The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2003

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William Marks portrait

William Marks

of Naples


Beth B. Flory

There is probably no figure from Naples' past whose name is better known to residents than that of William (Billy) Marks and he is chiefly remembered for his connection with the Underground Railroad. However, the entire life of this remarkable man was interesting, and happily his descendants left first hand accounts for future readers to enjoy.

Marks came from Burlington, Connecticut, and his early years were ably documented by Josephine Capron, his granddaughter, and Imogene Marks, his great granddaughter. Born in 1814, he had suffered from a childhood illness that left him slightly handicapped. Although he was referred to as "crippled," at the age of 20 he left home on foot. Josephine wrote that “Marks came into this section on Sept. 1, 1834, and hired out to peddle for one year at $13.00 a month, using a yoke and trunks.” He sold everything from cloth to silver spoons. An anonymous writer in a Naples Record account from the 1870s recalled that Marks had been working on his father's farm when he met a representative of a firm doing business in Livonia, NY. “The proposition to hire him to come here and peddle Yankee Notions for them seemed to be the very thing that suited Mr. Marks and a contract was drawn up for one year at thirteen dollars a month.”

We can feel the loneliness of a peddler's existence from reading a tear-stained letter from the homesick young businessman to his family:

“Dear Parrents and Friends, It has been most seven months since I left home and not one of you have done as much as to write me a letter as I know of. If you have, I have not got it. And I have stop this day to write you, the sun an hour high, six miles south of Canandaigua at a good Methodist house, close by the Lake Ontario so to make it tomorrer…

Mother, I want to talk to you as if I was home and I wood tell you not to consern yourself about me as I have not had the least trouble about giting places to stay as their has not been one night this 3 month but what I have had the privledge of staying where I am, this winter.

I guess I am the heavest at present for when I was in Livonia in Feb., I waid 147 pound…

The pare of pantaloons that I had maid gest before I left home was not worth makin. I wore them 24 days only and they were worn all out so that they are not worth one cent. I have been under the necessity of bying one pare of pantaloons which cost me $2, maid of sheeps wooll, white and black mixed together. I was so prevoke at the others that I got the corsest that I cood git, but they are write fashionable in this part of the world…

“Oh, mother, if I cood come home and come into your milck room and thair feast, it wouuld be a feast indeed. Oh, Oh. Oh. What feast it wood be to be to night if I cood be in my Father's house and thair see you all, it wood be better than Gold, yea better than fine Gold, but I must take up the bitter saluation DEPART.”

He ended: “Please lok over all mistakes.”

Marks persevered and the Record article tells us that “by the end of the year he had saved a little capital upon which to launch out upon his own hook. His first outfit was purchased from a man from Skaneateles. His route took him through large portions of Ontario, Yates, Wayne and Seneca counties. He acquired a horse and wagon and for five long years he continued faithfully to serve his customers in the above counties. He came round to the same point once in eight weeks. After the first purchase of his goods, he then began and continued to get his supplies in New York. In the fall of 1838 he concluded to quit peddling on foot and to look up a place for a permanent residence.” He settled in Naples.

His travels took him to the home of Roderick and Rebecca Winthrop Holcomb on Cooks Point, Canandaigua Lake, and in 1839 he married their daughter, Emily Catherine. The ceremony took place in the bride's sister's home in Naples; the young couple would live nearby. Marks went into partnership with a Mr. Hotchkiss in “the old Torrey store.”

Josephine continues: “Mr. Marks was a great worker and a man of wonderful perseverance; therefore it is not surprising that he soon branched out for himself by purchasing land in a most favorable location for mercantile life, and here he began the erection of the store which still occupies the site.” It was on the corner of Main and Mechanic Streets and it flourished. He was a very successful businessman.

He also built a home next door for his family. Josephine Capron wrote that “in its day this residence was considered a most attractive place, with large rooms containing open fireplaces and bay windows at either end. There were three porches and a lattice fence ran along the top of a stone wall on the east side in front on which were three attractive summer houses, all of which including the fence were painted white with grapes, honeysuckle and climbing roses, and back of the wall a wonderful garden and orchard of choice fruit trees, in the orchard being a burial plot that contained the graves of several members of the family.” The Markses had six children but only three—Ida, Emily and William—lived to maturity.

William Marks House in Naples, NY

For many years through the trying times of the Civil War and Reconstruction period he carried on. When money was short he created his own scrip which was also honored in other business establishments. Scrip was and is a substitute for money which is used to exchange for goods and services.

He advertised in the Naples Record: “Wm. Marks, Dealer in Foreign and Domestic Dry Goods, Clothes, Plain and Fancy, Dress Goods, Cassimeres (sic), Trimmings, Yankee Notions, Hats, Caps, Boots, Shoes, Choice Family Groceries, etc. Undertaking promptly done. Coffins, Caskets, Burial Caskets, etc. Constantly on Hand.”

