Yates County, New York

Early Settlers for the Village of Penn Yan


From the History of Yates County, NY
published 1892, by L.C. Aldrich

pg 297- 303

 

 

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Littledid that worthy old pioneer, that steady going, honest plodder, follower of the“Friend”, David WAGENER, think or dream that on the tract of land bought byhim in 1796, would ever be built up a municipality, and become the seat ofjustice of a count.  But could DavidWAGENER have lived a half score of years longer, and observed the march ofimprovement and settlement on his ancient estate, it is extremely doubtful if hewould have consented to the adoption of that singularly odd and uniqueappellation of Penn Yan, for the little burgh. And it would have been as equally astonishing thing had that good andearnest pioneer been able to then look into the far off further and see standingwhere he built the primitive grist mill, on the south side of the outlet, alarge four-storied , modern structure, capable of manufacturing an hundredbarrels of flour daily, when his own little mill could at best produce not morethan one or two barrels in the same time.  These,and a thousand and more of others changes might be recalled, to show theadvancement in almost every branch of trade that has been worked in the lastthree-quarters of a century.  Thesecomparisons are interesting to old and young alike; to the aged, for they showthat the grand march of improvement and progress in this locality has kept evenstep with the onward movement elsewhere, and interesting to the youngergenerations, for it brings to them an understanding of how their forefatherslived, and again what obstacles they had to contend to establish themselvessecurely in life and leave a goodly inheritance to their children.  

Thefounding of a village where Penn Yan now stands was the out growth of necessity,and not of design.  It was a naturalconsequence and not the result of speculative schemes. David WAGENER bought the lands because they were desirable, and not thathe believe to have contemplated the building up of a village. But Mr. WAGENER did not live to enjoy the substantial fruits of hispurchase in this immediate locality.  Hedied in 1799 and his estate in lands, on which the village stands, was inheritedby his sons, Abraham and Melchoir WAGENER. In area the estate embraced 276 acres, lying both north and south of theoutlet; that part north of the stream fell to Abraham, while his brother becameowner of the lands on the south side.  Eventually,Abraham succeeded to the ownership of the whole tract.  

ToAbraham WAGENER, therefore, attaches all credit for taking the initial stepsthat resulted in a substantial village corporation. In 1801 he tool active measures in having surveyed and constructed ahighway leading from Canandaigua to Newtown (now Elmira). This road soon became an established mail route, and a post office waslocated soon afterward at Abraham WAGENER’s house. He was the first postmaster, and the name of the office was Jerusalem,being, as this locality then was within the district called Jerusalem. 

Onthe first of January 1800, Mr. WAGENER moved into “town” and occupied adwelling built the year before for his use. This was the first frame building erected on the village site, and stoodwhere later was the Miles BENHAM tavern, the old structure forming a part of thehotel as afterwards established.  Thebuilding was burned in 1841.  WhenMr. WAGENER came here to reside there were three log cabins within his tract,all standing on the stream called Jacob’s Brook, and occupied by Indians andtheir families.  These primitiveinhabitants were tenants by the sufferance of Mr. WAGENER, they having no titlenor claim to the land they occupied.  Theyare said to have remained for a time, but the constant arrival of white settlerscaused them to retire from the neighborhood.  

 Thestream heretofore mentioned as “Jacob’s Brook” a name by which it has eversince been known, has its source or head waters in the town of Benton, whence itflows into the village and passes through the business center, a few rods eastof Main street, and discharges into the outlet in rear of the Russell &Birkett grist and feed mill.  Concerningthe derivation of its name, Jacob’s Brook, there has for many years been adifference of opinion, some authorities contending that the name was applied inallusion to an old Indian who lived near the steam, and whose name was Jacob,while others assert that the name was given in reference to Jacob WAGENER.  The latter is probably correct. 

Forfourteen years after his appointment Abraham WAGENER held the office ofpostmaster at his little village; but he was otherwise honored in publicaffairs.  In 1808, he was appointedjustice of the peace for the town of Snell, which then included all thatafterward became Benton and Milo.  Thisoffice Mr. WAGENER held for about twenty-five years, and from his long continuedincumbency thereof became generally known as “Squire” WAGENER, by which namehe was called as long as he lived.   

AbrahamWAGENER, the founder in fact of the village, was in all respects the honorable,straightforward, public-spirited citizen; a man of large means and muchinfluence in the town.  The land onwhich the courthouse was built was his voluntary gift, while also the mainthoroughfare through the village was donated and laid out by him. Of course, these things greatly enhanced the value of his property in thelocality, but at the same time they forwarded the interests of other personswho, perhaps, were less able or less inclined to give than was he. Squire WAGENER continued to reside in Penn Yan, as the village afterwardwas named, until 1833, in which year he moved to Bluff Point where he occupiedan elegant stone mansion which he ad erected during that year. However, before his removal to Bluff Point, Squire WAGENER built a secondresidence in the village, which stood on the land now in part occupied by theKnapp House, about where the dining room of that hostelry is situated. This dwelling is believed to have been erected in 1816, and to it wasgiven the name of Mansion House.  Thisname was preserved in after years, when the building was changed in characterand occupancy and put to hotel use.  Inrear of the house stood the old famous Wagener apple tree, so-called from itsowner, the one who planted the seed, nourished and cultivated the sprout, anddistributed its seed in return throughout  thevicinity, the years of which has always been known as the Wagener apple. Now the old Mansion House has become a part of the more modern KnappHouse; the apple tree has been cut down that the land may be used for otherpurposes, and the founder of the village, its pioneer and most influential anduseful citizen, lies buried in the old cemetery which his father gave to thepeople for the interment of their dead. 

