This region in west-central New York offers tidbits for history buffs, nature lovers, and aviation aficionados “” all to go along with a taste of wine.
By Kirk W. House
A group of long, narrow lakes, shaped like the fingers of a hand, give west-central New York a character like no other. Most experts agree that there are 11 Finger Lakes in all, but most people traveling through the region will notice only the larger ones. The biggest lakes are Seneca, which is 37 miles long and 3 miles wide, and Cayuga, 40 miles long and up to 3 miles wide.
The Finger Lakes region is a land of small towns and roadside farm stands. It also is the birthplace of women’s rights and the “cradle of aviation.” Rolling vineyards fill the hillsides above the lakes, and wineries are abundant. And, of course, the lakes themselves provide recreation. Visitors can try a dinner cruise or ride on excursion boats that depart from Canandaigua, Hammondsport, and Watkins Glen.
Let’s begin our land tour of the area in Rochester, a bit north and west of the Finger Lakes on Lake Ontario. This town is home to such industrial icons as Kodak, Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, and IBM. George Eastman developed the process to make popular photography possible here, even as fellow residents Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony promoted social reform. Visitors to the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film learn more about the founder of Eastman Kodak and about the fascinating history of film and motion pictures.
At Mendon Pond County Park in the Rochester suburbs, songbirds literally eat from your hand. In fact, on our family’s first visit there, before we knew about this decades-old custom, we became a bit frightened by the way the birds kept shadowing us as we wandered the trails. One little chickadee went so far as to pursue me all along a boardwalk, chirping frantically until I finally left it a pile of seeds. As I stood with kernels in my hand, I felt the tiny talons of a nuthatch grab hold of me. It cocked its head, gripped a little tighter, snatched a sunflower seed, and zipped away, making room for a chickadee who did the same.
From Rochester, travel 20 minutes southeast via State Route 31 to the town of Macedon. If you’re adventuresome, or are traveling with kids, you’ll especially want to stop at the Amazing Maize Maze at Long Acre Farms. When we entered the 5-acre cornfield, we received cryptic directions and a banner to carry so that the staff could keep us in sight from their tower as we traveled deep in the heart of the maze. Waving the banner gets you instant help, but what fun is that? We kept on schlepping, locating stations where we picked up new sections of the maze map. If you collect enough map sections, you’ll eventually find your way out. In the meantime, you can stop at the frequent water stations, or just head for the snack bar. You can even climb a tower for a better view “” if you can find the tower, of course.
Long Acre Farms has been in the family for 75 years, changing with the changing times. It’s been a truck farm, a dairy farm, and a farm market. Nowadays it combines farm marketing with “agritainment,” welcoming visitors literally from across the world to a glorious day of getting lost. The Amazing Maize Maze is open to the public from July 27 through November 2, weather permitting.
Next, travel a few miles farther east via State Route 31 to Palmyra, the heartland of Mormon heritage. The Hill Cumorah Visitors Center, the Joseph Smith Farm and Welcome Center, the Sacred Grove, and other sites all give insight into this particular religious group. Most sites are open year-round, and free guided tours, films, and displays are available. A free nighttime outdoor drama portraying significant events in the birth and growth of the Mormon religion, called the Hill Cumorah Pageant, will be offered this year on July 11 and 12, and 15 through 19. For more information, phone the visitors center at (315) 597-5851.
Next we travel 15 miles south to Canandaigua, on the edge of Canandaigua Lake. In 1912 Mrs. F.F. Thompson, a Canandaigua resident who was in Europe, decided to delay her return home and take in a Dutch tulip show instead. So, she booked a side trip to Holland and canceled her reservations on the Titanic.
A good move for Mrs. Thompson “” and for us, too. Her Sonnenberg Mansion is a wonderful edifice, but the nine extensive gardens around it are outstanding. A little brook bubbles through the Japanese garden, and in the eddies are frog eggs. Below an upstairs window, the formal Italian garden sweeps across a vast lawn. How lucky we are that Mrs. Thompson missed the boat!
