The waters of Cayuga Lake stretch along the border of Union Springs like a friendly neighbor. Lake views here present an ever-changing panorama – foggy daybreaks and radiant sunsets, rich shades of autumn and the frostiness of winter. Boaters sail from local marinas while visitors swim and picnic at spacious Frontenac Park, all just a short stroll from village center. But forces beyond Cayuga’s lure have always drawn folks to Union Springs.
Refreshing friendly faces
Pat Kimber, Tom Higgins and Diego Ruiz all came from elsewhere to settle in Union Springs, and readily became part of its fabric.
Pat and husband John moved from Syracuse after searching the countryside for a historic country home with architectural integrity. In Union Springs they found it – an early 19th-century, Federal-style home built of locally quarried limestone with delicate interior moldings and the original brass door latches intact. “It had warmth, charm and a historical background just waiting for us to unlock,” says Pat.
Tom was a Finger Lakes native with an innate passion for the region’s wine industry. An accounting degree and time in the technology field never stifled his ardor for winemaking, so after study and apprenticeships in France and California the Finger Lakes beckoned. A believer that limestone in the grape growing process “buffers the soil and allows for quicker nutrient uptake into the vine,” he found a perfect band of the mineral in Union Springs. He built Heart & Hands Wine Company in 2008, its products already receiving accolades from several major wine periodicals.
Artist Diego Ruiz was raised in Southern California with a passion for history. He especially admired 19th-century homes, styles found in short supply in his home state. After visiting his wife Kari’s family home in the Finger Lakes, he began a regional search for the right place to nurture his sense of history, find a period home and establish their boutique business. “Union Springs was the perfect fit,” says Diego. “We needed to be here.”
Despite varied backgrounds and diverse reasons for settling in town, all agree it was the people that ultimately drew them to Union Springs. Phrases like “wonderful people with a strong sense of community” and “friendly and supportive” pop up in conversations with Pat, Tom, Diego and others.
Residents like Ed Butts of the American Legion and Johan Lehtonen of the Lions Club will heap praise on community contributions of other groups just as quickly as they will discuss the many accomplishments of their own organizations. Pastor Shelley Pantoliano notes the restoration of a magnificent stained glass window in the Trinity UCC church as just one project that united the village. “The exquisite window is a tribute to the memory of Asa A. Hoff, Union Springs’ first life lost in the Civil War.”
People have always been the heart and soul of Union Springs from its earliest settlers – Revolutionary War soldiers, first enticed by fertile land viewed during the Sullivan Campaign; New Englanders, including some retired sea captains; and Pennsylvania Quakers, cultured artisans among them. Today, they still are.
Overflowing with history
Union Springs owes its name to the uniting of several natural springs, the source of unfailing water power to drive its early mills, some of the first in the region. The village, incorporated in 1848, flourished as mills hummed and the extraction of limestone and gypsum from nearby quarries supported the local economy.
A large number of stone structures remain in the area, products of the quarries’ mid-19th-century heyday. Limestone was shipped from Union Springs to build railroad bridges throughout the state, and provide “pavers” for city thoroughfares, notably Wall Street in New York City.
Cayuga County boasts the largest number (176) of bright blue and gold historical markers in the State of New York, and a winding drive through and around Union Springs unearths more than its share. They turn up everywhere.
Pause a moment to read about George Howland’s Spring Mills (circa 1840), a classic stone mill on the North Pond, and an iconic photo spot featured in many Finger Lakes books. A marker points out Frontenac Island – one of only two islands in the Finger Lakes – an ancient Indian burial place and an important archeological and geological site.
Another historical marker notes the home of oarsman Charles Courtney, national champion “sculler” of the late 1800s, and longtime Cornell University crew coach. One more stands at the 1844 stone school, sitting proudly on a knoll, once in ruin but renovated in 2009 as a contemporary video production studio for the accomplished Union Springs school system. The list goes on and on.
A wide range of exhibits, programs and special events bring area history alive at the Frontenac Historical Society and Museum on Cayuga Street. “Our displays reflect the entire Union Springs area,” says Society President Dean Tanner. “We have collections from Civil War memorabilia to Indian artifacts.” It was on a visit to the Frontenac that I stumbled on the stories of two notable Unions Springs’ natives, John J. Thomas and Robert Doremus.
Thomas was an early editor of The Country Gentleman magazine, a mainstay of the agricultural world from 1831 to 1955. It served as a primary source of information for farmers across the country, often showcasing classic cover sketches by the famed Norman Rockwell.
Doremus was a talented commercial illustrator. His work included everything from his World War II observations, to illustrations for dozens of textbooks, posters and children’s books. Doremus’ activity workbooks touched on such TV favorites as Star Trek, Get Smart and Bonanza. His pet project was a picture book of Disney’s Old Yeller. The museum, local schools, public library and village office all contain valued displays of the noted illustrator’s work.
Soaked in culture
The area’s rich history is just one reason to visit Union Springs. Antique hunting, great baked goods and artwork are among others. The Lake House Sweetery offers “homemade happiness” in its cakes, pies, cookies, muffins, bread and more. Owners Caren and Mark Cartwright found their niche in town three years ago.
Citing Union Springs as “a community on the upswing,” Diego and Kari opened their artisan boutique, Copperesque, in the Cayuga Street business block. Along with picture framing, fine art, jewelry and pottery, Diego has created a modern take on the classic stereoscope of a century ago. Mixing past with present, he is creating unique, 3-D stereo cards, viewers and stereoview books of Finger Lakes sites and people.
“Union Springs is a place where people truly support one another, a town that must be experienced to be appreciated,” affirms Pennsylvanian Howard Hopson, another admirer enticed by this lake village. Howard and wife Lynn found “the right residence in the right community,” and are restoring an Italianate house at the village center as their eventual retirement home. “The grocery store, Frontenac Museum, Cayuga Lake and The Sweetery will all be at our doorstep,” says Howard. “Retirement can’t come soon enough.”
by James P. Hughes