“Nicely rural … a perfect location,” simply and without pause, that’s how a longtime Hilton resident portrayed his hometown. Traditional, comfortable and unhurried are words easily added to the description of the pleasant village and its surrounding town of Parma. Less than half an hour from downtown Rochester, Hilton sits just outside the city’s suburban sprawl, amidst sweeping farmland and apple orchards. Only a five minute drive away is the Lake Ontario shoreline with all it offers – swimming, hiking, fishing and boating.
Centuries ago, native Senecas trekked a north-south route to the lakeshore on the Canawaugus Trail from their village near the sulfur springs (“stinking waters”) of Avon. They extensively hunted and fished the rich bay areas, avoiding only the hottest, mosquito-infested parts of summer and the bitterness of winter. Today, those same bays draw bird watchers from near and far to observe everything from songbirds to kestrels and eagles.
As legend has it, to avoid a cluster of trees downed in a storm, the Senecas created one quirky bend in the otherwise straight Canawaugus Trail. That bend is now Hilton’s Main Street, a one block long business section. Shops occupy its row of buildings, tidy but lacking the historic and ornate 19th century architecture found elsewhere in the Finger Lakes Region. A series of destructive fires saw to that.
From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s no less than 10 fires took their toll on the heart of Hilton, three blazes in 1903 alone. Wooden buildings built too close together, candle and kerosene lighting, and heat supplied by wood and coal stoves had set the stage. Hilton’s fledgling fire department was overmatched. In 1965, the most devastating fire of all reduced 80 percent of Main Street to rubble, changing the face (but not the spirit) of the village forever. Historian David Crumb wrote, “Each time Hilton was able to rise from the ashes … the village has continued to thrive.”
A Village Hub
A short stroll from downtown, an attractive brick building along Henry Street serves as the “hub of the village.” Built in 1930 as the first Hilton High School, it has since become the Hilton Community Center, heartbeat and home to most local services from mayor to clerk, historian to recreation department. A small adjoining community park and gazebo host a number of ceremonies including summer concerts. Nearby, a brick plaza with flags and flower beds honors Hilton’s veterans. Wider grounds surrounding the community center accommodate larger events, notably the annual Hilton Apple Fest.
Inside the building, an inspiring and fitting tribute is stretched along its long central hallway. From generations of family archives, hundreds of photographs, paintings and prints have been gathered of Hilton’s veterans, men and women who served in the nation’s conflicts dating back to the American Revolution. Flags and signage accompany these “Walls of Honor,” to create a moving display.
In 2014, a unique celebration at the community center revolved around the building’s early days as a high school, and its first 25 graduates – the class of 1931. Long ago, local resident Ray Hendershot left school a year early to assist with economic difficulties on the family farm, brought on by the Great Depression. Over eight decades later, Hendershot was awarded an honorary diploma, with former classmate Frances Cosman Justice present to join the celebration. Another classmate, Charlie Skinner, living in Kentucky, was notified of the event. All three friends from so long ago are now centenarians and trace their heritage to the Town of Parma’s pioneer families.
The Apple Fest and More
Hilton and its farms and apple orchards have always gone together. The village grew around the needs of prosperous farmers, dating back to its early days and founding in 1885. During Hilton’s commercial “glory days,” its apples and produce were shipped far and wide from local warehouses and processing plants via the historic Hojack Railroad.
The area’s connection with apples will continue when the Hilton Apple Fest celebrates its 36th year on the weekend of October 1-2, 2016 … rain or shine. Local organizations and volunteers partner to create the vast event, where 20,000 folks flock annually to view hundreds of juried crafters, multiple food booths, ongoing entertainment and, of course, anything and everything involving apples. The apple pie baking contest alone draws dozens of tasty entries.
The Hilton area is dotted with farm stands. Just two miles from village center, the Zarpentine Farms market offers baked goods, cider, local produce, 17 varieties of apples and its famous “Corn Maize.” The maze’s 20-acre layout, the largest in New York State, has changed design each of its 16 years. Markers and friendly “Corn Cops” are posted throughout to help visitors negotiate its miles of twisting and turning pathways.
Things to See … Things to Do
Summertime in Hilton offers other diversions. The lively Hilton Firemen’s Carnival is a July tradition, and August brings the “Classic Wheels on Main Street” car show to the downtown area. All types of seasonal activities – for youth, families, adults and seniors – are ongoing through the Hilton-Parma Recreation Department. Leisure activities for area residents are wide-ranging: from sports, art and theater camps to “Barks and Brews” (also known as “Paws in the Park”), a family-fun activity with something for everyone, including pets.
Simple pleasures are available everywhere in and around the area. Take an evening drive to any spot along the lakeshore to view a famed Lake Ontario sunset. The countryside offers endless opportunities for the amateur or professional photographer. The Parma-Hilton Historical Society Museum maintains lively and colorful displays of the past: the history of local cobblestone houses, reproductions of a schoolroom and a general store and dioramas of early area manufacturing. Built in 1896, the Braddock Point Lighthouse has found new life as an inviting Victorian bed and breakfast, where guests can not only enjoy those sunsets, but also tour the restored lighthouse tower with its breathtaking views. And besides those bountiful apples, a chestnut orchard is in development just north of the village – an attempt to restore the once-iconic tree, a species that’s nearly vanished from the New York landscape over the last century.
story and photos by James P. Hughes