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
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
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: