Robert Beck's Story
July 2nd, 1900
Home for my summer vacation and am in good health and pleasantly located in my room which is the front bedroom over the parlor in my own house. My youngest daughter, Emma Rose's room is next to my room so we are quite pleasantly situated. We are now boarding with my married daughter, Lillian Fawcett, who was my first baby 35 years ago. And my daughter Emma, who is also boarding with us, is my baby in her 20th year. How times does fly. For to look back 37 years when I married my wife it seems but a short span. How many changes have taken place in that short space of time. Our fathers and mothers and most of our brothers and sisters are laid at rest in their graves and my turn will come sooner or later.
As stated before, I arrived at Corning from Denver about the last of November, 1865, and commenced work the next day for my brother-in-law as it was then a sash, blind, and door factory and manufactory of general builders' supplies. The winter of 1866 I bought a house and lot on 3rd Street, Corning, and paid the cash for it. But as it was rented until April 1st, we continued to board with my wife's mother until spring when we commenced housekeeping again in our own house.
We lived in that house until August, 1868, when I sold that house and bought a lot on the corner of 2nd and Chemung St. and built me a new house on a more modern scale but a little too nice for the size of my purse. But I was young and was determined to complete it and have a nice home to live in, which we did in course of time.
Well, I continued to work in the factory every day. But in 1867 I was promoted to foreman of the factory and my pay was raised and matters began to look brighter. But still I had an eye open for something better. In 1868 a firm started another sash, blind, and door factory and they offered me $3.50 per day and my brother-in-law offered me $3.75 per day. I concluded if my services were so valuable to other parties, I better strike out for myself, which I did. I struck out as a carpenter and builder. And the first contract was a small one but as I became better known soon had all we could do, as times were good and plenty of building going on at that time. 1 had a partner the first three years by the name of John Bucher and the firm was known as Beck and Bucher. Mr. Bucher was a hard worker and honest man, but had no business ability, so in 1872 we parted, and I continued alone until 1876 as a builder. I was quite successful.
In 1871 I finished my house complete and furnished it in fine shape. My business kept increasing and spreading to other towns which kept me away from home most of the time, which was very unpleasant to both myself and wife. And as our family was increasing I began to long for some business that would keep me at home. Four of our children were born in the house on 2nd and Chemung Street, Corning. Bertha L. was born November 23, 1868, Hubert D., born May 5, 1872, Charles A. Beck, born March 24, 1874, and Helen F. Beck, born February 18, 1876. So in 1876 we had five little children.
The summer of 1876 was a very dull summer for business, and as I had some ready money I had a very strong desire to get into a furniture business. So I began to hunt up something. And by mere chance I found a furniture store for sale, at Hammondsport, New York. After looking the ground over carefully [I] concluded to purchase the store and contents, and commenced business as a furniture dealer and undertaker, September 1st, 1876, and moved my family there the following November.
Hammondsport at that time was a small village of about 600 inhabitants and had a very shabby appearance, but it looked pleasant to me. The store I bought was at the foot of Sheather Street, facing the lake. The old building stands there yet [in] 1900 and opposite on the northeast corner stands the Wadsworth Hotel.
The house at 2nd and Chemung Streets in Corning, New York, that Robert Beck built and where four of his children were born. Photograph furnished by Lois Janes, Historian for the City of Corning.
When we first came to Hammondsport in 1876, the foot of Sheather Street was the hub of the business part of the town. The steamboat dock and R. R. station were just across the street from my store. The post office and telegraph and express office were in J. W. Davis' store, a few doors above me. The Wadsworth Hotel was at that time a saw mill and grape packing box factory owned by the Fairchild brothers.
The principal merchants were J. W. Davis' General Store on Sheather Street, Allen & Brownell Hardware, the first store just above me, D. Rose and Hastings & Nickols' General Store on Water Street at the head of the Lake, H. D. Rose's Grocery Store was on Pulteney Street at the north corner of Pulte-ney Park, J. R. Brown next to H. D. Rose's Grocery, and J. S. Thorp's drug store next to J. R. Brown. H. J. Moore Drug Store [was] on the southeast corner of Pulteney Park.
The principal hotels were the Steuben House kept by Ad. Damath and the Smoker House next to the Davis store on Sheather Street.
The influential men of the town were J. W. Davis, G. W. Nickols, D. Rose, H. D. Rose, L J. Rose, L. Hastings, John Randle, Allen Wood, J. R. Brown, Syce Jerow, Charles Brownell, W. L. Moore, Smith Fairchild, Stanley Fairchild, J. N. Crane and B. Bennett. The above men were all in business in 1876, and were the leading men of the town.
At that time the town was small and looked very shabby. In the fall of 1876 the village trustees asked the citizens to vote the sum of 400 dollars, as village expenses. I was asked to help vote it down as it was considered a great piece of extravagance. I think the items were: 100 dollars on creek wall, 150 for lighting streets, 100 dollars for street cleaning, and 50 dollars for police. My first school tax on two pieces of property was $1.80, one dollar and eighty cents.
