A Brief History of Brockport, New York 1879

by David G. Hale

The nation's growth and prosperity after the Civil War were shared by Brockport. "Brockport is certainly getting to be a lively business place, as well as a handsome inland village," said one newspaper. "It is surrounded by a thickly populated and very rich farming community and its facilities for shipping fruits, grain, etc. both by railroad and canal cannot be surpassed. It has considerable wealth, but more energy and pluck. The two mammoth establishments located in Brockport for the manufacture of agricultural implements, the Johnston Harvester Manufacturing Co. and the D. S. Morgan & Co. works, are the two great enterprises that give to Brockport its worldwide reputation as a manufacturing town."

In 1879 Johnston employed 350 men to produce reapers and mowers. At Morgan's factory, begun as Seymour and Morgan in 1844, 200 employees were employed. Brockport was served by two weekly newspapers, the Republic (1856) and the Democrat (1870). The area's agricultural prosperity was indicated by the fact that during the 1880s more beans were shipped from the warehouse of the Henry Harrison Bean Co. on Water Street than from any other community in the nation.

The village's population had increased to about 4,000. The commercial blocks on Main Street and many homes reflected the architecture and prosperity of the times. Market Street, however, had been heavily damaged by fire in 1877. Main Street was illuminated by 39 gas lights; other sections of the village were lit by kerosene. The canal was crossed by high bridges at Main, Fayette, and Smith Streets.

The Canal continued, but with a less important role in the village's life. Passenger traffic had ceased; the canal now carried only bulk cargo such as grain and lumber. Two boat lines, one horse-drawn, one steam powered, served the community. The Niagara Falls Line of the New York Central Railroad shuttled twelve passenger trains a day through Brockport. Some of the village's activity shifted south to the area of the track. Near the depot hotels such as the Getty House at the corner of Main Street and Railroad Avenue were built. The Getty House advertised "First-class style" with stables, a restaurant and a billiard parlor.

Brockport's other source of national recognition was Mary Jane Holmes, one of America's best-selling novelists of the nineteenth century. A native of Massachusetts, Mrs. Holmes had moved to Brockport about 1854, at the time of the publication of her first and most successful novel, Tempest and Sunshine. Lena Risers (1856) also sold over half a million copies. During her career she would publish nearly forty novels and collections of stories. Her book for 1879 was The Forrest House which, like much of her work, had been published serially in The New York Weekly. Mrs. Holmes was active in St. Luke's Church and a variety of community activities. Her home on College Street, the Brown Cottage, became somewhat of a tourist attraction. Her husband, Daniel Holmes, also made a substantial contribution to Brockport. A practicing attorney, he served as village clerk from 1855 to 1869 and justice of the peace from 1855 to 1877. In 1867 he became one of the original members of the Local Board of the Normal School and continued in this capacity until just before his death in 1918. In 1879 he was admitted to practice in U.S. District Court.

Mary Jane Holmes
1828 - 1907
Daniel Holmes
1828 - 1919

The Collegiate Institute, unable to survive a series of financial difficulties, had become a state normal school in 1867. This had aroused bitter controversy within the community, especially among those fearing unreasonable expenses on the taxpayers. After several hotly contested elections, the issue was resolved and $50,000 raised in the community to buy and expand the building which had been constructed in 1855. By 1879, the Normal School enrolled 386 students, plus 187 in the academic department. The academic program of the Normal School complemented the education provided by the district schools within the village and the Catholic school which had opened in 1876.

In 1879, prompted by concern over The Market Street fire of two years before, the Fire Department, which had ceased to exist during the Civil War, was reorganized with five companies. John Getty, the proprietor of the hotel, was elected chief of the Brockport Fire Department. The original Village Hall had given way to the First National Bank; in 1884 the voters approved construction of a new one on Market Street, which was to serve the village and the Fire Department until 1969. During this period water for fire protection was a serious problem. The canal water was used when possible. In addition the village had constructed three reservoirs for water storage and during 1879 planned a fourth one south of the railroad. The Village trustees had adopted a fire ordinance which called for a ban on the construction of wooden buildings within 150 feet of Main Street from the canal south to Erie and State. In spite of the fact that downtown was generally regarded as a firetrap, enforcement of the ordinance was a considerable problem.

Brockport was not without a wide variety of entertainment. The social center of the village was Ward's Opera House, an elegant structure on Main Street next to the National Bank. In January Buffalo Bill Cody appeared at the Opera House in a musical play, Mary Cody, or Lost and Won. Later in the year the Opera House hosted a touring company which performed Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore; the Monroe County Poultry Show was there as well. The Methodists' maple sugar party was reported to be a great success as was the fair at the Catholic school. In May the baseball season began with the Harvester Works' Setting-up Shop beating the Bar Shop 62-40 in an eight-inning game. The fireman's parade was held in June in conjunction with several social events including the Presbyterian ladies' strawberry festival. In August Coup's Circus came to the fairgrounds to the delight of many. October saw the Brockport Fair entertain the crowds with exhibits, contests and horse racing.

MORE HISTORY

For more information contact:

Village Historian of Brockport
Jacqueline M. Morris
585-637-4716

Village of Brockport
49 State Street
Brockport, NY 14420
585-637-5300
FAX 585-637-1045

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