BIG FLATS, NEW YORK
1822 - 1972
FIRES AND FLOODS BRINGS VIVID BID FLATS MEMORIES
The Main Street of Big Flats was the scene of many a fire. In 1860 a fire of gigantic proportion raged on the south side of Main St. it burned 17 buildings, one of which was a mill owned by Charlie Reynolds, the builder of the Buena Vista. The year 1909 brought with it big fires too.
The first Fire Company was organized in 1926. The first fire station was over the old Post Office. This old Post Office now stands and is the building next to our present Main St. Fire Station and houses the "Diving Shop."
The first big fire recorded in detail was in 1860. Seventeen buildings on the Southside of Main Street burned to the ground.
In 1909, the Southside of Main Street burns again – Seymour & Hector Groom, Blacksmiths; Theodore Hooker’s Store; Walter S. Rhodes Meat Marker; Miss Upham’s Millinery Store; The Hicks Hotel; Voorhees Grist Mill – all turn to ashes.
In 1912, the Brick Block burns and with it Hornby’s Store right behind it on Canal Street.
In 1915, the Buena Vista burns.
April 1865; June 1, 1889; 1903; July 1935
May 1946 – The worst flood in Big Flats history. Mrs. Carrie Shriver Smith remembers 52" of water in the living room of Smithome Farms. The water was up to the second window sash. They lived in the upstairs and went out the bedroom window, onto the garage and climbed into a boat. It took four hours for the flood to reach Smithome Farms from the time it flooded Corning and during it all, the electricity never went out.
There were four Grist Mills in Big Flats. The Breeds had a Grist Mill and there was one just below them in Groomtown. Both of these were run by water power.
A Grist Mill stood on the south side of Main Street in the village. It was run by the water power of Gardner Creek. Beides grinding feed, there was a sawmill (it custom sawed one half million feet of lumber a year), a cider mill in the back, and lath and shingles were made there. It was built around 1870 and burned in 1909.
Another Grist Mill was located on Sing Sing Creek, on the Carpenter Farm. It was a four-story building that could use either water power or steam. A dam by Henry Farr’s property furnished the power. In 1915 this was torn down.
Hammond’s Creamery was built in 1870 on the south side of Sing Sing Creek over a spring on the Carpenter Place. It produced 40,000# of butter and 60,000# of cheese a year.
In 1884 the Grove Spring Creamery was built right on the Welles side of the line between Owens (Schweizer’s now) and the Welles property. It was built over the canal after it was closed. This caused the demise of Hammond’s Creamery and it in turn began producing 50,000 lbs. of butter and 75,000 lbs. of cheese per year.
A cooperative creamery was built over a spring toward Tompkins Corners. A man named Dilmore ran it and it made cottage cheese and butter. It was located down the lane that runs besides the present Van Norstrand’s barn and was located beside the creek over a spring.
In 1914 a Condensery was built on the Erie Railroad behind what is now Schweizers and this led to the closing of the creameries.
BIG FLATS DOCTORS
Dr. Corbett Peebles practiced medicine 48 year.
Dr. William Woodward practiced medicine for 48 years and was the first superintendent of schools in Big Flats.
Dr. T. W. Read practiced medicine for 30 years. He became the fourth Superintendent of Schools.
Dr. E. H. Wakelee came to Big Flats in 1888 and practiced until his death in 1936.
POPULATION OF BIG FLATS
1825 – 826
1830 – 1149
1835 – 1238
1845 – 1421
1850 – 1709
1855 – 1853
1860 – 1891
1870 – 1902
1875 – 1938
On Feb. 18, 1823, Clark Winans, John Bennitt and Uzel Goble met as Commissioners of Highways. The roads were divided into 12 districts. Before there was a Highway Department, residents worked the road in front of their property and there was no road tax.
John L. Sexton erected the first steam sawmill in the town, the first in the county, and it was believed to be the first in the state. This sawmill was stolen from Sexton and taken to Canada. The party who had stolen it got involved in Canada and tried to steal it from his creditors. To escape capture the engines and boilers were thrown into Lake Ontario at Sackett’s Harbor.
