Backward, turn backward, Oh time in your flight, And make me a child, Again just for tonight.
Portville, New York, 1931
Dedication: To the memory of Henry Dusenbury, William F. Wheeler, Smith Parish, Lemuel Smith, Luman Rice and their coworkers whose courage and enterprise laid the foundation of the present beautiful home like village.
Biographical Sketch: Mr. Harry C. Holcomb was born December 23, 1861, in Ceres Township, McKean County, Pennsylvania, the oldest of fourteen children born to Asahel Holcomb and his wife, Cornelia Chevalier. He came to Portville in the spring of 1880. In 1881, he entered the employ of H. J. Crandall as clerk in the general store owned by him. In 1892, he was elected Justice of the Peace, serving six years. Later, he was elected Supervisor, serving for six years. He was appointed Postmaster in 1903, serving twelve years and was again appointed in 1924. Mr. Holcomb is a member of and an Elder in the Presbyterian Church, also is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Portville Free Library and Vice President of Chestnut Hill Cemetery Association. He is a member of the Masonic Lodge, a Past Master and Past District Deputy Grand Master of that order, also a member of the Odd Fellows, the Knights of the Macabees, and the Order of the Eastern Star. -The Publishers
Fore Word: It is the privilege of youth to look forward. Life is all before, with its hopes, its confidence in power to achieve, its happy anticipation of success and joys. These constitute the buoyant youth as he passes from childhood to young man and womanhood and without which the whole future is but a cheerless hopeless void.
If it is a privilege of youth the look forward, it is also a privilege of age to dream now and then of the days long gone when memory calls to mind the things of town and people nearly or quite forgotten and by very many entirely unknown. So, dreaming of the past, there passes a very panorama of Portville as I first knew it more than fifty years ago.
The old town has changed greatly but so gradually that even those who have known it through the years have hardly realized what has been going on. That which is now the beautiful section, known as Brooklyn, with its paved street, fine walks, well kept lawns and tidy homes was known as "The Patch." Brooklyn Street was a rough mud road with pigs and cows pasturing along the track or in yards adjoining rough unpainted cabins occupied by laborers from the tannery. The old tannery, which stood where the Ice Cream plant now is, furnished employment for many and wages for common day labor, averaged One Dollar and a quarter per day, some higher, many less. Men and women worked together, saved a bit even from this meager wage and brought up children who have grown to maturity and passed, some to the great beyond, many to take their places and "carry on."
Joseph Slayvitch,a native of Hungary, I think, was one of the employees of the old tannery. He lived for many years in a little cabin on the point between the highway and Dodges Creek just west of the bridge we called Mayville Bridge in those days. Another family of those days was the Merwins, who later scattered, some going to the lumber country of Northern Michigan and one of the boys settled in Olean and was for many years a member of the police force of that city.
Lumbering was the principal industry aside from the tannery and many mills dotted the creek and river banks. Dusenbury and Wheeler owned and operated a saw and grist mill on what is now the Mayville farm and Ezra Bedford managed the mill and kept the boarding house which stood in the elbow of the old road near the top of the hill. This house has since been torn down.
Logs were floated in the old pond which is now a beautiful meadow, owned by D.C. Dusenbury, a grandson of one of the founders of Portville. In the spring, this pond was full of logs which were cut into such stock as the market down the river demanded. Lumber was piled on both sides of the road at times and was hauled with horse teams to the river to be worked into rafts and floated down the old Allegany river to Pittsburgh and towns farther down the Ohio. Much of it was loaded onto boats on the old canal to be carried to Mt. Morris and Rochester.
A plank road was laid from the mill down what is now Temple Street to the river. The mills of Weston, Mersereau and Company about one mile south of the junction of the Oswayo Creek with the Allegany River was an important center of the lumber activity for that section of town and the company's interests reached many miles up the river into Pennsylvania. Many of the present generation will easily remember when this was an important section. John G. Mersereau was the resident manager and among those who were his trusted employees was J.C. Middaugh who was always active when logs were in the river and was a very capable river man. His widow still lives here and a son Frank also makes Portville his home.
Others long since gone were Andrew Brooks, Lyman E. Carr and many others.
