The Crooked Lake Review

Spring 2003

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"What Ya Up To Now, Ben?"

Entrepreneur, Promoter and Legendary "GreenThumb"

Honeoye Falls' Tireless Benjamin Peer
Left a Permanent Imprint on Our Area

by

Paul S. Worboys

A Canandaigua ball player asked a pretty blonde why she walked on her heels. She replied, "to save soles for Ben Peer's Big Legion Dance at Honeoye Falls."

When a fellow gave his sweetheart a lipstick at Ben Peer's Bristol Center Granger's Dance and Chicken Pie Supper, how pleased he was for he got it all back again when she thanked him for it!

Postpone your funeral and come to Ben Peer's balloon ascension and hot game of baseball at North Bloomfield!

Never marry a widow, for she will keep you up all night telling you how good her first husband was,and what a nice time they had at Ben Peer's dances.

Ah, the power of persuasion—albeit in a corny 1920s style—by an apple-cheeked little man who seemed to live for and love everybody. For half a century, he touched royalty and poverty, the pompous and the humble, the daring, the brave, the athletic and the dance floor dandies. He welcomed to the glories of small-town America "Fresh Air" kids from the dank tenements of New York City. He hired young adults seeking their wings of romance and adventure in the long forgotten culture of the hop yard. He countered the meat market that was Ellis Island with a welcoming place for immigrants to establish a home and raise a family. He sent out a call-to-arms for the destitute man who, though decades earlier secured a famous iron figure to his village's steeple, languished without shoes in a west side shack. And he secured a home, the first in his county, for military veterans to celebrate the honor of giving duty, service and, sadly, some of their comrades, to preserve the greatest commodity we can ever possess.

Benjamin Peer, Jr.
Born in East Bloomfield, New York, 1853
Died in Honeoye Falls, New York, October 19, 1932

Benjamin F. Peer and Hannah Sullivan Peer lie in peaceful splendor at St. Bridget's Catholic churchyard in East Bloomfield, New York. Having survived the rigors of flight from the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, in which a million died and a million more fled, husband and wife lived to see the 20th century. So, too, did all nine of their brood, who absorbed their new culture and lived well beyond the average life expectancy of the time.

Benjamin Jr., the third child, was the most industrious and cheerful of the lot, for he quickly settled upon a career in hop farming and managed to build a thriving business that inspired his many future endeavors.

Introduced from England in the mid-1830s, hops were combined with malt, bran and pumpkin to make "small" or "hop beer." As pure, drinkable water was often lacking in many parts of America, young and old slaked their thirst on this concoction. A booming national market witnessed farms where acres of 20-foot poles supported vines of hop blossoms that, in late summer, were harvested by young pickers recruited far and wide.

With the 1853 arrival of the Canandaigua and Niagara Falls Railroad and its railheads at East Bloomfield and Canandaigua, Bristol Valley hop farming enjoyed palmy days. Each September, hop-filled wagons clogged the roads.

Recruited at a young age to work a hop yard at Denton Shuart's sprawling farm on Ontario Street, Honeoye Falls, Peer declared something to the effect, "Mr. Shuart, one day I will own this farm." Shuart was amused. "Give him credit," perhaps chuckled the senior member of the Monroe County Bar Association, "the boy has dreams."

In his early 20's, young Ben Peer, by then an East Bloomfield hop farmer, celebrated the 1876 Centennial year by sponsoring the first of many annual social gatherings—the annual "Hop Dance." Many of us slightly older folk remember going to a "Record Hop" as teenagers, so it might require little imagination to envision one of Ben Peer's events, except for the fiddles and period dress.

Hop production levels peaked in western New York in 1879 and Ben Peer couldn't have been more delighted. Flush with success and popularity (over his hop dances, of course), Ben moved toward achieving his dream of living in Honeoye Falls and acquiring the Shuart farm that had been previously held by Shuart's father-in-law, Captain Stephen Barrett, one of the founding fathers of Honeoye Falls and a prominent landowner.

The ageing Denton Shuart, preparing to erect a fine residence next to the farm for his lawyer son, Clarence, had established a strong relationship with the ambitious Mr. Peer. Soon Ben was working on schemes that would make him not only the major hop producer in southern Monroe County, but the major developer of Ontario Street's open spaces.

