Kathy and Mike Connor of Canandaigua started making their retirement plans in 2001. The couple dreamed of buying an inn in Cape Cod but they were in no hurry. Two of their three children lived at home and Kathy, an art teacher, was still working. Mike planned to sell his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, and their grand, restored Victorian home on Howell Street would be put on the market. Mike thought they should look for a modest home in Canandaigua to use for visits and as a home base for the kids.
“It was definitely a long-range plan,” Kathy Connor recalls with a smile. “We had a lot to tidy up before we could start scouting locations in Massachusetts.”
This year, Kathy did become an innkeeper, but her plans came to fruition in a very different way than she had imagined. Today, she sits on the welcoming front porch of her home, the Cobblestone Cottage Bed & Breakfast on West Lake Road in Canandaigua, to tell her tale. How it all began and ended is complicated, but so, too, is the history of the house.
The Parrish family homestead
“I’ve always loved this house,” Connor says. “My mother grew up in Canandaigua and admired it as well.”
Called the Cobblestone Farm, it was built in 1837 for Isaac Parrish and his family. Most cobblestone architecture in the United States can be found in the Rochester area because of the abundance of naturally round stones indigenous to this region. Industrious masons who helped build the Erie Canal and settled here used the stones to construct buildings and homes of great beauty. The Ontario County Historical Society reports that about 100 of these unique structures of varying sizes and uses exist in Ontario County.
The Parrish family was prominent, both locally and nationally. They were “an exciting and important family,” affirms Dr. Preston Pierce, Ontario County Historian. Isaac’s father, Jasper Parrish, was captured by the Iroquois at the tender age of 11, and held captive from 1778 until 1784. He became fluent in the language of the Iroquois tribes, and was consequently hired to be an interpreter for talks between the United States government and the Six Nations. His role began under President George Washington’s administration and lasted through part of President Andrew Jackson’s second term.
Jasper and his accomplishments are well documented, while little is written about his son, Isaac. We know he became a wealthy and distinguished landowner. The first steamboat on Canandaigua Lake, Lady of the Lake, was built and launched from his farm in 1827 with Isaac as her captain. In addition, Isaac’s name appears in an 1856 newspaper notices as an organizer of a political club promoting the new anti-slavery Republican Party. Four years later, Abraham Lincoln would become the first Republican president. Historian Dr. Pierce surmises that Isaac was an abolitionist and would have been sympathetic to the Underground Railroad.
Conductor on the railroad?
In fact, many believe that the Parrish farm was a “station” on one of the numerous routes of the Underground Railroad. If walls could talk, this lovely cobblestone farmhouse might have many tales to tell. The folklore, passed down from its owners, is compelling.
Underground Railroad Tales With Routes Through the Finger Lakes Region by Emerson Klees maps out credible routes leading fleeing slaves to freedom in Canada. Klees lists the Cobblestone Farm as a stop on two routes that passed through Canandaigua. He notes in his book, “It is equally difficult to verify that a house wasn’t a station on the Underground Railroad as it is to prove that it was.” The stations were kept secret; it was the key to the success of the Underground Railroad. Those who helped fugitives risked fines and jail time if they were discovered.
The Rochester Museum & Science Center includes the Parrish farm as a possible station in its exhibit, “Flight to Freedom: Rochester’s Underground Railroad.” Kathryn Murano, the museum’s registrar, says that even though there are few primary source accounts to authenticate Underground Railroad stops, the criteria developed for the exhibit lends great credibility to the Cobblestone Farm claim. Stories passed down from homeowners disclose that some freedom seekers en route to Canada were hidden in a small secret room behind the chimney in the second-floor attic of the Parrish farm. A crude ladder extended from the basement through a ground floor china closet to the ceiling above. A missing floor joist and loose floorboards concealed access to the attic. The room still exists today.
The hidden ladder
The Connors visited Cobblestone Farm when it went up for sale in 2004. They had a buyer for their home on Howell Street and were scrambling to find the smaller place they had discussed a few years earlier. The Cobblestone Farm did not fit their original plan, but Kathy Connor wanted to take a look anyway. “I basically fell in love with it,” she admits. “Mike made an offer and we bought it.”
The old farmhouse needed updating but the Connors, who had painstakingly renovated their previous house, were undaunted. Their first priority was to install a ground-floor kitchen with modern conveniences. During renovations, which included tearing down a walk-in closet to create a hallway, workers uncovered a piece of old ladder nailed behind a wall. Connor said the ladder remnant was affixed near the ceiling, right below the loose floorboard in the attic, close to the secret room. She had heard the tale about the ladder. She presumed that the slaves were transported to the basement doors and they climbed this ladder that passed through the closet to safety, above.
“It was referred to as a ‘china closet,’” explains Connor, “but it was actually a big walk-in closet in which they stored china.”
The Connors didn’t purchase the cobblestone as a bed-and-breakfast venture. In fact, Kathy Connor thinks her husband suspected he was very sick and simply wanted to buy her the house she was always drawn to. They moved into their newly renovated home in September 2004. Soon after, Mike Connor was diagnosed with an advanced cancer and passed away.
The difficult time period following her husband’s death brought Connor to a crossroads. The home was a lot for her to maintain alone, so she purchased a small place in Cape Cod near her older son and his family. The cobblestone went up for sale, but Connor was unable to sell it for a fair price. “I started to think that it would make a great bed & breakfast, which might be a sensible plan for me,” she says.
Connor was accustomed to people slowing down as they drove by, or walking up to the porch to talk with her about the Underground Railroad. Complete strangers asked for house tours. She realized how appealing it would be for prospective guests to spend the night in such an historic home.
Plans for the Cobblestone Cottage Bed & Breakfast started to take shape. With two of her three grown children nearby to help, Connor commenced with some cosmetic alterations and a marketing plan. Her updated guest rooms were named keeping in mind the allure of the Parrish Family and their connection to the Underground Railroad. The Isaac Parrish Suite is a nod to the gentleman farmer who started it all, and the Honeymoon Cottage Suite pays homage to a turn-of-the-century addition to the house. The Attic Quilt Suite, located on the second floor adjacent to the secret room, is the most appealing to history buffs.
Kathy opened the doors to her first guests at the Cobblestone Cottage Bed & Breakfast in January 2010. Many guests later, she is enthusiastically embracing her new direction in life and her role as innkeeper. Her house has had plenty of practice – if the accounts are true, the old Parrish farm already welcomed many, many travelers seeking refuge on a long and thrilling journey.
by Nancy E. McCarthy