What's in a Name

By Amo T. Kreiger
In Sunday's Paper
January 1, 1939


Annually visited by thousands of motorists both for its autumn fair and race meet as well as for its picturesque lake, whose crystal waters are said to rank in purity with the famed lakes of the Scottish highlands, the little village of Hemlock lying a mile from the foot of the lake, stands as a gateway to the Finger Lakes Region.

From the thick growth of hemlock which covered the hillsides surrounding the lake came the name, a translation of the Seneca word, Oh-Na-Da.

Rife with Indian legendary lore is the locality about the lake, most poetic of all is the fable of On-No-Lee, daughter of a Munsee chieftain, who drowned herself in the waters of the lake rather than be taken captive by a warring tribesman. On still moonlight nights the wraith of the beautiful Indian Maiden is said to float idly over the smooth surface of the lake in her elf bark canoe, according to the fanciful minded to the hill-country folks.

Treasure Hunts Failed

Persistent of the sparsely settled hills is the belief in buried treasure, hidden it is alleged, by General Sullivan's officers, while crossing the narrow ridge northwest of the lake as a precautionary measure against being captured by the Indians. Sporadic fits of digging extended over a period of a century and a half have yeilded nothing, however, in the way of silver and gold.

Pioneer settler of the Hemlock area was Phillip Short who came in 1790. There followed a steady migration from New England to this lush country of the Genesee as all of western New York was originally termed. Settlers located at first at the foot of the lake and along the outlet. Saw mills went up and from the immense lumber output grew Hemlock's soubriquet, "Slab City."

The first grist mill in the area was built in 1795 on the site of the present Beam mill. Stones for these crude mills were brought, it is claimed, by sailing vessels from France free of charge as ballast to the ships. The Sullivan marker which stands near the foot of the lake was formed partly from these original millstones as a means of preservation.

Mill Established

Record-breaking for the longest period of milling in one family and only manufacturing enterprise of the past century to survive the shift in industrial winds is the Beam Milling Company, established in Glenville by Daniel S. Beam in 1882 and later moved to its present location.

In the early days of the valley supplies were hauled into the valley by ox-cart from Albany and by a roundabout water route through the Mohawk and the Oswego rivers to Lake Ontario, and thence up the Genesee river and its tributaries to Hemlock. Money was scarce and grain and cattle were often bartered in trade for groceries.

About this locality in the spring season was a pungent ever present haze. Through the long months of winter when the green summits of the hills were blanketed with snow, the growth of virgin timber was cut and piled high on the frozen clearing to dry for spring firing. Upon the sale of the ashes pioneer farmers depended for an added source of income.

Rival Village Started

Listed among the lost villages of the Hemlock area is the village of Jacksonville located three miles from Hemlock and a short distance from the main highway. Founded in 1829 by Ichabod Holden, this early real estate development represented an attempt upon the part of a group of dissinters to the plan of Hemlock to eclipse the rival village in size and extent of its industries. Accordingly, lots were laid out and numbered and woolen and grist mills erected on the bank of the outlet. The period was brief however for with the construction in 1850 of the plank road linking Rochester with Hemlock, the toylike village located too far from this highway fell into decay. Today nothing remains of its past prosperity but a crumbling stone wall beside the quiet stream.

"Slab City" and "The World's Fair" were synonomous terms for the annual Hemlock exhibition conducted for the past 71 years by the Hemlock Lake Union Agricultural Association. The fair is an outgrowth of the early race meets held in that section in the 1850 period. Abandoned during the Civil War it later was moved in 1876 to Whitney and Ackley Driving Park where it was enlarged in scope and extended to a two-day exhibition. It was incorporated in 1881.

Fluctuating deficits and gains have been the lot of this struggling country fair which annually attracts patrons from a wide territory. Teh first merry-go-round was imported in 1876, and the first free attraction recorded was a balloon ascension in 1890.

Hailed as the "Grand Old Man of the Hemlock Fair" is Edwin H. Westbrook, associated with the fair for more than 40 years, serving as president of its sponsoring organization for a long period.

Lake Popular in Summer

The popularity of Hemlock Lake as a summer resort began as early as 1850 and steadily increased. In its heyday summer homes sprang up like mushrooms along its wooded shores. The "Seth Green," a steamboat launched in 1873, chugged importantly up and down the sheet of water carrying passengers from the hotels which dotted its northern shores. The City of Rochester laid the first pipe line in 1875 and in 1895 the tunnel was built.

Enthusiam ran high on the opening day of the Lehigh Valley Railroad in 1894 ushering into the village a new wave of prosperity. Excursion trains on the road brought additional visitors to the fair.

In February, 1930, the Hemlock Union School Historical Museum was organized with Frank Connor serving as curator. From the historical datd compiled and the thousands of relics collected the village of Hemlock hopes to preserve for the future generation proof of her significance in the early history of Western New York.