Arrive from any direction and colorful signs remind visitors that Nunda (pronounced “none-day”) in Livingston County is “A Nice Place to Live.” Residents are comfortable in Nunda’s pastoral setting tucked in a western nook of the Finger Lakes Region. It’s just a few miles from one of the state’s most picturesque spots, Letchworth Park, with its 14,000 acres of stunning scenery and waterfalls.
Stately homes line its streets. One of them, the former residence of a prosperous banker, became a local hospital from 1935 through 1960. It’s where Jackie Morgan, the wife of the current mayor, was born. Her husband Jack has an office in that same building today, which ably serves as the Nunda Government Center. It’s just one example of how lives and locations are entwined in Nunda.
Bob Gelser was always drawn to his quiet hometown and returned after his college years. But to reside in Nunda meant more than two decades of long daily commutes to work in Rochester and other locales. In 2002, the situation changed for the better when Bob joined the Board of Directors of Once Again Nut Butter. Established in 1976, the entirely employee-owned local company produces “quality natural products for health-conscious consumers.” When the firm’s founder retired in 2007, Bob became president of the continually growing, charity conscious company.
Once Again’s staple is great peanut butter, but that’s only the beginning – there’s cashew butter, almond butter, sunflower butter, clover honey, wildflower honey and more. Three-quarters of Once Again’s employees live within 10 miles of the plant’s location in the heart of town. “Working at a job you love and living in your hometown among old friends – it doesn’t get much better than that,” says Bob.
A Center of Commerce
In the late 1700s, the large Seneca village of Onondao and several smaller settlements were clustered in and around Nunda and its winding Keshequa Creek. The first pioneer families arrived by the early 1800s. Nunda was popularly translated from the Seneca language as “where the valley meets the hills.”
By the time the Genesee Valley Canal opened in 1851, the village had become a lively commercial center with a population of nearly 4,000. Connecting to the Erie, the waterway brought further prosperity. Lumber and grain from the fertile valley were transported to distant markets while affordable merchandise and freight returned from Rochester, Syracuse and points as far away as New York City. The 1830s-era business blocks (known as “Merchants Row” and the “Farmers’ Exchange”) are still in use today, along with the elegant “Union Block” from the 1880s. They are all an active part of Nunda’s heritage.
Railroads later replaced the canal. For geographic reasons, the area’s first train depot was established at Nunda Station three miles south of the village. Nunda Station (now known as Dalton) quickly became a busy community, and a bustling commercial connection was forged between the two spots.
The famous Foote pavers
Warehousing, mills and several small factories led the way to Nunda’s most famous industry, the Foote Manufacturing Company established in 1903. The ingenious Foote brothers created power mixer-paver machines that answered the nation’s needs as concrete sidewalks and roads began replacing old-fashioned boardwalks and muddy byways. Foote equipment became recognized internationally during World War II when Foote pavers followed allied forces around the world, creating the enormous number of critical airfield runways for bombers and fighter planes. The company and its employees were later honored by the War Department with several “E” awards for “exceptional performance in the production of materials for the war effort.”
The famed Foote Company is just one notable part of days gone by in the village. “Working to collect, preserve, present and promote area history,” the Nunda Historical Society operates a fine museum and a comprehensive website packed with stories, descriptions and photographs. “We’re proud of the events and people that have contributed to Nunda’s rich past,” says historian Tom Cook. “The society undertakes a series of programs and projects to keep those times alive for the community.”
One recent community project was the restoration of a handmade American flag presented in 1861 to Nunda volunteers (Company F of the 33rd New York) as they marched off to the Civil War. “The flag made it back to Nunda after the conflict … many of the local men did not,” explains Joan Schumaker, a lifetime resident. “The damaged banner disappeared for decades until it was eventually recovered in a time capsule.” The effort and much of the funding needed for its conservation were provided by the Nunda Trinity Church, and it now hangs reverently in the museum – a true community treasure.
Photographer Andrew J. Russell spent his boyhood years in Nunda. Russell is best known for his iconic image of the 1869 driving of the “Golden Spike” at the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Nunda resident Reverend Richard Gay, an escaped slave, served as head cook for General Grant during the Civil War. Award-winning painter Rose Shave (1849 to 1925) studied in Upstate New York and Paris. She taught and exhibited widely, eventually returning to teach in hometown Nunda where her art studio drew students from far and near. The Rose M. Shave Collection is exhibited in a room at the Nunda Historical Society.
During the Civil War, two former residents of Nunda were recipients of the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military accolade. Chester B. Bowen was honored for heroism during the Battle of Winchester in 1864, while John J. Carter was praised for his actions during the 1862 Battle of Antietam. Carter later realized a fortune in the oil business, and in 1906, constructed the stately Carter Memorial Building along State Street to honor his former comrades. It is used today as the American Legion Hall with a bronzed statue of a Union soldier perched at its peak, perhaps a replica of “Johnny” Carter himself.
Everyday celebrations and a milestone anniversary
The Chamber of Commerce combines with other local organizations to keep downtown Nunda lively with seasonal events and celebrations. Festivals celebrate the best of Christmas, spring and fall with food and fun, parades and vendors. In the summer it’s time for the farmers’ market, a vintage car show, and weekly outdoor concerts – a longtime Nunda tradition,
A downtown facelift is underway with the help of New York’s Main Street Grant Program and eye-catching displays provided by the Nunda Garden Club. “Villagers appreciate the club’s efforts,” says member Gary Payne. “While working on a project, I’ve actually had people walk up and donate money to the cause.”
Among downtown businesses is Cindy Welch’s Journey Quilt Company. With its 1832 façade, it is perhaps one of the more eclectic shops in the Finger Lakes. Wade through the more than 3,000 bolts of cloth and unique gifts lining its narrow aisles and you’ll see why. Amid the colorful chaos, Cindy designs and creates special-order quilts and historical clothing.
“We’re celebrating the village’s 175th anniversary in 2014,” says Mayor Morgan. “It’s a perfect time to attend a special event, delve into our history, play one of our two nearby golf courses, or just enjoy Nunda’s shops and architecture.”
Take a simple drive through Nunda’s quiet streets and you’ll see why local residents insist their village is just “A Nice Place to Live.”
by James P. Hughes