The County Seat



Excerpts from "The Life of Henry Bradley"
printed in the Yates County Chronicle
26 December 1878:

In 1823 he came to Penn Yan soon after the passage of the act organizing Yates County. A previous visit to the place had not impressed him favorably, but the impetus given to the town by the new turn of affairs induced him to make it his future abode. ... He rented a store, which also served as a dwelling the first year, where Mrs. Patteson's house now stands. At that time Ira Gould had a store on the northeast corner of Head and Main Streets; Eli Sheldon where William Comstock is in that business now; Betts & Hanford opposite George R. Cornwell's present residence; Samuel S. Ellsworth had a store where that of E.B. Jones is now; and Captain Hezekiah Roberts opposite the tavern of Smith M. Cole, which was where that of Almerin P. Farr is at present.

Asa Cole had a tavern where the Birdsalls now occupy. A distillery stood where W.G. and O.G. Shearman's storehouse now stands, and these establishments represented the principal business interests of Penn Yan at that time. There was not a church in the village. Religious meetings were held in the schoolhouse where the seats were slabs, the flat side up. William Babcock had an ashery run by Jonathan Coleman near Mrs. McHinch's. John Powell had a blacksmith shop near where his son James now lives. Abraham Wagener lived on the corner where Armstrong & Gage's store now stands, a little back from the road. The population of the place was about 1000. ...

 

 

enn Yan by 1820 was, by comparison with its appearance a decade earlier, a booming metropolis. A big gap still yawned between the two ends of Main Street, but some side streets were starting to develop, there was a bridge across the Outlet, and most people thought the place would amount to something someday.

The census mentioned many of the people who had arrived during the previous decade and decided to stay.

William Morrison Oliver, who came with his twin brother Andrew in 1818, had purchased a vast lot comprising all the area between Main Street and what would become Liberty Street (which didn't actually exist yet), just about two acres of untouched bare land, a small dry knoll where blueberries grew (or whortleberries, as they were known locally then).

Oliver needed to be a freeholder to hold office in the new town of Milo, but he didn't need actually to live on his land; apparently he didn't bother to build a house on it for three or four years. When he did, it must have seemed amazingly out of place in the still-raw settlement; it was by far the most elegant building in the place so far, built of brick in the hot new Greek Revival style, the earliest example in Penn Yan and certainly one of the earliest in western New York.

Oliver had no more than barely finished his new house when the news came that Governor Yates had signed the bill creating a new county to bear his name. Most of the petitioners were Penn Yan men, and Penn Yan was the new county's largest and most central settlement, but the designation of the county seat was not in local hands. The Commissioners who had to make the decision were all from more eastern and better-established areas of the state.

The story goes that Abraham Wagener was persuaded to donate two acres for the county buildings between the two rival crossroads on Main Street; the deed itself shows a consideration of $5000, not a bad price for empty (and very wet) land in those days. Be that as it may, Wagener reserved the right to remove two buildings already on the land and use them himself. Unfortunately there is no mention of what the two buildings were, sheds or dwellings or stores; there is no reason to believe anyone was actually living in them.

Penn Yan was of course chosen, largely on the basis of the "donated" land for the Court House and jail. The site immediately became the center of the village, and was usually referred to as the "Public Square."