Late in 1882, before closing on the Shuart farm and its handsome 1820s home, Ben laid out an innovative sewer plan along Ontario Street. This scheme, well-received by the village establishment, revealed his design to make real estate a major portion of his financial portfolio.

By the spring of 1883, a full-scale subdivision map was getting regularly published in the Honeoye Falls Times. Over the next few years, the plat contained references to other ventures complementing his hops agriculture. Part of our village lexicon related to Ben's division of the farm into new streets—South Church and (a grab at immortality) Peer. Additionally, on the earliest diagram, Livingston Street was then, "Lovers Street," revealing the romantic, fun-loving, social man of hops.

Along with building up his new avenue of residence, numerous activities occupied Ben during the 1880s. These were joyous, inspiring times, as Ben married Emma Hanchett, a Lima girl in March of '83, fathering his first-born, Pearl, that December. In 1884, with homes going up on his most desirable lots, Ben transferred his hop dance, the 9th annual, from his farm in East Bloomfield to a popular new tented skating rink next to the Ontario Street railroad crossing. That summer of '84 revealed his love of baseball, too, when the "Ben Peers," probably the creme of his imported hop pickers, steam-rolled nines from Avon, Livonia, Victor and East Bloomfield.

In 1885, with his hop acreage behind the residence supporting the farm and only lukewarm interest in his back lots hugging Honeoye Creek, Ben agreed to a new recreational venture—horse racing. To last nearly a decade, the "Honeoye Falls Driving Park Association" created a venue where the fastest members of the equine world—or the biggest braggarts who rode them could lay down wagers and settle it on the track.

A model country fair was held there on a couple of occasions with 3,000-5,000 patrons in attendance. Known as the "Union Agricultural Society Fair," it rivaled Hemlock's "Little World's Fair" —an event that has continued for well over a century.

Later that year, Ben and the Missus were into other ventures, when they sponsored their first "Fresh Air" child, who came by rail from New York City for a couple of weeks of country life. That was followed by Ben's successful patent on a hop-drying apparatus that utilized a natural gas kiln to accelerate hop drying. And God looked down upon the Peers that August, as their second child, son Dwella, was born.

Life was sweet for the Peers and their two young children. Hop dances and horse races, real estate transactions throughout much of the region and an ever-growing financial estate provided a prosperous ride with no apparent end.

The rollicking Ben, in his mid-30s and still testing other creative energies, saw opportunity in the new village hall auditorium. Built after the great fire of 1885, the handsome structure held a theatre/ballroom/banquet hall that inspired local and traveling productions of every stripe. It became the community focus and Ben, charter member of the Concert and Dramatic Club, was swept by the siren call to be a playwright.

On January 25th of 1888, "Our Dry Goods Clerk," written and directed by Benjamin Peer, Esq. (and tested in Canandaigua weeks earlier) transpired before the footlights of Honeoye Falls. While his career in this particular field developed no further, the reviews were polite and besides, Ben got to scribble his graffiti on the backstage wall—where it exists to this very day.

Dark Days, Tempered by the Sun

Soon after his stage debut, tragedy struck the jovial man, making him mortal again. On the last day of May, 1888, Emma, his dear wife of but five years, and the mother of their two small children, took ill and died. Through his tears, Ben purchased a family plot in the Honeoye Falls Cemetery. It was close to the road, for he knew one day they would join again to keep perpetual watch over the doings of their beloved town.

Months later, veiled in grief, Ben was not focused on the treacherous hay mow, when he slipped and inadvertently hurled a burning oil lantern into the tinder. Scrambling out of the flames, with his livestock in "hot" pursuit, Ben could only watch as his barn full of baled hops went flaming to the heavens. With prices depressed the last few years, his held crop meant an under-insured loss of $5000.

He carried on, however, with head held high. In the spring of 1890, lawn tennis was the rage, so he formed a club to play on one of his manicured lots along Ontario Street, In September, 1891, and still supporting the Driving Park racetrack, Ben made news with his "Hop Pickers Pumpkin Race." Where today that turf displays the middle-aged homes of Rittenhouse Drive, numerous zany contests transpired to celebrate the close of hop picking season.

But all was not what it seemed, for Ben had suffered a second calamity months earlier, when four-year-old Dwella ("Willie" to townsfolk) fell before the grim reaper's damned typhoid. It was back to the cemetery for the grief-stricken family, now reduced to Ben and eight-year-old Pearl.

