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NSG Visit November 2, 1996

The Benjamin Patterson Inn Museum

A Window into Our Past


Donovan A. Shilling

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 nation.

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.

Benjamin 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 extraordinary way.

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. It read:

"No slap an' tickle o' the wenches
No banging o' tankards on the table
No dogs allowed in the kitchen
No cock-fighting
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 little?

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.

1997, Donovan A. Shilling
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.
© 1996, Donovan A. Shilling
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