Filling a community need, Marks also had gone into the business of undertaking. A local cabinet maker and Marks himself built caskets which were lined and trimmed by the women of their households. Imogene retold two stories long familiar in the annals of Main Street:

“One Naples' newcomer visited Marks' store and saw an unfinished wood coffin in the corner. He opened the lid and found a dead body inside. Marks had more work to do on the coffin before the funeral. The startled man left the store very rapidly.”

Another salesman came to the store hoping to do business with Uncle Billy. “He was told to climb the ladder to the loft above. This was where the coffins were stored and Marks sometimes retired there to catnap in one on quiet afternoons. Hearing his name called, he rose abruptly from its depths to a sitting position, blinking sleepily, and answered. The shock to the young salesman caused him to descend the ladder with speed and force. When last seen, he was making excellent time and his departure was permanent.”

His granddaughter also recalled that when one of Billy's debtors failed to repay him by a certain day (and he had sworn he would do so unless he were dead). Billy tolled the Methodist church bell. The debtor came out along with the rest of the town's people to find out who had died. Marks received his money and the joke entertained the villagers as much as it embarrassed the victim.

“Later as poor health came to him. Mr. Marks disposed of his stock of merchandise and gave his whole time to that of undertaking and looking after his extensive land holdings.”

William and Emily were ardent Methodists and when a new church was planned, he donated $200 and undertook to build it himself in 1850.

The village had outgrown the old graveyard at the north end and in 1853 Marks purchased a tract of land from the Simeon Lyon estate up on the hill along the West Hollow Road. He reserved a plot for his family and from his own property on Mechanic Street he transferred the remains of son Constant who died at six months in 1848 and of Polly Ann, gone at the age of 14 in 1854 The flowers that beautified the scene inspired the name of the new cemetery: “Rose Ridge.”

Imogene described the scene: “He set about making it splendid… He had it fenced in with scrollwork, painted white, which was considered very elegant. The entrances, also of white scroll work, had graceful arches ornamented with carved white figures of the Angel Gabriel, blowing his golden trumpet. Set at one of the highest points above a breathtaking panorama was a delicate white pagoda.”

William and his wife were strong supporters of the temperance movement. A Record article from 1874 noted that “Mr. Marks' political life has been at times rather on the eccentric order; but while it seemed to be such, he was actuated only by the purest of motives. Up to the time of the ‘Free Soil’ Convention in 1848, he had been a Democrat and this new move seemed to suit his ideas.” However, he soon became a dedicated Abolitionist. Distressed by the treatment of slaves his sentiments probably had been intensified by the cruelty of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 under which runaways were pursued by Sheriffs and bounty hunters and when caught, sent back to their masters. In 1851 he went to Rochester to hear Frederick Douglass speak and at that time may have arranged to become active in the Under-ground Railroad. Marks no doubt remembered his early years when he had been grateful for the kindness of farmers who offered food and overnight accommodations to the vulnerable young fellow who carried his wares hanging from a yoke and walked from one remote farmhouse to another. His compassionate nature must have been moved by the terror and courage of the escaping slaves.

Naples, however, had little interest in their plight. In 1852 when Marks invited Douglass to come to address a village audience, his requests to use church premises were turned down by the Baptists, the Presbyterians and even by his own Methodists for whom he had done so much. Characteristically, he was not discouraged and set about building a platform in front of his house and issuing a town-wide invitation to all to attend the lecture and enjoy a free supper afterward. As a result of his canny offer, over 300 people turned out to hear Douglass and enjoy a substantial meal.

Both Josephine and Imogene told the story of how Marks hid escaping slaves in his hearse and took them in the dead of night over the hill to the next stop, the Pitts mansion in Honeoye. Some runaways had traveled by train by way of Elmira and walked to Naples from Atlanta. Marks owned property behind his house down the slope to the Naples creek and the escaping slaves were said to have walked along in the water to avoid detection by dogs before they made their way up to the Marks's house. The whole family had to be in on the dangerous business of breaking the law and risking imprisonment and a stiff fine of $3000.

Fugitives were hidden in the loft of a small building behind the house, made comfortable and given food. When it came time to move on, one story goes, planks were laid up from the porch to the hearse. Once the riders were inside, the boards went along too, so that the sheriff's dogs would lose any scent. One of his elegant hearses is still in excellent condition and is the property of Naples' current funeral director, Rich Baird. There are large oval windows on each side and a trap door on the floor. Two individuals would probably fill the space but he could take up to four at a time. A few more hours of discomfort were no doubt willingly endured by those headed for freedom in Canada.

Historian Emerson Klees writes that Marks also transported slaves to “The Cobblestone Farm” on West Lake Road, Canandaigua. Marks estimated that he had transported about 150 runaways although the figure given by admirers after his death rose to 600. In all of his many nocturnal travels he was never caught. His business associate and neighbor John Whiting is said to have helped him.

After the war he brought several former slaves to Naples and helped them to find work. Edward and Addie Graham and their daughter, Rose, were part of the Marks household for may years, and later Marks gave them their own home in Naples. They were well liked and Rose enjoyed local fame as an outstanding cook.