Life was filled with peaks and valleys, so, to yank himself from the doldrums, the man commenced with a new venture—apples. He also filled a humanitarian need by sponsoring an Italian immigrant family and putting the patriarch to work as one of his key right-hand men. He grabbed a slice of Hemlock Lake shoreline in eager anticipation of the boom that was to ride over the Lehigh Valley Railroad's new rails. And, oh yes, he got himself remarried-to a widow lady, Alice Briggs Nolan who, like Ben, had previously lost a spouse and a child to scourges of the era.

In the 1892 lithograph "Bird's Eye View of Honeoye Falls, NY," Ben Peer's hop yards and hop house were still very much in evidence. Those apparent tree orchards adjacent to South Church and Paper Mill Streets were actually the Peer hop kingdom, though a declining one by the year of this most popular rendition of the village. At least we are fortunate to have a small view of an extinct regional industry since, late in the decade, the hop poles came out of the ground for good.

Fully steaming ahead and with hops becoming a warm memory, Ben got into apples! Peer minions roamed the countryside, contracting apples to feed the maw of a new evaporator set up on the farm. In 1893 alone, 30,000 pounds of apples were hauled into the village and out again, reconstituted, via the New York Central's "Peanut" railroad or its new competitor, the Lehigh Valley.

The "Gay Nineties" and Ben's Epiphany

While still wheeling and dealing in Ontario Street real estate, as well as in Rochester and outlying towns, Ben saw the coming of the Lehigh Valley Railroad as a grand new opportunity. He'd always envied the well-heeled and their quaint cottages on those pristine glacial lakes to the south, Hemlock and Canadice.

The Lehigh, having reached down from its Buffalo-Geneva mainline as far as Honeoye Falls, inspired great waves of rumor that grand resorts would rise up from the woods at the coming of a railroad. So Ben found a pretty cottage on Hemlock, where he planed to oversee his fledgling empire of moving high-demand resort property into the hands of summer home seekers.

Rochester to the north, an empire in its own right, had other plans for that area—namely as a pure water supply for its burgeoning population. What eventually led to a complete eradication of private ownership along Hemlock and Canadice Lake shores prompted Ben to consider greener pastures. While Lehigh rails were being strung south from Honeoye Falls through Lima, Livonia and Hemlock village (opening to the lake in July, 1895), Rochester was amassing a team of lawyers for the anticipated fray over control of the lakes. This prompted Ben to head over the western hill and a acquire a vacation abode on the shore of murky, less drinkable Conesus Lake.

Of course, Conesus didn't prove to be without its complications. One very late evening in August of 1898, the Peers met the lake excursion steamer, H. T. Jaeger, not at the Lakeville pier or the dock at McPherson Point, but rather in the middle of the lake, off Long Point.

You see, Ben and his family, including Alice, Pearl and his two stepdaughters, were returning to their cottage following a night of frivolity at McPhersons's. The lake was calm, but the night moonless, when the Peers suddenly realized they were not alone. Looming from the darkness, running far swifter than Ben's small frame could propel the rowboat, was the H. T. Jaeger. Running a romantic mid-night cruise with its lights low, the chugging steamship plowed into the tiny craft, spewing its occupants overboard.

Young lovers, feeling a lurch and spotting the calamity as their boat slid by, took immediate steps for rescue. The Jaeger swung aft, threw down a lifeboat and, one-by-one, plucked the badly shaken Peer party out of the clutching black waters. All recovered, and none of the family, taking life cautiously for awhile, met an ill fate in 1899.

The memorable decade, along with the entire century, came to a close, and Ben, nearing his 47th birthday, was at the average life expectancy for the times. But the man had an abiding faith that, with the 20th Century at his doorstep, he was just getting started.

Of course, any reader adept at American history might surmise that Ben would plunge into the new contraptions coming into vogue. A man of vision like Ben Peer had a veritable smorgasbord of opportunity before him!

Bell's telephone was sweeping the land and "Hello Girls" at gangly switchboards would soon become objects of envy. Electric lights were weaseling into more and more homes, challenging the 8 p.m. farm curfew every twenty-fourth hour. Benzine buggies were venturing forth into the quagmires of primitive roads, making "Get a horse!" the battle-cry of conservative folk. And the Wright boys were making fools of themselves down south, until. . . .

But this writer found nothing in the pages of local lore to indicate Peer enthused over such developments. No news accounts listed him among the early telephone subscribers or electric lamp fanciers of the horseless carriage set.

