Part of the allure of the Finger Lakes Region is its tiny communities scattered like so many pebbles on the landscape. With small clusters of houses and a church or public building springing up here and there, Pultneyville may be one of the most picturesque of these hamlets.
Surrounded by bountiful apple and peach orchards, with its charming 19th century homes stretching along Lake Ontario’s splendid shoreline, Pultneyville evokes a hint of classic New England. In 1985 a historical district was established when its architectural significance was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places
The community was named for Sir William Pulteney, an English capitalist and land speculator in the late 1700s. “Somewhere along the way, the first ‘E’ in the name was dropped,” said Town of Williamson Historian Chester (Chet) Peters, “but we’ve managed to get along without it for quite some time now.”
Peters has enjoyed “the slow pace of this place” his entire 92 years, and still spends a good deal of time taking in the lake view and watching the world go by from the front porch of his Mill Street home. If you need to know some history, or almost anything else about Pultneyville, Chet is a great source.
Early homesteaders were of English and Scottish stock; later came the Dutch. With a natural harbor inlet on Lake Ontario, the first half of the 19th century saw the settlement establish a significant maritime heritage of shipbuilding and lake commerce. “Those were busy times,” said Chet. “Pultneyville became a U.S. port of entry. Mills, machine shops and a foundry were established to support the shipping trade.”
By the 1850s, nearly 30 lake captains called Pultneyville home. Today many pleasure craft line the inlet occupied in bygone days by those tall sailing ships.
Rumor has it that one local home has a cannonball prominently displayed on the fireplace mantel. Yes, a War of 1812 cannonball. Scouring the Ontario shoreline for supplies under Commander Yeo, a British ship and crew landed in Pultneyville on May 15, 1814. Expecting no resistance, their intent was to steal “publick stores” from the hamlet’s citizens. The local militia under John Swift had other ideas. Gunfire ensued followed by a cannon bombardment from the British ship – an event now known as The Battle of Pultneyville. “I understand the mantelpiece cannonball was imbedded in the outside wall of the house,” said Chet, “And has been passed on from owner to owner ever since. Iron balls were scattered throughout town, including one found on my present property.”
Pultneyville also boasts an historical first in its peaceful Lake View Cemetery. In October 1865, a stately obelisk was constructed on a slope at the center of the burial ground, a memorial in honor of the area’s Civil War dead. It has been established as the first such monument in New York State, some believe possibly even the earliest in the United States.
How many communities of a few hundred people boast live theater and a Civic Light Opera Company? Pultneyville, for one. Its home is Gates Hall, a building erected in 1825 as the non-denominational Union Church – “A noble experiment in religious unity among folks secure in their varied beliefs,” according to Chet. By 1867 the old church had become a community theater, beginning a long tradition that continues to this day. Locally supported, “Gates Hall has been designated the second oldest little theater in the United States,” says Robert D. Gorski, president of the imaginative Gatesinger Company. “We’re very proud of that.”
For the last half-century, the Gatesinger players have sung and danced their way through a fanciful Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, its music and comedy a perennial highlight of the annual Pultneyville Homecoming Festival. The festival, held the third weekend every July, also features antique dealers, an art show and sale, wine tastings, the Mariners Sunfish Regatta, a parade, jazz and band music, and food aplenty. All in all, it’s the perfect occasion to soak up the flavor of the historic hamlet.
But take a drive through Pultneyville anytime; it’s well worth a visit. Stocked with both the old and the new, there’s unique shopping at the Good Old Days Country Shop. These “purveyors of primitive goods, country furnishings, and needful things,” as they put it, are lodged in a rustic old apple-packing warehouse dating back to 1902. Stop next at the Salmon Creek inlet at The Landing to enjoy artisan shops along with lunch or dinner at The Pultneyville Grill. Enjoy a view and the breeze off of Lake Ontario. And, if they’re in season, don’t head home without some fresh peaches and apples from a nearby farm stand.
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by James P. Hughes