Get Away to Owego

The historically-registered Tioga County Courthouse, built in 1872, dominates Owego’s picturesque skyline when viewed along the Susquehanna River near the new Court Street Bridge.

Patricia Hansen opened The Hand of Man more than 30 years ago as a farmer’s market. Today, her Owego shop is filled floor-to-ceiling with a breathtaking assortment of Victorian gifts and antiques, fragrances, gourmet foods and holiday decorations. The shop’s River Rose Café is popular for lunches, especially in the warmer months when diners can enjoy the flower-fringed rear deck that overlooks the Susquehanna River. Four times a year Hansen sells out the seating for her extraordinary “high teas,” complete with flute or guitar soloists.

Her business serves as an anchor for the “Riverow” block of unique shops and restaurants along Front Street in Owego. Both east and west of the shopping district, the river-flanked street offers visitors a walking-tour array of historic homes rich in architectural heritage. Dozens of Greek Revival, Victorian and Mansard-style gems have been remarkably preserved. In fact, almost the entire village of Owego, with a population of about 4,000, is classified a historic district by federal and New York State historic preservation agencies. The district encompasses 287 historically certified buildings, of which 151 are homes.

One of those residences is occupied by Kim Trahan, a physician’s assistant. She also serves as chairperson of the Owego Historic Preservation Commission, the body that oversees and maintains the village’s historic district. “Our job is to evaluate potential changes to historic structures,” she said. “We ensure that changes to the exterior of a building enhance and preserve its architectural integrity and appearance, that they fit in with the surroundings and add to the look of the entire village.

“Over the course of many years, buildings that incorporate many interesting styles of architecture have been built in the village,” she continued. “A few years ago, representatives from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, one of the banner organizations that supports historic preservation, toured Owego. They noted that the 2-square-mile radius of our community is one of the best examples in the country of varied American architecture. We have everything from early Federal to Postmodern and almost everything in between, including Victorian, Georgian, Colonial, Greek and Italianate.”

Her own house, at 275 Front Street, happens to be one of oldest structures in the village. Built in 1802, only 15 years after Owego was settled, the Greek Revival building was originally constructed as a land surveyor’s office. It also served as a hardware store and post office, and for a time housed the Owego Gazette newspaper on its second floor. The building was converted to a residence in 1848.

“It’s a great old house,” Trahan said. “I’ve tried to keep it somewhat primitive, tried to keep the kitchen and bathroom somewhat evocative of the period prior to the introduction of granite and stainless steel.”

A block east from Trahan’s house, on the corner of Front and Ross Streets, is a white Gothic residence with yellow trim and two plaques on the front wall. One is an architectural merit award from the Owego Historic Preservation Commission. The other states simply, “Built in 1805.” At 351 Front Street stands the oldest continuously occupied home in the village.

A book, Early Owego, published by the Owego Gazette in 1907, reports that the Front Street house was occupied in its early years by one of the few families in the village to own slaves. Local legend holds that the residence later became a “station” on the Underground Railroad.

The home’s current owners, Merlin and Marcia Lessler, recently escorted a visitor to the residence’s second floor, where they showed him a closet with a hidden passageway at the back leading to a windowless attic room. They speculated that the space could have been a hiding place for escaped slaves. “This house has gone both ways on the slavery issue,” Merlin said.

What’s it like to live in such a historic home? “It’s no different than any other. It’s a double-wide with character,” Lessler said with a laugh.

Interestingly, one of the home’s owners in the 19th century was a retired United States naval officer named Benjamin W. Loring. In 1865, Loring was serving in Washington and happened to be present at Ford’s Theater on the night that President Abraham Lincoln was shot. Loring was one of the men who carried the dying president from the theater. The uniform jacket that he wore that night is on loan at the Tioga County Historical Society’s museum on Front Street. It is rumored to be stained with the president’s blood, noted Emma M. Sedore, Tioga County historian.

While he lived at 351 Front Street, Loring had two sons. One of them, J. Alden Loring, became a noted naturalist and accompanied Theodore Roosevelt on his celebrated African expedition of 1909. Roosevelt presented him with a rifle, which now resides in the vault at the county historical society’s museum, along with Roosevelt’s humidor made from a rhinoceros foot.

Perhaps the most noteworthy items among the county museum’s historical treasures are a daybook and 300 photographic prints of famed Civil War era photographer Mathew Brady. The Brady collection came from the estate of the widow of Andrew Burgess, a Brady assistant who later became the photographer’s partner. He was given the record book and photographs when the insolvent Brady could not repay a debt. Burgess had settled in the Owego area upon marrying a local resident.

Of all the attractions in Owego, nothing is more popular than the village’s annual Strawberry Festival. Begun in 1981 as a sidewalk fair, the event has become a celebration featuring a wide selection of strawberry treats, live music, an hour-long parade and numerous craft vendors. More than 10,000 people attend each year.

Owego will benefit this year from a $900,000 state grant that will provide new street lighting, sidewalk benches, trees and other plantings in the business district. Next year, a $1.6 million project involving Susquehanna riverbank stabilization and a new walkway behind the Riverow shops gets underway.

Last June, when floodwaters devastated the Southern Tier, Patricia Hansen’s riverside shop suffered about $20,000 in damage. “I had 8 feet of water in my basement; it was unprecedented,” she noted, adding with a laugh: “I was in denial the whole time.”

Nevertheless, she remains optimistic. “Residents of Owego are very proud of their community; many will work to preserve it. I think as years go by, we’ll see our history and unique architecture become a draw for more visitors. People like to stroll the streets of a quaint village and eat in unique restaurants; I think they’ll tire of the plastic-ness of malls. We hope that Owego will continue to delight as a destination.”

photos and story by Bill Wingell