TheWAGENER lands proper extended from the outlet northward to the immediatevicinity of what is now called Court street, while still father north wasanother tract which passed through the same descent of title and ownership, andeventually found its way to diverse owners. It was upon the latter tract that the first village was established, atthe point where Head street crosses Main street. The highway first mentioned, formed the dividing line between the townsof Benton and Milo, as afterward established, buy the village was built upwithout reference to town lines.  Therefore,the little hamlet lay in parts of two towns, but for some years, and until Milowas set off, all the people voted and acted in the same manner as if but onetown held their village.  When Milowas separated from Benton, the residents south of the east and west road votedfor their own town candidates, while those north of the road were subjects ofBenton and voted for nominees therein.  Andeven to the present day, notwithstanding the fact that the village has becomeincorporated as a city of the lesser class, the residents north of Head streetare yet Benton people and vote as residents of that town for town officers,while those south of the street are citizens of Milo and vote for officerstherein.  In addition to this theresidents within the corporate limits of the village of Penn Yan choose theirown officers for local government, and in the corporation elections the peopleof the town do not participate. 

WhileAbraham WAGENER was undoubtedly the most prominent and influential man in thevillage during the days of its infancy, there were others who contributed in nosmall degree, building up and improving the locality during the same period. Morris F. SHEPPARD was one of the persons worthy of mention in thisspecial connection.  Like SquireWAGENER, Mr. SHEPPARD was a native of Pennsylvania. He was also a pioneer in this locality, one of the early settlers in thelittle hamlet and one who became identified with its business interests when thesettlement was founded.  He starteda tannery and also a fulling or clothing mill on his own lands, on Sucker Brook.  These he conducted for several years, until the cutting awayof the forest trees along the brook deprived him of a sufficient water supply,and thus compelled him to relinquish his manufacturing enterprises. 

Mr.SHEPPARD was also the friend of and fellow-worker with Squire WAGENER, and itwas through their joint efforts that the village became as important point at soearly a day.  These men were theleaders of what has been conveniently termed the Pennsylvania element of localpopulation, while the opposition, the Yankee contingent, were under the guidanceof Mr. STEWART.  After the seniorSHEPPARD retired from active participation in business he was succeeded by hisson, Charles c. SHEPPARD, who appears to have inherited his father’s businessqualities and who also was a man of worth and capacity, not only during theearly days of village life, but in after years, even down to a time within thememory of now middle aged men. 

Inthe same connection there may be mentioned the name of Asa COLE, whose place ofabode and lands lay within the town of Benton. Asa, was a pioneer farmer, and in connection with that occupation openedand for years maintained a hotel or tavern at the head of the street. The establishing of the public house was an important event in the earlyhistory of the village, as its vicinity at once became a center of trade. Here the stage drivers were wont to stop for rest and refreshment, andhere the weary traveler found a comfortable lodging. In those days the hotel was a popular resort for all classes of people,where the news from abroad was always to be learned, while the landlord himselfwas generally regarded as somewhat the average kind of mankind.  

Butat last the worthies who constituted the influential portion of that littlesettlement found themselves involved in a serious dispute, all because theycould not agree upon a proper and fitting name for their village. Numerous conferences were held, but public sentiment was so divided thatno result could be reached.  In themeantime various names were given the village, but most of them were applied ina spirit of derision.  A number ofthe residents called the place Unionville, while to the outsiders, who viewedthe controversy from a distance, it became known as Pandemonium. The Pennsylvanians of the locality wished a name that would recall somelocality of their native state, while the Yankees, the settlers who came fromNew England, possessed an equally strong desire that a name be given that wouldsuggest a locality form whence they emigrated. However, this difficult problem was at length solved by the good officesof Philemon BALDWIN, upon the occasion of a “ barn raising”. After the last rafter had been made fast in its place, Mr. BALDWINclimbed up the frame to the plate and there addressed the assembled people. He referred to the dispute concerning the name and then remarked that aspart of the inhabitants were Pennsylvanians and part Yankees, a compromise wasfair to both factions, and suggested the name of Penn Yan as sufficient for bothparties.  This proposition wasagreed to and the christening was completed. The naming was soon afterward ratified in the change of the post stationfrom Jerusalem to Penn Yan. 

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