NSG Visit November 2, 1996
The Benjamin Patterson Inn Museum
A Window into Our Past
How far away is our past? Fifty years—a hundred years—two
hundred? Where can one go to find it? Not far, if you visit the southern-tier
city of Corning, New York. Just on the outskirts of town at 59 West Pulteney
Street, you'll discover a whole complex of vintage structures with fascinating
artifacts reflecting our colonial past and a wealth of remarkable tales
that can transport visitors back into time.
Dressed in her colonial best, Lorus Sawchuck welcomed us at the door
to Benjamin Patterson's Inn. Lorus, our guide, is a member of the Corning-Painted
Post Historical Society, that has stewardship of the museum complex. With
her deep knowledge of colonial life, she began our tour by informing us
that the inn opened in 1796, just two years after George Washington had
retired to Mount Vernon following his term as president of our fledgling
Charles Williamson And His Tavern
The structure, built by Colonel Charles Williamson, land agent for the
Pulteney Association, was first known as the Painted Post Tavern. The
Federal-style tavern was the first two and a half-story frame building
in Steuben County and the first complete with whitewashed clapboard siding.
To wilderness travelers the tavern must have been a most impressive sight,
especially in contrast with the rudely constructed log cabins along their
trail. The inn's site, cradled in the Chemung River Valley on the Bath-Great
Bend Turnpike, made it a welcome stop for pioneers arriving from points
both east and south. In time the establishment's name changed in honor
of its first inn keeper, the colorful Ben Patterson.
Dick Peer retired editor of Corning's newspaper, The Leader,
provided background on the illustrious Mr. Patterson. Ben, he explained,
was born in 1759 in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Working for Colonel
Williamson in 1792, he acted as supervisor in cutting out the road from
Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to Painted Post, New York. In doing so he
had to carve through a deep vein of hard coal near Blossburg, Pennsylvania.
This remarkable coal discovery led eventually to the development of the
Chemung Canal, the construction of the Erie Railroad, the attention of
the rail baron, Erastus Corning, and the location of a famous glass works
in Corning. One might say that Ben Patterson affected history in a most
Inside The Inn
The interior of Ben's hostelry splendidly reflects its frontier origins.
Massive timbers of adz-hewed oak and pine support the ceilings and roof
while many of the rooms reveal broad pine floor boards and wide-planked
walls. In the major living areas the wooden trim has been repainted its
original Prussian blue color, and plastered walls appear freshly whitewashed.
It's hard to imagine that the ravages of hurricane Agnes in June, 1972,
once inundated the inn, flooding the ground floor with seven feet of muddy
Chemung River water.
A major focus for travellers, both distant and current in time, is the
inn's tap room. Here, Lorus pointed out its vintage fireplace above which
a portrait of Baron Von Steuben dolefully eyes all visitors. Visitors
observe benches and rough pine tables set with pewter plates, a gaming
table bearing cards and an early game of checkers complete with corn cob
playing pieces. The mantle holds long-stemmed clay pipes and an unusual
"pipe safe" A Paul Revere tin lamp fixture provided the tap room's light
as well as rush lights whose illumination came from the burning of rushes
dipped in grease. In one corner was kept the inn's supply of wine, liquor
and hard cider. One can examine the small closet-like area where valuable
commodities such as wine, liquor and hard cider were protected form loss
by a bar and swing down grill constructed of rounded wooden slats, the
protective device was the origin of today's "bar & grill." A hand-printed
sign has been tacked up within the bar admonishing guests of proper behavior.
"No slap an' tickle o' the wenches
No banging o' tankards on the table
No dogs allowed in the kitchen
Flintlocks, cudgels, daggers & swords
to be handled by the Inn Keeper
for safe keping
Bed for night: 1 shilling
Stable: 4 pence"
Lorus next lead her group into a typical colonial kitchen. Rising almost
to the top of the low-beamed ceiling a huge fireplace, some eight feet
wide and five feet high, dominates the kitchen. A huge, cast iron "dutch"
oven was bracketed above the fireplace to enable it to be easily swung
over the fire when needed. Abutting the fireplace one can examine a "beehive"
oven well suited for baking wheat and corn bread.
This led to talk of the wide use by travelers of cornbread, johnny or
"journey cake," and beef jerky while on the trail. The food's popularity
derived from its ability to be consumed while on the move without the
need to stop for a fire. Lorus jested that perhaps the fare might take
the place of today's ubiquitous "Bic Mac."
