“Out of the Past” by Cary Lattin, former Orleans County Historian
Orleans is a small Western New York county with a population of 36,837, situated on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Its area of 24×17 miles is generally flat with elevations ranging from 247 to 737 feet above sea level. About two-thirds of the area is developed farmland, but 200 years ago it was a swampy wilderness where “Indians came only for hunting and fishing.” To them, the area was known as “the sick country” and early settlers were plagued by fever and ague. Archaeologists have discovered numerous Indian campsites but only one permanent fortification, which was probably destroyed about 1650.
Many early explorers by-passed this area, traveling by boat on Lake Ontario from Oswego to Niagara, it was not until 1804 that the first permanent settlers came here to purchase land from the Holland Land Company. After 1809, settlement along the Ridge Road (Route 104) was fairly rapid, however, in 1813, when the Village of Lewiston in Niagara County was burned by the British, many of the pioneers fled, apprehensive that the enemy would raid this territory. They soon returned, however, and development of the area continued.
By an Act of the Legislature passed November 12, 1824, Orleans County was separated from Genesee County and became a separate entity on January 1, 1826. Historians are not sure how or for whom the county was named. They do know that the name was evidently chosen as a compromise between two opposing factions. One suggested the name Jackson and the other wanted Adams for John Quincy Adams, the President. No one is quite sure whether Orleans is in honor of Andrew Jackson’s spectacular defeat of the British in New Orleans or whether the name honors the French Duc d’Orleans. The first courthouse (and jail) built in 1827 was replaced by the present Greek Revival Court House in 1858. This edifice is architecturally one of the outstanding courthouses in the state.
By the time the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, most of the land had been sold to home seekers. The Canal more than any other factor contributed to settlement of this area by providing cheap transportation which aided the local economy. Wheat brought $1.50 per bushel and at one time the area was known as the “bread basket of the world” before the western plains were developed. Since the soil and climate here are conducive to the culture of fruit, vegetables, grain and livestock, ambitious farmers became prosperous and affluent. Sturdy, beautiful homes were built and most of the unique cobblestone houses erected in the 1840’s are still standing, a source of pride to the owner.
In 1837, Medina sandstone was discovered in Oak Orchard Creek near Medina and quarrying became an important industry. At one time around the turn of the century, forty-eight quarries were in operation employing 1200 men with a payroll of $3000 a day. This stone was shipped all over the eastern United States to be used for paving, curbing, construction of churches, and other public and private buildings.
Dry-houses and cooper shops sprang up in many locations following the growth of the fruit-raising industry that produced fruit of excellent quality and flavor. Eventually, however, the dry-houses gave way to canning factories and the quick-freeze process of preserving foods. Only one dry-house remains in operation today. Twenty years ago there were six large processing plants packing beans, peas, corn and thousands of tons of tomatoes in a single day. In addition to fruit-raising, Orleans muck lands resulting from the drainage of swamps in the southern area have produced millions of dollars worth of lettuce, carrots, potatoes, spinach and onions.
The passing years and the advent of the machine age have wrought many changes in our local economy. The first large industry to bow to change was the quarry business. It became more feasible to use cement than to hire stone cutters. This competition led to the closing of the quarries. At the present time one quarry is still in operation. It is highly mechanized and its modern equipment turns out cut stone in far greater quantities than the early stone cutters ever dreamed possible. Two food-processing plants remain in the county today. Labor problems plagued some plants, leading to their closing, while others were owned by large companies who found it more expedient to consolidate their holdings or move to areas where longer growing seasons and resultant higher yields make the canning and freezing process cheaper. Since the closing of the canning factories, the tomato acreage has declined and fruit farmers find it necessary to haul their crops greater distances to the processor. As recently as thirty years ago, Medina alone could boast of five foundries, but with the exception of one, these also have closed down. One furniture factory remains. Fisher Price and Bernz-o-matic are new to the area. In Albion, Bayex, Inc., a Canadian firm, has recently constructed a plant for the manufacture of fiberglass and polyester industrial fabrics.
