151 Main Street: The Benham House

his particular stretch of Main Street has lost a number of its historic buildings, with replacements that unfortunately fail to contribute materially to the Historic District. Therefore this page (and a few others for structures in this block, shown in yellow on the map to the far left) will to a certain extent treat that which was lost, instead of that which replaced it.

The Benham House is certainly the most prominent and best-remembered of Penn Yan's lost buildings. It was erected about 1858 by Dewitt Clinton Benham, one of George Benham's sons, though soon taken over by Nelson Thompson, the former propietor of The Benham Hotelthe American Hotel downstreet, which burned in 1857 and left the village without a first-class hotel.

It was a huge building for Penn Yan, four stories with its crowning "observatory" additional; built of stone, 80 feet long on the street and 50 feet deep. Many of the best-known pictures of Penn Yan, particularly those facing south, were taken from this vantage point.

The site itself was historic, being the spot where John Dorman erected his "Old Red House" about 1800. It was also the site of one of Cleveland's best stories, the tale of Mrs. Lenox and the bear.

It seems that Mrs. Lenox and her husband lived in a log house, one of several in the incipient settlement. This one was at a spot behind where the hotel was built, down by Jacob's Brook. Like most people, the Lenoxes kept a few chickens and a pig; many of the local pigs simply ran wild, marked only by the coded cropping of their ears; in the fall they'd be penned up, ready for slaughter. The Lenox pig was in its log pen one night when its owners heard it squealing. Fearing to lose their entire winter's meat supply they both ran out of the house. The culprit was a bear (apparently bears, like humans, took readily to pork, and whenever a pig was penned it was ripe for attack; lots of people actually set up alarms of cowbells and such to warn them of such raids), which was in the process of dragging the yelling pig away. Mr. Lenox fled the growling monster, and escaped to the roof of the cabin, but his wife, who had an iron frying pan in her hand, added her cries to the pig's and battered the bewildered bear so thoroughly that she broke her weapon, but she did save the pig. Cleveland says she hung the handle of the broken frying pan on the wall of her cabin, as a memento of her prowess. No doubt Lenox heard about it pretty often, too.

This story is confirmed by Catharine Chissom Crane, who was a girl at the time and lived in Penn Yan. Robert Lenox and his wife (whose name is not recorded, maddeningly enough) are listed in Penn Yan on the census of 1800, and the story sounds pretty circumstantial not to be true, and anyway it ought to be true. I think Mrs. Lenox, that tough little frontier woman who saved her pig from the bear, should be Penn Yan's patron saint.

As noted elsewhere, the hotel stood on part of a four-acre plot that David Wagener sold to John Dorman in 1799. The Old Red House, where Dorman lived until he died in 1821, stood here on this lot and the Dorman orchard stretched north to about where 163 Main Street is now. Dorman's heirs sold the northerly part of the homestead lot to the tailor Simpson Buck, who built his own house and shop near the north end of his property.

The lot where the Benham later stood was originally two lots. One was purchased from Buck in 1835 by Lydia and Mercy Stewart, who ran a millinery shop a few doors to the south. Later on, Charles V. Bush had a workshop on this lot. When Bush sold the lot to Dewitt C. Benham he reserved the right to move this building. It was the Old Red House, which was moved up the street, still serving as Bush's shop until it was burned in the fire of 1867.

The lot just to the north of the Misses Stewart's place was sold by Buck to Henry Bradley, who apparently had a store there. It was later on sold to Henry Mead and Epenetus Wheeler. It may have been a commercial lot still, but it was certainly became a residential one, the house on it probably built about 1844 when Amanda Stewart bought it. She married later on and with her husband Nathaniel Barnett sold the lot in 1860 to Dewitt C. Benham, who was the first proprietor of the hotel, and the man for whom it was named.

The Benham House stood for almost exactly 100 years, passing through a number of proprietors' hands until it was torn down in 1960 to make way for the bank that stands there now.


Simpson Buck lot

The architecture was the prevailing Italianate, symmetrical and nearly flat-roofed, the rhythmic window openings giving a Renaissance-inspired dignity combined with lightness.

People related to this lot and structure:

     David Wagener
John Dorman
     Charles V. Bush
The Benhams

Related sites:

     173 Main Street

Related history:

     The Turn of the Century
     Before the Storm



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