Other kitchen exhibits included a foot-high sugar cone accompanied with
special wrought iron nippers to crunch pieces from the rock-like cone.
Nearby, on the plank kitchen table, was the mortar and pestle needed to
further grind larger fragments into a more convenient granular size. Utensils,
many made of wood, were placed in various locations handy for the cook.
A five-foot long "dry" sink made of chiseled red sandstone, occupied
one corner, while a large wooden cabinet holding preserves and condiments
filled another. It soon becomes obvious to the visitor that meal preparation
during colonial times was no simple task.
The Weaving Loft
Climbing a flight of stairs one reaches the second floor where various
wooden devices are displayed, all required during the "age of homespun"
to spin linen thread or yarn and to weave and sew cloth. In this domain
of the "distaff" a mammoth "four-harness" loom fills much of the room.
On it a cloth of "linsey-woolsey" was painstakingly being woven with the
warp bearing linen threads and the woof, the woollen threads.
Of particular interest was an odd-shaped wheel known as the "weasel"
Eight "T"-shaped posts radiate out from its central hub. Atop the "T's,"
hanks of yarn are wound and counted. One learns that it takes 40 yards
of yarn to form a "hank. " A loud "click" from the weasel announced the
winding of each hank. That click is popularly remembered in the nursery
rhyme that recounts the weasel's "pop. " The room also provided an exhibit
often overlooked by many. It's a "tape" loom, an ingenius device that's
small in size but produces a legion of products. It neatly twists bundles
of threads into ribbons, shoe strings, suspenders, shoe laces, belts,
glove ties and hat bands.
The tour's next stop provided a look at what many would consider to be
very primitive sleeping conditions. In unfinished bedrooms lacking paint
or wall paper, several rope beds served sleepy travelers. A network of
rope was tied to the bed's wooden frame thus supporting a straw mattress.
Sagging ropes could be tightened wth a special, wooden "bed key. " Twisting
the ropes with the key allowed one to "sleep tight. " Lorus added that
it wasn't an uncommon practice to have as many as three or four strangers
sharing one bed—no such thing as a "Serta" at that time!
De Monstoy Cabin and Starr Barn
Several outbuildings can be visited that reveal the ingenuity and energy
of our colonial forebears. One was a log cabin dating back to 1789 that
was actually a home for a family of Steuben County residents. Within,
it displayed a roofless fireplace, tree-branch bed, and rustic table and
chairs. A low ceiling and dirt floor made the one-room edifice seem very
small. However, pioneering genius could be seen in the cabin's latch string
security arrangment and its pegged, hingeless door.
Barns typical of those dating from the middle 1800's held wooden farm
implements and other exhibits including an extensive assortment of equipment
needed for separating cream, making cheese and churning butter. Nearby
an exhibit of early veterinarian's instruments could be viewed as well
as the complexities of harness required to ready just one horse for work.
Another display led one to reflect on the enormous energy needed to bore
out wooden rails to fashion water pipes. Considering all those labor intensive
tasks, our ancestors seemed to have had little time for recreation. Wouldn't
they be appalled at their progeny who squander so many of the precious
hours of their lives in the glow of an electronic screen producing so
The Browntown Schoolhouse
Last building to be visited on the complex was the old District #5 school
house. Dating from 1878, the one room held a wood stove in its center
and orderly rows of double seated benches and school desks. A raised platform
served the teacher and genuine black-painted "blackboards" seemed to be
awaiting their chalked lessons. Lorus explained that an organ was far
more common in a school than a piano since it seldom, if ever, needed
tuning. One must remember that its not a fancy environment that's needed
for learning, but a good teacher and attentive students. To many it seems
as though there may have been as much learning in that rustic school house
as in today's elaborate, educational "learning centers."
Next time you get a yen to experience our colonial history, just drop
by at the Ben Patterson Inn Museum. Folks there will be happy to open
their window to the past for you.
Winifred and Richard Peer made arrangements for the Society
to visit the Benjamin Patterson Inn Museum on November 2, 1996. After
a tour through the inn building and the outbuildings, the members gathered
in an assembly room and heard great stories about Ben Patterson and other
notables of the area while we ate our bag lunches along with hot beverages
provided by the Peers. Dick treated us with his special home-made cake.