Reading for the Holiday Season

by Laurel C. Wemett

The gift of a book is a perfect choice for any occasion, especially this time of year.  Books are generally affordable and can have a long-lasting impact. Here are some with local connections which may be of interest – including a children’s book about a dog’s life on the lake.

Steps West: The Field Notes of
Col. Hugh Maxwell (1733-1799)

John M. Robortella
Finger Lakes Historical Press

Why did the 1788 surveys of the eastern boundary of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase, known as the Pre-emption Line, veer to the west? The long-posed question prompted John Robortella to transcribe primary sources, looking for answers. Was there a surveyor error? Did fraud by a competing land company play a part? Or, as some accounts have suggested, did the well-regarded Col. Hugh Maxwell, hired by Phelps to carry out the survey, become ill and leave others to complete the survey?

The book includes the first published transcription of Col. Maxwell’s field notes of the Pre-emption Line survey taken from a notebook likely unknown until long after his death. Together with Maxwell’s letters to his wife, they offer insight into the puzzling and consequential issue. Detailed notations and supporting illustrations provide a valuable resource. 

Robortella, a former newspaper reporter/editor and retiree from the University of Rochester, is a respected writer on local history.  

Enjoy excerpts on page 32.

History and Mystery: The Folklore
and Legends of the Bristol Hills

John Holtz, general editor; Anna Overmoyer, illustrator 

This attractive book published by the Bristol Hills Historical Society features tales of local history and folklore. Thirty narratives, both fact and fiction, illuminate the Ontario County towns of Bristol and South Bristol. Well-written prose is illustrated with imaginative watercolor paintings by Anna Overmoyer. The artist’s whimsical artworks feature spirits, fairies and magic – setting a perfect tone for storytelling.  

Contributors and patrons include local residents and businesses. Three geographical areas and a colorful map provide the locations of these tales which span from Native American and post-Revolutionary War era events to recent times. Some stories are familiar like the legend of Bare Hill, a sacred place in the lore of the Senecas and the Burning Springs, a natural landmark of the Bristol Hills where water burns.  

It is a charming mix – there are curious, little-known characters that come to life like the Hermit in the Hollow or the Fortune Teller of Worden Hill. Historic buildings featured include a one-room school house and the South Bristol Grange Hall.  

The book’s large format makes it an ideal keepsake to be enjoyed by generations to come. The project’s organizer and lead editor John Holtz is a professional outdoors educator and owner of a South Bristol tree farm.

The New York State Canal System:
A History Beyond the Erie

Susan P. Gateley
History Press 

The canal system in New York State stretches more than 524 miles from Albany to Buffalo, from Tompkins and Schuyler counties to the Quebec border. This comprehensive text offers a valuable introduction to canals, “beyond the Erie.” Examples from the author’s own canal travels enliven the descriptions.

Three sections organize topics along chronological lines: History (1790 to 2020), Analog Engineering on the New Erie and the Canal Today and Tomorrow. Canal operations from “locking through” level changes to the many unique engineering features are explained in some detail. The canal’s adaptation over time and examples of transport changes for a non-fossil fuel age are included. 

Some historic vessels are featured like the tug, Urger, which became a floating classroom in the canal system later in its life. While the need for extensive repairs threatens Urger’s future, its long service and design features teach about the past. The value of canal-themed museums is also underscored with specific examples. Illustrations and diagrams enhance this topic.   

Gateley has a master’s degree in fisheries science and experience sailing in Lake Ontario, the coastal waters and the NY Canal System. These experiences fueled her numerous articles and books including a new historical novel, “Shifting Winds: A Maritime Tale of the Great Lakes.”

Solid. Life and Death of a Jazz Genius Scott LaFaro

Vincenzo Staiano
Lulu, English edition 

Solid. Quel diavolo di Scott LaFaro

Arcana Editore, Italian edition

The loss of a gifted musician in the prime of life naturally leads to speculation of what more that individual might have contributed. In 1961, Scott LaFaro, a respected jazz bassist, died tragically in a car crash at the age of 25 en route to Geneva, just three days after playing at the famed Newport Jazz Festival. The book, in essay format, reveals the musical influences on LaFaro, “one of the most innovative bassists in the history of jazz.”  According to the author, LaFaro was the first one to give a relevant role to the double bass in a combo.