This business was taken over by Mersereau and Company, composed of Wm. B. Mersereau and Eugene Leavens. Mr. Mersereau was a grandson of John G. and Mr. Leavens, his father-in-law. Mersereau and Company continued in business for a number of years and the business prospered under their management. Later, the mills were purchased by M.J. Smith, the logs for stocking it being furnished by the former owners.
After the hemlock adjacent to the mills was exhausted, Mr. Mersereau moved to Portland, Oregon, where he entered the lumber business. After a few years, he died, leaving his business to his sons who still carry on in Oregon and Washington. Mr. Smith retired from active business and died a few years later.
At Main Settlement, there was a saw mill of considerable importance and across the valley, at what is now known as Carroll, was the lumber mill of Hiram B. Smith, which stood near where the P.S. & N. Railroad now crosses the highway.
Below town was the Gordon Mills, also an important industry. F.E. Tyler was the resident manager of this business.
Among the merchants of fifty years ago was the Persing hardware, formerly owned by M.B. Bennie and now owned by Smith Parish. J.E. Dusenbury & Co. owned a large general store on the corner now occupied by R.M. Marble. A.D. Rice and Son and T.S. and C.P. Jackson were the druggists of those days, Pharmacists not having come into being. Grocery stores of Mark Comstock and Smith Parish were permanent and for a few years that of E.M. Bedford about where the Review office now stands. The Parish store stood on the corner where the Townsend Store now is. Rowe and Pearson are on the old Comstock sight. Nicholas Hotton succeeded Mr. Comstock in the business and later this became Hotton Brothers and still later the A.W. Hotton store.
The first meat market I remember in Portville was conducted by Hosea Delaney about where J.H. Peckham is now in business. Later, Fred Bell and Earl Marsh occupied the same corner in the meat business. After the fire in 1885, Marsh and Bell moved to Hornell and later dissolved their partnership and Mr. Marsh came back to Portville and again entered the meat business which he conducted until failing health compelled his retirement, a short time before his death.
Archie MacDougald was another meat dealer with a market on Temple Street. MacDougald has a son, now a Methodist minister at Smethport.
J.E. Dusenbury lived on "the hill," the old Dusenbury homestead where his son now lives and the driveway winding from the street up to the house was a favorite and popular coasting ground for young people. Another favorite gathering place for boys was the old Gaston Wagon shop which stood on the west side of Main Street near the north end of Dodges Creek Bridge.
J.H. Warden and his father owned the only furniture store in town and later J.H. added the undertaking business and later was chosen Postmaster and town clerk. He died in 1920.
Early builders were G.T. Lowry, William Livingston, the Percival brothers, E.B. and Gordon Col, L.D. Warner, all gone now as are nearly all the other characters mentioned, but all have left their influence on the community.
Another family we have mentioned was that of the Rices, which filled a large place in the business and social life of the community. It was the father of H.L. Rice who greeted the writer with the words the first time we met after a two year absence with a hearty hand shake, "I thought we had got shot of you," his way of expressing his pleasure. Butler Rice now lives in Ceres but his experience in life would fill a book. He was in the Pennsylvania lumber woods for many years as manager; was in Alaska during the early gold excitement, later being in lumber business again in Pennsylvania and Texas. It really matters little where these lives of ours are spent, so that they are useful and the Rice family was always that and because they were useful, they are remembered.
D.L. Parish was one of the first trustees of the village after the village was incorporated. He was very much interested in the village and active in securing the incorporation, the other trustees being as I remember, C.K. Wright and E.M. Bedford. A. W. Hotton, another life long business man was chosen Chief of the Fire Department, which was organized immediately with about thirty members. The foreman for many years was C.E. Lewis who still lives in Portville, but the others mentioned have passed on and in the nature of things are well forgotten except by a few old timers who, like the writer, get much pleasure out of the past. This, of course, is the regular course of life. We come on the stage, play our little part, either well or ill and move on, thus giving place to those who follow. It is the well doing that makes us remembered for a little time after our passing.
