All right, let's get something out of the way. Jell-O - that famous, "jiggly" dessert - was invented in LeRoy. That much we know.
There is far, far more to the history of LeRoy.
Lynne Belluscio (at left, rear), the town and village historian, says a lot of people don't know that.
"Before we opened the Jell-O Museum, we were lucky to see a thousand people a year," she explains. "In '97, the opening of the Jell-O Gallery hit national news. We were on every national network.
"And so (through 2008) we were holding at about 10,000 people a year, which is a lot of people for a small place. And then we jumped drastically last year up to 13,000 people. And this year our admissions are as strong as they were last year."
However, that's all Jell-O traffic, including group tours and buses from out of town. Lynne says most of those people never think twice about LeRoy's other museums - the Transportation Museum and The LeRoy House.
And of course, that's where WBTA's Museum Mondays steps in.
The Transportation Museum
After visiting the Jell-O Gallery (which is well-appointed, and includes a fantastic narrative tour from Ruth Harvie), I head downstairs into the basement of the building. As soon as I round the corner, I'm confronted with a behemoth ox cart. All told, it must be nearly twenty feet in length, including the tongue and harness.
"We have extensive (building) plans for it," says a proud Belluscio. "It's been used to build replicas in a couple other museums. One is Willamsford...another is out in the Midwest."
Across the aisle from it is a touring horsedrawn wagon. The record to go along with it states that the operator, when driving between LeRoy and Batavia, "encountered my first 'corduroy road.'" That's a road "paved" with logs. The idea behind the log roads was to eliminate the problems of mud and potholes, which often made those roads nearly impassable. But according to the rider's account, the log roads weren't so pleasant, either.
The next is a vehicle Lynne calls rare. The "pleasure wagon" dates from the 1830's. It's got the original paint, metalwork and upholstery; the detail in the paint job and the "coach lace" lining the edges of the seat cushions indicate a high level of luxury.
"Most of the coach lace around here was actually woven at the Auburn State Prison, and we think this piece was too," she says. "It's got carriage wheels on it too, which makes it most unusual."
"And the piece behind me here," Lynne continues, "is the Butler carriage. Mr. Butler owned the Buffalo Evening News(paper). A very wealthy man, but he had a farm here and he originally came from LeRoy." Edward H. Butler owned a massive home in the Village, where he spent his summers "to get away from the hustle and bustle of Buffalo."
Butler owned several luxurious carriages; this particular one includes leather springs on the undercarriage. That apparently made a ride in the carriage feel like a boat ride. Lynne says one of the hazards of riding in such a vehicle was literally getting sea-sick.
Butler also loaned another of his carriages to President William McKinley when the president visited Buffalo for the Pan-American Exposition, a World's Fair held in Buffalo in 1901. McKinley would ride in that carriage the same day he was shot - a bullet which would eventually kill him.
Ahead of the Butler carriage, and flanked by feathery white scrims that give the impression of snow, are a pair of sleighs; one-horse open sleighs to be exact, just like the ones you sing about. According to Belluscio, the song makes them seem a bit more appealing to ride in than they really are.
"We tell kids to imagine riding a snowmobile...without the snowmobile suits or the helmets," she says. "It was pretty chilly. So you can see we have the lap robes and the foot warmers." The foot warmers are wood-and-tin boxes that riders would load with hot coals and place on the floor of the sleigh.
The sleighs, much like the pleasure wagon, have a lot of flowery design on them. The one in front is a black-colored cutter with gold-leaf detailing.
"It would be like having your car detailed today," Lynne says. "This would have been an extremely fancy one, though."
Up ahead is something we've all seen in black-and-white footage from days gone by. However, few of us have ever ridden one of these. But Belluscio has.
"A Columbia bicycle," she explains. "In LeRoy, there was a man who known for racing bicycles, Elliot Cochrane. And he rode one of these large Columbia bicycles.
"They're kind of 'interesting' to ride. First of all, there's no brakes on it. And there's no mechanical advantage: when you push down with your right foot to make the wheel go around, the wheel actually goes to the left (and vice-versa). So if you look at the handlebars, there's grips on the handlebars, and that's to keep the wheels straight.
"If they weren't able to stop and ended up doing a header over the front end of it, they got what was referred to as 'gravel-rash.'"
Many people expected the bicycles to replace horses, particularly in cities, for the simple reason of pollution control. Yesterday's transportation-related pollution, after all, was horse manure. And it was piling up, and with nothing to do with it, the problem grew.
Of course, now today we have air pollution...much better.
