When you head East out of Batavia on Route 5, chances are you’re bound for LeRoy, or the 490 North for an express ride into Rochester.
On your next trip eastward, you might want to stop in Stafford and take a look at the rich history you’ve been cruising right by. Stafford’s Museum of History is the gateway to that history, a well-appointed shrine to the quiet town’s proud past.
“I think what we have is a mini-Genesee Country Museum here,” says Society member Linda Call (3rd from right). “We have what they have, only on a small degree. And the community is still here the way it was, same families.”
Linda and historian Catherine Roth (4th from right) served as my guides on my Tuesday tour of the museum. Linda has lived in Stafford her whole life; Roth married into the town that her husband’s family and ancestors called home.
“We have three hamlets,” explains Roth. “Roanoke, which is south of here; Stafford, which is here; and then Morganville, north of here.” Roth says those three hamlets arose out of three land tract purchases: Roanoke began as the the Craigie Tract, Morganville is in the old Connecticut Tract, and the eastern edge of the famed Holland Land Purchase formed the western portion of Stafford.
Here’s my first surprise of the day: although we all know the Holland Land Office here in Batavia, “the first settlement of the Holland Land Purchase actually was (in Stafford),” says Roth. “(Joseph Ellicott) had to have a place for the equipment for the surveyors.” Ellicott’s initial place of business, prior to the Land Office, was also in Stafford. “It was in the general area of the (modern) fire house,” says Roth.
We come across an old rope bed – shortened, for space – and a rocking cradle hanging on the wall. “The cradle was made by Malachi Tyler,” says Roth, “one of my husband’s ancestors.” It’s his great-great-great grandfather, to be exact.
The northeast corner of the museum is dedicated to Stafford’s long-standing farming industry. “Farming in Stafford has always been and always will be a large industry,” Roth declares to me. One reason: the land. Ice Age glaciers that carved out Stafford left behind a rich trail of silt that blessed the town with “some of the finest growing fields in Western New York,” according to Linda Call.
Of course, the other important ingredient for farmers is water. “We have three creeks here,” – Bigelow Creek, Black Creek, and Oatka Creek – “which add to the value of the land,” says Roth. “People came because we had good water, good land, and the land was available.”
Stafford did its part to promulgate farming in the rest of Western New York, too. “The corn seed planter was manufactured in Morganville,” Roth says. “And here we have a hayseed planter. They would push it along in the early spring and plant the hayseed.”
And the town was no slouch at production farming, either. The smaller, so-called “Peanut Line” of the New York Central Railway crossed just south of the Stafford hamlet. “We had three railroad companies going through Stafford,” Roth says, “and believe it or not, there were three stations.”
“My grandfather shipped his milk to Buffalo on the train,” Linda Call chimes in. “He would have to have it down to the train station early in the morning. So my mother would come (into town) with the milk (shipment), and then she would go to school after that.”
With a number of family farms in Stafford, there were plenty of children needing schooling. “At one time there were ten one-room schoolhouses in Stafford,” says Roth.
A large, suspended picture hangs smack-dab in the middle of the museum. It’s the interior of the Buckley Road Schoolhouse, in 1896. “In this picture we have three children from one family, the Rudolph children,” says Call. “It turns out that this little girl (white blouse, far left) turned into a teacher, and she taught at this very school, years later.” Call says the children in the photo are almost all likely the ancestors of families who still live in Stafford.
As those children grew up and had children of their own, there was an increasing demand for entertainment. And it was supplied. “Horseshoe Lake was a center of recreation, for a large part of (Stafford), the Town of Batavia, and the City of Batavia at one time,” says Roth. “They had a lot of amusement rides there, they had boat rides, and they had a theater at one time, too.”
“(And) the social center of Stafford has long been the fire company. Their carnival is a big event.”
Strictly for the adults: “Stafford Country Club…is a real treasure,” says Call. “It’s also a really beautiful place to just wander about – of course, you don’t wander about much on a golf course.”
Linda has clearly never seen me play golf.
Others migrated in to enjoy Stafford’s country setting as well. “Healthcare camps were held here for a number of years,” says Roth. “Young people from the surrounding area who needed good food and good air would come out here for several weeks in the summer.”
