The Zoar of Yesterday
By Alnorca (Pen name of Alice Stewart, Nora Brown and Carletta Wood)
Very early in the 19th century, the Holland Land Company advertised the rich lands it had acquired in western New York, throughout the New England states. Responding to the lure of newspaper and pamphlet, many ambitious young men of Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts came to Erie county to make homes for wives or sweethearts.
The Cattaraugus creek has always played a major part in the history of Zoar. It is said that it was a less turbulent stream before the forests were cleared from its tributaries. On its banks, the wild pigeons, now extinct, made their nests in such numbers that the sky was darkened by their flight from their sometimes-distant feeding grounds.
Peter Pratt was the fIrst settler on the Collins side of the creek, though he found Joseph Adams, his wife, two sons and a daughter on the Otto side. Mr. Pratt had bought land of "Squire Frye" and early in the spring of 1811, with the help of Subina and Wilson Adams, moved to a log hut, previously built and abandoned by a man named Yaw. The Adams boys lashed two canoes together and floated his meager household goods down stream to the double log house, while his wife and children picked their way over Frye Hill. The next year brought several families with children and the first school was held in part of the Pratt house.
The valley was given its name by Ahaz Allen, not the Ahaz Allen of present day recollection, but his father who had settled in Hidi. He must have looked down upon it from the hills, when he gave this valley, with its forests and verdure, the Biblical name of Zoar.
No church was ever built in the settlement, but itinerant preachers held meetings in homes and schoolhouses.
The year of 1812 brought the war clouds and some of the young men were called. The burning of Buffalo filled the settlers with fear of the British and the Indian scalping knife. They buried their precious iron-ware, kettles and pans, and prepared to leave their homes for the "Genesee," when word came that the enemies had returned to their own territory.
By 1815, Jos. Adams and sons had built a small gristmill for grinding corn. 1816 was known as the cold year; though exposed places had a frost every month in the year, the valley being more protected, produced corn and other crops.
Roads were built. There was plenty of fine timber and with the building of the sawmills, frame houses and a school-house were erected.
In 1815, Samuel Hill came to the Erie side to build a log hut. The first night of the family's occupancy, a stranger asked for shelter. As time passed, more pioneers came with the same request so he finally built the large tavern known as the Hill Stand. The night he moved his household in, nine farmers begged the privilege of sleeping on the floor. It was a halfway house between Lodi and Fiddler's Green - now Gowanda and Springville - a much traveled road for the western-bound. Three times a week a stage stopped at the inn, bringing land seekers and mail for the post office. General training was held at least once a year on the alluvial flats in front of the hostelry .All men under fifty in the surrounding country on both sides of the creek were required to meet for practice in soldiering, marching and counter-marching to the music of fife and drum. Officers in the gay uniforms, flags flying, big sheets of training-day ginger bread and the like ! It was a gala day for small boys and others.
The old Hill Stand had a ballroom extending over the stable for horses, so large that eighty couples could form on for the figures then in vogue. It was on the eve of that training and other holidays that the fiddlers and fifers came. The girls took their pretty mincing steps and their escorts cut the pigeon-wing. There are very, very few living who danced in the old ballroom, lighted by tallow candles backed by reflectors the size of dinner plates made from segments or mirror. Can you not see them in the dim light? It is "Forward all and everybody swing." In the early days, they feasted on baked beans and bushels of doughnuts, later, it was roasted pig and other dainties.
It was in these days, the ford being uncertain, that the old covered bridge was built to join more firmly the towns of Otto and Collins. The creek had begun its depredations. It caused the felling a black walnut tree, said to be one of the largest in the state. It proved to be hollow but of such diameter that a man six feet tall could stand upright in its trunk. The water cut into the cleared farm acreage. It took the butternut grove from the old tavern lands, then the apple, the peach and the cherry orchards.
In 1850, the Hill family having sold their holdings to Poultus Kelley, were about to move to Michigan. On the day of their auction, many people from the surrounding country , including Indians from the reservation with their ox teams, came to buy their goods. A bad storm came up. The Indians put their oxen in the covered bridge for protection from the rain but the horses reared and plunged and refused to enter. When the wind rose, an old Indian said, "Ugh, get out!" It was well that they did, for the old bridge broke in the middle and fell into the water but did not drift down stream. Later, it was thought best to attempt to salvage some of the timbers by chaining it to a large tree on the bank. Alexander Ingraham and Darwin Babcock were at work on the bridge when it separated from the shore. Babcock clung to the bank but Ingraham was whirled down stream on a part of the wreckage. His raft swung through the narrows where the banks on either side are from 100 to 350 feet high-a sightly trip, had it not been for the cover on his ark, though dangerous. He succeeded in landing on the island just above Hidi and was rescued by boat, along with his log chain-the prized possession of an early settler. It is needless to say that he could not telephone his anxious friends of the safe termination of his voyage. In the summer of 1855, another bridge was built but when the ice went out the following spring, it went with the ice.
The settlers of Zoar were not lacking in courage or bravery. Many were direct descendants of Revolutionary soldiers. The wife of Nicholas Coon was the granddaughter of Captain Isaac Davis, who led the march to meet the British at Concord Bridge exclaiming, "I haven't a man who is afraid to go." He fell at the first volley-the first man killed in the Revolution.
In the late sixties, the valley was agog over the coming of a railroad from Salamanca to Buffalo. It was to cross the high banks of the creek southeast of Edwin Phillip's house. It was never finished, but remains of the filling and grading may still be seen. About this time, on an "April-fool's" day, the old tavern burned to the ground. The creek-bank is now only a few feet from the roadside, where, covered with weeds, fragments of its foundations may be found.
There are many sad stories of drowning in the Cattaraugus, but perhaps the most pitiful is of two little girls in August of 1883. Mr .and Mrs. Norman Cook, with their daughter Helen, and their niece, Mable Bartlett, returning from Otto, found that a rain had raised the ford to an unusual depth. Their light wagon overturned and its occupants were thrown into the current. Mr. and Mrs. Cook were rescued by a man named Olsen but the children were swept away. Helen was found some hours later. An uncommon story is attached to the recovery of the other little girl, for whom prolonged but futile search was being made. An elderly man, "Jeff" Crandall, who lived east of Collins Center, rode into that village, the morning following the disaster, announcing that he had seen the child in a dream. He described her location near a tree root, adjacent to a cornfield a few miles from Versailles and asserted that he was on his way to get her. His dream proved true.
This tragic event stirred the town to consider the construction of a bridge across the treacherous creek but nine years elapsed before it was accomplished. The present bridge was built in 1892.
In the days of "good old-fashioned winters," the Cattaraugus sometimes froze hard enough to be used as a roadway for loads of logs and produce. Unique sleigh-rides through the narrows were then enjoyed by parties' well wrapped in mumers and buffalo robes. The high banks, decorated with Christmas trees and huge vari-colored icicles echoed the music of their sleigh-bells and laughter. It was frozen, thus, once in the gay nineties.
The old times have passed. The Zoar of today is another story.
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