There were a few plank sidewalks, very much out of repair, so most of the people walked in the middle of the road in dry weather. In 1877 I put down in front of my house, the second stone sidewalk ever built in Hammondsport. John Randle built the first one but in the same year. There was just one new house built between 1876 and 1880.
But after 1880 the little town began to pick up and improved very fast. C. E. Halsey came here the same year I did and bought out the old Watrous grocery store and continued the grocery business until 1896. The Hammondsport Herald was a small country paper edited by Mrs. Ed Fairchild. The press that it was printed on was a small hand press.
There was no railroad depot building at that time, simply a platform, as the road was then a very small affair, a three foot gauge, and traffic was very light. In the winter the train was made up of engine and one combination car, that is, one car to carry mail, express freight, lumber, baggage, and passengers, or anything else all in the one car.
The first real cartman in Hammondsport commenced business in 1875, but there was so little to do by way of carting that he gave it up. In 1876 Jacob Van Aulkin bought an old horse and a second-handed cart and did the town carting. But it was a hard struggle for a living.
J. W. Davis had the principal dry goods and grocery store, but failed in 18  7 and was succeeded by G. P. Hastings who did quite a large business. J. S. Thorp and H. J. Moore had small drug stores. But J. S. Thorp failed in business and H. J. Moore just about made a living. Frank Hastings had a small but neat little dry goods store but failed in 1880, and J. R. Brown had a small shoe store but also failed in 1880.
Hastings and Nickols, H. D. Rose, and D. Rose were the only three good substantial merchants in town.
The Steuben House was the only hotel in town at that time. W. Smoker had [a] small German saloon but called it a hotel, located near the foot of Sheather Street. Jacob Fry kept a bakery and saloon facing Pulteney Park and Alec Morris kept a harness shop on Sheather Street. An old man by the name of Beaton did the tailoring for the town and Orren Hallenbeck was the village blacksmith. These were about all the business places in H[ammonds]port in 1876. There were two steamboats on the lake that made one trip a day each. Allen Wood was quite a rich man as he was the owner of the B. & H. R. R. at that time. M. Hall was train conductor and Syd Reynolds was engineer. Both Hall and Reynolds were Allen Wood's sons-in-law. O. H. and M. J. Babcock were the doctors for the whole town, and Ben Bennett was the village lawyer. Peter O'Leary was the town police.
There was the remnant of a little old fire company that had been formed some years ago but had died for want [of] business. There was one little hand fire engine and a few feet of hose on a little reel attached to the litde engine. Every house in town needed shingling and painting, and the old fences were tumbling down. J. S. Foster and John Quick were the only carpenters in town but there was not work enough to keep them busy. Hammondsport had been a dead town for some years and was going to decay, up to 1877 or 1878 when it received new life.
The first time I saw the little village it was a dead and rotten little place. But I was charmed by its beautiful surroundings and fine location and felt sure that it was only a question of time when it would grow to a handsome village, and I have lived to see my hopes realized.
In former years Hammondsport was a grain and wool market, also lumbering was quite an industry, but about 1861 it was discovered that grapevines thrived well along the borders of Lake Keuka and the farmers turned their attention to planting vineyards and raising grapes as it was a new industry and very profitable. In 1861 there were two wine cellars built, the Pleasant Valley and the Urbana. But it was uphill work to sell the wine as wine drinkers did not think it possible to make good wine in this country, especially champagne. But time and perseverance convinced the public that Hammondsport champagne was all right, and it is now, in 1900, well established and very extensively used instead of imported.
In 1876 vineyards began to be very profitable as grapes were high priced and in ready demand, and Hammondsport began to prosper. People began to repair and paint up their old houses. New buildings were talked of. But the village had been in that decayed state. The old people were so far behind the times they did not know how to make improvements. In 1875 the B. & H. R. R. was put in operation, which put new life into the town and brought people in from outside which gave it new life.
The public school up to 1882 was a common district school with two teachers in the summer and three in the winter.
In 1880 the town was struck by a wave of prosperity and everybody had the building and improving fever. The Fairchild brothers turned their saw mill into a hotel. New steamboats were built and the village in the summer was turned into a summer resort. In 1884 the main business part was at the foot of Sheather Street. But one night in May of that year a fire broke out at the rear end of G. P. Hastings' store and cleaned out the whole row of buildings except for my furniture store which was at the corner of Sheather and Water streets. It was quite a fire for a small town and it completely changed the business location, as the stores all moved up town around the square where it should be. The fire was in the long run a benefit to the town.
At this writing, 1900, the village has grown since 1876 from a population of 600 to 1600. There are some fine business block[s], some beautiful residences, a fine system of water works, a fine school building of ten rooms, four fine churches, and the best fire department for a town of its size in the state, two fine public parks, electric lights, and fine streets. In short, Hammondsport is an up-to-date town in every respect. The people of the town look well-fed, and well-clothed, and well-behaved, and fond of amusements. And in intelligence, they are on [a] par with any community in this country. The men are temperate, industrious and honest. Although wine making is the principal industry, they are sober and temperate.