I’ve just picked up and started reading my anniversary present from my wife: an 1884 book called Rochester: A Story Historical, written by Jenny Marsh Parker. When reading a book this old, the book itself *is* the history, more so even than the tale it tries to impart. Not just its take on the past, but the entire frame of mind of the author tells a revealing story about where we’re from and to whom we owe our history. And at the same time, this book discusses in contemporaneous fashion landmarks of the Rochester landscape that have long-since ceased to be.
Many of us are familiar with at least the name of Tryon Park, for example, without knowing that Tryon was one of the first “cities” of white men in the region. I’m sure the list of five: Tryon City, Castle Town, Carthage, Hanford’s Landing and a little-known hamlet of Pittsford, represent fascinating stories in and of themselves. Note that “Rochester” is not among their numbers, and that “Falls Town” was a hell-hole of a swamp that nobody ever thought would turn into a city. Whoops!
But Tryon being at the mouth of the Irondequoit Bay was a trader’s village established in 1799. And being not just a remote outpost, but the home of an adventurous entrepreneur of the classic American mold, Tryon is in the words of the author owed no small debt of gratitude from the likes of Detroit and Cleveland for their early starts:
It may well be questioned if Cleveland and Detroit are not largely indebted to the city of Tryon? If the great oaks that from little acorns grow are under any obligations whatsoever to said said little acorns, Cleveland and Detroit must own that one of the sources of their early prosperity was in the ambitious trading-post on Irondequoit Bay. Oliver Culver, famous among our best pioneers, superintended that big ashery at Tryon Town for three years. He saved his money, and in 1804 bought up a large share of the goods the Tryon Town merchant was glad to sell at a low figure, and with these he went to Cleveland. There was but one trader before him. Indians brought him their furs, and the Pennsylvania settlers drove their pack-horses to his cabin laden with whiskey and brandy, butter, cheese, and honey. He could sell salt at three dollars a bushel, and his Tryon Town goods brought a quick sale and large profits. The suppressed spirit of the disappointed city seemed to have found an outlet for development. From Cleveland Oliver Culver went to Detroit, where he did well in apples and white fish. He returned to Western New York a few years after to buy his broad farm lands, and settle down for life. Why are not Cleveland and Detroit indebted to Tryon Town, and shall we not establish its just claim for recognition?
I doubt if either metropolis would be nearly as impressed by the trade exploits of a single merchant as the author is. But in a country exploding with new growth and potential every day, the author is clearly attempting to stake out a place in the larger historical narrative of the United States for scrappy little Rochester’s contributions. This is 1884, before George Eastman, before Xerox and Bausch and Lomb. Before the world watched Olympic Games on television, sponsored by and emblazoned with all these names. Little did she know what things – great and small, noble and ignoble – would come later to ensure our place in history.
And I’m three chapters into the book. Wow.