Take the stage for “Bonnie Dundee,”
Three miles west of the N.Y.C.
The prettiest town you ever did see;
Visit once and you’ll one of us be.
– author unknown
Best recited with a bit of a Scottish burr, this lilting rhyme is posted at the New York Central (“N.Y.C.”) station in the Hamlet of Starkey in Yates County. In days gone by, it directed many a traveler to the nearby village of Dundee. The town got its name in 1834 at the suggestion of Scottish native James Gifford, a local teacher and resident. The Scottish influence remains to this day – Dundee Central School’s athletic teams are dubbed The Scots, and its yearbook is called The Highlander.
The annual Scottish Festival of the Finger Lakes has become the focus of the town’s Scottish connections.
On the Saturday after Labor Day, the event takes over the busy Black Rock Speedway grounds just south of the village. For a day the roar of engines gives way to the skirl of bagpipes.
“A parade kicks off the festival, featuring almost a dozen bagpipe bands from as far away as Washington, D.C.,” says Fran Willis, president of the local Scottish Association. “Entertainment tents feature Celtic music, highland games like the caber and stone tosses, and even sheepherding demonstrations.”
Of course there’s plenty of food, everything from hamburgers to traditional Scottish dishes like “bridies,” a crusty meat pastry; and “haggis,” often described as a “savoury pudding.” How is haggis made? Don’t ask.
Dundee is encircled by golden fields of bountiful farmland and the best countryside the Finger Lakes has to offer: braes, craigs and glens, as the Scots might say. Four lakes, including Seneca and Keuka, are within a 10-mile radius.
“Don’t suggest we’re in the middle of nowhere,” cautions resident Lew Ann Giles. “Most local people consider our location ‘the Heart of the Finger Lakes,’ and I agree.” A quick analysis of the region supports her argument – Dundee measures close to dead center.
Businesses there offer a touch of hometown hospitality. Crocodile Mercantile, where I met Lew Ann and her husband Alan, specializes in musical instruments, accessories and lessons. The shop also includes an eclectic mix of antiques, collectibles and “Everything Dundee” – a shop of items made by a small collective of craftsmen and artisans from Dundee, Starkey and Barrington.
Other storefronts sprinkled throughout Dundee’s business district are Sue’s Unique Boutique, The Fabric Shop, The Dundee Observer newspaper (published since 1878) and more. One of them, The Water Street Pharmacy, has conducted business in town since the late 19th century. “Our services go well beyond remedies and notions,” says owner Tracey Knapp. “We value our past – I can show you handwritten prescriptions in leather-bound books dating back 100 years or more.”
Few towns the size of Dundee can boast a radio station, but WFLR has been on the airwaves since the mid-1950s. Its format remains lively with music, news, sports and traditional local shows like “Hotline – Buy & Sell” and “Open Mic.”
“For more than 40 years, Open Mic has provided listeners with spirited conversation and, let’s say, a few uncomfortable moments on live air … uncomfortable but entertaining,” says Program Director Mike Smith.
The people of Dundee share in local projects, events and their rich history. “Communities prosper when people come together,” says Lauren Snyder, project coordinator for Our Town Rocks, a venture that encourages the growth of a healthy, thriving community by maximizing the value of Dundee’s natural assets. “Our comprehensive long-term goals cover everything from encouraging healthy lifestyles to beautifying the village and stimulating small business growth.”
On the first Saturday after July 4th, Dundee Days bring the community together in a more informal way. A bargain hunter’s paradise winds its way up, down and around the village in a “24-mile yard sale.” Vendors offer everything from burgers to barbecue, and activities like group displays and a library book sale join the mix.
In the early 1970s, the Dundee Historical Society salvaged a long-neglected two-story brick school building dating back to 1891. It became the Old Schoolhouse Museum. Dundee-area memorabilia, photographs and military uniforms, along with research access to local genealogical and historical records, fill its rooms. A set of mannequins inherited from a former village dress shop help display an extensive dress and costume collection. Each year society members gather to dress the models in the attire of a different historical era, an amusing ritual fondly called “dressing the old broads.”
You can sample Dundee on a day trip or an overnight stay at a local B & B. Shop for a wide range of fine products at nearby Mennonite farms, or visit the 200-plus vendors at The Windmill Farm & Craft Market, a Finger Lakes landmark.
There’s the excitement of racing at The Black Rock Speedway, or the relaxation of wine tasting at the half-dozen Finger Lakes wineries with Dundee addresses. Try a gourmet hot dog, the best of New York’s famous reds and whites, at R.E.D.S. Hots on St. Rt. 14. Ray and Sandy Spencer label their eatery overlooking Seneca Lake, “A Finger Lakes Wienery.” Offerings range from the traditional to specialties like the “Double Dog Dare Ya!”
As for the unique, take a class from John Coffer, “traveling wetplate artist.” This modern-day itinerant tintype photographer settled on his farm near Dundee after a seven-year, cross-country wagon journey with his faithful horse, Brownie. He now lives simply on the farm where he holds workshops to teach and preserve his unusual craft. Ah, but that’s another story.
by James P. Hughes