“A lot of children would even come out of New York City,” says Call.
Meanwhile, another big business was booming in Morganville – pottery. If you’ve unearthed some old clay piping in your backyard, or perhaps you’ve been staring at that antique clay pot, wondering where it’s from – there’s a good chance it was made in Morganville.
“This is the part of the museum we like to feature,” says Roth, as we wander into the southwest corner. “Pottery in Morganville…was the biggest pottery business in Genesee County.” Several cases protect the fragile red-clay milk bowls, plates, and cheese strainers. “The interesting thing is that at the same time they were making these very nice pieces, they were also doing drainage tile.” That was sold to farmers to drain fields in the spring; a farmer with a dry field could get an early jump on his planting.
“We found these tiles on the Sweetland Road,” says Call, pointing to some sections of pipe. “We think it’s very early tiling, 1860’s era.”
Oh, and that antique clay pot? Hang onto it. “Some of these…are worth well over a thousand dollars,” says Roth. Most were broken and thrown out in that era; they’re hard to come by these days.
Linda Call leads me into the museum’s central alcove, seemingly dedicated to dining. “The Applewood was a tea room,” she says, gesturing to a display. “You could get a wonderful, seven-course chicken dinner for a dollar and a quarter. And the Red Osier just started out as a soda and ice cream shop; a dairy bar. And it has grown and expanded…when you say ‘Stafford,’ people know the name because they’ve been to Red Osier.”
Next, we study Stafford’s Four Corners. “This is the old Trading Post,” says Call as I glance at a familiar-looking picture. “It was the OddFellows Hall, upstairs. The store and post office were on the east side, and when I was a kid, the west side was a barbershop.” She tells me the upstairs floor was a “spring floor,” and great for dancing on Friday and Saturday nights.
But the landmark building has fallen on harder times now. “The store just moved out last December,” says Call with a hint of despair. “Now the east side is vacant, the upstairs has been made into apartments, and there’s a tattoo parlor on the west side.” Call says the entire historical society wants to see the building preserved. “Someone that really wants to care for and love the old building – it needs some work, but it’s a landmark on one of the Four Corners of Stafford.”
On the other three corners: the Episcopal Church, which has “been there since 1842;” the Old Town Hall (“It isn’t that old when you think about the other buildings – that was built in 1906”), and Illette Park and Gazebo, perched on a small hill. “That was given to us by Ms. Illette Sanders,” Linda recalls. “Used to be a hotel there – when it burned in 1921, she gave the property to the town and gave money for the perpetual care of it.”
We come to the end of the tour, and as Linda Call points out, I’m the only visitor here today. “And we’re here three days a week, and many times it’s just us,” she says, with visible dismay. “It’s disappointing because we have such a nice museum.”
For the history of the museum itself, I turn to Museum Committee Chairwoman and Society charter member, Florence Pascucci. “Martha Heddon originally had the dream of a museum,” she tells me, “but she knew she had to have a historical society first. So she met in her home with a few people, and they started the Stafford Historical Society.” This was in the 1980’s. Despite attempts to start the museum back then, “we couldn’t get the Old Town Hall. We thought at one point we weren’t going to get a museum. So we decided to build the gazebo in (Illette) Park instead.” Six years ago, the Town would move into a new town hall, and add-on what Pascucci calls a “generous” space for the museum.
What struck me most during my visit to the Stafford Museum of History was the dedication I observed. A crew of six ladies was on hand for a Tuesday afternoon, ready to guide guests through the decades past. Apparently, it’s that way every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday – yet few folks show up.
I urge you, on that next drive through Stafford, make a quick turn onto Transit Road and visit the museum, behind the new Town Hall. It’s truly a beautiful look into the storied past of a town you might never think twice about.
“We have a lovely little community,” says Linda Call, summing it up, “and the history is great here.”
The Stafford Museum of History’s hours are: Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday from 2pm-4pm. Prescheduled tours and visits by appointment are also available by calling 343-3833 or 343-9424. The museum is completely handicap accessible. Address: 8903 Transit Road Stafford, NY 14143