Something the other day brought to memory the old business places of Portville. There was the old drug store of A.D. Rice and Son and T.S. and C.P. Jackson; dry goods and clothing stores of J.E. Dusenbury and company and H.J. Crandall; the hardware store of F. S. Persing and company. These stores were all burned in the fire of 1885, tho' some had changed , among them, the Jackson Drug Store, which was owned by George D. Helwig, which stood on a lot where the store of H.S. Orr now stands. This lot was purchased after the fire by H.J. Crandall, who erected the present brick building.
Probably the largest of the old business places was the store of J.E. Dusenbury and company. The company had moved the old building, which they had occupied for many years, onto the lot now occupied by the Standard Oil company filling station, opposite the Methodist Church. They erected a large, commodious building on the lot, which is owned by F. W. Fairchild, and the new building was burned in the fire in 1885 with every business place on the street. This store was under the management of E.G. Dusenbury and later by J.H. Truesdell. After the fire, the Dusenburys moved the business to Olean, where they had previously purchased a large dry goods store.
Mr. Truesdell passed a number of years in New York and later moved to Florida. Among the best known and probably best remembered clerks of the Dusenbury's was George Ryder, who now lives in Olean. Frank McClure, who came form Franklinville and later entered the Railway Mail Service, from which he resigned to go into the lumber business in Pittsburgh and last tho' not by any means least was Dapper Fred Dean, who was an expert in store trimming and window decorating. These men lived in rooms over the store and got their meals at Mrs. Throop's boarding house, which stood where the Stevens house now stands.
Speaking of the Stevens house reminds us of "Bert," who for nearly fifty years owned and conducted a jewelry store here first in the Persing, later in the Parish hardware, and for a number of years, previous to his death, in the house in the corner of Main and Brooklyn streets. Everybody knew Bert, who was recognized as an expert workman, always at his desk. So far as is known, he never in all the years of his business life, took a vacation, dying suddenly after his day's work was done. His brother, Ed, who for a few years was associated with F.S. Persing in the hardware business on the corner where Smith Parish is located, now lives in Coudersport.
Mr. Parish and his father purchased the store and stock from the Persings under the name of D.L. Parish and Son. D.L. Parish conducted a grocery store in the building now occupied by C. E. Chaffee, which he built after the fire of 1885.
Others well remembered were: George Peckham, now living in Buffalo; "Billy" Trenkle, now a resident of Minneapolis; then there were the Warner boys, Clarence, Charles and Ralph, now scattered with so many others of those days. It may be of interest to mention that all were successful in life. Clarence now lives in New York, Charles in Chicago, and Ralph in California.
Among the other old time boys were Frank Wright and Charlie Bedford, since gone over the great divide and who knows but they be in some useful position in the spirit world. We may imagine that the Giver of All Good things will do for us the things that will bring us greatest happiness and we are sure some of these boys would be entirely happy just playing a harp.
A little while ago, standing near the present Pittsburgh and Shawmut station, memory turned back the pages of her book. We saw, not the iron rails, but in what is now only a dry ditch where brush is growing and used only for a dumping ground, there a stretch of water, deep enough to carry the big boats with their tons of freight, used during the later years as a real old fashioned swimming hole, where the boys gathered on warm afternoons for a real old fashioned swim. Not one or two, but a dozen or more. There was a spring board from which the more daring look long dives into the water. The best remembered and more skillful was lanky Frank Scutt. It was a real thrill to see him jump from the spring board in a long clean dive and cut the water with scarcely a ripple. Frank was an older brother of A.W. Scutt, who still lives here. He went West when a young man and made his home in Nebraska.
The first Men's Club in Portville, so far as I know, was organized by Rev. S. T. Clark, then serving the Presbyterian Church about 1887. This very quickly grew to be a community club of men which carried on until the present free Library reading room was opened. The object was two fold. First, to conduct a reading room where all the best magazines could be found and, second, to create an interest in better things. W.C. Hitchcock was the first president and C.C. Smith, the secretary. Meetings were held in various rooms at different times. Among those active in this society, known as the Young Men's Society, now gone, were William Holden, W.B. Mersereau, W.E. Wheeler, Nicholas Hotton, John James, A.W. Hotton, W.P. Roberts, Jacob Trenkle, Frank Wright, Orbon Richards, and Thomas James, all now gone over the border. There were many others whose names do not occur to me. Among those living at present are H.F. Keyes of Meadville, H.D. Barber of Pasadena, California, C.E. Lewis and C.O. Peckham of Portville, and W.E. James of Duke Center, PA. and A.L. Persing, who was associated with his brother F.S. in the hardware business and later moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and was connected with a wholesale hardware firm there. He later died very suddenly in Lansing, Michigan, while on a business trip.
