The Finger Lakes Region is home to them by the hundreds – small settlements scattered across the map like pebbles on the ground. We call them hamlets: Fayette, Pulteney, Jasper, Millport. Stretched along a highway or gathered about at a crossroads, one is often indistinguishable from another – each with some houses, perhaps a couple of stores, a church or two and maybe a school.
Lacking the size of a village, a hamlet maintains a certain character beyond just a random cluster of houses. Typically, a standard green sign with white lettering asserts an identity: Piffard, Stanley, Throopsville, Middlesex. Local folks have sometimes replaced the green marker with something more substantial and decorative – a carved or hand painted wooden sign, perhaps one adorned with spindles or wrought iron.
While a village is incorporated, a hamlet is just a neighborhood, in a sense. With no government of its own, a hamlet depends on a surrounding township for municipal services. Long ago, many were bustling country communities perched at a lake’s edge or beside a rambling creek, home to an active mill or storage barns along a busy farm to market route. Typically, a general emporium made available everything from its cracker barrel to a plug of chewing tobacco, a bolt of cloth, or a pound of tenpenny nails.
Today, the original mills and most of the early businesses are long since gone. In these days of increased mobility, people venture to larger towns and cities to meet their needs, turning a once tedious trek on dirt roads into a short trip by car.
Some hamlets are quaint and picturesque, worthy of a calendar photo. Tired, worn and weary, others have seen better days. Either way, the slow-paced hamlet survives: Virgil, Alloway, Mecklenburg, Himrod. A makeshift placard advertising an upcoming chicken and biscuit dinner at a local church or meeting hall is a far more likely sight than a message splashed across a neon sign.
From the commonly-named (like Scott) to the more colorful (like Seneca Castle), family roots that took hold long ago still run deep. As it has for generations, in scores of tiny hamlets along the highways and winding back roads of the Finger Lakes – life goes on.
From the early 14th century, hamlet is derived from the Old French word hamelet, diminutive of hamel – meaning “little village.”
story and photo by James P. Hughes