John L. Lewis                                


t's difficult now to go back in time and understand how a really outstanding teacher can influence an entire community for generations, but it must be admitted that this was true in the case of the remarkable John L. Lewis, known almost universally as "Master Lewis."

He was born in 1779 in Wethersfield near New Haven in Connecticut. He graduated from Yale in 1796, his father having been a tutor there. John Lewis died just as his son was about to enter the college, in 1792. Almost immediately after graduation the younger Lewis set out for the Genesee Country in pursuit of his guardian, who had disappeared with the avails of his father's estate.

Young John failed in his immediate purpose, and when he finally reached the disreputable settlement on the site of Geneva, he sold his horse and took a position there as clerk to Richard M. Williams, who kept an Indian trading store. Lewis learned the language of the Seneca people and remained on friendly terms with them as long as they frequented the frontier settlements where he spent the rest of his life.

He returned in 1798 to New Haven and took up the study of medicine, which he had prepared for in his undergraduate course at Yale. At just that time the United States was engaged in an undeclared war with France, and Lewis quit school to enlist in the army at the age of 19. His friends apparently brought some influence to bear, and he was appointed paymaster. Stationed at Scotch Plains, New Jersey, he met and became friends with Samuel Harpending, whom he met again 40 years later at Dundee. The men became very close friends and maintained their friendship as long as they both lived.

When the war was over in 1799, Lewis decided that he didn't want to be a doctor after all, and returned to Geneva. He began his teaching career there in that year.

In 1802 he taught a school at Benton Center, his first in what is now Yates County. He came to Penn Yan in 1815 and taught there two years in the decrepit old school house that stood on the west side of Main Street near where the Academy was later built. He taught all over the neighborhood, in Benton, Penn Yan, Hopeton, town of Seneca, in the Gore. In 1822 he was offered a job as tutor in Geneva College at the

unheard-of salary of $600 a year; he was promised a Professorship of Languages as soon as the College was well-established, as he knew Latin and Greek. He turned down this offer, however, taking a district school in what is now Starkey. He went from there to Lodi on the east side of Seneca Lake, then returned to Benton and remained there about ten years, in and near the village of Dresden.

He went to Dundee in 1836, served as Justice of the Peace and taught there about five years, then returned to Benton and taught at Bellona. He stayed there until the death of his wife in 1859, and then yielded to the wishes of his family and retired. He served as Postmaster there, however, and taught some more classes, and finally spent his last years with his sons in Penn Yan and Watkins. He died at the latter place in 1863, at the age of 84.

He began to keep a meteorological journal in 1805 and kept it up daily until about 1860, recording not only the weather and atmospheric events but of his general life and times. Richard H. Williams, the son of his old trading-post partner, said this was "perhaps the most full and perfect of the kind ever kept by any individual in this part of the country." He also, interestingly, praised Lewis's small and beautiful handwriting, a talent inherited by his son John L. Lewis Jr.

Williams, writing in 1869, went on, "This journal expanded into voluminous proportions until it embraced some twelve or fifteen quarto ledger-sized volumes and covers not only atmospheric and general history, but is filled with observations and notes on the vegetable and animal kingdom; embellished with drawings and colored representations of many curious, new and interesting subjects, and indeed contains a representation in life, colors and size, of much of the floral and forest production and life of the age and action, embracing even foliage and trunk in miniature."

He was called on by many local families to inscribe their families in the section between the testaments of their old (and huge) Bibles. He was a good enough surveyor to practice this art in a small way, and was familiar with the sciences, arts and literature.

Lewis and his wife, born Laura Brown at Norwich, Vermont, had seven children:

  • Amelia H., born 1806, married Samuel F. Curtis at Penn Yan in 1829 and died within just a few months.
  • Edwin W., born 1809, married Relief, the daughter of Penn Yan cabinet-maker Amasa Holden. She died and he remarried and moved to Watkins, where he practiced medicine for many years.
  • Caroline S., born 1811, married George F. Livermore of Dresden and removed to Michigan, where he practiced law.
  • John L. Jr., born 1813, married Jane, the daughter of Dr. Andrew F. Oliver of Penn Yan. The young man was a lawyer, and became a Surrogate and County Judge. Their elder son died in hospital at the age of 19, returning home after being wounded at Shiloh during the Civil War.
  • Mary D., born 1816, married David Fraser of Dundee. She died without bearing children.
  • Martin B., born 1820, married Emma H., granddaughter of Richard M. Williams. After living in Penn Yan for a time they moved to Minnesota.
  • Sarah E.

    David H. Buell of Benton Center (he was born in 1798 on the spot where he lived and then died in 1873, attended the first school Lewis taught at Benton. Master Lewis was then still single, and boarded with Buell's father Samuel; and in fact had to share his bed with a number of the younger boys, as was common in those days.

    Buell remembered his young teacher as a man of medium height, with broad shoulders and an active temperament. His description of the course of study sounds like that of a progressive school of the modern day. He wrote plays and the older children enacted them at the end of each winter term, events remembered for decades both by those who acted in them and by their relatives and general public who attended.


Lewis was associated with:


   206 Main Street
 310 Main Street


   314 Main Street