For the next ten years, however, the optimistic Peer did retool for this new age. The hops were gone, the driving park kaput and there were no plays to write. There were no accidents to endure—well, he did tumble down his barn stairs and broke three ribs in '01, but his ageing body healed and remained serviceable.

Conversely, the loss of parents and concerns for others continued, as it does for us all. St. Bridget's Cemetery in East Bloomfield received his father in 1902 and his mother in 1905. In between, he buried his first cousin James, from down Ontario Street at Boughton Hills' pretty graveyard. Much of 1908 found him nursing his beloved Pearl, then 14, through a diphtheria scare. And then, two months into 1910, he became a two-time widower, with the passing of his wife Alice. As was her wish, she was buried next to her son in the Nolan Plot at the village graveyard.

But there was no quit in Ben. In 1913, for instance, he was wheeling and dealing real estate with aplomb. He exchanged his old hop farms in Bloomfield for a three-story business block in Penn Yan and he traded houses in Rochester for 105 acres of Ithaca farmland. Additionally, he put up a trio of duplexes on South Church Street and advertised for tenants.

The coming of World War I found Ben a sprightly sixty-plus years and perhaps wishing he could ship out to Germany with the younger boys to show the Hun a thing or two.

Step Aside, Sonny, I've got Things To Do!

Ben never was much for politics, I suppose, though his obituary declared he was ". . . an ardent Democrat." Outside of a stint as assessor back in the 1880s, he decided his divine assignment was in dealing directly with the people.

It became especially true in 1920, when the Honeoye Falls bank failed, leaving its clients 80% poorer. Ben's wealth, mostly sunk into real estate, was little affected by the scandal. So he tended his wildly productive vegetable gardens, his favorite geriatric hobby and the envy of "green thumbs" everywhere, and mulled over good deeds for his fellow man.

The early phase of his output (peas, lettuce, onions, radishes) went to friends and neighbors. Then VIP's home and abroad received shipments that were ranked among the earliest and best in New York State. Letters of thanks came from the White House, Buckingham Palace, the Governor's mansion and assorted elite.

In 1921, Ben's veggies delighted the "Great Commoner," William Jennings Bryan, who ran on the Democratic ticket for President three times, and banqueted at the Edward White estate overlooking Mendon Center. Notorious for his enormous appetite and billowing articulations, I can picture Bryan stuffing home Ben's peas during his one-sided dialogues. Ben Peer and William Jennings Bryan—Mendon Center was barely big enough for the two of 'em!

When the harvest played out and winter arrived, Ben's nimble fingers kept in shape turning out macrame pillow covers in a blizzard of colors. Ever the cupid, he was sure to build in several "Lover's Knots," for the cushions given over to parlor use. (A well-preserved example can be found in the Honeoye Falls-Mendon Historical Society Museum—compliments of one of Ben's favorite "Hello Girls," Grace Harrington Cook.)

In 1922, Ben learned the new Naples American Legion chapter hoped to purchase a social hall for their gatherings. At a dance there a quarter century earlier, he met the widow lady, Alice Briggs Nolan. She had recently buried her husband back in Honeoye Falls, but considered returning to stay in her native Naples. Though already acquainted, love stirred during the "Navy Island Reel" and the "Irish Trot" and soon they were no longer of the widowed class.

Holding a special affinity for the hall, Ben volunteered his dance promotional talents to benefit the Naples Legion. The rest, my friends was history. Oh sure, Ben had always been there to leverage interest in dances at Granges, Odd Fellows Halls and dance lands at towns around Honeoye Falls, but the success and joy from the Naples venture made newspapers sing his praises. Ben's proverbial "fifteen minutes of fame" had arrived.

For the next several years, virtually to the day he died, Ben Peer volunteered, promoted and cajoled the public into weaving their entertainment with beneficial causes. Energized by his ascendent fame, the little man of apple cheeks and snowy mane crafted dances, baseball and dare-devil adventure into piles of money—and every dollar was funneled into the public coffers of goodwill.

The Publicity Maven Hits the Big Time

In the mid-1920s, the renowned Honeoye Falls "Husky Farmers" baseball team was mired in the red ink of Saturday ball games. Flivvers. Lizzies, Model "T"s and "A"s, siphoned many residents from the Saturday baseball venue, forcing small-town America to reconsider the national pastime. When the weekend arrived, hard working families had marketing to do. In their new automobiles they toured the countryside far beyond the route of the dying passenger railroads or they strapped on the canoe for a ride on Hemlock Lake.

Playing fast ball on its homey Hyde Park diamond (it used to be Hyde Street, you know), local "blue laws" prevented games on the Sabbath, the day when Americans might be more inclined to take in a local game. So the Husky Farmers moved beyond the village limits and antiquated laws to a parade ground in the spry milling hamlet of North Bloomfield. But Sunday was still revered as one of rest and contemplation and genteel ball fans were reluctant to attend a game where bets and booze never took a day off. The team needed help. The team needed a promoter, a cheerleader, a (in modern lingo) "go-to guy" —enter septuagenarian Benjamin Peer.

A box of candy to the female with the "lustiest cheer." A hot air (not Ben's) balloon ascension and a parachute drop by the regionally famous Allens of Dansville. "Aeroplane" rides with barnstorming WW I heroes who'd helped knock the "Red Baron" and his cronies out of European skies. Ben delivered all this, and a Sunday baseball game to boot! "Hallelujah for Bennie Peer!" Cried the Husky Farmers.

Have your change ready, for we have engaged only 12 people to sell tickets.

Good looking Reporters, Moving Picture and Camera men admitted to the grounds free.

The grounds are near the Rocks, North Bloomfield, where you can park and spark in three counties-Monroe, Livingston and Ontario!

By all means don't cross lots (to get to the ball game) or you might run into a perfumed skunk or a State Trooper!

Sure, those lines from Ben's quill were corn, but do you think he gave a hoot? The man was all about getting into the public's collective brain. Life was fun, people, seven days a week, f-u-n!

Imagine a ball game off the east side of Ideson Road, where sapling woods now dominate the back lots. Picture 5,000 people, with an assortment of animal- and combustion-driven conveyances lining the roads, crowded around a country ball diamond for the Husky Farmers versus Lima or Manchester or Auburn. Later, a primitive balloon rises skyward, band playing, as a caped figure does stunts on a trapeze then parachutes earthward to the roar of the crowd. Unadulterated f-u-n — compliments of Ben Peer.

When the baseball season closed and the likes of "Peer's Flying Squadron" winged southward, the indefatigable Ben moved heavily into dance promotions near and far. Traveling over unpaved roads in cars of the 1920s, people square danced, fox trotted, jigged and reeled almost everywhere—Rochester's Convention Hall, Sea Breeze's Danceland, Long Point Park, Holley, Caledonia, Retsof, Bristol, East Rochester, Canandaigua and the Bloomfields, among others. (And to think my city relative rarely drives 20 miles down smooth roads to see me because ". . .it's too far.")

Rochester's newspapers, along with those from towns around, became Peer's primary sounding board for advertising and story items. Ben's publicity machine swung into high gear, and his catalytically jovial personality drew out the people, Even WHAM, one of the earliest stations in the nation, made wireless broadcasts—allowing Ben to shill to masses of early radio listeners.

While the Husky Farmers Baseball Association stayed in the black, thanks to Ben's outdoor gimmicks, most indoor dance revenues went to support regional American Legion chapters and their respective charitable causes. However, by New Year's Day of 1926, the Peer strategy shifted primarily to finalizing the acquisition of a permanent meeting hall for the military veterans of Ben's Honeoye Falls.

England has it Peers and so has Canada, but there is only One Peer in the United States and that is Ben Peer.

The old "Gillette Place," as it was known, was a two-story stone block house full of history and among the oldest in Honeoye Falls. Located on North Main Street, just down from the Four Corners business district, the structure came out of the long played-out quarry on the Tinker farm north of Monroe Street.

Extracted from the same limestone ground as the blocks of both the Henry Culver and Hiram Finch mills along Honeoye Creek, it matched a similar house on East Street. Thought to be constructed for a blacksmith, this twin was razed in 1929 for the Rittenhouse chime factory. A Democrat & Chronicle eulogy called it one of the oldest houses in Western New York.

Phil Caswell, a character of dubious reputation from the days of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren (horses "changing color," bootlegging, stuff like that) owned the property for awhile. But he was better remembered in depth, since legend stated his corpse was propped up at the front window by a gang of toughs—doubtless, some of his fun-loving cronies.

When Ben Peer came whistling along in the mid-1920s, the Legion vets were already ogling the place, since it was vacant, but sturdy, with an absentee owner off in Washington, D.C. The boys and their Auxiliary cohorts might have already owned it, had it not been for the earlier bank failure that reduced their building fund by $4,000. Seeing that Honeoye Falls could be the first in the county to boast a bonafide American Legion home, Peer began scheduling every fiddler, bandleader and dance venue he could find.

Late in 1925, he helped set the stage by dragging the renowned Iron Man into his design. Approaching thirty-five years with nary an attack on "His Whiskers," perched safely atop the Village Hall steeple, Peer added focus to the doings in his beloved town by posting a reward—$25 to any fire company stealing the Iron Man. Then he booked a big February dance for the Legion Auxiliary in which he punned: "Cornetist to blow reveille and said cornet tooter has promised to play in such a way that old Iron Man will come down from his perch and dance a jig with the silent policeman." (Oh, the stuff that fellow came up with!)

Ben Peer will give five boxes of Lowney's Candy to the first five young fellows who bring their mother-in-law to Saturday night's dance

Western New York was smitten by the little man and his big mission and it turned its pockets inside out for the cause. On August 14th, for instance, Ben orchestrated the annual Sons of Italy Field Day at Holley, donating his share of the proceeds to the HF Legion cause. He pulled out all the stops for the event—parade, balloon ascension, parachute drop, fireworks, dances and cupid. The D&C gushed beforehand: "The Honeoye Falls dance demon claims there will be more excitement and arguments over the baseball game than there was over the Big Bean Failure and offers $25 to any couple that will get married at the Field Day."

On Christmas Day, 1926, Ben handed over the Gillette Place title to Harry Lay, Commander of Honeoye Falls Post #664. The Rochester Herald chortled: "Ben Peer Plays Santa Claus, Turns Over to Honeoye Falls American Legion Its New Home." In early January, 1927, the first Honeoye Falls Legionnaires' meeting was held in the only American Legion home in Monroe County. Hung on the wall was Ben's portrait taken by local photographer, Vanderlinder, in the 1890s.

Ben Peer was at the apex of his charitable career. His services were requested from miles around—Canandaigua's Odd Fellows, Fairport's Police, East Bloomfield's Grange, Naples' Legion, et al. But he never failed Falls Post #664—whatever they needed, he was bound and determined to provide.

In 1931, after five years of pestering Uncle Sam's War Department, Ben brought in several pieces of captured German ordnance for interior display, and a French 75mm cannon, the most efficient gun of the Great War, for the front lawn. It successfully protected Main Street from foreign invasion, for nearly four decades.

The successful acquisition of the Gillette Place only led to more eclectic headlines for Honeoye Falls' most revered citizen: "Governor Thanks Ben Peer for His Early Peas," "Ben Peer Adds to Falls' Fame," "Ben Plans Invasion of Canandaigua". . . .

He continued to support the Husky Farmers with candy and flowers for exuberant fans and delighted in the new Honeoye Falls High School and its gymnasium. In March, 1929, he attended the first basketball game there, when HFHS beat Principal Herbert Worboys' alma mater, South Byron, 21-18. Quipped the HF Times, ". . . we had Ben Peer, no wonder we won."

Later that year, Ben announced a distressing revelation that an elderly couple, Mr. And Mrs. Mike Tucker, were destitute. Mike had been a gunsmith and was the fellow who secured the Iron Man to his steeple perch when captured from Avon in 1891. A resident since 1880, Mike was one of the turn-of-the-century side-path set (having made his own high-wheel bicycle) and his Stanley Steamer was one of the first automobiles in town.

Tucker and his wife were the type to give to those in need, including the railroad hoboes who beat a path to their door. But their years of kindness left them without the means to carry them through their 80s and their home became a hovel made up of sixty-five doors and sixty-three window sashes. Private people and increasingly infirm, the "Roaring Twenties" passed them by and no one realized their ever more desperate plight.

When Ben Peer learned of the crisis, he immediately set up a benefit dance for September 26th, 1929, at the West Bloomfield Town Hall. His media friends promoted the successful event, which helped the Tuckers through the harsh winter and eased their final steps to the great beyond.

For the self-styled "Greatest Dance Promoter in America," the curtain on Ben's humanitarian career began its inexorable descent. At 76, he, too, was getting feeble. At least his devoted daughter, Pearl, and her husband, Dr. E. G. Thompson, the local veterinarian, had become the caretakers of the Peer homestead and the old hop farmer himself.