The bicycles also bred a wide range of bicycle paths criss-crossing Western New York. Lynne says in LeRoy, most of the bicycle paths followed the roads, and were built by the Teamsters union.
The final piece in the Transportation Museum, and the prized piece, is a 1908 Cadillac "horseless carriage," as they were referred to then. Oddly enough, though it was the early age of automobiles, this particular antique was purchased and driven by a woman.
"When it came here in the 1940's, it had to be turned on it's side to get in here," says Lynne. "It was in working condition, and we think it probably could be put back into working condition if we wanted to. But again, it goes back to the fact that a number of them have been restored, but there are very few that are in their original condition." In other words: it's valuable. With the original rubber floormats, running boards, and even the original wooden-spoked wheels - better make that, very valuable.
And next to it: the early gas pump. "Another thing people don't realize," says Lynne, "is that when these cars were first introduced, there were no gas stations. If you were going on a trip from your house, you could only go half the distance your gas tank could take you. Because you had to be able to go and come back. You couldn't get more gas."
As far as the reason for having a Transportation Museum, Lynne says there's nothing particular to LeRoy that makes it especially pertinent to automobile history.
"It's just that when the Historical Society was founded in 1940, the first president, Roy MacPhearson, wanted to establish what they called a Hall of Transportation. So from very early on, they started collecting carriages and looking for pieces." So many, in fact, that when Lynne took over in the late 1980's, you couldn't even walk into the basement because it was wall-to-wall vehicles. The Society had to decide which to keep and which to give away.
"We had a couple vehicles that had been bought at auction, they weren't from this area," she recalls. "One was a racing sulky. And yes, people in town I'm sure had racing sulkies, but we had to make a list of the things that we thought were the most important."
As we walk up out of the basement, we pass a display case full of old glass bottles, all individually labeled. They're all medicines indigenous to LeRoy from the 19th and 20th centuries. "Of course, there was a remedy for everything," says Lynne as I look over the bottles. Allen's Foot-Ease was "guaranteed to make walking a delight," while Pope's Blood & Liver Medicine supposedly cured all the ailments of both. "LeRoy was actually well-known for its medicines," she says. Seems the town chemists weren't just cooking up wiggly desserts with their spare time.
The LeRoy House
Leaving the Transportation Museum, we walk up out of the bottom of the Jell-O building and pass some beautiful memorial gardens dedicated to donors. And then we come upon it: the hulking mansion that belonged to the village's First Family.
"The LeRoy family lived here in the 1820's, up through 1837," Lynne explains. "We usually start tours out in the Land Office Room (directly in the door and to the left). Most everybody in Western New York...knows about the Holland Purchase. But they don't realize that in this section of the county, there were several other land transactions."
We gaze upon a portait hanging above the fireplace, of Herman LeRoy. His son, Jacob, was the land agent who first lived in the house. Herman lived in New York City and was involved with the Holland Purchase. But he also brokered a separate purchase of 86,000 acres stretching from LeRoy all the way to Lake Ontario. Jacob was sent here to sell all of that land.
"He rebuilt the flour mill in town. He maintained the road from here to the Erie Canal in Brockport, and they were shipping hundreds of barrels of flour on the Canal from LeRoy," Lynne says. "He also invested in a distillery, he built another mill north of town, he was the president of the first Agricultural Society...he just wanted to make sure this was an area where people would want to move to. And buy land."
Not to mention that Herman, Jacob, and the entire LeRoy family were extremely rich. "Herman was probably one of the richest men in New York City after the Revolutionary War. His house faced Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan. He had another house on Broadway. They married off their children like European royalty did to make power alliances - they were making business alliances with their marriages."
The Land Office Room is the only room in the house dedicated to the LeRoys. Across the hall are the Ingham Parlors, dedicated to the long-since gone but then-well-known Ingham University that used to sit just across the road. Ingham was founded in 1837 by the Ingham sisters of LeRoy. It was an all-women's school. Reverend Samuel Cox was the chancellor and lived in the LeRoy House.
"In this front parlor we have art, by the art students, because (Ingham) had a well-known art school," explains Lynne. "The back parlor is all Phineas Staunton's work. In our collection (a few years ago), we had this gigantic portrait of Henry Clay in the United States Senate (painted by Phineas Staunton). Three years ago, we were approached by the Senate, and they asked 'Do you still have the portrait...and would you consider donating it?'"
The painting was indeed donated, restored in New York City, and now hangs in the main staircase to the Senate Chambers in Washington, D.C. Just to give you a rough idea of its size, it weighs over 800lbs, including the frame. The Senate reimbursed the LeRoy Historical Society with a smaller, much more manageable duplication.
