story and photos by James P. Hughes
It’s almost a two-mile ride from the crest of East Hill on Seneca Turnpike down a long straight slope into the heart of Marcellus. Nestled snugly in its wooded valley, the village center is visible the entire way, postcard-like with church steeples and housetops rising above the tree line. That long downward trek has existed from the time the turnpike was a Native American trail and on through the years when horses and wagons rumbled steadily along its path.
Early settlers of the sheer, fertile slopes above Marcellus began arriving about 1794. They were recipients or purchasers of military tract land set aside for Revolutionary War veterans in recognition of their service. Families left rocky New England for the lush area just a few miles north of Otisco Lake, its countryside abundant with water and rich soil ideal for farming.
A community soon formed at the turnpike’s valley intersection with Nine Mile Creek. In keeping with the classical names attached to many military tracts, the village was dubbed Marcellus after a Roman general, but early residents fondly tagged it “Pucker Street.” There are conflicting stories as to the origin of that nickname. According to Marcellus mayor John Curtin, who has written two engaging village histories whose titles include the moniker, “Each version is quite different, each is amusing and each has its advocates.”
Businesses blossomed along Main Street as trading and manufacturing increased. Stagecoach lines made regular stops along the turnpike at establishments like the popular 1815 Alvord House. Successful businessmen and their families constructed stately village homes on shaded streets, and at one time church spires occupied each of the village’s main four corners.
From the beginning, a rapid series of drops along Nine Mile Creek through and near the village supplied ample power for a variety of mills – woolen to paper to grist. The Crown Woolen Mills became a village mainstay. It provided decades of employment to local residents and immigrants who arrived at the area. Crown produced fine woolens, and proudly furnished material used for uniforms during the Civil War era.
Old Blends with New
After a long run dating back to the 1800s, the mill era came to an end when foreign competition and other economic factors took over in the 1960s. Since then, most would refer to Marcellus as a “bedroom community,” since many residents work in or around the City of Syracuse. But Marcellus has avoided the commotion and tract housing of a typical suburb. Over the years its tranquil village atmosphere has remained intact and its population relatively stable. As one longtime resident proudly puts it, “Yes, we’re a ‘bedroom community’… and it’s a very cozy and comfortable bedroom.”
Traditional life continues. Marcellus Olde Home Days was a town-wide event originally celebrated during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In those days farmers and merchants brought their produce and wares to town to sell or barter, and to just have a good time. After the town’s Bicentennial in 1994, the community decided a revival was in order. Reactivated in 1995, Old Home Days has become “a family affair … a reunion of sorts,” says Mayor Curtin. The three-day June festival draws in not only local folks but thousands from around the surrounding Central New York area. Food and crafts, along with displays of all sorts, line Main Street. A parade, music, pancake breakfast and fireworks add to the festivities – all arranged and contributed to by residents and community organizations.
The Winding Creek
Nine Mile Creek flows through Marcellus like a friendly neighbor. It begins in nearby Otisco Lake to the south, weaves its way through the town and village, and then drops into “the gorge” on its northward trek to Onondaga Lake. It seems that almost everything in Marcellus has, and always had, a relationship to stony Nine Mile.
The old mills along the creek are gone, but on an original foundation stand the Upper Crown Landing Apartments, their brick construction carefully designed with a tip of the hat to the building on that “footprint” that once fashioned fine woolens.” Nearby, the Marcellus Free Library, newly dedicated in 2010, also has an exterior recalling the brick and girder architecture of mill days gone by.
Daniel’s Grill with its relaxed atmosphere and excellent menu is a popular off-the-beaten-path dining spot with a scenic creekside location. The Marcellus Schools, a continuing source of community pride, are spread across a hillside just above the creek. Many village homes enjoy an ever changing creek view as the seasons roll by.
Nine Mile Creek plays a central role at both ends of the village. On the south, Marcellus Park is a town-operated oasis of walking trails, picnic areas, ball fields, and quiet tree-shaded spots for relaxing beside the ripples of the creek. In the winter, its pavilion is decorated with Christmas lighting and a skating rink provides recreation on a crisp day. To the north, the creek drops rapidly into a scenic gorge. Its roadway passes through several miles of curves between wooded, rock-faced hillsides – picturesque in any season. As the route crisscrosses the creek, it accesses some of the finest trout fishing in Central New York.
Take a Stroll
Like many other Finger Lakes communities, Marcellus is a great walking town. Appealing homes enhance its neighborhoods and flower boxes decorate many corners. Some street names honor the Scotch and Irish immigrants who once labored in the village mills. A number of shops line Main Street, and the tidy North Street Diner in the middle of town has become a gathering place for good food and conversation.
A stop by the Marcellus Historical Society is worthwhile if you’re ambling about on a Sunday or Thursday. Located in the Steadman House, an imposing 1830s Greek Revival structure on North Street, the society displays extensive exhibits and photographs of Marcellus and its storied past.
A walkable distance from the edge of town is the Baltimore Woods Nature Center. The center boasts 180 forested acres, six miles of trails, educational signage, and a wealth of activities. A staff of professionals and volunteers endeavor to meet the center’s mission statement: “To connect people to nature.” An Interpretive Center is on site with room for programs, an art gallery, a gift shop, and a Discovery Library for kids. A hike in the good weather or a trek by snowshoes or cross-country skis in the winter keeps Baltimore Woods a busy place year-round.
Before you move on from your Marcellus visit, a stop by the Chocolate Pizza Company is in order. The unique business has been featured on the Food Network and in other media for its delicious, gourmet creations. Chocolate Pizza? Ah … I thought that might get your attention.