W.B. Mersereau moved to Portland, Oregon, and died very suddenly a few years later. Orbon Richards moved to Buffalo later and engaged in the livery business there, dying a few years later while on a business trip in Pennsylvania. Wallace McDonald, another active member of this Society, was the foreman of the finishing shop in the old tannery. He later went to Mexico and still later back to Boston where he died a few years ago. Henry McDonald, a brother, still lives near Boston.
I. Trenkle and C.W. Van Wart were the local blacksmiths and in those days, two or three men in each shop were kept busy caring for the needs of each section. H.F. Keyes later succeeded to the Van Wart business and Jacob Trenkle took over the business of his father, to which had been added the livery business. This was an important branch in those days as there were no automobiles and street cars were unknown. It was about this time that the old Allegany Central Railroad, a narrow gauge line from Olean to Bolivar was built. This covered the old toe path of the Genesee Valley Canal from Olean to Mersereaus and is now the P. S. and N.
One of the land marks long since obliterated was the town pump which was not far from where the Kayes Garage now stands. This was a very attractive play corner for the boys and girls as they stopped going to and from school even as the present fountain is to the youngsters of today. Here, the farmers and teamsters stopped to water horses using the old pump to draw the water which thirsty animals eagerly drank.
At the Van Wart blacksmith shop you would see gathering on rainy afternoons, farmers from the surrounding country, where they so seriously discussed the affairs of town, state and nation, as "Wesley" worked over his fire and anvil caring for their many and various needs. Here you would often see A. G. Packard, an old river pilot sitting side by side with Van Wart on a bench in the back of the old shop in intimate conversation on topics of mutual interest, but especially of the interest of the Masonic lodge, both being very much devoted to that fraternity. Speaking of Van Wart reminds me of a story about him which shows his loyalty to the order as well as his sense of humor. One day a friend, a Methodist minister said to him, "I've been thinking lately that it might be a help in my work if I was a member of some fraternal organization and have about decided to join either the Odd Fellows or the Masons. Now which would you advise?" Van Wart made this humorous reply, "Every man must settle those things for himself but I never use skim milk when there is cream on the table." His meaning was obvious.
In connection with Van Wart, we naturally think of his competitor, Isadore Trenkle, who had a livery business in connection with his blacksmith shop and the first thing one saw on entering the barn was a big sign reading "Whip light. Drive slow. Come back all right. Pay before you go." This old barn was later burned with contents and about twenty five horses, one of the hardest fires the local department had to fight.
Thinking of Mr. Packard, I always think of the last thing he said to his friend Van Wart. It was the day before Christmas and he was in the shop having his usual visit with the old blacksmith and as both were well advanced in years they got to talking of the time when they might be "called from labor to refreshment" and Mr. Packard said "I've had a good life and have enjoyed it. I am in no hurry to leave it but in the natural course of things, I know I can't stay much longer and I'm ready I guess as I'll ever be and when my time comes to go I hope I go quickly, and I'll tell you how I'd like it to come. I'll get up some morning, have my breakfast, light my pipe and sit down in the old chair in front of the fire and drop over and be gone." Strange as it may seem, this was the way Mr. Packard went the next morning, Christmas. He had a mechanical toy for a little granddaughter and she was having trouble making it run. After watching her a few minutes, he said "Let me show you, Sis," and bending over, he fell on the floor and was gone in a very few minutes.
