The Minty History of Lyons

A mural in the peppermint garden depicts the old canal tow path.

A trip to “The Peppermint Village” of Lyons is sure to reward anyone who enjoys an after-dinner mint, an occasional stick of mint-flavored chewing gum, or a red-and-white-striped candy cane. Lyons was once a major producer of peppermint. The H.G. Hotchkiss Essential Oil Company exported its product internationally, and in addition to early medicinal uses, it provided the palate-pleasing tingle of Beech-Nut Gum. Howard Johnson, the large restaurant chain, was another major customer. Today, visitors to the H.G. Hotchkiss Building at 95 Water Street in Lyons can learn the fascinating story of how this small village rose to the pinnacle of peppermint oil production.

“He put us (Lyons) on the map,” says Pat Gorthy of Hiram Gilbert Hotchkiss (1810 -1897) whose portrait hangs in the Hotchkiss building’s reception area, along with images of members of four generations of the Hotchkiss family who oversaw the company until it was sold in the 1980s. Gorthy, a volunteer docent, is also the author of a children’s book, Peppermint Summer (see sidebar). She and Pat Alena, president of the Lyons Heritage Society, the organization that owns and manages the H.G. Hotchkiss Essential Oil Building as a museum, are among those dedicated to its restoration and interpretation.

Located near the Erie Canal, the 130-year old structure is registered with both the New York State and National Registries of Historic Places, and is the only Hotchkiss building that remains intact. Little survives of the former Hotchkiss buildings that stood at the corner of Leach Road and Water Street.

Award-winning oils

In 1839, when Hiram Hotchkiss started the company in Phelps, Europe was the capital of the peppermint industry. Not long after he established a second business location in Lyons in 1841, the tide began to turn. The Hotchkiss Company won the first-prize medal at an 1851 international exhibition in London. Today, that large, framed award, signed by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, is hanging proudly in the building’s reception room with other certificates recognizing the excellence of the company’s oils. A total of 17 medals were received, and are archived with other Hotchkiss business records at Cornell University.

The Hotchkiss Company dealt with other essential oils such as wintergreen, spearmint, sassafras, pennyroyal, tansy and wormwood, but peppermint was its largest commodity. It cost $5 for 21 ounces, and one bottle was said to flavor a ton of candy.

Peppermint, a bush-like plant, grows in wetland to a height of about 3 feet. In the fields near Lyons, farmers cut the plant with scythes and piled it in rows to dry. In the founder’s era, it was transported by horse-drawn wagons to distilleries to be stomped down and then boiled to separate the oil from the leaves. In the museum’s “Lyons Room,” dedicated to local history, visitors can see where canal boats arrived with the oil-filled demijohns (wicker-wrapped glass bottles). These were hoisted through a trap door to the second story for the filtering process.

Oil processed in laboratories upstairs was bottled in the first floor “bottling room.” Early bottles were cobalt blue and made at Ely Glass Works in Clyde. After the Ely plant closed, the Hotchkiss Company switched to a supplier who provided amber-colored bottles. They were wrapped in a facsimile of the certificate awarded at the 1851 London Exhibition. Framed labels are now sold in the museum Gift Shoppe, along with an assortment of cards, books, candies, handmade peppermint jewelry and, of course, peppermint oil.

“We have a peppermint garden in back of the building and I have it growing in my backyard,” says Pat Alena, known affectionately as “Peppermint Patty.” Although the Hotchkiss business was sold to an Indiana company in 1982, oil production continued in Lyons until 1990. Today, there are no peppermint farms in the area. After Anne Hotchkiss (1914-2010), the founder’s great-granddaughter and the company’s last president, retired in the 1980s, she left 50 acres of farm land to the Bergen Swamp Preservation Society. Known as the Hotchkiss Woodland Preserve, it is located east of Lyons along Pilgrimport Road, which leads to Clyde. This former farm for the Hotchkiss Essential Oils Company is now maturing woods.

Preserving Lyons history

Anne Hotchkiss donated the Water Street building to Wayne County. In 2011, its ownership passed first to the village of Lyons and then to the Lyons Heritage Society, whose members had campaigned for three years to save it. It is one of only three intact business buildings that survive on the Erie Canal from the waterway’s heyday.