The name Canandaigua (pronounced can-an-DAY-gwa) means “chosen spot” in the Iroquois Indian language. This town hosted the treaty that divested most of the Iroquois land, as well as the 1873 trial in which Susan B. Anthony was fined $100 for voting. (“I will never pay one penny of your unjust fine,” she snapped, and she didn’t, either.) The Main Street shopping district offers music stores, bookshops, needlework stores, a wild bird store, thrift shops, enjoyable eateries, and a marvelous view as the street angles gently down toward the lake.
From Canandaigua, travel eastward on U.S. 20/State Route 5. This road serves as Main Street through village after village, many of which are bedecked with little parks and Civil War monuments. Before the New York State Thruway (Interstate 90) was constructed, this was the area’s main east-west artery, following the natural corridor blazed a century before by the Erie Canal.
The town of Seneca Falls is our next destination. Seneca Falls’ claim to fame is tied in with the movement that gave American women the right to vote. A group of men and women, black and white, gathered at the Wesleyan Chapel there in 1848 to issue a Declaration of Sentiments that began: “We hold these truths to be self-evident “” that all men and women are created equal.”
Those words and the names of the signatories (which included Frederick Douglass) are chiseled in stone at the remains of the chapel. Other exhibits at Women’s Rights National Historical Park are much more explicit. A 30-minute orientation film is shown there, and a statue exhibit depicts the little band of visionaries that set forth to change the world. Other items help recall the long struggle to let women own property and be given the same political privileges as men. This national park is open daily. Phone (315) 568-2991 for more information
Just down the street is the National Women’s Hall of Fame, which is almost across from the Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry. The latter is a good place to learn about western New York’s canal days. And just across the river, in a life-sized statue group, Amelia Bloomer once again introduces Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This was quite a neighborhood.
From Seneca Falls, drive south along either shore of Cayuga Lake (30 miles or so) to reach the zesty college town of Ithaca. You’ll love cruising in and out of shops in The Commons, Ithaca’s downtown pedestrian mall. Between The Commons and the adjoining Collegetown neighborhood, bookshops, clothing stores, outdoor outfitters, a comic-book shop, and eateries all lure you. In the center of The Commons you’ll find a likeness of the sun in miniature. This is the starting point for the Carl Sagan Planet Walk (a 3/4-mile trek that runs through downtown Ithaca and traces a to-scale path of the solar system), built to honor the former Cornell University professor.
The university’s Cornell Plantations is a fine public garden that is open free of charge seven days a week. It features formal gardens, experimental plots, greenhouses, and the F.R. Newman Arboretum. Bird-watchers will want to visit the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This 220-acre sanctuary offers an observatory with glass walls. Stand there and listen to the birds via microphones that have been placed near the feeders. The observatory is open during business hours and on Saturday; the trails at the sanctuary are always open.
Want to stretch your legs even more? You’ll love Watkins Glen State Park! “The Glen,” 20 miles west of Ithaca (via State Route 79) at the south end of Seneca Lake, has been a famous destination as long ago as the Civil War. Visitors came by rail and boat in those days, but all of them hurried to The Glen.
A fast-moving stream roars through the gorge as you climb stone steps and work your way along the trail, where moisture drips from the moss in the rocky overhangs. I’ve walked through the glen many times, and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t enthusiastic about the place. Somehow the rocks, the roar, the echoes, and the mist all pull everyone’s spirits higher.
Legend says that American road racing started in the village of Watkins Glen, which is now home to the Watkins Glen International raceway. Racing fans will want to visit the Grand Prix Drivers’ Walk of Fame, located at Franklin and Fourth streets, and begin their tour at the courthouse, where the original start-finish line was painted.
From Watkins Glen, travel north via State Route 14 and then northwest on 14A to a not-so-little farmer’s market, located between Dundee and Penn Yan. The Windmill is actually the state’s largest farm and craft market “” a 26-acre complex with shops, three buildings, and a produce shed. Picnic tables, food vendors, and sidewalks (which make this place handicapped-accessible), plus flower gardens and even a fish pond all give shoppers a pleasant experience. Approximately 250 vendors and craftsmen, many of whom are Amish or Mennonite, display their wares. Keep in mind that the market is open only on Saturdays (8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) and on the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
Head south from The Windmill to the little village of Hammondsport, situated at the southern end of Keuka Lake. Back in 1908 motorcycle racer Glenn Curtiss worked with Alexander Graham Bell and a handful of other dreamers to make something few had ever seen before: an airplane. A thousand people cheered as young Curtiss flew the craft, which was named “June Bug,” on the Fourth of July in 1908.
