July 1990

 
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The Historic Village Hall

of Montour Falls

by

Louise Stillman

The Montour Falls Historic District, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places August 31, 1978, is one of the most picturesque areas in the Southern Tier. Few communities can daily enjoy the beauty of Chequaga Falls which overlooks the main thoroughfare with its imposing civic buildings, and the area known locally as the "Glorious T." The district contains 24 nineteenth century buildings ranging from high style examples to simple houses.

At the intersection of Genesee and Main Streets in Montour Falls stands an outstanding group of buildings constructed of brick in Greek Revival style. In the middle of these historic buildings is the Montour Falls Village Hall built in 1855. On the west side of it is a small brick building, the former County Clerk's Office, now the Argetsinger Law Offices; on its north is the former County Jail and residence of the Sheriff, now the Carleton Gillette home; and on the east side of the Village Hall is the Montour Falls Memorial Library, built a few years later. All of these former civic buildings are unique examples of Greek Revival architecture so popular in the mid-1800s.

The lofty appearance of the Village Hall never fails to attract visitors and passing tourists. The most conspicuous feature of the building is its octagonal cupola that rises high with a white dome and spire. Below, six large two-story Doric columns laid up with curved bricks form the portico. All of the bricks, rounded for the columns and straight for the walls, were handmade and fired from clay mined on the farm of George C. Wickham located at the eastern end of the village.

The building rests on a foundation of large stones hewn to fit closely and then mortared together. Very few structural changes have been made within the building. Some of the interior has been renovated with paint and the plank floors have been covered with tiles.

The story of the Montour Falls Village Hall, the former Schuyler County Courthouse, will long be remembered in the annals of local history. In 1779 the area around Chequaga Falls was the stronghold of the Seneca Indians. However, the destruction of their village by Sullivan's raiders opened the way for settlement by others. Many of the early settlers were veterans of the Revolutionary War, who, in traveling through this new frontier, recognized the beauty and possibilities of the location.

In 1829, only 25 years after the death of Queen Catharine Montour, noted matriarch of the Seneca Nation, Charles Cook arrived in Havana (renamed Montour Falls in 1895) as a canal contractor for the Chemung Canal. Realizing the potential of a town on the canal with abundant waterpower, he encouraged the building of mills and sawmills on the cliffs near the falls. Traces of their foundations can yet be seen on the hillsides. Cook purchased much of the land on the western side of the village and laid out lots and streets, built factories, stores and warehouses.

In 1854 Cook deeded the site for the county building. He was the power behind the erection of the brick buildings at Main and Genesee Streets. They were to be the official buildings of Schuyler County, which he had done so much to bring into being.

Schuyler County was formed on April 17, 1854. It was nearly six years before the rivalry for the county seat between Watkins Glen and Havana was determined. In March, 1860, by an act of the state legislature the village of Havana was declared to be the county seat. From 1860 to 1868 all county business was transacted in Havana.

In April, 1867, a year after Cook's death, another act was passed stating that all buildings suitable for the transaction of county affairs must be provided before July 1, 1868, by means other than taxation.

The citizens of Watkins Glen provided the suitable buildings, properly furnished, without the use of taxpayer money. Watkins Glen was designated as the official site. The bitter six-year feud over the county seat was irrevocably settled and the historic drama had ended.

The lengthy contest between the villages of Havana and Watkins Glen over the location of the County Seat is well recorded in The History of Tioga, Chemung, Tompkins and Schuyler Counties as well as in the Havana Journals on file in the Montour Falls Memorial Library.

The present stately Schuyler County Courthouse on Franklin Street in Watkins Glen, built in 1868, was the first public building in Schuyler County to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was so honored in 1976.

Charles Cook battled long and hard to keep Havana as the county seat. All of these civic buildings in Montour Falls symbolize a memorable, yet sad, period in the county's history. Now after more than a century, his buildings are still being used for important public functions.

(To be continued)

1990, Louise V. Stillman

 
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