Art Cohn, Medina, NY
The original attraction of the location of the Village of Medina was the water-power of Oak Orchard Creek, which flowed with great potential for water-powered industries that soon were connected to the new Erie Canal. But it was the ancient sandstone deposits in Medina and surrounding communities that would ultimately become the community’s greatest engine of industry and wealth. With the new Erie Canal (1825) creating an cost-effective and efficient way to get heavy stone cargos to market, the first quarry was opened in 1837. The business flourished right into the 20th century and at its height, 50 quarries operating 2000 acres of quarry were in operation. The stone began to appear in building all over the region and as far away as Albany, New York City and Washington. There is even a record of Medina Sandstone being incorporated into Buckingham Palace.
That Medina was a dynamic hub of commercial activity with quarries, the Erie Canal and some of the richest farmland in the State of New York was captured by writer Arch Merrill in 1945. To prepare for the book Merrill had taken a trip on a tugboat along the canal to learn, as we aboard the Lois McClure try to learn today, the secrets of the past. Merrill interviewed a life-long Medina resident Charles Hood and recorded that “Hood recalled colorful times in Medina in the heyday of the quarried and of the canal, when there were some 35 saloons in the village. Mix quarrymen, canallers and transient fruit pickers, stir well with alcohol on a Saturday night and you have a steaming dish for the constabulary.”
The Medina Sandstone business faded during the first part of the 20th century, but the downtown is a one of the most colorful, picturesque and historically preserved along the Erie corridor. The Culvert Road under the Erie Canal and the Church at the junction of two streets as well as Oak Orchard Creek were deemed so unique and interesting that they were written up by Ripley. The farmland the fruit orchards that surround Medina today and can be irrigated by the Erie Canal are breathtakingly beautiful and some of the most productive in the nation. But the personal highlight for me turned out not to be the stunning stone buildings or the sweeping curve of the Erie Canal or the engineering accomplishment of the aqueduct crossing Oak Orchard Creek. For me, this visit to Medina will always be about Grace, the old canal, and the generosity of the human spirit.
On the day we arrived, Erick called over to the tugboat to let me know there was a person here who was here that I might want to talk with. As the project historian, I have always used these travels to find people with direct connections to the canal and this has added much to our understanding of that era. As I stepped over the lifelines to Lois and looked to who this person might be I saw Grace, an elderly but spry lady with her walker and a book in her hand. She told me immediately that her father had driven mules for his father on the old towpath canal and it was even written up in the book she had brought to show me. She had the page open to the place that described her father and it said;
“The first real canaller I met after leaving the tug was Albert Lavendar,…He is a rugged man in his seventies with a vivid recollection of his boating days.
He was born at Shelby Basin on the banks of the canal and as a boy of nine drove mules on his father’s boat across the State-at the prevailing wages of $20 per month and keep. Throughout his youth, he worked on the canal in season, turning to barreling of the apples in the fall.
‘Fights? Well it was hard to keep out of them.’ Lavender grinned reminiscently. ‘Generally they happened when boats tried to ‘hog the locks’ and beat the other fellow through. Smart captains used to have a piece of silver ready for the lock tender. That got results.”
I was instantly impressed that in this one story I had an accurate picture of a slice of life on the canal in the 1870’s and took out my file cards [thank you Captain Roger] and wrote down the name of the book. Grace then asked me if I would like to borrow it for the night and that she could come back the next day to pick it up. I enthusiastically took her offer and as she walked away back to her house supported by her walker, I began to read. I was able to get through the first third of the book which set the stage for Merrill to be traveling on the Matton 21, the only steam tug still left working on the canal, pushing a gasoline barge through the system. Merrill was searching for the old canal while taking stock of the one in operation in 1945; just like we do in our present day travels aboard the Lois McClure and C.L. Churchill.
The next day Grace took time from her volunteer duties at the church distributing food donated by Wegman’s to those who need it, to return to see our canal boat. I was delighted to talk with her about the book and show her around the Lois McClure, the size and type of canal boat her grandfather would have operated and her father drove the mules for. She seemed to be able to return to the days of her father stories and enjoy a better understanding of his early life.
After a very nice visit I handed the book back to Grace who surprised me by saying, “I’ve decided to give the book to you, you can use it now more than I.” I protested that this book contained stories of her family and she had to keep it for her children and grandchildren. She said she had another copy somewhere and that it would make her very happy if I would keep the book. I teared up just a little and accepted Grace’s gracious gift. The Erie Canal is celebrating its 200th anniversary of the start of construction and Medina is celebrating 185th anniversary of the establishment of the City and its Fire Department. But in this lovely town on the bend in the Erie Canal, Grace and her generosity of spirit will be the thing I most remember of this visit..
*Arch Merrill, The Towpath, the Gannett Company. 1945