Alena, formerly the historian for the town and village of Lyons, was among those who worked to preserve the building she calls “a precious piece of Lyons history.” She loves to show visitors the office with the large walnut desk used by Hiram Hotchkiss. “The Peppermint King,” as Hotchkiss was known, was also a banker and owner of peppermint fields, two distilleries and flour mills. A notable artifact in the office is an etched-glass apothecary jar, once part of a display sent to the Smithsonian Institution. Changing exhibits of prized Hotchkiss bottles are also featured.

Renovation of the former commercial building is ongoing, thanks to donations and grants. A capital fund drive will be conducted this summer to replace windows throughout the building and to restore the upstairs rooms.

Visiting the Hotchkiss Building and environs

Behind the Hotchkiss building, the Erie Canal attracts recreational boaters. New “Hotchkiss Lane” signs, installed last year from Abbey Park to Water Street, identify the trail for hiking and biking adjacent to the canal. Alena encourages people to picnic there and explore the historic locale.

The H.G. Hotchkiss Essential Oil Company building is open for tours during the months of May, June, September and October by appointment. In July and August, it is open on Wednesday (1 to 4 p.m.) and Saturday (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.). Group tours can be arranged by calling 315-946-4596 or 315-946-9154.

The building will host an Open House on June 7, 8, 14 and 15 as part of Path Through History, when cultural and heritage sites throughout New York State host special programming, tours and events. There are also extended hours during Lyons Peppermint Days in July (see sidebar). Admission to the museum is free with donations appreciated.

If you go by car, access the Village of Lyons from Thruway Exit 42, then head north on Rt. 14 to Lyons. By boat, Lyons is located at Lock 27 on the Erie Canal. For more information, visit lyonsheritagesociety.com/.

24th Annual Peppermint Days
Friday, July 11 through Sunday, July 13

Lyons continues to tout its minty past. In the summer, there is the community wide festival, Peppermint Days. People will be treated to a lot of live music, plenty of food, and family fun, plus tours of the original Hotchkiss Building where it all started. Highlights include:

7/9 – Ecumenical service at Ohmann Theater

7/10 – Concert in park, Peppermint baking contest

7/11 – Food and Craft Vendors arrive, Kiddie Parade

7/12 – Antique tractor show including: “Tractor Square Dance”, Grand Parade, “Thunder over the Erie”, Fireworks

7/13 – Car show

The full schedule with times will be available by the end of June at the Lyons Chamber of Commerce website lyonsny.com. Or pick up a copy at Dobbins Drugs at 52 Williams St. or at the Old Lyons Hardware at 57 Williams St. For additional information, call Dorothy Barnes, chair of the Peppermint Days Committee, 315- 946-4623. Visit them on Facebook at facebook.com/LyonsPeppermintDays.

Peppermint Summer
By Pat Gorthy
Herons Bend Productions
heronsbendproductions.com

Since peppermint was once a major industry in Lyons, Pat Gorthy, a retired high school English teacher, decided to pen a book about it for juvenile readers. “I had young people ask at our Lyons Peppermint Festival, ‘Why Peppermint Days?’” she explains.

Her engaging book will definitely answer that question! The historical novel is set in 1860, at a time when one-third of the peppermint oil in the U.S. was produced by Hotchkiss Essential Oil Company. The story focuses on 10-year-old Emily Taylor, who is spending her second summer with her grandparents on their Lyons peppermint farm.

Emma travels from her Rochester home on an Erie Canal packet boat, which, to readers will seem a unique travel adventure. Emma meets German immigrant families and “hoggees” who walk the mules along the canal towpath. After arriving in Lyons she experiences farm life, visits a peppermint field, and even meets with Hiram Hotchkiss. The softcover chapter book for 3rd to 5th graders is “history through 10-year-olds’ eyes,” says Gorthy.

The narrative chronicles Emma’s memorable summer, covering topics such as household chores, pets and even crafts. The book is well paced, and its attractive black-and-white illustrations created by three Lyons women bring the story to life. A helpful glossary and appendix provide details of the Erie Canal, Hiram Hotchkiss and the peppermint industry.

A portion of the proceeds from the book sales support the operations and maintenance of the H.G. Hotchkiss Essential Oil Building.


by Laurel C. Wemett