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Vern Larkin
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"About Orleans County"

A Brief History of Orleans County

A look at modern Orleans County history should start at a fairly recent point-- about 400 million years ago, one spring morning-- a Wednesday, in fact.

On this particular morning, long before the evolution of even the first dinosaurs, the casual visitor from the year 2000 wouldn't recognize the world around him. There were no flowering plants, trees or grasses. We wouldn't recognize the world even if we were to look down from high above it-- the continents are not arranged as we know them today. Not even the prehistoric supercontinent of Pangea has yet been formed. A person walking due east from Orleans County might be able to walk directly to the western coast of Great Britain, to which North America was then attached, except for two things.

..............Eurypteris remipes, an
ancestor of the modern
scorpion, is the official
New York State Fossil.
First, there were no people to make the trip, since the most highly developed forms of life had just recently developed gills and fins and nothing had yet crawled out to live permanently on land. Second, the entire area of what we now call Orleans County was then under the shallow waters of an inland sea-- what geologists call the Potsdam Sea. If you were to be transported back to the Devonian Era you'd have to walk to England on the muddy bottom of this sea. As the ages passed, the pressure of the increasing layers of mud slowly compressed it into shale, the bedrock of today's Niagara Frontier-- the flat stones today's youngsters skip across the calm surface of Sandy Creek. The most important citizens of Orleans County this particular Wednesday morning are the trilobites, crinoids, eurypterids and other strange-looking animals that glide along the floor of the Potsdam Sea, feeding on the vegetation and each other. As these creatures died, their hard parts were preserved in the hardening mud. One of the great joys of living in Orleans County today, 400 million years later, is that you can find these fossils all over the place-- some are quite beautiful and expensive.

Lots of things happened over the next 335 million years. Trilobites, eurypterids and most of their neighbors died out, and the dinosaurs came and went. The continents drifted apart, came together, and began to break apart again. The land we walk on rose to a level sufficient to drain the Potsdam Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean gradually opened up. Through the age of dinosaurs Orleans County remained mostly highland. Not a lot of new rock was laid down, so not a lot of dinosaur fossils came to be formed here. (Not that this matters much-- all this rock would be scoured away br the glaciers in our more recent history.) We can imagine that the mighty T. Rex and Triceratops once battled where Holley Square is today, but, sadly, they left no record for us of their struggle.
After the Age of the Dinosaurs, the earth turned quite a bit colder, so much colder that glaciers eventually spread far to our south. The weight of this miles-high layer of ice scoured whatever layers of rock and soil had accumulated, exposing to our inspection those layers of shale deposited long ago during the Silurian.

At least five major waves of glaciation scoured the surface of today's Orleans County, the last of them melting off only about 10,000 years ago. At times these waves of ice had been several miles thick (look up at a puffy cumulus cloud-- the ice was piled that high!) and their melting removed such a vast amount of weight that the ground is still springing back today. Every year the land in Orleans County gets a little higher and drier. In the still-chilly air of the post-Pleistocene, the swamps near Clarendon were home to wooly mastodons, huge sabre tooth cats, and the local bison, the thunderous tatankatherium.

................Fancy trilobites like this
................. Arctinuris from Middleport
................... are much sought after
................. by museums and collectors.
.............. This 4" specimen recently sold
.............. for $750 at Phillips Auctioneers
......................... in New York City.
The arrival of Clovis Man (named for his unique spear tips first found in New Mexico) changed the Orleans County area forever. By the time of the Iroquois Confederation, the mastodons and bison had been hunted to extinction, and the sabre-toothed cats died away. Because of swampy conditions, Orleans County was not as successful a hunting ground as areas further west, as demonstrated by the relatively few arrowheads found around here, but there was considerable aboriginal traffic up and down Ridge Road 2000 years before it ever saw blacktop and Corvettes. Thousands of years ago, the Ridge formed the southern edge of Lake Ontario-- this larger version is called by geologists Lake Iroquois. A smaller lake, Lake Tonawanda, innundated the towns of Barre and Clarendon; the sand mined along New Guinea Road are all that remains of its sandy beaches.

