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The Reynolds Family, part 1: Abelard

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one hundred acre tract

The “falls of the Genesee,” seen to the right on this map, convinced Nathaniel Rochester that this was an ideal site for commerce. Mill Street is now Exchange; Carroll Street is now State. The two light-colored plots of land on Buffalo Street, east of Carroll, belonged to Abelard Reynolds (#23 and 24).

Modern day Rochester begins with the purchase of a one hundred-acre piece of land. In 1803, three wealthy veterans of the American Revolution set out from their homes in Hagerstown, Maryland. They came up through the Susquehanna Valley, found their way to the headwaters of the Genesee River and traveled along its western shore. They were speculators seeking undeveloped land in western New York as our newly formed nation began its inland expansion.

In those days, at the site where our city is now stands, the Genesee was a boundary between two counties—Ontario to the east with its county seat at Canandaigua; on the western side was Genesee County with its seat at Batavia. After purchasing land farther south, the three men, Colonels Nathaniel Rochester and William Fitzhugh and Major Charles Carroll went to Batavia to register their claims. The land agent suggested that they consider a piece of land located at the falls of the Genesee. He referred to a three-tier waterfall that once existed slightly north of where the Court Street Bridge stands today. It had two drops of three feet and a final drop of seven feet.

Rochester saw potential for tremendous power in in that cascading water, perfect for mills that could saw lumber or grind grain. Fitzhugh and Carroll agreed to be his partners in the purchase although the price was much higher than the $2-3 per acre they had paid for property farther south. The One Hundred Acre Tract sold for $17.50 per acre, or $1,750 for a small piece of land that would, in three decades, expand into a city. When the men returned home, their wives were not excited by the New York purchases, reluctant to leave behind comfortable lives in Hagerstown to take up residence in a wilderness. Plans were put on hold.
In 1810, Rochester finally moved his family to New York State, settling in the town of Dansville. In short time he created a flourmill, a sawmill, a paper mill, a blacksmith shop, a village store and began clearing a 450-acre farm. With so much accomplished, he considered giving up that expensive tract purchased with Fitzhugh and Carroll, both of whom remained in Maryland until 1816.

In 1811, Rochester visited the falls to review the property and found other settlements being developed nearby. The Brown brothers were planning to construct a mill just to the north. Across the river, Enos Stone was building a sawmill and had begun construction of a bridge over the Genesee. Charlotte and Irondequoit on Lake Ontario were also strong contenders. If Rochester didn’t act quickly, another location might become the area’s dominant town site, reducing the value of the Marylanders’ property.

In a way, the One Hundred Acre Tract was an unlikely spot for a successful village. The various waterfalls and rapids in the area, while providing power for mills, prohibited navigation where the Genesee flowed past the eastern end of Rochester’s property. Transportation of products to and from the mills would require long portages. A man-made river, the Erie Canal, eventually solved this problem but the canal was a dozen years into the future. Nonetheless, Rochester began laying out streets–one of them was Buffalo Street (today’s West Main) that would meet Stone’s bridge when it was completed. He divided most of his land into lots for homes and businesses.

In June 1812 the United States went to war against Great Britain. Since the British controlled Canada, their warships patrolled Lake Ontario and the mouth of the Genesee River. Those lake settlements became dangerous places for American families and many fled the waterfront. Earlier that year a Massachusetts man in search of western land, Abelard Reynolds, was on his way to Charlotte when he passed Rochester’s tract. He liked what he saw and bought two lots.
In July, Hamlet Scrantom moved his family into a log cabin on the site now occupied by the Powers Building, the first residents within the One Hundred Acre Tract. Shortly thereafter, Reynolds built a frame house on Buffalo Street, opened a saddle shop and became the first postmaster in the area. Scrantom wrote to relatives, “The Village is flourishing beyond all calculation.” The Reynolds family played a key role in that success for many years to come. I will continue that story next month.