Like his father, Rocco, LaFaro became a musician and the pair collaborated at Belhurst where Rocco long performed. After leaving musical studies at Ithaca College, LaFaro met and played at West and East Coast venues. With musicians like Chet Baker, bandleader Stan Kenton, Paul Motian, Bill Evans and Ornette Coleman, among others. The bassist’s life, with details of the LaFaro family’s Italian background plus references to his recordings and performances, offer context to his musical journey,

Staiano, of Italy, is a former professor of English literature. He has participated in numerous music, film and theatre productions, including serving as artistic director of the annual Roccella Jazz Festival.

Voices of Wayne County:
A Bicentennial Commemorative Book

Designed and compiled by Amber Linson
Wayne County Historical Society 

Two hundred years is a noteworthy milestone. Wayne County, formed in 1823, celebrated its bicentennial in 2023 with numerous activities organized by co-chairs Gene Bavis and Rosa Fox. This commemorative book of memories is destined to become a “time capsule of life in Wayne County.” It includes an impressive collection of 140 short submissions and 120 images received from 110 contributors. 

These stories are organized by the county’s 15 towns: Sodus, Palmyra, Williamson, Ontario, Wolcott, Lyons, Galen, Macedon, Savannah, Arcadia, Butler, Huron, Marion, Rose and Walworth. Contributors share personal tales of farm and small-town life, reminiscences of lost businesses and buildings, along with friendships and recreational activities. A few accounts from published sources and some poems are included. A valuable section, “Author Bios,” features a happy mix of amateur and professional writers along with some historians. This book is bound to be particularly helpful for researchers. For casual readers it will provide a journey into Wayne County’s past.

Organizing the wealth of submissions was creative editor, Linson, a Walworth Town Board member and president of the Walworth Historical Society. She was assisted by a small group that reviewed submissions as well as an editing committee. The publication was achieved thanks to a grant from the Rochester Area Community Foundation.

Lake Dog

Maggie Benham; Kristin Martin, illustrator

Here is a perfect large format children’s book to be enjoyed by all who frequent the Finger Lakes Region with their canine companions. The gentle tale of exploration of the world around water will ignite a love of nature. The illustrations are bright and colorful depictions of Tipper, the author’s dog, along with other pooches who partake of all the lake amenities: swimming, splashing, rolling, sniffing, sun bathing and frolicking. Not to mention paddle boarding.  

The goal of this book is to increase awareness among young people who will become the next generation of stewards of nature and the lake. A special section provides a number of helpful guidelines for parents and kids during lakeside visits with dogs.  

Maggie Benham is a native of the Finger Lakes and grew up on Canandaigua Lake. Kristin Martin illustrated the doggie-lake adventures. The artist, a dog-lover and nature enthusiast, skillfully conveys these passions through her lush artwork.

A percentage of the proceeds of this self-published book supports the Canandaigua Lake Watershed (CLWA), a nonprofit, membership-based organization that works to preserve, protect and restore Canandaigua Lake and its watershed. The author is also connected to Libraries Love Lakes, an outreach project which pairs school and public libraries with lake scientists to provide collaborative programming emphasizing the importance of lakes in our everyday lives.

Looking Ahead

Future reviews include:  

Remarkable Women of the Finger Lakes

Julie Cummins
Arcadia Publishing 
Coming November 2023 

From women medical pioneers like Clara Barton and Elizabeth Blackwell to aviator Blanche Stuart Scott and writer Sarah Hopkins Bradford, the iconic women of New York’s most beautiful region are revealed.

Tourists and Trade: Roadside Craftsmen and the
Highway Transforming Craft

Bruce Austin
SUNY Press 
Hardcover published in June 2023
Paperback coming December 2023

This analysis of regional crafts in Western New York focuses on two craft businesses located along US Route 20 that began during the Great Depression. Related themes of leisure travel and automobile tourism are explored.

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