Another old timer was Captain William Holden, who came to Portville from Buffalo to work in the old tannery. Outside his family, Mr. Holden had two outstanding interests, his church and the G. A. R., both of which he was very much devoted. He never missed a service of his church nor a meeting of the Post, unless prevented by sickness or other unavoidable occurrence. In the old political days, when marching clubs were in evidence on every campaign, Captain Holden was sure to be on hand to organize and drill a company and it was a real joy to witness his enthusiasm and interest in such times. He served two terms as Postmaster, the first under President Harrison, the second under President McKinley. He died in July, 1903.
Another old time citizen was A. T. Warden, a fine, conscientious, Scotchman, who first as blacksmith and then as furniture dealer was for many years identified with the business interests of Portville and was honored for his rugged honesty and devotion to his church.
There was a great deal of real enjoyment gotten by the young people from little amateur entertainments. Among the most active were found W. B. Mersereau and Frank Wright, and E. E. Alderman, all long since gone. Others, now living, were Miss Lilla Wheeler, who still lives at the old home where the young people so often gathered for a social evening. Mr. and Mrs. William F. Wheeler entered heartily into the pleasure of the young folks and really enjoyed those evenings. Others were Miss Belle Colwell, now living in Englewood, N.J., Miss Nellie Wright, now living in New Jersey, both married and useful in their new homes. Among the younger social lights were "Billie" Trenkle, who was connected with Mr. Alderman in the grocery business and was always a welcome addition to any company. Bill now lives in Minneapolis and is always delighted to see his old friends.
Portville is justly proud of the beautiful library and grounds, the gift of Mr. E. G. Dusenbury and looking at it now, I wonder how many remember it as it was 50 years ago. Surrounded by a board fence painted a clean, clear white to match the house with a cap on top and looking across it in fine weather, one was almost sure to see the owner, Smith Parish, sitting in the big chair on the front with his cane across his knees or using it to direct the work of men on the lawn. Back of the house was a plot of ground graded and used as a croquet ground where the old men gathered either to play or watch the players. A happy, contented bunch and I am quite confident, getting as much out of life as we now get. We might learn many lessons from these contented patriarchs of the old days. When men were always ready to sacrifice personal comfort for the sake of lending a helping hand to a neighbor in need and their pleasure came from the intimate companionship. The same spirit was shown in these pleasures as was in the old gatherings in country grocery store and blacksmith shop. Men and women made their own amusement and enjoyed them fully, as much as we Twentieth Century folks do our picture shows and autos. Once a year, somewhere near mid-summer came the old one-ring circus and, once a year, the County Fair. These were the big days in country life, fully appreciated and enjoyed. These days and pleasures are of the past, gone with the oil lamp for the best room and tallow dips for general service around the house and even the memory is a misty almost forgotten thing.
Turning back the leaves in memory's book we see other Portville boys who have gone out from the old town and given a good account of themselves. Among them was Fred Crandall, who is now a prominent lawyer in Coudersport, Pa. He was the second son of Ira B. Crandall and was born and grew to manhood at Main Settlement. Another Man Settlement boy, who honors his birthplace, is Judge J.W. Bouton of Smethport, a cousin of Mr. Crandall. Earl Crandall, a brother of Fred, studied medicine and for many years practiced his profession at Old Bridge, N.J. He died a few months ago and now rests from his labors in beautiful Chestnut Hill Cemetery.
Then we recall the three McDonald boys, Wallace, Henry, and George. Only Henry remains of this trio, and I think that he is now in Peabody, Massachusetts with some leather company. Wallace died abut one year ago and George finished his work about ten years ago. Both now sleep in Chestnut Hill.
Another Portville boy who has made good is W. M. Wheeler, a grandson of William F. Wheeler, one of the pioneer founders of Portville. He left town after graduating from the local high school. Later he graduated from Yale College. He then took a law course at Harvard and after his admission to the bar was, for a number of years, connected with the law firm of Moot, Sprague, Brownell, and Marcy of Buffalo. He later moved to San Francisco where he is now in business, with his home in Piedmont, California.
Henry Trenkle, who grew up here, is an uncle of Nicholas Trenkle. He studied medicine and is now connected with a large hospital on Long Island. Charles Trenkle, a brother of Henry, is now a successful business man in Kane, Pa. and Billie has made good in Minneapolis.
