The Four Corners
The Village of Ellicottville’s Historic Legacy
Story by John Thomas
The following is a look back at a series of stories The Villager published about the Four Corners in 2014.
After the end of the Revolutionary War, the lands of Western New York were mostly unexplored territory. The area came to the attention of some Dutch bankers who formed the Holland Land Company and set about to purchase it. After bargaining with the Seneca Nation, Theophile Cazenove, agent for Holland, picked up 3.3 million acres of land from the Genesee River, west to the shore of Lake Erie. The Seneca retained less than 200,000 acres for reservations. Cazenove needed someone to survey the land and record its features. He hired Joseph Ellicott, who along with his brothers, had established Ellicott Mills in Maryland. Ellicott set off with hundreds of pounds of equipment and 150 men to compile The Great Survey. After a year and a half, in 1800, Ellicott turned in his meticulous and highly accurate report to Cazenove. The company then hired Ellicott to be the land agent in charge of selling the territory for Holland. Later that year, virtually all of Western New York went up for sale.
Town and Village Hall
The county of Cattaraugus was established in 1808 by the New York State Legislature. Three commissioners were appointed by the governor to establish a location for the county seat. They chose a point in the center of the county and marked the spot with an ironwood post. Joseph Ellicott hired Ricketson Burlingame to layout the seat. It was given the name Ellicottville. In laying out the village, Burlingame established four large lots in its center. They were intended for county offices and a school.
The Town of Ellicottville was formally incorporated April 13, 1820. The county built a combination courthouse and jail on the northwest corner. The two-story building burned to the ground in the winter of 1829. On that site, a new courthouse and offices were constructed. A stone jail was built across Jefferson where the post office now stands. Built in the federal style, the new county building featured an imposing brick façade and a Palladian window above the entryway. With the county courts in Ellicottville, hotels sprung up around town to accommodate the judges, lawyers, and witnesses who came in for trials. But, being in the center of still relatively wild country, the town was a trying day’s journey. The railroad had laid tracks and built a station at Little Valley, so in 1868 the county seat was moved there. The town bought the courthouse and jail from the county for $2,000. A stage was built in the old courtroom and was used for various entertainments, lectures, dioramas, traveling performers, and, for a while, church services. Some of the downstairs offices were used as classrooms.
August 22, 1969, a fire nearly destroyed the building. The interior of the structure was gutted; all the town’s original records were lost. The bell that had been up in the belfry crashed through the floors below and was pulled from the rubble. It can be seen mounted on a plaque outside the hall. A grant was obtained to allow for the restoration. Town/Village Hall was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. At the time of the fire, the hall was considered the second oldest continuously used buildings in Western New York. Eventually, the town and village moved their offices into the hall. In October of 1983, a gazebo was added to the grounds, a gift to the town from Gerry Nickolson.
The Historical Museum
A few years after the courthouse was built, additional space was needed for the office of the court clerk. A small building was constructed on Jefferson just in front of the jail. When the county moved the seat to Little Valley, the clerk moved as well. After that, the building had a variety of uses; it served as one of the first banks in the village, then home to the first Protestant church. For a while, the fashionable women in town purchased the latest in hats when it was used as a millinery. In 1890, most of the north side of Washington between Jefferson and Monroe burned. As a result, in 1894 a volunteer fire department was formed. The company used the building to store hoses. A belfry and bell were added to the roof to summon firefighters. The hand-drawn pumper was stored in a shack at the back of the building. In 1958, a permanent post office was built on the site of the old jail. After the 1969 fire, the Historical Society took over the building and made it into museum. The museum is open weekends from May through October.
St John’s Church
The roots of St John’s Church go back to 1829 when a group of Episcopal families organized into a church, with services held in Baker Lenard’s house. In 1834, they formed a construction committee to build them a permanent home. Since it was going to be the first church in town, the Holland Land Company donated the corner lot to the group. The church was built with a bell tower but no bell. Nonetheless, the building was consecrated in 1838. A search began to find a bell for the bell tower. A bell named Gabriel was found being used as ballast on a ship plying the Atlantic shipping routes. Forged in 1835, the bell had been caught up in the first Spanish Civil War. It was being used in a monastery where Don Carlos and his revolutionaries had taken refuge. When the monastery was overrun by loyalists, a monk was killed ringing Gabriel in alarm. The monastery was destroyed, and the bell sold for scrap. Eventually, the church group heard about the bell and arranged for its purchase. The bell was brought to Buffalo by the Erie Canal and oxcart to Ellicottville. In 1838, the one-ton bell was raised up to the tower and placed in service. Today it is considered the oldest church bell in continuous use in the country. With its gothic style, high walls, spires, and lofty towers, St. John’s is considered one of the finest, and rather rare, examples of gothic wooden church architecture in the country.
In 1824, a small two-story schoolhouse was built on the corner that now holds the 1887 Building. The first floor housed the district school, and a “select” school occupied the second. A debate arose as to whether the school should be all “select” or all district. The two factions couldn’t reach agreement, so the school was split up. One side built a school near the intersection of Elizabeth and Adams. The original school building was purchased, moved and converted to a chapel. The other faction built a schoolhouse on Washington near Mill. The passage of time and the growth of the town eventually lead to reconciliation. A new school was built on the site of the original and soon was outgrown by the rising population. To make room for a new schoolhouse, the building was moved to an adjacent lot (the old M&T Bank building) so classes could continue. A larger building in the Romanesque Revival Style was built in place of the original. The old jail was torn down and its stout stones used for the foundation; they are the light stones along the front facade. To acknowledge the earlier reunification, the edifice was dubbed, “The Union Free School – 1887.” Originally a belfry holding a bell stood atop the school. As big as the Union School was, it still wasn’t quite big enough for its needs. Home Economics classes were held in the History Museum across the street. As recently as the 1960’s some residents can remember attending grade school classes in Town/Village Hall. Somewhere around the 1930’s the rear section was demolished, and a gymnasium and more classrooms added. The bell and belfry were removed as well. In the late 60’s Ellicottville Central School was built to accommodate students in both elementary and high school and from both Great Valley and Ellicottville. The 1887 building was sold and went through various owners and uses a medical complex, and general office space. The current owners are converting the building into condos with parking in the basketball court.
The four corners didn’t become the center of the village as Burlingame had intended. Most of the commercial properties developed between Madison and Jefferson. The lots on West Washington became primarily residential. Taken together, they are one of Ellicottville’s most tangible links to its past.