THE MOUNTAIN HOUSE
The Mountain House stood before the Civil War and was rather a notorious place. Civil War soldiers frequented the road house, loggers following the log jams and rafts, anchored on the river and stayed over at the Mountain House. The wild of the wealthy were frequent visitors and the stage coach ran past the door. A second story porch of earlier days was just right for loading the luggage and such on to the stage coach. The street car cut it off in 1911 and the only way to get to it was through the nearby stone arch bridge, so the Mountain House was torn down. (There had been 3 Mr. Houses – the first a log cabin, built in the late 1700’s – the second a frame building then the 42 room Mr. House pictured here).
The first merchant in Big Flats was George Shriver. He died in 1861 at the age 85.
Other early Merchants were: John Huey who opened a store in 1815, James DeArmand, Charles Reynolds, Samuel Boyer, Caleb H. Gardner, John M. French, Ebenezer Roberts, Abram Minier and Joel Rowley.
The first distillery was built by Aaron Cook in 1809. Oh the irony of it all! He died of a rattlesnake bite on July 29, 1825 at age 57.
The first person buried in the Big Flats Cemetery was Amos Rowley, age 39, in the year 1809.
Comfort Bennett was an early settler and reputed to be the wealthiest farmer in southern New York. He could walk from Big Flats to Horseheads on his own property. He had ten children and when each one was married, he built them a homestead.
The old "Lake Road" (now County Road 64) over Welles Bridge was the first hard top road. It was built in 1907. The farmers drew in field stone and crushers were set up to crush this stone for the road base. One crusher was set up above the village and one by Sing Sing Creek.
Captain George Gardner who died in 1848 was a most wealthy and prominent Big Flats settler. He became a member of the New York State Assembly from the County of Tioga (before the County of Chemung was formed in 1832.) Other early settlers who became members of the New York State Assembly were Samuel Minier, who represented Chemung County in 1851 and John Haggerty.
Samuel Minier was a Big Flats Supervisor in 1833 and was Sheriff of Chemung County in 1841-43.
Oscar Kahler, a Big Flats resident became a member of the Assembly in 1921 for only one term. He lost in Nov. 1823 to Jake Banfield of Van Etten, New York.
LATE DAVID TITUS OF BIG FLATS MAKES PROVISION FOR CARE OF FAVORITE TREE DURING ITS LIFETIME BY UNUSUAL BEQUEST
Something unusual in the line of a will has just been admitted to probate in Surrogate court, there being no objections to an extraordinary clause in the document. It is the will of the late David Titus of the Town of Big Flats. Mr. Titus died on June 7 and left an estate valued at $4,775 in real property and $3,100 in personal. His widow, Florentina M. Titus is executrix.
The will leaves the entire estate to the widow, but with an unusual provision which was intended to act to the protection of a black oak tree of which Mr. Titus was very fond. For the protection of that tree he has made it a legatee under his will. It is the first time within knowledge of local courts or attorneys that an oak tree has figured in a will as an heir.
For the protection of this tree Mr. Titus, in the second section of his will deeds to the tree four square rods of land upon which it stands. The section of the will reads as follows:
"I give and bequeath to my wife Florentina Menia Titus all my personal property including notes, bonds, money, claims or obligations of whatever kind, and all interest thereon, whatsoever situate, and I also give to my said wife Florentina Menia Titus all my real estate and real property of every kind and nature, and all interest therein which I may own or have interest therein at the time of my death, except four square rods of land situated on the property known as the John Titus farm which I give to a black oak tree now growing on said plot of land, being in the Northeast part of said John Titus farm. If anyone cuts this tree or causes it to be cut down while there is life in the tree, said person shall pay to the Horseheads Free and Accepted Masonic Lodge No. 364, the sum of One Hundred Dollars ($100). At the time of the death of said tree from natural causes, the said four square rods to become and be the property of the person owning the farm at that time.
BOOTS: Big Flats Resident is Owner of Giant Set of Century-Old Footwear.
The late Rudyard Kipling of England, who wrote of "Boots! Boots! Boots!"might have had greater inspiration had he worn, or even seen, the pair of grandfather’s boots in possession of George M. Voight of Big Flats.
For these boots are not only impressive in size and weight, but have a glamorous history.
Made in Germany nearly 100 years ago, they crossed the Atlantic with their owner, John Voight and then, when Voight joined in the famous "gold rush of ‘49", they tramped through that epoch of American history in California.
Today, despite the hard usage to which they were put so many years, they seem as good as new.
