The Village of Honeoye Falls; A Living History

From the look on his opponent’s face, the Iroquois Warrior knew he had conquered. For a moment, he noticed his rival’s face had lost all expression entirely as he drew toward him. The warrior continued forward, eyes studying his prey as he watched him groping for cover. Shouldering his attacker, the young brave leapt behind the nearest sapling, throwing his hands around its thickened girth. Refusing the loss, the angry warrior—a huge man, his raw red forearms knotted with broad muscles—reached out with his powerful hand, sending a knife into the tree, severing the fifth finger of his foe and sending it to earth.

The Seneca legend suggests, however, the injured won the battle, retelling the story pridefully to his Iroquois tribe. This sacred battleground became known as Honeoye, stemming from the Indian word, “Ha-Ne-A-Yah,” the place where “the little finger lies on the ground.”

Sacred Ground    
The Seneca Indians, the most numerous and warlike of the Iroquois Confederacy, were first known in the 1500’s as one of the “Five Nations” along with the Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida and Onondaga (the sixth, Tuscorora, would be added later). They called themselves “Haudenosaunee,” or “We of the Extended Lodge.”

In their extended lodges, commonly known as long houses, the Seneca Indians established communities in their respective “nation” and quickly became known as  “Guardians of the Western Door.” As a result, in 1677 an English explorer traveled through this “Western Door,” or what the Seneca’s called the “Totiakton Village,” just outside of what we now know as Honeoye Falls.

The Englishman estimated that there were 1,000 Seneca Indians living in the Totiakton Village. Likewise, he noted the Indians called the falls of Honeoye Creek “Sko-sa-is-to” or “falls abounding from an obstruction.” He also documented that the Seneca Indians were living in long houses, had planted corn for harvesting and orchards to supply food for their families.

According to the Village Historian Anne Bullock, the Seneca Indian Village was later destroyed by the French and Canadian Indian enemies during the early Colonial Wars. “After the Indians were gone,” says Anne, “there was nothing left but the land and the falls.”

Norton’s Mills
The obstruction of  “Sko-sa-is-to” was viewed as a means to develop industry by later settlers. The first known land owner was Captain Johathan Ball, a Connecticut man who purchased a large section of what was then still known as the Seneca Indian Village of “Totiakton.” In 1791after the Revolutionary War, he would move back to Connecticut selling his share of 1,820 acres of land to a fellow Connecticut gentleman and miller, Zebulon Norton, at the cost of 12.5 cents per acre—not a bad price, even then.

When he purchased the land, Mr. Norton’s pursuit of happiness included using these powerful falls to build a Grist Mill, in effort to attract commerce to the area. His preparations went smoothly and at the age of 51, Mr. Norton erected a Grist Mill at the head of the falls, powered entirely by its water. A rugged man, Mr. Norton toiled early and late to succeed his work with a log cabin, located just southwest of the Grist Mill. By 1810 he had added a Red Sawmill to the left of the falls (later known, along with the Grist Mill as the “Upper Mills”) and a nearby block-house to his account, officially beginning a new area of settlement,  “Norton’s Mills.”

As the former Seneca Indian Village, Norton’s Mills began to flourish with settlers from Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  Laboring after Mr. Norton, they built log cabins and survived with few amenities. Unfortunately, this simple record of Zebulon Norton’s life , like that of many other heroic New Englanders, can only estimate the year of his death as 1815. However, his patience and industry carried on as Norton’s Mills was now home to several carpenters, a general store, a school teacher, a doctor, early Jesuits and a Methodist Society to carry on his infectious and devoted energies. To document its growth Norton’s Mills was renamed “West Mendon.”

The Mills Of West Mendon
Like many authentic buildings of its time, the first “Upper” Grist Mill built by Zebulon Norton lasted only four short years before it was claimed by fire. Henry Culver, an active builder, claimed the project. It was during this period of 1827-1837 that Culver constructed a new flour mill, using stone mined from a nearby quarry. This mill, which still stands on the same site, was connected to its sister, the original Red Saw Mill by covered bridge. After it was completed, Culver sold the Mill to Hiram Finch , a local miller. Hiram Finch reciprocated the fruits of their efforts in kind, by allegedly shipping a barrel of the Mill’s finest flour to Queen Victoria.

The Queen was only one of the noted personalities who consumed the product originally ground in the “Upper Mill.” During more than a century of production, the Mill gained a reputation for its fine flour. Among its admirers was Brigham Young, who would later become the influential Mormon leader. In fact, in the mid-1800’s, Brigham Young resided in the nearby Town of Mendon, operating a brick kiln and chair factory. He was known to frequent the general store by which flour from the Mill was sold.