Josephine Capron wrote of the ongoing social life and good times had by the hospitable Marks family. When his daughter Ida married Civil War veteran Capt. Edgar Griswold in 1866 in the red-white-and-blue bunting-bedecked Methodist church, an all night reception followed. "On his 60th birthday in 1874 Mr. Marks gave a party which was long remembered by the 300 or more guests who were invited by notices published in the town papers of this vicinity to all who cared to come to his home between the hours of 2 and 10 p.m. On this date."

Ted Harwood, Jr., who grew up in the Marks's house, gives us the particulars in an essay written while he was a student at Naples Central School. "The guests were received at the door by his daughter and a fine supper of roast turkey, biscuit, cake, tea and coffee and other dainties was served to the guests who had a choice of sitting on the floor or standing up. Chinese lanterns were hung on the porches and in the dooryard, the season being summer.

“On another similar occasion a party was held in the winter at which several small pigs were roasted whole, being brought in on huge platters, each standing on its own legs and having an ear of corn in its mouth. Long tables were set in the various rooms.”

The last days of Uncle Billy and his death on August 29, 1879 were described by Imogene: “As an old man he became difficult and crochety. His son and two married daughters were tolerant of ‘Father's ways.’ One morning after breakfast he announced to them that this was to be his last day on earth. Since he appeared to be in his usual state of health, their reaction was not what he expected. He became very dignified and somewhat offended. When the noon-day meal had been prepared, they called him to the table. He replied that he had had his last meal on earth, and at last they were startled and gave him their full attention.

“‘I am going into the bedroom and lie down now,’ he told them, ‘and when you take me to Rose Ridge you will not be able to go by the regular road.’ When they looked in later, he was dead.

“On the night before the funeral, there was one of the truly awe-inspiring electrical storms that are common to the region. It broke in all its fury in the hills over the little village. Rain fell in torrents that swirled down the narrow dirt roads. Big trees shuddered and crashed as the lightning bolts struck… Not only was the road to Rose Ridge washed out but it was blocked by a huge fallen tree. The funeral cortege was obliged to take a different road that was seldom used, and approach from another direction.”

The difficult trip to the cemetery had been preceded by an imposing funeral fulsomely described in the Naples Record. Every business in town had closed. The Methodist church was packed with friends and curious strangers. Marks had planned the imposing ceremony down to the last detail. “Although the services were quite lengthy, no omission of the wishes of the deceased or family was made. The church was filled to overflowing when the beautiful casket, preceded by the clergy, mourners and pall bearers, was borne to the altar—and the singularity is that these were all selected by himself.

“No fewer than four clergymen were on hand and they had been admonished by Marks to prepare 'no sermon but a few remarks.' Songs by the quartet were followed by readings and a number of those ‘appropriate remarks’… The vast multitude passed before the casket viewing the remains and the services were concluded at the cemetery. After scriptural readings and singing by the choir, the family were the last to see the father, husband and friend and the remains were deposited in a vault of brick work properly cemented, and over which large flagstones were afterwards cemented and the whole covered with earth.”

His obituary in the Record paid tribute to his human qualities:…“he was just in his dealings—rendering to Caesar his, and to God, his; he was just in his criticisms and judgment of men and affairs; was lenient and kind to the poor and distressed; was strict and diligent in the business of his life, and, although sometimes thought to be a little severe, his forbearance and uniform kindness so tempered his acts that his motives were always gratefully remembered…he delighted in sheltering the oppressed, and giving them the first places at his hospitable board; and to fight intemperance and all evil with a conquering, uncompromising kindness. To build up Zion everywhere was his aim!”

Illustrations furnished by the author.
© 2003, Beth B. Flory


“Business Corner Changes Hands.” Naples Record, March 21, 1923.

Capron, Josephine A., “Old Landmarks in Naples to be sold to settle Doughty Estate,” The Ontario County Times, May 16, 1928.

“Death of William Marks.” Naples Record, Sept. 6, 1879.

Harwood. Dr. Kathleen, “The Billy Marks House.” Undated essay.

Harwood, Ted, Jr., “The Underground Railroad Station at Naples,” Naples Central School, Undated essay.

Klees, Emerson, Underground Railroad Tales with Routes Through the Fingerlakes Region, Rochester, NY: Friends of the Finger Lakes Publishing, 1997.

Marks, Imogene Knapp, “Yankee Pharaoh.” Undated essay.

Millekin, Charles F., A History of Ontario County and Its People, New York, Lewos Historical Publishing Company, 1911.

Moore, Alan, “William ‘Billy’ Marks.” Naples Central School, March 14, 1975.

“Obituary.” Naples Record, Sept. 6, 1879.

“Record of a Busy Life.” Naples Record, 1874.

“Rose Ridge Cemetery.” Naples Record, April 26, 1990.

“Sale of Naples Property Recalls Saying ‘The Lord Almighty and Billy Marks,’” The Rochester Herald, March 1, 1923.

Vierhile, Robert, William ‘Billy’ Marks History of Naples, Parts I, II, and III. Naples, NY.

“William ‘Billy’ Marks.” Naples Record, January 4, 1990; Record, January-February, 1985.

Index of articles by Beth Flory
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