“Cloistered amid the foliaged hills that cradle the Owasco Valley … Moravia … a repository of history and a shrine of scenic wonders.”
Harry R. Melone, 150 Years of Progress, 1929
Historian Harry R. Melone’s flowery portrayal of Moravia from eight decades past is one that endures. Its picturesque surroundings, lofty hills laced with waterfalls and rocky glens, were at times home to some notable individuals – a future U. S. president, an iconic industrialist, and the first president of Cornell University among them.
Revolutionary War veteran John Stoyell arrived as Moravia’s first permanent settler in 1789. Known simply as Owasco Flats until about 1813, the area’s residents decided it deserved a more distinguished moniker. Why Moravia? Was it historical, geographical or philosophical? “Not at all,” explained town historian Arlene Murphy. “There was no special significance to the name. The village fathers just agreed it had a very nice ring to it.”
Moravia is rich with history – buildings, tales and personalities. While not every significant building has survived the years, many remain to admire. Moravians readily relate accounts of famous folks who once circulated in and around the village.
Famed industrialist and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller spent a share of his boyhood in a modest home just north of Moravia, and revisited the region periodically over the years. Andrew Dickson White, appointed Cornell’s first president in 1886, lived briefly in the village while pursuing his graduate studies. In this countryside with a rich farming tradition, Jethro Wood partnered in 1814 with Elias Rogers’ foundry in Moravia to produce the first commercially successful cast-iron plow, an invention that helped revolutionize the farming industry.
Perhaps the area’s most celebrated son is Millard Fillmore, 13th president of the United States. In 1800, Fillmore’s birth in a log cabin just east of Moravia makes him the only president born in New York State west of the Hudson River. He studied law in a crude office on the village outskirts, and in 1826 married Abigail Powers, a local teacher, in her brother’s home on Church Street.
Fillmore has often been cast as an inconsequential president, a charge considered unjust by some, among them longtime Moravia teacher Robert Scarry. “(Fillmore) has been vastly underrated by historians and most have not appraised him fairly,” he argued, and decided to set the record straight. After decades of meticulous research, and before his death in 2001, Scarry published Millard Fillmore, a carefully-documented biography making a strong case for Fillmore’s honor and his adherence to Constitutional principles while in office.
Very few locations in the country can lay claim to a U. S. president, and Moravia is proud of that distinction. People in and around the region haven’t forgotten their favorite son – an annual birthday bash is still held in his honor. Fillmore’s name and image pop up everywhere.
Fillmore Glen State Park, a haven of woods and waterfalls at the edge of Moravia, contains a replica of the former president’s log cabin birthplace. The park’s picnic and camping grounds, natural swimming area, and wooded hiking trails are less than a mile from the center of town, and only a half-mile from the front door of Moravia Central School. For villagers, Fillmore Glen is a local jewel, a convenient stroll or bike ride down the street.
Moravia has several annual celebrations – the Moravia Fire Department/V.F.W. Fair in July, Pioneer Days in August, the Fillmore Auto Show held each Labor Day Sunday at the state park, and Christmas in Moravia, all well-attended. For years the most unique community event may have been midsummer’s Fillmore Days, highlighted by a famous wheeled bathtub race down Main Street … yes, a bathtub race.
In 1917, noted writer H. L. Mencken penned a satirical piece crediting Millard Fillmore as the first president to install a bathtub in the White House, a fictional bit of whimsy that nonetheless was repeated and reprinted as fact. Truth be told, Fillmore established the first White House library, but not its first bathtub. In honor of Mencken’s ruse, the Fillmore Days’ bathtub race delights a loyal following. “Hoax or no hoax,” says businessman Roger Phillips, “it was exciting and just a lot of fun.” For a number of reasons, perhaps including the danger of a rogue bathtub flying off course, the event was dropped in the 90s.
Any walking tour of Moravia should include two notable sites less than a block apart on Church Street – the Powers Library and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.
Powers Library’s 2003 addition enhanced the services of the original classic brick building established in 1880 as the legacy of esteemed physician and Civil War veteran Dr. Cyrus Powers. A short stairway connects the gleaming new facility to the original library space with its massive bookcases, high chandeliered ceiling, and warm atmosphere. It’s like stepping back in time.
“The Episcopal parish of St. Matthew’s has been around Moravia since 1823, and in its present building since the late 1890s,” says lifelong member Marge Newhart. The wooden interior walls and ceiling, stained-glass windows, needlework, hand-carved statues shipped from Germany, and woodwork carved by a local Roycrofter, Charles Hall, make today’s church a museum-like treasure.
Change is inevitable in any town, but so is durability. The stately Moravia House no longer stands at the corner of Cayuga and Main Streets. However, just a block away, Jennings Department Store, established in 1860, has done business at its present location since the early 1870s. “Over that span of a century and a half, only three families have been involved in the store’s ownership,” say present proprietors Mark and Lynette Wood. “We have always carried practical goods that serve the community.” Visitors have called Jennings “a friendly spot that carries well-made, no nonsense clothing at reasonable prices” and “a hidden gem well worth a visit.”
With its rich history and a state park nearby, the village and adjoining countryside make Moravia an appealing stopover during any Finger Lakes ramble. Take to the hills for glorious views and a surprise or two, like rustic Niles Gourmet. The hillside market and cozy bistro offer specialty foods and desserts described by one patron as “a step outside the ordinary.” As for Fillmore Days in the village, some working behind the scenes hint that a revival of the breakneck bathtub races, with their raucous rumble down Main Street, just may be in the works.
by James P. Hughes