Another family of boys who went out from Portville and made good were the three Warner boys, sons of L.D. Warner. Clarence had a varied career, being of an adventurous nature but finally settled in New York and now lives there. Charlie went into newspaper work in Lincoln, Nebraska, and now lives in Chicago. Ralph, the youngest, made connection with the Standard Oil company, and now holds a responsible position with the concern with headquarters in San Francisco.
Will U. Lowrey was another Portville boy, who has done well in Boston. He began life as a news boy here, learned telegraphy at the local railroad station and now holds a responsible position with the railroads centering at Boston.
Arthur Scutt, a brother of A.W. Scutt, left Portville many years ago and settled in Nebraska, where he became a successful merchant.
Still another Portville boy, who will be remembered by many of the older people, was Fred Hatch, who lived on the Lillibridge road. Fred with his brother Bert went to Utah many years ago. Bert went to ranching, but Fred went into business as manager of one of Armour and company's branches. Later he went to Los Angeles where he still lives, a successful, useful citizen and a credit to his native town. Archie, another brother, stayed in Portville and now lives on the Dusenbury farm at Mayville.
Portville has not had many serious fires in years, but in the past it has seen some disastrous conflagrations. In 1875, the business section was entirely destroyed, except the store of J.E. Dusenbury and company. Again in 1885, another fire occurred that burned nearly everything in sight. There was no fire protection and the only means of fighting a fire was with buckets.
In 1894, lightning struck the old Presbyterian Church, and it, with most of the contents, was destroyed. This roused the people to a sense of the need of some protection and steps were at once taken to incorporate the village and procure an adequate water supply. The present system was installed that year or early in 1895 and a fire company organized.
The first fire after this was the house of Michael Stievater at the upper end of Brooklyn Street. The village had not as yet secured any hose, or a cart, but the boys rallied to the call, borrowed a few hundred feet of hose from the Tannery company and started their first fight. They were badly handicapped by lack of hose, there only being enough to throw one stream of water, and it was intensely cold. The water froze to the clothing and in a very short time every fire man was encased in a heavy coat of ice. All that could be done was to confine the fire to one house, but the boys got experience and showed their metal, proving that given proper equipment, the could, and would, do good work. Reference has been made to the Trenkle livery barn fire, also to the fire at the Fairchild mill. At both of which the Portville Fire Department proved its right to existence and from then to now the boys have promptly and cheerfully responded to every call. Fires have occurred outside which could not be reached with hose but the men have responded with the same spirit and by forming bucket brigades, saved valuable property. Two of the largest, as I now remember, were the burning of the Gordon saw mill and the Mersereau mills.
Thinking recently of the sections immediately adjacent, I am reminded of Main Settlement, or its more modern name, East Portville, settled largely by Seventh Day Baptists. They built a church there many years ago and through the years it has stood, a monument to the faith and devotion of the people. Prominent among those who we remember were the Barber and the Main families, from which the section took its name. Then there were the Maxsons, Burdicks, Langworthys, and Hornblower families, all active, patriotic, and honest, each contributing to the growing need of the community.
At Millgrove, where the first Post Office was established, the Archibalds, John R. and Andrew, were active, both well known to the writer in later years. John R. finished his life in the house now owned by A.L. Ecklin near the river bridge at Millgrove and Andrew purchased the farm now owned by O.L. Scutt and lived there for many years. His son, George, succeeded to the farm and managed it until failing health compelled him to dispose of it. A younger son, Charlie, went West and died many years ago in Colorado. His remains were brought back to Portville and laid to rest in Chestnut Hill.
James Archibald was the son of John R. and for many years owned and managed a farm west of the Allegany river on the Eldred road. A few years ago, he disposed of it and came to Portville where he still lives.
Harry Holcomb came to Portville in 1880 when he was 19 years old. He began working as a clerk in a Peace, later elected Supervisor, and in 1903 was appointed Postmaster of Portville, N. Y., a position he held for many years. In his book, written in 1931, he portrays Portville as he knew it in the previous fifty years. For today's reader, it describes Portville as it was over 125 years ago (1880 - 1930). We hope you enjoy his story, presented here in four parts. See also his biography and obituary.