Y-shaped Keuka Lake, roughly translated “canoe landing” from the Seneca tongue, received its name from local vintners in 1887. Early settlers to the region simply called it Crooked Lake, and nowhere does Keuka appear more crooked than from the hillsides surrounding Branchport.
Vince Bedient has long resided along the lakeshore in Branchport, the tiny hamlet of 300 or so folks that stretches around Keuka’s northwest corner in the Town of Jerusalem. “Lake scenery from here is like an artist’s canvas,” observed Vince. “Every day provides a different look, a colorful new picture.”
The long view of Keuka’s west branch from the grounds at Esperanza Mansion is one of the most stunning in the Finger Lakes. The John N. Rose family of Virginia chose a lush hillside just to the east of Branchport to build their Greek Revival estate in 1838. They raised sheep, ran extensive farming operations and were instrumental in the construction of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in the village.
Following the death of John Rose in 1870, the mansion continued as a private residence, served as the Yates County Poorhouse from 1922 to 1948, became a winery for a short period, and, at times, sat vacant. In 2003 a restored Esperanza reopened to the public, offering charming rooms and fine dining.
A store built at a country crossroads in 1831 and a small cluster of homes around it grew to become Branchport. The Burtch brothers constructed the present building at the corners in 1901 and ran a thriving business there for decades. Crooked Lake Mercantile occupies the site today, carrying on many “old general store” traditions – food staples, baked goods, clothes, newspapers and magazines.
Until paved roads connected Branchport to its neighbors in the 1920s, grapes and other produce were brought by horse and buggy to town in baskets, then sent by boat on Keuka to Penn Yan and Hammondsport where they could be shipped by rail.
Branchport remains a village of classic Victorian and traditional buildings, but hard work and the foresight of its residents have created new additions. A War Memorial gazebo was completed in 2004 to stage events and concerts, and adjacent to it, a new viewer’s overlook to the Verdi Burtch Wildlife Sanctuary.
In 2006 a ribbon was cut for the Modeste Bedient Memorial Library, continuing a Branchport tradition that’s existed since the village opened its first library in 1913. Inside the brick building, with its vaulted ceilings and oak bookcases, a visitor can curl up in a leather easy chair and enjoy a panoramic view of Keuka Lake.
The Bedient family donated land and funds to make library construction possible, receiving help and donations from residents, friends and library officials. “We used 100 grape boxes and a couple of pickup trucks to haul the old library’s contents to the new building,” said Vince. “It took several days with everyone pitching in.”
Like so many communities, Branchport enjoys time-honored celebrations. “Anything and everything shows up for our annual Fourth of July parade – floats, bands, antique cars, tractors and fire trucks,” noted a local resident. “And of course, there’s plenty of food and entertainment.” After dark, a dazzling fireworks display explodes from the hills, its bursts sparkling like so many fireflies on Keuka’s waters.
At Christmastime, a large tree is hauled into the center of town and decorated. Sleigh rides, seasonal activities, and treats of chili, hot coffee and donuts make this event a true community celebration.
The residential camping and recreational facility of Camp Good Days and Special Times, nestled on the shore of Keuka Lake, is a presence that brings community pride to Branchport and joy to those children who visit. Camp Good Days is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for children and families whose lives have been touched by cancer and other life challenges. Campers participate in everything from music and drama to arts and crafts to sports and swimming.
Now the long-anticipated $40 million Finger Lakes Cultural and Natural History Museum is poised to emerge on the edge of Branchport at Keuka Lake State Park. “This site should perfectly fit our plan to underscore the natural history, cultural roots, wildlife and native plants of the Finger Lakes region,” said John Adamski, a driving force behind the venture. The museum facility and rustic 53-acre expanse of lakefront, hills, ravines and woods will capture the essence of the region and could be open to the public as soon as 2014.
But please, don’t wait until then to take a drive through Branchport!
by James P. Hughes