“Travelers remember Ovid because of the curious old red brick buildings on the hill at the turn of the road, all in a row and of three sizes like the ‘Three Bears’ of the nursery tale.”
— Arch Merrill, Slim
Fingers Beckon (1951)
Amidst the compelling vistas, vales and vineyards of the Finger Lakes, visitors should glimpse certain eye-catching sites before leaving the region. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Three Bears in Ovid rank high among these oddities.
The Three Bears … Papa, Mama, and Baby? Well, sort of – that’s how they’re fondly known. Three brick buildings in the Greek Revival style, including Doric columns, dominate the sloping hillside park at Ovid’s center, and “since the 1800s have been the heart and soul of our village,” points out town historian Gail Snyder. Positioned from largest to smallest, they’re said to be the only set of three existing, adjacent buildings of this style in the United States.
On the left is “Papa Bear,” erected in 1845 as the Seneca County Courthouse. On the far right, also built in 1845, sits “Baby Bear,” established as the county clerk’s office. Between them, “Mama Bear” arose in 1860, becoming a new, larger office for the county clerk. As years passed, Seneca County’s borders were revised and Ovid (as a “half-shire”) shared its county seat status with Waterloo. Since that time, The Three Bears have functioned well beyond locations for a court house and a county clerk. At various times the graceful buildings have been used as a library, a jail, a bank, the sheriff’s department, the health department, and even presently as a meeting place for the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
The cupola on top of Papa Bear offers a lofty view of the two largest and longest Finger Lakes, Cayuga and Seneca. Ovid sits midway on a five-mile stretch of land between the two; the narrowest gap separating the lakes as they gently curve toward each other.
The Early Days
The area’s earliest homesteader, Andrew Dunlap, is considered to be the first in the entire county. Founded in 1794, the settlement was dubbed Ovid when the Surveyor General’s clerk, Robert Harpur, named townships of the Central New York Military Tract in keeping with his personal interest in Greek and Roman literature. After the Revolutionary War, soldiers were compensated with parcels of land to call home, and quite a number settled in the area. Twenty-one of them rest today in remote McNeil Cemetery on a quiet country road not far from Ovid.
In the early days, a stagecoach route connecting Willard on Seneca to Sheldrake Point on Cayuga passed through Ovid’s growing commercial center. Passengers enjoying swift, comfortable boat travel on the two longest Finger Lakes used the short, bumpy overland stage ride as a connector, facilitating transfer from a boat on one lake to a boat on the other. It’s a stretch of flat and fertile country historically rich with crops and fruit trees, a broad terrain with perfectly straight roads resembling America’s Midwest. Yet, just a bit east or west of the Ovid village limits Cayuga and Seneca can be glimpsed in the distance, where hillsides sprinkled with glens and waterfalls drop quickly toward the lakes.
In any town, large or small, certain folks etch a memorable imprint. The names Robert Harman and Veronica Maher may be unfamiliar to most, but the achievements of these Ovid natives brought great pride to their community.
Robert Harman went to Hollywood as an actor, but soon forged a career as the “Artist of the Stars.” He painted and sketched hundreds of caricatures (some realistic, some whimsical) of his fellow performers and film stars of the day, maintaining a correspondence with many of them over the years. Harman created “The Hollywood Panorama,” a 5 by 9 foot full-color montage of 1,001 vintage film stars set against film backdrops and famous landmarks. The work was published in book form in 1971. In a later book, Enchanted Faces, Harman paid tribute to the glamorous women admired by millions of avid moviegoers in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. His bewitching sketches pay homage to Gloria Swanson, Greer Garson, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Katherine Hepburn and many, many more. Before his death in 2009, Robert Harman split his retirement years between a California residence and a family home in Ovid.
According to many, Veronica Maher deserves acceptance as a member of the Women’s Hall of Fame in nearby Seneca Falls. Her distinguished career with the American Red Cross spanned many decades; it was written that “her honors were many and always accepted modestly.” Before retirement in 1963, Maher instituted numerous programs and was praised as “successful in whatever she attempted.” Most notably, she sparked the first nationwide civilian blood program in 1948. Since then, Maher-inspired blood drives have become a staple of Red Cross chapters across the country. The sociable Maher is remembered fondly, as she cruised about Ovid in her convertible, her pet Dalmatian at her side. She passed away at age 80 in 1981 and, in memoriam, a gazebo in the Main Street Park bears her name.
Fresh Strawberries and More
A village highlight is celebrated each year on the third weekend in June. From modest beginnings as an “Ice Cream Social,” the Ovid Strawberry Festival & Craft Fair has now passed its 30th year and has gone far beyond just ice cream, cake and fresh strawberries. Among the events are a parade, 5K run, flea market, craft vendors, farmer’s market, games, and a block dance. Food abounds: pancakes, burgers, hot sausage, barbecue chicken and, of course, traditional strawberry treats. Virtually every business and organization in town takes part in the festival’s success. “This event truly ties the community together – there’s sort of a yearly reunion atmosphere of family and friends,” says Chairperson Priscilla Smalser. “It’s a cross-generational celebration that pulls in not only local folks, but also many seasonal residents from the nearby lakes.”
With plenty to eat and lots to do, the festival provides an ideal time to visit Ovid, but its architecture and surrounding countryside make the trip appealing anytime. Among a number of its stately Victorians stands The Tillinghast Manor B & B, a home with old charm once visited by Teddy Roosevelt. Main Street businesses include A.J.’s Diner (“There’s Nothing Finer than a Family Diner”) with good, home-cooked specials like meatloaf, corn chowder, and tasty pies.
If you should stop by A.J.’s, glance out its front window and straight across the street. There you’ll be greeted with a panoramic view of Ovid’s unique 19th-century treasure – the venerable Three Bears, forever watching over the village from their hillside perch.
story and photos by James P. Hughes