Does anyone actually enjoy doing laundry? Lugging heavy baskets of clothing, hanging, folding, waiting, waiting, waiting. It’s a real pain doing laundry in the 21st century, so just imagine the process involved in the 19th century when there were no such things as washing machines or dryers. At the Genesee Country Village & Museum, you don’t have to just imagine. Anne Rodgers is the lead interpreter of social and domestic life at the museum. Join her in the kitchen of George Eastman’s boyhood home, and she’ll tell you all about the standards of hygiene, laundering, chamber pots, and the problems involved in keeping oneself clean in the 1800s.
“I love to talk to children about taking baths once a week, about being the third or fourth one into the bath water, about how everyone smelled the same by Friday because bath day was usually on Saturday night,” Rodgers said.
Rebuilding the past
Take a stroll through the historic village and you will be transported back in time. The main square has an insurance office, physician’s office, lawyer’s office, general store, eight-room inn, town hall, girls’ seminary and several homes. You’ll be able to see, smell, touch and hear 19th century life as villagers call to one another, bread bakes in brick ovens and the sound of the blacksmith’s hammer rings out into the air.
The idea for the village was conceived by John L. Wehle, the chairman of the Genesee Brewing Company of Rochester at the time and a lifetime collector of art. He realized that as the work of local carpenters and builders disappeared from the landscape, so did a part of the Genesee Valley heritage. For 10 years, museum director and art historian Stuart Bolger worked with carpenters and masons to create a village on the land above Oatka Creek in Mumford.
The 69 historic buildings have been moved from their original locations around western New York to the site of the village. The buildings were acquired by the museum in various ways. The MacKay house and several pieces of John MacKay’s furniture were given to the museum by his descendants. Kieffer’s place lay in the path of the Genesee Expressway (now Interstate 390) while it was being built, so the New York State Department of Transportation made it available to the museum. Some buildings were transported in pieces and then put back together. Others, like Hosmer’s Inn, traveled in one or two big pieces on a flatbed.
The buildings were restored and furnished with authentic furniture of the time. Careful attention was paid to all of the little details, even down to the color of the wallpaper. Sometimes all that had survived of the wallpaper was a scrap the size of your hand, so professionals labored to recreate the pattern.
“The buildings came to us in various forms of disrepair and we rescued them,” said Mark Holdren, director of marketing at the museum.
If these walls could talk
Each building has its own unique story to tell. After returning from the Civil War, Corporal Hyde and his wife, Julia, moved into an octagonal house in Friendship. The octagon house was made popular in 1848 by Orson Squire Fowler when he published A Home for All, or a New, Cheap, Convenient, and Superior Mode of Building. Hyde and his wife became spiritualists, and it’s rumored that Julia used to hold séances in the parlor of this oddly-shaped house. Julia and her husband died within two days of each other, and some people believe that their spirits still roam the house.
St. Feehan’s Church was built in 1854 by a group of Catholic families in Chili who didn’t want to have to travel several miles away in order to practice their religion. At the peak of the church they placed a small wooden cross, which remains there today. For those looking for a unique place to get married, the church is available for weddings from May to October.
The Flint Hill Pottery is a replica of the Morganville Pottery in Stafford Township, which was run by Fortunatus Gleason Jr. and his son, Charles. The Morganville Pottery was one of the few that was able to survive after many others had shut down because of the competition from larger stoneware factories. When the Morganville site was excavated in 1973, the building’s foundation, the floors of two kilns and many earthenware fragments were uncovered. The wares produced there now are very similar to those made by rural potters in the Genesee Country in the 1800s.
Discover your green thumb
In addition to houses, businesses and shops, there is another element of the village to enjoy. Thirteen heirloom gardens contain colorful and fragrant blossoms, herbs, fruits and vegetables. The gardens make for some beautiful scenery, but they also serve a purpose. Villagers will use the flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables in the meals prepared in the historic kitchens, as well as for dyeing fibers and making decorations and other crafts. In 2002, the Children’s Garden was added to the museum’s horticulture program. Small gardens such as this one were used to teach children of the 1800s about plants and their growth habits. Children of today can participate in hands-on activities here.
Shake hands with the past
History really does come alive in the village as authentically-dressed villagers go about their daily business. Called interpreters, they will not step out of character, but they will answer all of your questions about the buildings, their previous owners and the roles of the people in a 19th-century village. They also demonstrate the crafts and tasks that people tended to on a daily basis, such as blacksmithing, cooking, spinning and gardening. Visitors are often fascinated to learn the difficulties involved with everyday tasks.
“I love to bring the audience back to reality to see that the 19th century wasn’t ‘simpler and more relaxing,’” Rodgers said.
The interpreters get a weekly schedule of the characters they will be portraying. Gwen Donato is the lead interpreter for horticulture. She answers all the agricultural questions, as well as helps people who wish to set up their own historic gardens. She said that the interpreters could possibly be in a different building each day, so it’s important that they be flexible and well-versed in various areas. Becoming an expert on so many different subjects sounds tricky, but Donato said that the interpreters are trained by mentors. While in training, they will shadow the mentor to learn the ropes. It’s not long before they feel comfortable enough to answer questions and get visitors conversing about the 1800s. What are some of the most common questions that interpreters hear from the younger visitors?
“They always want to know if the fire is real and if the food is real,” Donato said with a laugh.
Take me back to the ball game
The Genesee Country Village & Museum wants to keep everything as real and authentic as possible, even when it comes to fun and games. The museum brings to life in a unique way that great American pastime: base ball (this is how it was spelled in the 1800s). In August 2001, the museum opened up the Silver Base Ball Park, the nation’s only replica of a 19th-century base ball park, complete with bleachers, an outfield fence with advertisements from the period, a manual scoreboard operated by a couple of boys on scaffolding, a press box, a tower for the announcer, and a refreshment tent that serves peanuts and birch beer. The six ladies’ and men’s teams don period-style uniforms, use period-appropriate equipment and play by the rules of 1866. Visitors get the chance to interact with the players, the umpires, the announcer and all the rest of the characters who work together to make you feel like you are at a real, 19th-century base ball game.
A reason to celebrate
So it seems there’s always something exciting going on at the Genesee Country Village & Museum, especially this year. The museum is celebrating its 30th birthday, and it’s got some big plans in store. There will be special exhibits and lectures on the museum’s founding and development. You can join the villagers as they celebrate the birthdays of prominent figures such as George Eastman and Dr. Frederick Backus. Interpreters will also be discussing how the birthdays of common people were celebrated in the 1800s. There’s an added bonus for people celebrating their 30th birthdays this year: anyone born in 1976 will get free admission to the museum. And for everyone else, there will be plenty of entertainment, not to