Find Fun for Families in Cortland County this Summer

Stained glass at the 1890 House Museum

It had been quite a while since I had been in Cortland County. My memory of that trip was that of rising hillsides and farmlands, all decked out in autumn colors. Of course, I remember eating apples too. So my family and I were eager to get reacquainted with this area of the Finger Lakes.

Cortland County, surprisingly, is only a two-hour drive from our home in suburban Rochester, which makes it a convenient day trip for families. We went in search of unusual and inexpensive attractions and events in the outlying areas and larger towns of Cortland County, where local people would shop and meet.

One place that is worth the navigation and time (with a good local map) is Bob’s Country Store and Apothecary Museum, on Marathon-McGraw Road, just north of the town of Marathon. It brings back the memories a bygone era, where customers would keep warm sitting by the potbellied stove, or pass the time away in the summer with a game of corncob checkers. Collectors will find such items as milk bottles, wartime music books and various types of period glassware and dishware.

Joyce Barrows, Bob’s widow and current owner of the store, says that her husband started out as a dairy farmer “but was always a collector. He always had a thing for country stores, seeing he lived above one while he was growing up.” Eventually family and friends donated items to Bob’s Country Store, and Bob also set out to get as many local items and memorabilia as he could.

Bob’s Country Store and Apothecary Museum is open during the summer, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., or other days by appointment. Families with strollers may want to park them out front.

After a very winding scenic drive, we decided to investigate shops on Main Street between Port Watson and Groton Street in Cortland. As it turned out, Pinstripes and Polkadots Gallery was featuring an art workshop for kids to recycle an old article of clothing with all sorts of embellishments. So while my artist-in-training was doing a fashion makeover, I browsed downstairs. There were supplies and items for kids such as markers, easels, crayons, clay, paper and project kits, all geared to encourage future art students.

My traveling companions were feeling a little hungry by this point. Fortunately, Main Street offers many dining options to suit every palate and budget. Of course, where there are college students, there are pizza shops, but there are also other inexpensive alternatives. On our visit we went to the Pita Gourmet, specializing in Mediterranean fare with a Lebanese touch. However, if your younger travelers have more pedestrian tastes, Route 281 south of Route 222 (Groton Street) has familiar family fare.

We had heard from other parents earlier that morning that Cortland had its own castle, which would be the 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Arts at 37 Tompkins Street. This grand limestone mansion was built at the height of the Gilded Age by local successful wire manufacturer Chester F. Wickwire. There are four floors which feature parquet floors, jewel-like stained glass windows, ornate decorative stenciling and oak and cherry woodwork.

Each room is furnished and decorated according to its function at the turn of the century – the sunroom for breakfast, the living room for afternoon tea, the dining room to entertain guests over a multicourse meal prepared by the house staff. Descrip­tions of typical menus and gender-specific activities of that time are detailed on placards in each room. The upper two floors have a billiard room and a finished attic space with a cozy children’s nook, surrounded by windows overlooking Cortland. Youngsters will enjoy exploring the numerous towers and turrets within this fascinating structure.

Speaking of the arts, if you’re looking for unusual artwork and sculptures, be sure to stop at the Dowd Fine Arts Gallery on the SUNY College at Cortland campus. While on our investigational vacation for this article, my daughter and I went to see “4 Pianos and Some Strings: Works by Ken Butler.” We saw stringed instruments made of a coat hanger, axe, clock and cowboy boot, among other castoffs turned into creative masterpieces. My daughter especially enjoyed the grand pianos made of egg crates, styrofoam, twigs and even played the one made of radios and spare electronic parts.

While you’re on the campus, the Memorial Library has a children’s section (and a coffee shop for adults) which presents readings by local authors, professors and community leaders. If you need a meal or snack, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the varied menu offerings at each of the dining services throughout the campus. Visitors can have their choice of fine dining, vegetarian fare, grilled sandwiches, and even Friendly’s ice cream. This is not my college food service anymore!

If it’s time for the travelers to get some free-range exercise, numerous parks in Cortland County are available. Yaman Park, off Kennedy Parkway in Cortland, has a man-made beach, picnic pavilions and a playground. For older children, the skate park on-site is open to inline skaters, skateboarders and 20-inch BMX bikes. Suggett Park at Homer Avenue and Madison Street also has swimming at C. C. Wickwire Pool.

Nature lovers and hikers will delight in Lime Hollow Center for Environment and Culture on Lime Hollow Road, southwest of Cortland off Route 13 south in the town of McLean. Self-directed activities include the interpretive center and three miles of marked trails, open seven days per week from daylight to dark. Public programs at Lime Hollow offer a variety of natural and cultural history learning opportunities for area residents and visitors at modest rates. The staff at Lime Hollow also collaborate with other businesses and organizations in the area for participants to enjoy literary, visual and native arts. Lime Hollow’s new facility, scheduled to open in the summer of 2005, will overlook an expansive natural vista with an existing large pond in the foreground and rolling hills on the horizon.

Just 3 miles north of Cortland is its next-door neighbor, Homer. A walk down Main Street past the 19th century commercial buildings, old stately mansion and homes representing styles off architecture prevalent throughout the past 200 years can be a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Causal dining, gift shops and clothing retail stores appeal to browsers old and young.

Happily Ever After Books at 6 Main Street is a cozy bookstore which offers author signings and readings, American Girl literature, and books to please those from crib to iPod. Collab­orative literary and nature events occur regularly with Lime Hollow Center for Environment and Culture. “We’re happy to present authors that people wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to meet,” states sales associate Jennifer Jones. Even on a rainy day one can snuggle up on the wicker loveseat in the front window and become absorbed in a good book.

The Homeville Museum on 43 Clinton Street contains ample and varied railroad and military memorabilia. The massive collection of model trains downstairs runs through several rooms as it winds its way through hills and cities, freightyards, bridges, and tunnels. Out in the yard, you’ll find a 1942 World War II paratrooper’s folding bicycle, a 1952 Korean War army truck, a 1/4 ton Army cannon jeep, and a 1968 M60 A3 Main Battle Tank

Homer offers a number of community events during the year at local businesses, the Center for the Arts of Homer on Main Street, or at the Village Green. Durkee Park, located on Route 11 one-half mile north of the center of the village of Homer, has a pavilion, picnic facilities, fishing spots, and a playground with newly installed equipment in a beautiful and quiet setting for the whole family to enjoy.

Theatre and drama fans will be entertained by a variety of performances by the Cortland Repertory Theatre.  The Theatre plays a 10 week seasons in rotating repertory of 5 plays, with short term plays for children. Performances are held in the Little York Lake Pavilion, built in 1906 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Cortland Repertory Theatre is located north of approximately 10 miles north of Cortland in Little York.

If you prefer your entertainment somewhat more “down-home,” you’ll want to visit the Country Music Park and Campground, located on Route 13, (Exit 11, off I-81). Known as the “Nashville of the Northeast”, the highlight of the park is the Hall of Fame. It contains memorabilia donated by local, state, and nationally renowned country musicians. Live country music is featured in the summer months in the outdoor stage. The “Opry” barn and campground are open year-round. Put on your dancing shoes for a little country jamboree, line dance and two-stepping, or round and square dancing.

If you’re seeking a hidden gem in the Finger Lakes, you’ll want to experience the rural heritage of Cortland county. No matter the season or the weather, Cortland county has something for everyone.


by Linda D. Pratt
Linda D. Pratt is a free-lance writer from Penfield, New York, whose family vacations are always an adventure.