What has come to be affectionately known as the “Lower Mill,” was also built between the years of 1827-1837 by Hiram Finch. He, like Culver, also used stone from the quarry just north of Clover Street. The original building produced quality flour to satisfy de­mand and stood on North Main Street, not far from its fellow “Upper Mills.” Although many have come to know the Mills as “bookends” of the Village, “I still prefer to think of the Mills as ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower,’” says Anne Bullock piously.

The Little Village That Could
With the tap of his switch, the Post Master trekked a 28 mile route through the town of West Mendon in the early 1800’s via horse and covered wagon.  And by 1822 the town of West Mendon had its first Post Office, on North Main Street.  However, it was not until March 13, 1838 that a village government was formed and incorporated by New York State. The little village on the banks of Honeoye Creek finally assumed the name of its Native American heritage; Honeoye Falls.

The Village boomed. Churches sprang up, adorning the town with white clapboard. First the United Methodist Church was established, followed by the First Presbyterian, St. John’s Episcopal and finally St. Paul of the Cross. And by 1879 a large Red Brick School was built and officially named “Honeoye Falls Union Free School.” It had been many years since his death, but Zebulon Norton’s dream had finally been fully realized.

The newly formed Village was not without its problems, however.  In the early days after its incorporation, the trustees of the village of Honeoye Falls would have to meet in various places, ranging from the brick schoolhouse to the post office. It was not until 1874 that the town officials were accommodated with permanent offices in the building at the foot of the falls. Just when it seemed that all was well, the Village Hall was burned to the ground in the “The Great Fire of 1885,” along with most of the buildings on the street.

The building  was replaced entirely by 1886 and the disaster was quickly overshadowed. By comparison, the newly updated building now contained a fire department, new village offices and an auditorium attracting movies, vaudeville acts and dances. “The outside of this historic building remains much the same as it did a century ago” says Anne of her current home away from home,.“Since President Grover Cleveland’s first term in the White House and through one hundred and fifteen years of service, the Village Hall has stood,  proud and unchanged, signifying the constancy of this village with its friendly and community minded residents.”

Village Veterans
It seemed that things were functioning smoothly at the turn of the century as the population continued to swell and  Honeoye Falls became completely self-sufficient, a village by which Zebulon Norton would be proud. The farms, Upper and Lower Mills and other industry were all healthy and fully operating, offering employment and opportunity…all the necessities of life. Three railroads (one of which was connected to the New York Central) were available for import and export, as well as means to local shopping, university and entertainment. However, as life progressed through the 1900’s the threat of war meant the possibility of living in two worlds for some of the local, budding businessmen.

One of these young hopefuls was William Mantegna whose family began operating Mantegna Furniture in Honeoye Falls in the early 1900’s. Mr. Mantegna, now 83, was recognized for his served duty in WWII in the local paper “The Sentinel”  last Memorial Day. Mr. Mantegna served in the United States Army from 1941-1946 as a member of the Corps of Engineers. “It was the only time I ever left Honeoye Falls since I came here at age 11,” Mr. Mantegna recalls. “I knew I would be returning home to run the family business and therefore would forfeit my pension for my work,” he said half-jokingly.

Losing his pension was a welcome exchange for his life, as his dangerous apprenticeship was unusual for most makers of fine furniture. Cutting his craftsman’s teeth in the United States Army, Mr. Mantegna constructed all essential items from improvised or captured enemy materials to build POW camps for German and Italian prisoners. For his efforts, Mr. Mantegna was awarded the Bronze Star and was discharged from the United States Army as first lieutenant, ready to re-assume his role as entrepreneur. Today you will find him repairing furniture and celebrating the centennial year of his family’s business on North Main Street, Honeoye Falls.

The Village Then and Now
When asked how things have changed over the years, Mr. Mantegna says of the Village, “like everything else, with electronics and machinery life is better.” And a visit to the village will prove this to be true. Today, you can still see the Red Sawmill, which is now privately owned, but still contains the three foot cast iron flume used to power the turbine for the Norton machinery, in its basement. Likewise, the Upper Grist Mill stands as it did 100 years earlier, after being renovated in the 70’s and sold to the Town of Mendon. Similarly, like Mantegna Furniture, many of the local retail stores have been updated to meet the needs of the Millennium. One of these is the family owned Pride’s Hardware, which has operated from its original location since 1839. In like fashion, the Lower Mill has also undergone a face-lift. And in its modern day setting, now resides in the National Registry of Historic Places. These businesses continue to thrive, along with the addition of many new ones.

The state of the fact remains, when you are in Honeoye Falls you can still take home a piece of the past while enjoying the present.  Whether you are having your antique repaired at Mantegna Furniture, or are purchasing an antique or piece of art from Juniper Beans, the village is still reminiscent of its early heritage and continues to be what the historian has referred to for years as “the friendliest little Village in western New York.”


by Laura M. Turner
Laura M. Turner is a freelance writer and aspiring author living in Victor, NY.