What follows is a series of essays written during the past year and presented at meetings of the Bath Area Writers Group. The unifying theme is autobiographical: the series expresses my efforts to establish a direct, personal relationship to the landscape of the Southern Tier and to find my own voice as a storyteller.
My ties to the area originated in visits with Grandma Cornell One of the main things that kept me coming, time after time, were her stories—which, almost invariably, had local settings.
Essay I. An Afternoon's Drive to Hammondsport
The first essay in the series, entitled "An Afternoon's Drive to Hammondsport," opens with Grandma's account of her day trip to Penn Yan with a gentleman-friend in 1912. But the essay isn't about that long-ago trip. Instead, it's about how Grandma and I retraced a portion of their route, from Bath to Hammondsport. It illustrates how she and I spent our time together and how her stories were an integral part of our shared experience. It also illustrates how little I knew then about the countryside described in her stories.
"No, this isn't the right road," Grandma told me, one Saturday afternoon in early September, 1989.
The previous evening, I had come down from Rochester for an overnight visit with my grandmother, Marie B. Cornell of Campbell, New York. The next morning we had followed our usual routine: we stayed in Campbell until the time came to check her mail at the post office; then we drove to Bath for her appointment at the hairdresser's; finally, we went to The Loafin' Tree restaurant for our customary hot turkey sandwiches.
Throughout all of this, we talked—or, more accurately, Grandma talked, while I mostly listened. That, too, was our usual routine. Although related by blood, we were also bound by a shared interest in the past, especially family lore and local history.
Over lunch that day, Grandma told me about an essay she had presented at a recent meeting of the Bath Area Writers Group. The essay (which was published in the November 1989 issue of The Crooked Lake Review) described "a one-day trip" when she was not quite sixteen. It began with a buggy ride, with her father, from the family farm on Oak Hill to the train station in Campbell. Next she traveled alone to Bath, where she met a gentleman-friend. Together, the two of them continued by train to Hammondsport, took a steamboat to Penn Yan, and—after dining at the Benham Hotel—retraced the same route in reverse.
Because Grandma's recollections were so fresh in her mind, I wasn't surprised when she suggested an afternoon's drive along the old road to Hammondsport. The only problem was that I didn't know where to begin, for I'd done very little in the way of exploring the terrain on which the events of her stories had taken place. In this case, I first tried heading back toward town and following the northward prong of the "Y" at the Civil War monument. But once there, Grandma made her comment about our being off track.
"Watch for turn-offs to the left," she told me after we'd gotten back onto Route 54. Even so, I made one more wrong turn before finding the right one—which, appropriately enough, came just after the railroad crossing.
For several miles, the tracks lay within sight to our left—sometimes close enough to bisect the driveways leading to nearby farmhouses. Having the Bath and Hammondsport Railroad right there was like finding myself not merely listening to Grandma's account of her 1912 trip, but somehow entering her story. Nor was that all.
Passing the state fish hatchery a few minutes later brought back long-forgotten memories of visits when I was a boy. Thus our drive was taking me into my own past, as well as Grandma's.
Up until then we had been traversing the hummocky divide between the Cohocton River and Keuka Lake. But just beyond the fish hatchery, the valley began opening up and leveling out-which is probably what led Grandma to comment: "Glenn Curtiss used to fly his airplanes near here."
Bearing right at the Pleasant Valley Inn would have returned us to the new road. Instead we bore left, drove past the Taylor Winery, and continued along the old road as it hugged the hillside—all the way into the village.
In 1961, Grandma's eldest son and his family had moved to a house several miles up the lake, just off route 54A. On visits over the years, I'm sure I passed through Hammondsport. But I don't recall ever stopping. As a result, I now found myself concentrating more on the unfamiliar streets than on what Grandma was saying.
Fortunately, she soon asked me to park in front of the Curtiss Museum. Sitting together in the car, she told me about the elder of her two older sisters. Wanting to become a teacher, Maude Beard had boarded in Hammondsport for a year of teacher training—and her classes had been held in the old stone building that now housed the museum.
"The academic year 1899-1900 coincided with the height of the bicycle craze," Grandma continued. "Both Maude and her roommate had bicycles, and Maude once got hers fixed at Curtiss's bicycle shop."
All this I had heard before—but never with the scene of the story in full view.
From the Curtiss Museum we proceeded down the street, and Grandma began telling stories that were new to me. For years Maude's daughter Helen and her family had lived on a vineyard overlooking the lake. As we drove by the Methodist church, Grandma described how she had attended funerals there for two of Helen's children.
At last, we came to the train station, which marked not only the end of the line for the railroad but also the end of our excursion that day. We returned to Campbell by the quickest route, and soon I was on my way back to Rochester.
© 1993, Thomas D. Cornell