But he was not finished, for, from 1930 to 1932, Ben managed to secure the aforesaid arms for the Falls Post #664 display, round up a town basketball team ("The Ben Peer Boosters"), coax more succulent vegetables from the soil, give away candy at a local beauty contest and cavort with the Rochester Red Wings at a McPherson Point exhibition, among other activities.

In 1931, and again in 1932, Peer's early peas were delivered to the Governor's mansion in Albany, and he received pleasant "Thank You" notes in return. Months later, the First Lad and Lady of New York were residing in Washington, D.C., as President and Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But 1932 was the darkest of years for the Peers of Honeoye Falls, New York. As the third of nine children, with eight still living on New Year's Day, FIVE siblings died before the year was out. Richard, once a carriage-top maker in Honeoye Falls, died at Rochester in February. sisters Millie Torrey and Lenora Peer passed in August, followed by Abraham in September. The fifth to go was heralded in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, October 20, 1932:

"Sage of Honeoye, Dies; Had Colorful Career."

Most everyone who knew him came out to say goodbye and reflect on the singular life of an American original. He went to repose next to his first wife, Emma, and little Dwella, who never got to see his dad's good works. His very modest estate of $6,025, which was divided between Pearl and his stepdaughter, Grace Nolan. The stately old magnolia tree in his front yard, famous throughout the region for its budding frequency, failed to blossom the next spring.

The end had come, but the legacy lived on—with the American Legion; in the handsome neighborhood along Ontario, Church and his namesake Peer Streets; and in the minds and hearts of everyone who appreciated a good time.

Just as Yogi Berra's malapropisms threatened to overshadow his Hall of Fame baseball career as a New York Yankee, Ben Peer's tongue-in-cheek corny phrases disguised the good intentions of this fun-filled man. But when I think of the following slice of Peer wisdom, I shall always envision the mustachioed man with flowered lapel and the warm glow he gave to a microcosm of small town America.

Don't flirt with the fiddlers' girls for they prefer their own bows.

Epilogue

The property at 31 Ontario Street has changed hands a few times since the Peer era ended in 1961. When Ben's son-in-law, Doc Thompson, passed away nineteen years after Pearl Peer Thompson, the spirits of the Barrett-Shuart-Peer legacy fell into the realm of local history and lore. The pioneers were gone.

The Federal/Greek Revival house, with its Victorian porte cochere, but devoid of the imposing front porch (removed by the Thompsons in 1938), still exudes the touch of Ben's hand. The site of the hop years remains largely intact, in the spacious rear yards of Ontario and South Church Street landowners. The solid barn stands sentinel near the gardens where Bennie's veggies flourished. And, for nearly the length of Ontario Street, from the curve to the creek, strong, generous homes stand on the plots of Ben's vision.

Nothing is permanent, and so it was with the work of Ben Peer. The H.T. Jaeger, the Conesus steamboat that dunked his family, disappeared prior to World War I. The pressures of the Scopes Monkey Trial felled William Jennings Bryan in 1924. "Speck" Allen's balloon daredevil family went one-by-one to mishap or retirement into the '40s. And the team Ben often went to bat for, the Husky Farmers, hung up their mitts in the 1950s.

In the fall of 1962, the stone home of Falls Post #664 came tumbling to the ground and Ben's portrait that hung within disappeared. Luckily, it was found at a recent yard sale by the writer, ". . . the $50 tag is for the frame," said the seller, "the picture's free."

But it was not a sad time for Ben Peer or the American Legion, for the fruits of one's life is but a stepping stone for others to follow. It took the words of another "character" in the pageant of life that is Honeoye Falls to put it all in perspective. Scribed April 3rd, 1963, the final portion of a letter to the Honeoye Falls Times read:

Last fall, as I stood on the street and watched the wreckers throw down the sturdy stone walls so patiently assembled more than a century ago and as the dust from the rubble drifted away, it seemed then, Ben Peer's dream was just a dream after all.

Today, at another place on North Main Street stands the new Legion Home, a thing of beauty, and a monument to the ones who have worked so hard to achieve it. So it is now very clear, Ben Peer's Folly was really not a folly after all.

(Signed:) Harry Schoff, The Village Blacksmith

2003, Paul S. Worboys
 
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