A Christmas Carol

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King_of_Diamonds_stock_xchng_royalty_free-1Sett’ e mezz’!” roared my grandfather as he rose from his seat. He towered over my meek ten-year old body like a grizzly bear rearing above its prey.

I saw hunger in his ferocious eyes. But I wasn’t afraid. I knew the next lesson was about to begin.

“Sam!” yelled my grandmother, instinctively and in that terse disapproving way it seemed she could summon up from nowhere. Immediately the aggressiveness vanished from my grandfather’s countenance and he obediently shrank back into his chair.

“What do you want me to do, Flo? Those are the rules,” he said, timidly trying to justify his actions. Sensing his own reticence, he tried to counter it by continuing with a voice rising in intensity and ending with a tone of self-assured purpose. “He dealt me the King of Diamonds. The rule is you have to let the dealer know as soon as you get it. You’re supposed to shout ‘Sette e la mezza,’ too. Do you expect me to treat him any different than anyone else? Sooner or later he’s gonna go out in the real world. You think they’re gonna treat him nice? No. Look at him. If he doesn’t toughen up, they’re gonna eat him alive.”

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Life is a (Small Town) Carnival

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Like any kid growing up in the snowbelt otherwise known as Blasdell, I looked forward to three things each summer. The beginning of summer would signal going to IMG_0016_Mendon_Carnival_Twilight_300Fantasy Island to celebrate a good report card, ride the steamboat and watch the live shootouts. The end of summer meant going to the Erie County Fair to see the vast array of other-worldly side shows on the Midway, the acrid smell of burnt oil and rubber at the demolition derby and the taste of my grandfather’s sumptuous pizza. Sandwiched in between, both chronologically and geographically was the Big Tree Fireman’s Carnival. I think it was actually called the Big Tree Firemen’s Annual Field Days. But for kids (and headline writers short on space) it was the Big Tree Carnival.

Here’s the real difference between Fantasy Island, the Erie County Fair and the Big Tree Continue Reading “Life is a (Small Town) Carnival”

A Civil War Memorial

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America’s Civil War left nearly a million casualties and a national wound that would take generations to heal. Heal it did and the process began almost immediately. IMG_8721_Memorial_Day_Museum_300While a small hamlet in Greater Western New York was busy forgetting its recent past, another of our villages became the first to keep from forgetting. If we travel east of Town Line on Route 20, we pass through the heart of our region. Just past Geneva and before we reach Seneca Falls, we come to the not-so-small Village of Waterloo in Seneca County. Waterloo’s a big village, reaching into three towns – Waterloo, Seneca and Fayette.

When the Union veterans began returning to Waterloo, a forty-five year old druggist took note. He noted how the residents greeted all those who returned with honors and celebrations. What bothered him, though, were the ones that didn’t return. Who would honor their memories? Perhaps he was compelled by his own personal experience. He Continue Reading “A Civil War Memorial”

I’ll Have One for the Road and Two for the Sea

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And let me the canakin clink, clink,
And let me the canakin clink.
A soldier’s a man;
A life’s but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.
– Othello

The reason James Fenimore Cooper strode into Hustler’s Tavern has disappeared into the hazy mists of history. By 1821, his life had been less than pristine. Kicked out of
IMG_3230_violin_cocktail_300
Yale after three years as a trouble-maker (he blew up a classmate’s door), the son of a (probably embarrassed) Congressman who founded the City of Cooperstown did what any other lost teenager trying to find himself did in the early eighteenth century – he joined the Merchant Marine.1

Perhaps he remembered his earlier, albeit brief, stay in the Niagara Frontier just before the War of 1812.2 Serving mostly overseas, he saw some of his best crewmates taken from their ships and forced to serve aboard British warships against Napoleonic France. Like the rest of America, he detested Continue Reading “I’ll Have One for the Road and Two for the Sea”

A Model of Christian Spirit

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Ever since John Winthrop’s famous “city upon a hill” sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630, it’s been tough to separate religion from the spirit of America’s founding. Indeed, IMG_2733_Spiritual_Out-of_Focus_300some say the evangelical movement of the mid-eighteenth century known as The First Great Awakening played a key role in America’s strive for independence.1 And don’t think the whole “separation of Church and State” thing in the Constitution came about because the Founding Fathers felt the First Great Awakening was a tad too much. I’ll remind you the whole purpose of the First Great Awakening was to rebel against the Church of England and to recognize broader religious freedom. This is the very philosophy embodied by our constitution.