Curtiss quickly turned Hammondsport into America’s center for aviation research and manufacturing. Volunteers at the Curtiss Museum explain and display the restoration and re-creations of pioneer airplanes, even as you get up close and personal with a World War I Curtiss Jenny, or the Curtiss seaplane that Henry Ford bought for his “personal assistant” in 1919. The museum is open daily.
You also can look at some of Curtiss’ early motorcycles and the numerous treasures with which his wife, Lena, decorated their 1925 mansion in Miami Springs, Florida.
After World War I, Curtiss’ busy mind created an elegant, aerodynamic, art deco-style travel trailer to articulate with a retrofitted “power unit.” Dubbed the Aerocar, it was elegantly equipped with a galley, Pullman-style bunks, a built-in console radio, and dramatic 10-foot fields of view on either side. It set the standard for the brand-new motoring age, and is also on display at the museum.
Curtiss made his first airplane flight just five minutes down the road from the museum at the Pleasant Valley Wine Company, where you can tour historic stone buildings, view brick vaults, and stand beside redwood vats that are two stories high. More than 70 wineries are located in the Finger Lakes region, but the very first vineyard was started in Hammondsport when Pleasant Valley opened its doors in 1859. Through a century and a half of Prohibition, war, and ownership changes, the winery has maintained its proud designation as U.S. Bonded Winery Number One.
Other wineries near Hammondsport include Dr. Konstantin Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars, where this World War II refugee pioneered the use of vinifera grapes; Bully Hill Vineyards, home to wines that sport amusing and unusual names and labels; and Heron Hill Vineyards, “a winery with a view” that overlooks the 800-foot rocky bluff that divides Keuka Lake. If you’re interested in touring the many wineries throughout the Finger Lakes region, visit www.nywine.com/winecountry/fingerlakes/index.asp for details, or, if you do not have Internet access, be sure to obtain information from Finger Lakes Tourism.
Approximately 25 miles southeast is the town of Corning, home to the Corning Museum of Glass. During my visit, I had the chance to make art glass in the Walk-in Workshop. The 1,000-degree heat beat my face as I rolled the cold spindle and tugged on the glass with tongs and heavy gloves until the form of my glass flower took shape, all the while supervised by an experienced craftswoman.
Even if you don’t want to try your own hand at this art, you can feel the heat, hear the crackle, and watch the blaze at the museum’s Hot Glass Show, where glassworkers make this very exacting work look easy. Pulling the molten glass from the super-hot “glory hole,” spinning and blowing it to shape, trimming and snipping and twirling and twining, the glassworkers show how they and their predecessors gave Corning its nickname of “Crystal City.” The huge museum also has galleries of ancient glass, modern art glass, and high-tech glass science, not to mention extensive shopping for art glass, Steuben Glass, and related products.
While you’re in Corning, explore the Market Street shopping district, which is full of great gift shops; outlet stores that sell CorningWare, Corelle, Revere, and Cannon products; art galleries and bookshops; and every sort of dining establishment.
Only a few miles east of Corning is Horseheads, home of the National Warplane Museum. Located at the east end of the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport, this museum is open daily and features military aviation memorabilia and restored aircraft. A few miles south of there is the National Soaring Museum, which emphasizes the fine art of glider travel. This museum also is open daily and is located a few miles from Elmira.
And, as they say, this is not all the Finger Lakes region has to offer. Leave ample time to sample its treasures.
Get the lowdown on the 14-county Finger Lakes region by contacting Finger Lakes Tourism, which has been assisting travelers since 1919. The travel material available from this organization includes a list of area campgrounds.
Finger Lakes Tourism
309 Lake St.
Penn Yan, NY 14527
Fax: (315) 536-1237