Is That a Potato House?

This house can be seen on Knickerbocker Road in Ontario

An architectural student from New York City drove to Rochester to visit the Landmark Society of Western New York. When he arrived, he asked Cynthia Howk, the Architectural Research Coordinator, “what are those potato houses I passed on the way to Rochester?”

We locals pass them too, as part of our routine travels, and don’t give them much thought. They aren’t potato houses, they’re cobblestone houses, and they’re more special (and certainly more durable) than a house built with potatos could ever be.

Over 700 cobblestone buildings can be found within a 65-mile radius of Rochester, New York, and nowhere else. They’re so common here that we take them for granted. But, each is a unique work of folk art that tells the story of our pioneer history.

Imagine moving slowly by wagon, over roads that were mere ruts of mud, to build a log cabin in a remote wilderness. This is precisely what the early pioneers of upstate New York did. When they arrived on their plot of land, often purchased from the Phelps & Gorham Land Tract or Holland Land Company, they had to clear the trees from the dense forest to create fields for farming.

Then they discovered the fields were full of fist-sized stones (or cobblestones), evidence that glaciers once scoured this land before the forests grew. These pesky rocks had to be moved out of the way and as they plowed, the cobbles seemed to regenerate. It was hard work, but the land was productive and the pioneers were able to grow enough produce to feed their growing families.

Then the Erie Canal opened in 1825, creating a way to get the produce to larger markets. The farming business flourished, enough so that the farmers began to think about building better homes for their hardworking wives and 10-plus children. Why not put those pesky cobblestones to use and build a dandy home – they were, by golly, lying about free in the fields, just waiting to be gathered. The pioneers were not strangers to hard labor. Brick was expensive and wood could be shipped away on the Erie Canal as another product for sale. But the cobblestones were just in the way.

This is how many of the cobblestone buildings came into existence. They were built between 1825 and 1860, before the Civil War. Each was a work of folk art; each unique. Cobblestone building construction evolved over time and is divided into three roughly defined periods. In the early period, masons used cobbles of various color and size gathered from fields. Through the middle and into the late period they began to gather lake-washed cobbles along the shore of Lake Ontario and sorted them for size and color. The fronts of houses were often built with uniform cobbles. Mortar treatment between the cobbles became more artistic and craftsmanship showed dramatic improvement.

Soft lime mortar was the glue that held the cobbles together. In its most basic form, the mortar was made of lime, sand and water. But, each mason’s mortar recipe was unique and guarded closely as a trade secret. Wide variations occurred in the proportions of ingredients, the quality of ingredients, the method of obtaining and mixing the ingredients, and even in storage methods. Experimentation was encouraged. The magic of soft lime mortar was that it cured slowly and let stones settle and bear weight. Soft lime mortar took up to 35 years to fully harden which gave the building time to settle without cracking.

How many cobblestones does it take to build a house, anyway? Cobblestone homeowner Margaret Deans actually counted. She estimates it took 14,402 cobblestones to build her circa-1862 farmhouse. Now that’s a lot of stone picking!

Houses were not the only buildings erected with cobblestone construction. The same method was used to build churches, schools, mills, barns, stores, shops, factories, carriage houses, garden houses, gate and toll houses, smokehouses, pumphouses, hophouses, privies, stables, turniphouses, piggeries, decorative walls along roadways, and even cemetery markers and cemetery receiving vaults. Many of the cobblestone buildings are standing and still in use, a testament to their fine craftsmanship.

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story by Sue Freeman, photos by Sue and Rich Freeman

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