Our focus in this chapter, though, isn’t the First Great Awakening, but the Second Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening began in 1790 and lasted for about 50 years. It featured traveling preachers leading revival camps where “hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would gather for miles around in wilderness encampment for four days to a week.”2 One such preacher was Charles Finney, who, from September 1830, through June 1831, led various revival campaigns3 in Rochester, Buffalo and “the intermediate towns between there.”4 And what facilitated this travel? Why, none other Continue Reading “A Model of Christian Spirit”

The Miracle of Limestone Hill

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To anyone born and raised in Lackawanna, the stern threat, “You better behave or I’ll send you to Father Baker’s” remains forever burned into one’s ears. It turns out, IMG_2524_OLV_Dome_300chances are that same phrase remains forever burned in the ears of a child raised by someone born in Lackawanna. Like mine.

I can definitely see my grandmother shouting this phrase at my uncles when they were kids. The effect was no doubt the same on them as it was on me when my mother tried using it. Actually, it probably wasn’t the same. By the time I was old enough to realize the truth behind “Father Baker’s,” it looked just like the school it was. The orphanage of my uncles’ youth had been torn down before I was born.

To me, though, Father Baker’s wasn’t the school, it was the church and the amazing story Continue Reading “The Miracle of Limestone Hill”

Revealed: Christmas Spirit’s Real Hometown

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But wait. There’s more to this story. As you travel through the 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York, you’ll no doubt notice the number of amazing gifts we given to our community, our nation and even the world. Is there something in our spirit of living that has made Greater Western New York such a font of helpful, practical and invigorating ideas? What makes our character so creative yet so generous? As I’m writing this particular passage, we are within a few days of Christmas. I can’t help but think how our regional personality resembles Santa Claus.

And then I discover this.

Not only do we have the Continue Reading “Revealed: Christmas Spirit’s Real Hometown”

Greater Western New York: The Hollywood Ideal of America?

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We drove down “Main Street” into Seneca Falls trying very hard to capture in our eyes the wholesome virtue of Frank Capra’s fictional Bedford Falls. Many people believe the Seneca County village was the inspiration for Capra’s town in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Some say you can see the obvious resemblance just by driving down the main street of Seneca Falls. It was tough to do. First, a lot of things have changed since Tommy Bellissima remembers cutting Capra’s hair in late 1945. For one thing, urban renewal, while not overly disturbing the buildings on Falls Street (the real name of the main thoroughfare through town), did change the layout of the road on the east side of town.

On the other hand, Continue Reading “Greater Western New York: The Hollywood Ideal of America?”

Seeds of a New Movement

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The Erie Canal made Buffalo. Joseph Dart made Buffalo memorable.

Through Joseph Ellicott and the establishment of Greater Western New York west of the Genesee River, we’ve seen the importance of the canal from before it was even drawn up. We’ve witnessed how its opening paved the way for the creation of America’s first tourist destination – Niagara Falls. We’ll discover in a few chapters how it allowed our region to become ground zero for Continue Reading “Seeds of a New Movement”

A Bridge Too Quiet

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I never understood the lure of trains. Don’t get me wrong. I love trains. I just can’t figure out why. I mean, I was born at the dawn of the Space Age, watched Star Trek when it was still on the air and followed NASA’s lunar program with diligent pride. Heck, I even majored in physics and astronomy, served on the Strasenburgh Planetarium’s 40th Anniversary Task Force and created an official astronomy outreach project (AstronomyTop100.com) that received the official endorsement of the United Nations during the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.

Many were the times when I thought I was finally done with trains. But, like the mob to Continue Reading “A Bridge Too Quiet”