr. Foster was much more than a successful businessman; he committed himself to Clifton Springs and its citizens. He was not alone. George Washington Lisk formed a company in 1882 to produce utilitarian goods. The innovative G.W. Lisk Company, still based in Clifton Springs, now designs and creates electromechanical products for varied uses. Over the years, Lisk, his successors, the Peirce family, and others contributed greatly to the village, its pursuits, and its cultural endeavors.
That sense of community is evident in the parks and green spaces scattered throughout. Clifton Springs and in the impressive architecture up and down Main Street, much of it recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. The Peirce Block and Foster Block may be two of the more unique pieces of architecture in the Finger Lakes region. Each features a building-length portico, elegant overhangs for a row of entrances to a variety of boutiques and businesses – among them gift shops, eateries, and a bookstore that’s been in in the same location for a century.
Foster’s landmark 1896 San building escaped the threat of the wrecker’s ball and has been reborn as the Spa Apartments. Its towers still rise, and a traditional row of rockers line its front porch. Behind the imposing building, the modern Clifton Springs Hospital and Clinic overlooks the same brook where Dr. Foster’s patients once strolled.
Wandering Main Street and Beyond
While visiting Clifton Springs’ quaint shops, take note of Village Hall, the Lindner Block, the Village Library and other architectural gems. The library, housed in a thoroughly renovated railroad station, retains original features of the depot: ticket window, decorative archways, and cozy nooks. Named for its 1871 historic block, Warfield’s is among the most recognized fine-dining restaurants in the Finger Lakes region, always offering the unusual and unexpected.
Advancing community culture, the Main Street Arts gallery showcases the contemporary art and fine craft of established and emerging artists, regional and beyond. The organization is dedicated to a comprehensive appreciation of the arts: exhibitions, programs,workshops, juried competitions, demonstrations, and an artist residency program.
With such a rich heritage, an organized preservation of village history was needed and undertaken with the creation of the Clifton Springs Historical Society in 1991. Its exhibits and photographs are appropriately displayed at the Foster Cottage Museum, once the residence of Dr. Henry Foster and his wife. Aspects of the Victorian cottage’s décor retain the beauty and feel of that era, and admission is free.
Celebrations hold communities together and Clifton Springs has its share. Perhaps the most unique of these is the Sulphur Springs Festival held the first weekend of June. The gala is an annual “tip of the hat” to those Victorian times when the springs brought significant wealth and notoriety to the village. Along with anticipated features – abundant food, music, and a parade – there are ongoing events for all ages: Rotten Egg Run, Croquet Tournament, Duck Derby, Pickleball Tournament, and much more. In honor of that Victorian Era, volunteers model period attire and the tradtional “Sulphur” spelling is used in the event title in lieu of “sulfur,” commonly accepted today.
What might Dr. Foster think if he were to stroll in and around the Clifton Springs of the 21st century? He would roam about its parks, business district, and neighborhoods. He would pause to recognize and appreciate so much of what he fondly remembered and helped to create. And he would surely be pleased.