Historic Structures

James R. Clark House (Tavern), Caledonia New York

Date added: April 6, 2010 Categories: New York House

Identity of the builder seems to have been lost to the memories of at least two generations. Three men over ninety now living, besides many others including kin of Clark who have spent their lives in the vicinity, have had no knowledge of who built the tavern. Although Clark moved elsewhere in the 1850's, and its use as a tavern ended about 1860, it is notably peculiar that the name of a man once prominent in the community should, in its annals, have been separated so completely from a piece of architecture which has for years attracted the attention and the inquiries of strangers, has been pictured in public prints, and must have occupied a prominent place in post-pioneer affairs.

Not the least interesting fact, and one which directly connects this survey with the primitive period of its construction, is its location near one of nature's unusual phenomena. At that time there existed across the highway a small lake said to have covered an area of nearly twenty acres, since largely drained and filled. This lake was fed by a number of springs of pure water bursting from the underlying limestone strata to form a stream sufficient to turn the wheels of early mills and which now provides ideal conditions for two trout hatcheries, one of them State owned.

Thus the name "Big Springs" appears on the earliest maps of the Genesce Country. The Indian name was: Gan-o-o-di-ya, while the early Scotch settlers called the lake and springs "Topermore". An early traveler commented on the beauty of the heavy undergrowth with occasional pine rising above it along the outlet, which in a measure still exists.

It can be truly said that Nature also determined the route of the chief highway across New York State, of which Big Springs was an outstanding landmark. For ages an Indiana trail linked the tips of several of the "Finger Lakes" and then steered directly for these springs, which furnished on abundance of fish. When surveys began this trail was found with few deviations to be the most consistent route for a turnpike, over which moved the sleds and ox-carts of the pioneer settlers, later the covered wagons westward bound, and is now a three- and four-lane highway known as Route 5.

Upon the south side of this highway, known in early deeds as the Niagara Road, about seven miles west of the Genesee River, stands the subject of this article. It is located in the Town and Village of Caledonia, which lies on the west bank of the Genesee River some eighteen miles south of the City of Rochester. It is built of dressed limestone quarries nearby and rests on a stratum of smooth rook about five feet below the surface which forms the cellar floor under the entire building. Several crevices in the rock afford a means of measuring the thickness of the stratura, which is found to be nine feet. Below is a stratum of gravel about 16 inches deep which forms a waterway, the water finding outlet in the springs, one of which was open in the highway and was a basis for surveys.

Many small taverns lined the Niagara Road, in face each new log cabin seems to have been open for the accommodation of travelers through the wilderness. Larger log houses built for the purpose were followed by frame houses of interesting architecture as saw mills multiplied. The innkeeper became a leading businessman, inasmuch as he received much of the ready cash that percolated into the settlement. He was often a farmer as well, but the prohibitive cost of transporting farm products by wagon tended to reduce his agricultural pursuits to supplying the inn table.

The Clark tavern was one of the most pretentious within miles east and west. Yet the young Clark had arrived penniless only ten years before. What was the source of his income to be able to finance such en undertaking? He had Kept another inn for three years previous. Hence the inquiry more properly should be, What was the innkeeper's chief source of income? There are but two small sleeping rooms in the tavern. Recorded tales of travelers indicate that this type of building was common. Hence the fees for lodgings could not have been of consequence. The tide of migration from east toward the north central states was in full swing in the twenties, stage coaches passed the door, farmers made the tavern their meeting place. Apparently the retailing of the product of numerous small distilleries was item No, 1 in the income list, meals second. Transients must either have "slept out" in homes, or in their covered wagons, or, as one traveler relates, rolled up in their blankets and slept on the floor, men and women in rows.

During all the years from the first town meeting to the "inhabitants" in 1803 until the 1840's, the several Inns were the only places of meeting in April and for elections in November. The Clark tavern was designated several times in the town record. The upper floor, of which three-fourths was in one room, divided only by two large open arches and having two fireplaces, must have been designed and used almost exclusively for balls. Another use which made this tavern a community center was the post office. The writer of a brief village history states that the mail was kept in a "closet off the barroom". When re-plastering the hallway the curiosity of the present owners was attracted by some short lath which, being removed, disclosed the wicket with its ink-stained lintel through which mail was passed in the thirties. It is framed and preserved.

Such seems to have been the purposes and uses of this and probably other taverns between 1820 and 1840 in this region. It may be commented that cattle drovers, of which there were many, used separate taverns supplied with corrals, and followed other roads when possible.

Passing to mere recent years, Caledonia's first bank was opened in the living room in 1885, continuing until 1891, while the public library occupied rooms from 1883 to 1888.