The fact that they are outmoded in modern times is not the sole reason for the boots being regarded only as a curio. For the boots were not made for a Cinderella man. Far from it.
When John Voight, grandfather of George and Fred Voight of Big Flats and Charles M. Voight of Elmira, came to the United States in 1849, he was a splendid specimen of manhood.
Voight was six feet, six inches tall and weighted 240 pounds. Truly he was a man physically well able to take care of himself in those wild days that saw thousands rush across the as-yet-undeveloped continent to participate in the feverish hunt for gold in 1849.
Could the giant’s boots speak, they no doubt could tell a vivid story. Prospector Voight fought his way to wealth, amassing a fortune of about $25,000 in the precious metal. He was, however, destined to lose it, for he entrusted it in a loan to another and was able to recover little, if any of his wealth.
Discouraged, no doubt, John Voight returned to the East, lived on East Hill and West Hill farms and then returned to Big Flats to spend the rest of his days. In 1859 he returned to Germany to bring back his son, George, then 10 years old.
The huge boots remained a prized possession which have since passed to his grandson, George. Made of pliant, well-tanned cowhide, they are size 14 and from heel to toe are 14 inches long. From sole to their tops they are 19 inches high and weigh three and a quarter pounds. Originally, the sole was held in place by waxed wooden pegs, but in later years, the owner had them repaired, the cobbler replacing the wooden pegs with nails.
The late Henry Bottcher was another Big Flats resident who participated in the 1849 gold rush. His son, August, today operates a farm in Big Flats.
The grandson of the old gold speculator, George M. Voight, is well known in Big Flats through his hobby for collecting old relics. Years ago, at an auction sale at the residence of the late William "Deacon" Riley of Big Flats, he acquired an old Civil War musket. The old muzzle-loader weighs 10 pounds and to this day contains a charge of Civil War powder some Union soldier had rammed home, never to fire the gun again.
Another curio in Voight’s possession is an old-fashioned hayfork, hand-made. Its fork is in the shape of a cork-screw and had to be twisted to pierce the hay. This implement is also believed nearly a century old. Mr. Voight purchased the old fork at a sale on the farm of the late John Koon of Big Flats.
LAST OF CIVIL WAR VETS AT BIG FLATS WEILDS HOE ON FARM AT NINETY-FOUR
William W. Pease is sole survivor of more than fifty who answered the Lincoln’s call – is still hale and hearty.
William W. Pease of Big Flats has the distinction of being the last survivor of this Civil War residing at Big Flats. Mr. Pease is still hale and hearty at 94 years old and was found by the camera man digging potatoes on his farm!
When the call to arms came in 1861, more than 50 husky young men went to the colors from the village of big Flats. Among these was Mr. Pease. Today they have all answered the last call, and only Mr. Pease remains to tell the story. He tells it in an interesting manner.
In a few days Mr. Pease will be 94 years old. He still does much of the labor on his farm. A long row of potatoes had been uncovered by his hoe when the reporter interrupted. It is difficult to realize that the man is 94 years old, for he hardly seems 60.
Corporal Pease enlisted in the Third New York Artillery, Company K, serving under General Burnside. He was at the first battle of Bull Run, although his company was not called into action at this engagement. After serving his enlistment, he returned home and re-enlisted.
While on line duty, his company was surrounded by hundreds of Confederates and taken prisoners. He was taken to Belle Isle, where he endured the horrors of prison camp for four months, and was then sent to Andersonville. The prisoners were transferred to Savannah and then to Milan, Georgia. As Milan was in the direct route of Sherman’s army, the Confederates ran the prisoners out of the "pen." There were 5,000 prisoners with Corporal Pease. While they were being conveyed out of Sherman’s reach, the engine on the train broke down, and they were hidden in a Florida forest.
Without rations for many days, scurvy broke out. Mr. Pease caught the terrible disease, which broke out in his mouth, making his imprisonment horrible. It is miraculous that he survived, for he could not chew food. At the end of the war, they "bummed" their way from Jacksonville, Fla., back to New York state.
Of the 32 men captured from Mr. Pease’s company, only three lived to get out of the camps. A soldier named Taylor, of Auburn, enlisted with Pease, fought with him, re-enlisted with him, was captured with him and released with him. They returned home together. A few years ago Taylor was killed by an automobile.
Mr. Pease married when he returned from the war, has two sons and five grandchildren. The Civil War veterans of Big Flats formed the Wallace Cheley Post, No. 40, until their numbers grew so small the post was disbanded. And today only Mr. Pease remains of these gallant warriors.
When the reporter had finished with him, Mr. Pease took up his hoe again and went back in the potato field.
FLATS NEGRO MEDAL OF HONOR HOLDER, FOUGHT THE APACHES
The only known Congressional Medal of Honor winner from Chemung County was John Denny, a Negro.
A cavalryman in the Indian wars of 1879, he was from Big Flats.
The act of valor nearly 90 years ago was discovered by Frederick Robinson of 356 E. Fourth St., a Negro history buff. Robinson is a correction officer at Elmira Reception Center.
One day last fall Robinson was reading "Negro Medal of Honor Men" by Irvin H. Lee (Dodd, Mead) and came across this line.
"The Big Flats, New York hero was stationed at Fort Robinson 15 years later. It was there that he received the Medal of Honor…"
What Big Flats hero? Asked Fred Robinson. Had anyone in Chemung County heard about him?
Clues were hard to come by. Correspondence with the Department of the Army filled in the gaps.
A letter dated Sept. 28, 1894, led to the bestowal of the medal.
Capt. C. W. Taylor of Troop C. 9th Cavalry, writing from a base in Wyoming, stated:
"I have the honor to recommend that Pvt. John Denny of this troop be awarded a medal of honor or a certificate of merit for conspicuous gallantry in action with hostile Apache civilians at Las Animas Canon, New Mexico, Sept 18, 1879, in recovering a wounded comrade to a p0lace of safety under heavy fire."
Capt. Taylor enclosed letters and affidavits to support his belief that Pvt. Denny merited the award. He felt that "this man’s heroism seems to have been lost sight of."
The affidavits, from cavalrymen who were with Denny in 1879, attested to his heroism in bring from a dangerous position and under fire a wounded comrade (Freeland) to the shelter of a hill held by the command.
The 9th Cavalry had come to the rescue of a small command ambushed by the Apaches near the head of the canyon. After an all-day battle the ammunition-shy cavalry planned a withdrawal at twilight.
Indians were in overwhelming force, wrote Capt. W. W. Day, and rescue of the wounded was most dangerous.
"Freeland – as I remember it, tried to walk on one leg-supported by a comrade – but soon the fire of the hostiles increased so much that it seemed as if no one could pass this open rocky space alive calling to another soldier, this comrade (Denny) picked up Freeland, who was a heavy man and with the assistance of the second man, carried him till under the shelter of the hill held by the troops."
Robinson has copies of all the documents involved, covering 1879 to 1894.
The Medal of Honor was awarded at Fort Robinson, where Sgt. Denny was stationed. He is buried in Soldiers Home Cemetery, Washington, D. C.
Whereas 150 years ago in 1822 people established the Town of Big Flats, and
Whereas the people who live here today benefit from the pioneer spirit of those early settlers,
Be it now resolved that the Town of Big Flats celebrate this sesquicentennial year in a manner befitting that spirit, and
Be it further resolved that the Big Flats Community Days Committee be, and hereby is, appointed the planning committee for this celebration, and
Be it still further resolved that all citizens and organizations be encouraged to support and participate in any and all festivities which are planned.
Executed this 12th day of January, 1972, by the Town Board of Big Flats.
Walter G. Griffith – Supervisor
Ralph Reese - Councilman
Robert McKay – Councilman
H. W. Jerry Hayward – Town Justice
Samuel W. Farr – Town Justice
A CLOSING NOTE
To the many businesses, organizations and individuals who made this printed tribute to out town possible, we owe the greatest appreciation. To Marion Rhodes, Fred Voight and the many senior residents of our town that shared information with me and to all the people and organizations who have supplied their pictures, maps, clippings and histories for the Historical Society’s use, may you feel extremely proud of this endeavor. I express my personal gratitude to those who have donated their time, energy, enthusiasm, encouragement and talents to publish this history. I am grateful to our present Town Board for their genuine interest and encouragement, and especially to Al Werner. May the hours and hours of sketching that Al had donated to the Big Flats Historical Society; serve as an example to all of us who have some ability that could be shared for the benefit of Big Flats.
Pamela M. Farr