Auburn sits at the crossroads of the Empire State… a city with a diverse personality and many facets.
~ Arch Merrill (1951) ~
story and photos by James P. Hughes
Auburn is, and always has been, a city of contrasts, an engaging mural framed with both polished borders and rough edges. That underlying dichotomy continues to be part of its charm. On one corner you may find dining that matches the best in in the region and beyond … on the next an amiable saloon where friends have “tipped a few” for generations. Separated by a few city blocks lie two of Auburn’s most disparate buildings, each drenched in history — one a stately mansion in a park-like setting, the other a huge structure, stark and foreboding. The incongruity of the William H. Seward home with the Auburn Correctional Facility so close at hand is curious indeed.
Echoes of History
William Henry Seward (1801-1872), a man of ambition, ability, and energy, moved to Auburn as a young lawyer and proudly called the city home ever after. A staunch abolitionist, Seward served as a two-term governor of New York and later as Secretary of State for Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. In 1867, he negotiated the purchase of Alaska, at the time disparagingly referred to by its critics as “Seward’s Folly.” In the process of writing his memoirs, Seward was in his Auburn residence at the time of his death. The Seward House Museum, settled amid gardens and trees, is open to the public for tours of its carefully restored interior and Seward’s collection of art, photographs, and souvenirs of his political life and travels.
The construction of Auburn Prison (now ACF) began in 1816. As New York’s oldest existing state prison, it occupies an ominous presence in center city. Within its walls, history has reached across the spectrum from the world’s first legal prisoner electrocution in 1890 to a complete 1908 staging of “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West Show, acclaimed by hundreds of shirt-sleeved inmates. Iconic “Copper John,” a statue produced long ago in the prison foundry, has observed it all from his lofty perch above the institution. Endless tales — from alarming to humorous — about the imposing gray building have circulated among generations of Auburnians.
The city’s place in history doesn’t end with Seward and the famed prison … far from it. One of Auburn’s most noteworthy residents came to Auburn late in her life. After escaping slavery, Harriet Tubman (c.1822-1913) repeatedly returned to her native Maryland and courageously guided scores of her brethren to safety in the north. As a “conductor” of these perilous journeys via the Underground Railroad, it was said “she never lost a passenger.” As a clarion voice for Tubman’s cause, Seward arranged for her to settle in Auburn in 1859. From there she continued her abolitionist activities and went on to serve the Union Army in the Civil War as a nurse, cook, scout, and spy. In later life Tubman continued humanitarian work for her family and the needy of Auburn. In 2017, the Harriet Tubman National Historic Park was established for “The Moses of Her People,” just south of the city. Visit both the Tubman and Seward gravesites in scenic Fort Hill Cemetery, a few blocks from downtown.
Other intriguing individuals spent all or part of their lives as Auburn residents: sound-on-film pioneer Theodore Case, oft-credited (and oft-disputed) inventor of baseball Major General Abner Doubleday, and prolific writer Samuel Hopkins Adams among them. Most curious may be Annie Edson Taylor, the “Queen of the Mist.” In 1901, when she was in her 60s, Taylor became the first person to survive a plunge over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Auburn is a close-knit town, one with deep roots and a steadfast pride in anything community oriented: history, arts, culture, business, sports. The Equal Rights Heritage Center opened in 2018 to shine a light on “History’s Hometown.” Home to Auburn’s Historic & Cultural Sites Commission, the ERHC’s mission is to introduce visitors to all that the city has to offer.
Among many supportive community organizations is the Auburn Downtown BID, overseers of dynamic and ongoing improvements to revitalize the city’s downtown business district. Everything from boutique shopping to public art installations and street festivals have drawn people to this “hub” of Cayuga County. Almost two dozen eateries are scattered about the district: award-winning fine dining, ethnic cuisine, craft breweries, and casual bistros. “The partnerships and creativity that happen here amaze me … Auburn has small town quality of life with a big city feel,” says BID staff member Jesse Kline.
Auburn Public Theater provides a heartbeat of cultural entertainment to the downtown district, a place to enrich appreciation of cinema, live performances, lectures, and special events. Education in the arts is promoted through school activities and accessible classes.
Cultural neighbors along stately Genesee Street are the Schweinfurth Art Center and the Cayuga Museum of History.
The Schweinfurth opens its doors yearly to hundreds of artists, most from Central New York, to exhibit and discuss every aspect of their visions, from traditional to contemporary. In addition, the center offers classes, workshops, concerts, and special events.
Since 1936, the Cayuga Museum has been housed in the Willard-Case Mansion. The elegant Greek Revival residence, dating back to 1836, is an appropriate setting to display the area’s rich past. The Case Research Lab (“Birthplace of Talking Movies”) and the Carriage House Theater are all part of the complex.
From June through October, the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival prevails at the historic Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, an enclosed former carousel, and throughout town at multiple venues. It’s an annual celebration of Broadway hits, classic revivals, and first-time productions.
Visit the Willard Memorial Chapel with its interior completely designed by Louis C. Tiffany and the Tiffany Glass Company. Emerson Park offers over a mile of Owasco Lake beach and shoreline for swimming, picnicking, and boating, and every August is the site of the Great Race team triathlon. On a summer evening, take in Auburn Doubledays baseball at family-friendly Falcon Park, enjoy September’s Tomato Fest, or simply stroll past the distinguished homes and greenery of the South Street Historic District.
The heart of any community is its people. Families who have lived in Auburn for generations remain proud of their city, its neighborhoods, and their friends. It’s an uncommon loyalty that extends to locally owned restaurants, markets, and pubs.
Few have had a finger on the pulse of the community more than Ormie King. His “Legends of Auburn” newspaper columns have long offered reliable and entertaining commentary on just about everything, past or present, that’s woven into the fabric of his hometown. From notable anniversaries to historical gems to his love of local sports, King has covered it all, often accompanied with a few of his nostalgic “faded photos.”
Typical would be a number of columns King has written on the topic of Auburn nicknames, a quirky tradition that sooner or later seems to pin a moniker on almost everyone: Squirrel, Bisso, Shortcake, Ding-Dong, Crocky, Thunderhead, Singapore, Poochie. Around town, the origin of a particular nickname is often hazy, yet often more familiar than the person’s real name.
“We’re just a very family-oriented place,” says King’s daughter Denise Bennett. “If you need help … people will always step up … provide support.” That’s not just Denise’s opinion. In its October 25, 2010 issue, Forbes Magazine named Auburn “Best Small City to Raise a Family” in the Northeast.
Author’s Note: In memory of Bob “Bo” Calimeri, a dedicated teacher, a steadfast Auburnian, and a true friend.