Next to the painting sits an 1878 Steinway grand piano. It's over 10-feet long from keys to back leg. It was originally the concert piano for Ingham's renowned School of Music. It no longer plays - "it's got a broken soundboard, the wooden frame has shrunk" - but Belluscio is expecting a large bequest soon to have it fully restored.
Across the hall is a kitchen, lovingly decked out with all the trimmings of the 1920's and '30's. That's when the home's last family lived there - the Spry's, whose patriarch was the superintendent of LeRoy schools. Prior to that, it had been a dining room, so it's very spacious. Among other things, the kitchen cabinets, the sink, and the linoleum floors are completely original.
"It's a neat opportunity for us to show how a house changes over 100 years' time, and how we utilize rooms in different ways," says Lynne. "During the 20's and 30's, there were a lot of remarkable changes made as far as kitchen and household things. The coffee percolator, the tabletop broiler. The steam iron was introduced during that time - we explain to people that this was known as the time of the 'Holey Wars,' depending on how many holes were in the bottom of your steam iron."
*In the basement of the LeRoy House is the old servant's kitchen, complete with brick oven and all the cast iron pots and pans. "Mrs. LeRoy loved lemon, she loved lemon flavoring in all her different recipes," says Lynne. "We actually have one of her old recipe books, and many of them call for lemon." True to form, a bowl of fake lemons sits on the preparing table.
Upstairs are a pair of bedrooms, again true to the era - one of them has woven grass floormats, a summertime staple in wealthy homes. It gives the whole floor a distinct smell: not quite sour, but certainly not the most pleasurable odor.
A third room is a revolving room. It houses a different historical display for each summer. In the past they've been on aprons, petticoats, and wedding dresses. Now, not that I don't appreciate fashion history...but I'm far more happy I saw this summer's display on Aviation.
The Woodward Airport on Route 5 was once home to one of Amelia Earhart's planes, The Friendship. Owner Don Woodward had purchased the plane and had it there for a short time. That was the plane that flew over the Atlantic with Amelia inside, and then Amelia flew it to LeRoy. Perhaps more amazing is the autographed photo of Amelia Earhart from the day she visited - suffice it to say they aren't making those anymore.
Outside the museums, I ask Lynne about her historical...well, history.
"I started volunteering at Genesee Country Museum before they opened, and then worked there almost 15 years. Came here in the fall of '88, and....didn't really think Jell-O was going to be what I was going to have to do for a long time. But when you go out and get introduced to somebody and say 'I'm the director of the Jell-O Museum,' they always remember that," she says with a laugh.
"There's a story to everything," continues Lynne, "and I guess I find that kind of fascinating. It's like a big scavenger hunt. Or sometimes you'll drive by something every day, and not even realize, and then all of a sudden..."
Lynne's "all of a sudden" was a rock on Route 5 near Bloomfield with a large brass plaque on it. Wondering, Lynne stopped - and discovered it was dedicated to the men who had built Route 5 in the 1930's. "And I'm going 'Holy Moses, who would've thought that was there?'" she exclaims. "It happens to a lot of us...we don't see (these things) for the historical aspect to them."
"Probably what our job is...is to create that interest and appreciation of the history that's around us."
The Jell-O Gallery and Transportation Museum are open 12 months a year, Monday thru Saturday 10:00am-4:00pm, and Sundays 1:00pm-4:00pm. The LeRoy House is only open in the summer, usually sometime between 11:00am and 3:00pm.
*The LeRoy House is beautiful, but very hot in the summertime. After an extensive tour of the entire home, I only went back through the 1st floor for pictures.
(Hope you've enjoyed the article. I must now insert an apology.
It was only partly an editorial decision to exclude Jell-O from the story - after all, if you live in Genesee County, you more than likely know very well about its history. Based on that fact, I'd made up my mind beforehand that the Jell-O portion would take a bit of a backseat. Plus, the nature of this series is as a chronicle of all of a town or village's history, not just a focus on one portion.
However, my tour guide for the Jell-O portion, Ruth Harvie, was so knowledgeable and talented, and gave such an excellent tour, that I'd decided I would put Jell-O back in at the end.
Unfortunately, I lost the recording I'd made of that tour. I apologize to Ruth Harvie, and thank her for her time and dedication. Additionally, I urge all listeners and readers: if you haven't been, go see the Jell-O Gallery. Like every museum story I do, hearing reports and seeing pictures and reading words would never do the museum the same justice as simply seeing it in person.
And if you do go, request Ruth Harvie as your tour guide.)