Agriculture, which grosses a yearly $23 million, has always been the largest business in the county, but it too has undergone many changes. It has become highly specialized with ever increasing farm acreages, (i.e. larger farms and fewer farmers). The small farmer who produced his own milk, meat, eggs, poultry and fruit is no more. Three or four poultry plants have been built in the county where care is mechanized to the point that one man can operate a whole unit. One such building houses 42,000 chickens. Mechanization has also had its effect on the harvesting of fruit. Much handwork has been eliminated by machines that shake the fruit from trees. Most cherries and many apples are harvested in this manner. Dairying has decreased somewhat, but beef cattle are still being raised extensively. Horse farming is a recent industry to make the scene in this county. One of the largest Standard bred breeding farms in the state is located in the county. Mares from Russia, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, and other countries have been brought here for breeding. Several smaller operations also exist.
Many ethnic groups make up the population of the county. Irish laborers came to help dig the Erie Canal. English stone cutters were imported to do the Canal stone work. Italian and Polish immigrants arrived to work in the quarries. During World War II, a farm shortage necessitated the importation of labor from Jamaica. The following year, laborers were brought up from the south and gradually many of them remained as permanent residents, along with some natives of Puerto Rice. Even with the influx of immigrants through the years, the population has remained almost static, having increased only 6,000 in a hundred years. Because it is a predominately agricultural area, no large cities have developed. There are four villages, the largest of which has a population of approximately 6,400.
Public transportation has undergone considerable change during the past century. Passenger trains ran daily through the County from 1852-1957 and a trolley crossed the area about every half hour (6 A.M. to midnight) from 1909 to April 30, 1931. These railroads offered residents excellent means of travel. Today, almost every family owns at least one automobile, and the only public transportation facility is a bus line.
The Indian paths and trails of the early settlers have given way to 740 miles of good roads that help to transport nearly 10,000 school children to five excellent central schools. Two well-staffed, well-equipped hospitals serve the area: Medina Memorial and Arnold Gregory in Albion, the only all-electric hospital in the state.
The Lake Ontario shore is fringed with cottages and year-around homes in contrast to woodlands and occasional farmsteads of early settlers. A super parkway built by the state parallels the shore to bring vacationers to a 275-unit trailer park.
Even the processes of birth and death have undergone change. Practically all babies are now born in hospitals instead of in the home. Doctors rarely make house calls. Patients who are able, visit the doctor’s office, the hospital emergency room, or are hospitalized for the duration of the illness. Elderly people living alone can avail themselves of “meals on wheels.” This program makes it possible to obtain a hot meal and, if desired, a cold lunch at minimal cost, delivered daily by volunteers. For those who are no longer able to care for themselves and whose families are unable or unwilling to care for them, there are nursing homes.
Since 1930 few bodies have been prepared in the home for burial. Funeral homes have been established for this purpose. These facilities also provide a space for the funeral as well as rooms for the family of the deceased to receive friends and relatives.
Since the 1940’s many new homes as well as multiple dwellings have been built in the county. The cost of labor has eliminated architectural details in contrast to the often-elegant structures of by-gone days. These homes have been built for ease in care, maintenance and for convenience. Most are heated automatically with oil, gas, or electricity. Gone are the wood or coal-burning kitchen ranges and parlor stoves. Many county homeowners possess automatic washers and driers for laundry, automatic dishwashers, and food freezers.
CHANGE is the word that expresses most aptly what has happened to this small county during the past 150 years. Whether for better or worse, its inhabitants are attempting to keep abreast of these changing times. Its men have given their lives in the nation’s wars; some have become nationally famous. Its government has tried to make this a good place to live. Its leaders, concerned with ecology and population growth, are planning for the future, and the inhabitants are proud of these endeavors.
From the book – Orleans County History 1976