Making History Through Transformative Giving

E. Philip Saunders

Year after year, the Finger Lakes Region experiences transformative changes. From indigenous peoples and early settlers to generational families and today’s booming recreation industry and influx of new cultural groups, all have reaped from the region’s natural bounty of freshwater, fertile lands and seasonal wonder. The use of and appreciation for these resources have created enormous change and opportunities which continue to be expanded on today. 

        One of the Finger Lakes Region’s leading philanthropists, E. Philip Saunders, ignites transformation for the region. Saunders achieved great success through changing the United States’ travel center industry. He has since expanded his endeavors, venturing into the realms of recreation, tourism, packaged foods, property management and banking. Most recently, an up-and-coming museum bears his name – the Saunders Finger Lakes Museum. In an interview with Life in the Finger Lakes Editor and Finger Lakes Museum Trustee Mark Stash, Saunders shares more on his story and personal passion for giving back to this important, economic engine of a region in Upstate New York.


Having lived and done business here in the Finger Lakes for most of your life, what has inspired you to continue giving back to organizations in our Finger Lakes community?

        I grew up on Conesus Lake and spent my summers on the water. I believe the history of New York State – particularly the Finger Lakes Region and its involvement with the early transportation system boom for Upstate NY – is amazing. I believe in projects and organizations that create lasting help and impacts to communities and towns. I am careful to not invest in projects that will not generate long-term solutions and impacts.


Share with us why you believe you have achieved such success as a leading entrepreneur in our region. 

       I grew up loving and participating in sports. From that, I always have, and continue to have, a desire to compete. In order to be a good entrepreneur, you have to be willing to compete. It has really been a continuation of my sporting events through the years. I also have people work for and with me with the same basic philosophy. 


What are some of your favorite personal achievements?

        Continuing my desire for competition, I participated in the Adirondack Canoe Classic 90 miler event 12 different times. We always finished, won it three to four times and consistently finished between 24 and 26 hours (it is a three-day event). We then went and competed in the 1,000 miler on the Yukon. From where you start to where you end, you really leave civilization. Your boat has a chip on it so you can be tracked and you have to buy a special insurance policy in case you get stranded or lost.  It’s so desolate; the only way you can be rescued is by a helicopter or float plane. We finished third in that race.


Aside from paddlesports, what are some of your other passions and interests that relate to the Finger Lakes?

        It is the history of the region that is most important to me. The hardships, struggles and successes that happened to all peoples are what need to be told. Museums that share the history are more important than ever. When you learn about the history of something, you feel pride and appreciation for it. If you lose the history and it isn’t told, the pride for it will be lost, too. It’s amazing how far we have come in just a few hundred years. 


Yes, a lot of changes have been made to our region in just a short time. The Finger Lakes Museum’s mission is to inspire appreciation and celebrate the cultures and ecology of the Finger Lakes Region.  How does the mission of the museum resonate with you personally? 

        I believe the culture is important and the history is important. Tying in the story of the indigenous peoples is essential. The stories of the early settlers learning and navigating the waterways so they could expand business for the Finger Lakes need to be told. Real stories need to be told with the ecology and environment, the lakes, but it’s important that people understand the economic impact generations have had on the development of Upstate
New York. 


What are some words of inspiration to convey to current and future generations of residents and visitors?

        When people come to visit or live here, I want them to realize how important this region is to Upstate New York. The history of what made it what it is today. From that, I believe future generations will hopefully respect and honor the past and the future and protect these valuable assets that we have. 


Last but not least, for those who also have a passion for the Finger Lakes Region and appreciation for it, why should they also consider supporting the museum?   

                It is going to be great. This project will be a “Wow” project and needs to be completed to its full capacity. The Wild Center in Tupper Lake has raised a great deal of funds and has created a great facility to visit and go back to year after year. They are constantly adding things that make it more fun to go back to. Once all of the funds are raised to create this “Wow” project, it will carry itself and every year they will need to add new features to it. It must be well-capitalized up front in order to bring in new events and continue to make it the “Wow” project for our Finger Lakes. We have some other great philanthropic people in the Finger Lakes and Upstate New York and I hope that some of them will come alongside to complete this to its fullest vision.



Located on a stunning 30-acre campus along the shores of Keuka Lake, the Saunders Finger Lakes Museum campus is in development. Today, guests to the site can experience: a 16-acre wetland with walking trails, boardwalk, lake views and interpretative signage; a robust paddling program along Sugar Creek located at a restored timber frame barn known as the Creekside Center; a children’s natural playscape; and an outdoor exhibit titled “The 11 Lakes” which shares culture and natural history stories of all the Finger Lakes. Construction of the new main exhibition building will begin after demolition and site prep which is planned for this fall. Learn more about the museum at Those interested in investing in the project can reach Executive Director Natalie Payne at or 315-595-2200.

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