It's impossible to appreciate a natural wonder without remembering the questions Mom asked whenever she saw something peculiar in nature, or magnificent: "Doesn't God have a great sense of humor?" or "Isn't God amazing?" So Letchworth State Park was another rich experience, and the details and history of the property and its inhabitants astounding...
Letchworth State Park: The Grand Canyon of the East
A number of fellow New Yorkers were surprised to learn there's a natural wonder that they haven't explored right in our own state. Letchworth State Park boasts 14,300 acres of pristine greenery and scenery. There are rental cottages to suit those whose skin crawls at the thought of wilderness and campgrounds for rough-it, tent-dweller types. And if you wear good hiking boots or sneakers, you'll find magnificent views from the hiking trails.
For those who prefer warm, dry, in-door beauty, just to name a few entities, there's a charming Inn, restaurants, soda machines, and... eh... zero cell phone signals within a mile of where we were at any given time.
The woman at the entrance to the park gave us directions to the restaurants that were located on the grounds. There was one fast food and another sit-down. It was late afternoon, but if the sky cleared as predicted, there'd be a couple of hours to sight-see before we drove home.
The sit-down restaurant was located in the Glen Iris Inn, a charming old mansion, once the home of William Pryor Letchworth. It's situated a few hundred feet from one of the grounds three waterfalls, called The Middle Falls. The rush of the river kicked up a lot more dirt than Niagara falls, conjuring thoughts about erosion. There was a trail we followed, which allowed one to stand close to the falls, so that you're almost looking right into it, almost touching it. And after a good rain, the roar is so intense, you feel it, like a simulator ride at Universal Studios.
The old-world charm of The Glen Iris Inn was a feast for the soul, with its wood moldings, stair rails and stained glass sidelights at the entrance.
I asked the woman at the reservation counter about last-minute lodging, and there happened to be one small room available. It was tiny, but clean and charming and it was sheer good fortune that it was available this time of year. Damp and hungry and wanting to hike at least some of the trails along the river, we took it.
There's a museum behind the Glen Iris Inn, where we learned about William Pryor Letchworth, born to a Quaker family in 1923. He purchased the park's grounds when he was thirty-six years old.
When Letchworth was fifteen years old, he was a clerk in a saddlery and hardware company, and within ten years, he became a partner in Pratt & Letchworth, located in Buffalo, New York and the largest manufacturer of saddlery hardware in the United States. But over time, his health suffered from the duress of his work and environment, so he began looking for a peaceful, countrified retreat. When, in his travels, he stood near a tall bridge that overlooked the Genesee River, he saw the pristine retreat he sought. He purchased the property in February of 1859.
Letchworth studied the property's history and its former inhabitants, and he took particular interest in a woman, named Mary Jemison. After reading about her, so did I, and hope you will too.
In 1743, Mary Jemison's family immigrated to the New World, you know, to live a better life. She was born aboard the ship on which they traveled, which she believed was Ireland. They settled in a lovely clearing in a place called Marsh Creek, in Pennsylvania. And they lived a nice life, in a peaceful mix of toil and satisfaction.
In 1758, during the French and Indian War, the Jemison home was invaded and they, along with another family that was staying with them, were taken prisoners by a raiding party of French soldiers and Shawnee warriors. She was soon separated from her parents and all but two brothers, who'd earlier escaped, were were killed. Grief stricken, she was sold to the Seneca Indians.
Jemison's life continued like that, enormous loss. She was adopted by and taught the ways of the Seneca Indian. In time, she was married. In an interview, later encouraged by local townspeople, a doctor/writer was encouraged to interview her about her life, and he and she obliged. It was published in a book titled: "A Narrative of the Life and Times of Mrs. Mary Jemison," In it, she spoke of her Indian husband:
"The idea of spending my days with him, at first seemed perfectly irreconcilable with my feelings; but his good nature, generosity, tenderness and friendship towards me, soon gained my affection; and, strange as it may seem, I loved him! To me, he was ever kind in sickness, and always treated me with gentleness; in fact, he was an agreeable husband, and a comfortable companion."
Jemison gave birth to a daughter, and was grief stricken when she died shortly after. She next had a son: "Thomas Jemison," named after her father, whose death she lamented.
When the war ended, her husband feared that captives would have to be returned, so he and Jemison took an almost 700-mile trek (without memory foam insoles) to his homeland: The Genesee Valley. But then they separated with travel parties. He went with friends on a -hunt and trapping expedition, promising to meet up with her. She continued towards the destination with her companions. While her husband was gone, he took ill and died.
It occurred to me that there was no Mapquest or GPS to guide anybody between her husband's family tribe and her current location. Yet somehow she and they found each other, without vehicles, or telephones, and she stayed with them in present day Cuylerville, New York.
She later remarried and birthed six more children and named each child after her blood siblings. And life was peaceable for a time in that pristine place, eh, until the Revolutionary War invaded serenity once again. They scouted out a new home along the banks of the Genesee River, and that lasted another 20 years... until the next invasion.
As though any one of those incidents was not sorrow enough, within six years, she lost three sons.
There were skirmishes between the white folk and the Indians, but most people in her later years, loved Jemison, known for her kindness. She never turned anybody away from her door, and was known for generosity and served tea and cakes.
It was odd that even after he death, Jamison's remains were in threat of displacement, because the property she was buried on was sold. Geesh! Her grandchildren appealed to Letchworth and told him their grandmother's story. He made arrangements for her remains to be relocated to a spot on his property, near one of the three waterfalls on the property, called Middle Falls, where she rested in peace.
I guess the invasion thing was contagious, because while Letchworth welcomed the public to enjoy his property, and didn't stop them from coming and hanging out, even while he was there. People took his generosity for granted. They invaded his privacy, skulked around his windows and stared inside. That was trying on him. Still before his death, to ensure people continued to enjoy the clean air and respite, and to prevent the power companies harnessing the falls, he generously bequeathed his property to the people of New York State.
And I thank him for that!
The Genesee River runs the length of the park, and the falls were visible from the upstairs library window of the Inn.
Over two years ago, my husband and I were one of few people, who stood in downtown Rochester with tall buildings in plain view, staring at a gorgeous waterfall, named The High Falls, also part of the Genesee River. There's something so intriguing about a river rushing through a city (that's working on a comeback) and seeing and hearing it roar into a waterfall that's so rich and powerful, I still can't wrap my head around it. It was hard to walk away from it back then. It felt like we were witnessing life rush into a dead space, filling it up, reminding it what mattered most.
Letchworth State Park was pure life. Revitalizing and pristine as it was to be in a setting like that, after several hours, electronic withdrawal kicks in.
When the environment is quiet, except for insects, birds and the sound of a river, it can make a person rethink their attachments. Just a few decades ago, everybody smirked on open school night or during a recital when somebody's beeper went off. Like, can't you turn that baby off for a couple of hours? Now we've all got a cell phone that interrupts with an annoying alert sound. But we think of it as a staple, a connection to the "real world," when maybe, by leaving it off, we're present to the one we're in. And as I read about William Pryor Letchworh, I realized that he would have prescribed the withdrawal in our no cell phone reception, no internet, no television zone.
Sources: Cook, Tom, and Tom Breslin. "Exploring Letchworth Park History." Letchworth Park History. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2014.
Seaver, James E. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Barnes & Noble. New York ; London : G.P. Putnam''s Sons. Web. 28 Aug. 2014.