Tucked away in the southern portion of Cattaraugus County on the edge of the New York-Pennsylvania border sits the town of Red House. Guess what the town is named after? A red house, right? Nope. It’s named after the creek flowing through it – Red House Creek. The creek is named after a red house.
But did you know the story behind the crimson abode upon which the creek found its name? Originally owned by one of the area’s first settlers, it is a sorry story of family division, betrayed love and mysterious death. In the 1860’s Johnny Frecks went off to fight in the civil war, leaving his young wife behind. Poor Johnny died during the War Between the States and his widow took up with and eventually married his younger brother James. Only the “took up with” part apparently started before anyone even knew Johnny had been killed. When the family discovered this infidelity, it banished the lovers. The despondent couple committed suicide and, shortly thereafter, Jonathan Frecks II, father of Johnny and James, died for reasons unknown. The surviving family members abruptly moved far away, leaving the town a pile of money and an empty red house said to be haunted by three despairing ghosts. Every so often, a skeptical buyer makes an attempt to live in the house, but quickly moves out.
Cool story, huh? Chances are pretty good you’ve never heard that story. I never did, either, until I started researching this book. From the face of it, it certainly merits inclusion in a book about the “Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York.”
Except for one tiny problem. When I undertook the usual due diligence to find out more, no one I spoke with had ever heard the story. And this includes the editor of the book on the Bicentennial of Cattaraugus County (Franklinville historian Madelynn “Maddie” Fredrickson), the author of the book’s chapter on the history of Red House (Llewellyn “Hook” France) and the Cattaraugus County Historian (Sharon Fellows).
And yet, there is the story, both on Wikipedia1 and on the official website of Cattaraugus County Tourism.2 I didn’t know who to contact at Wikipedia and they have yet to return the message I left at the 800 number provided on the Cattaraugus County Tourism website. But this highlights the challenge posed in writing a book like this. Mind you, I am not a professional historian, nor am I an amateur historian. Heck, for that matter, I can’t remember the last time I even stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.
So don’t get too upset when you see all these footnotes. To be honest, they really bug me whenever I read a book that has them. Too often they contain useful information that adds to the experience of the book. Rest easy, dear reader, for I can assure you these footnotes merely contain source document information. That way, if you can’t believe what you read, at least you can read the original material (in many cases, freely available on the web).
The point of the Red House folklore, though, is not merely to reinforce the warning to be wary of anything you read on the internet or to explain why this book has so many footnotes. Rather, the ghost story represents a metaphor for the two prongs of pessimism habitually associated with Greater Western New York. First, it’s a pessimism that seemingly prefers to live in a past that never was. For example, Fellows told me she researched the name “Frecks” and found not land owner by that name. Indeed, the only “John Frecks” who served in the Civil War enlisted in New York City, and he deserted. Worse, even when true we hear a lot about past achievements in a tenor suggesting we’ll never again attain those heights.
Me, I’m a glass half full sort of guy. Some people come to a mountain, see it as an obstacle, and stop. When I come to a mountain, I see it as a curtain yet to be unveiled. Instead of stopping, I dream of discovering what’s beyond the peak before me. (But that’s the subject of another book I’m writing.)
There’s a lot of inspiring, interesting and invigorating people, places and events associated with Greater Western New York. This book isn’t a collection of fake ghost stories. It’s a collection of actual real-life reports I call the “Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York.” For you, some might be immediately recognizable, some might fall under the category of trivia, but I can almost guarantee you there’ll be more than a few times you catch yourself whispering, “I never knew that.”
Take Red House, for example. The town’s claim to fame is its population. Red House has very few permanent residents because the vast bulk of the town was consigned to the Allegany State Park by New York State in 1921. In 2007, Allegany State Park was named one of the top 100 “Amazing Spots” by Reserve America, a camping reservations provider operating in the 48 contiguous states.3 Much of the rest of the town is taken up by the Allegany Indian Reservation. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the Town of Red House has 38 inhabitants. This makes it the smallest town (by population) in the entire state of New York. Did you know that?
And this fact brings up our second metaphorical prong of pessimism. That same U.S. Census has for decades now emphasized our ever diminishing stature. By the end of the nineteenth century, Buffalo’s city rank peaked at #8 in the nation and Rochester wasn’t too far behind at #24.4 The latest census data shows Buffalo has slipped to #72 and Rochester barely hangs on to the top 100 at #100.5 No wonder some see us as a “small” market.
Well, that’s certainly one way to look at it.
Not me, though. I explain why in a later chapter.
Incidentally, regarding New York State’s smallest town, you might be interested to know there really was a red house. Long before the Town of Red House was established in 1868, it offered lodging for the many lumberjacks who worked the region.6 They’d cut their logs then float them down the Allegany River all the way to Pittsburg. According to Hook France, the trip downstream would take three days. It took three weeks to walk back upstream. The little red house stood at the mouth of Red House Creek where it empties into the Allegany River and, by 1879, the famed red house had “long since gone to decay,” its original proprietor just as gone and forgotten.7
So, you can see, there’s a perhaps less well known – but true – story within our first hidden gem.
Before we get too far into our story, though, perchance it makes sense to start at the very beginning of this journey, namely, what motivated me to take such joy in sharing these trinkets.
1 Red House, New York, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_House,_New_York 2 Red House, New York, Enchanted Mountains of Cattaraugus County, Cattaraugus County Tourism, http://enchantedmountains.com/community/red-house 3 “Allegany State Park named an ‘Amazing Spot’,” Cattaraugus County Web-site, February 26, 2008, http://www.cattco.org/news/200873-allegany-state-park-named-amazing-spot
If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to check out the book trailer on 50HiddenGems.com and sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out when the book is published this fall.