Mule-drawn barge excursions along the canal are still a popular entertainment in ...................Orleans County.
By the arrival of the Vikings and Columbus, the geography of Upstate New York had long since assumed its present proportions. The area remained a vast nature reserve till the Holland Purchase brought the first white settlers into the area. Now the mastodons and trilobites were long-forgotten, and all that remained of the glaciers were the rocks they'd carried along from as far away as northern Canada. The largest of these "erratics" is a ten-foot high monster on the Munger Road just this side of the Genessee County line. Atop its pitted surface grows a small tree; legend has it that the devil himself was once chained to it.

Slightly smaller stones were the nemesis of hard-working eighteenth-century farmers, who stacked them in walls and huge meadow rockpiles still found today. The most useful stones proved to be base-ball sized cobblestones, whose glacially-rounded surfaces turned out to be a perfect building material. The area along Route 104 features more cobblestone houses than any other area in the world. The oldest cobblestone church in North America (now the world's only cobblestone museum) contains the cobblestone parsonage of Horace Greeley. Along this route, 19th-century surveyors staked out an early version of Ridge Road through a setting whose colorful history they could never have guessed about.

This new road eventually transformed the sandy ridge of Lake Iroquois into a stagecoach turnpike. The Village Inn at Childs is one of the few coach stops remaining from that era. Another building, most recently used as an antique market, is still standing.

The real opening of the county, however, didn't begin until the construction of the Erie Canal. Beginning in 1822 and packing away their shovels in 1825, teams of hard-working immigrants built a new superhighway to exploit the commercial potential of Orleans County and the Niagara Frontier. The canal shipped Medina sandstone to Albany and meat products as far as New York City, and it brought back the money that built the towns.

By 1824, when the Niagara Frontier was still part of the "wild west", it was decided to carve a new county from the land of the Holland Purchase. Over the objections of Whig supporters who would have named us after John Adams, supporters of Andrew Jackson, remembering his victory at New Orleans, won the day in April, 1825-- hence the name Orleans County. (We're lucky that Jackson hadn't fought at Bull Run.) The first Post Office in the newly-opened region was called simply Canal, but soon a town grew around it to be called Newport. In 1826 the name was changed to Albion, honoring the classical name of England. This prosperous, hard-drinking vilage was selected to be the county seat and a lovely Greek-revival court house was designed by local architect William Barlow, complete with domed roof, in 1858.

One of the few remaining stage coach stops, this buildina at 14007 Ridge Road is now on the market.

"You can always trust your neighbor, you can always trust ................your pal.... well, almost always..
The men who piloted mule-drawn barges down "Clinton's Ditch" succeeded in their efforts to open up the new frontier. Apples became one of the crops of choice, enriching the tiny villages that sprung up along its banks. The town of Saltport grew wealthy enough to afford renaming itself Holley, largely on the wealth created by the apple-processing industry. For many years Holley was home to an office of the Duffy Mott company; old-timers fondly remember the smell of applesauce that once permeated the town.

These days Orleans County still produces apples, up to 150 million pounds a year of them, but the delicious aroma generated by the old Duffy Mott plant has become a thing of memory. The enclaves of Irish canal-workers and Italian craftsmen have melted into the American dream, and the heirlooms of our great grandfathers can be bought at cobblestone antique shops up and down Ridge Road at prices that once would have doubled the size of their farms.

Local graveyards, once numbering more than 80, have mostly been absorbed by undergrowth. In those that remain, even the tough Medina sandstone markers are being worn away, their intricate willow motifs and cryptic epigrams getting fainter every year. The oldest marker in the county, dating from 1805, is barely legible in a little cemetary in Point Breeze.
The county historian, Carrie Lattin, has passed away (though his son carries on the tradition very well), and every year there are fewer old folks left to remind us how it used to be in "the old days". The most popular books about our area, written by Arch Merrill, are out of print, but looking for them at the antique shop of Archie Charles, on the Holley Square, will certainly make for an enjoyable afternoon. Web sites that should know better pay little attention to our local history. The future of Orleans County is bright with promise, but if you want to see its past, you're going to have to look quickly.