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ANNUAL MANUAL '11: Historical Museums in Rochester

Rochester’s historical museums offer specialized looks into the past

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[ HISTORY ] BY KATHERINE STATHIS

The North Star.Smugtown.Rochesterville. Bygone names- and some names that have stuck- conjure a rich image of Rochester's heritage that is not always apparent at first glance of our city. While our daily lives keep us moving forward, who walked this same ground before us, and what happened here? Answers and artifacts of Rochester's past await exploration in the tiniest of places: the museums dedicated to the many facets of our local history. There are literally dozens of specialized historical museums in the Greater Rochester area. Here are just a few to add to your radar.

            Spot the little "Museum Open" sign on Humboldt Street and you will have found Rochester Medical Museum and Archives (333 Humboldt St., 922-1847, rochestergeneral.org/archives), a collection chronicling the history of health care in Rochester -- particularly at Rochester General (once RochesterCityHospital) and Genesee hospitals. Photographs, uniforms, and documents reveal the hospitals' significance and their early influential strides in the field of nursing. In fact, the American Journal of Nursing originated here in Rochester. Rotating exhibits offer both big-picture perspective and detailed insight to this aspect of local history.

            The gorgeous Fairport Historical Museum (18 Perrin St., 223-3989, perintonhistoricalsociety.org) resides in the village's former library, complete with card catalogs and the quiet reverence libraries once exemplified. View the striking 1938 Carl Peters mural, or plunge through genealogy resources, rare maps, scrapbooks, and lot-transfer records to trace Perinton property and family lineage. Period ephemera provide a glimpse of bygone daily life while showcasing Fairport's canal days of innovation and industry, including George Cobb's perfection of the solderless can to preserve food.

            While Fairport was literally leading the United States in sanitary canning, Webster supplied the crops. See vintage brands of "evaporated" fruits in Mrs. Witmer's Store display at the Webster Museum (18 Lapham Park, 265-3308, webstermuseum.org). Volunteer Carol Saylor emphasizes the role of agriculture during the time of Webster's 1840 incorporation: "Webster's greatest industry for the rest of the 19th century -- and into the 20th -- was apples." Apples bore other fruits of industry as well, including the Webster Basket Company, whose fly wheel sits outside. Currently, the museum is compiling oral histories from those who remember the area's rural roots. Other exhibits include a charming replica of a 22-seat 19th-century school room (complete with dunce cap) and vintage devices from another Webster industry: Xerox.

            Brushed gunmetal-cased electronics are right at home at the Antique Wireless Association Museum in East Bloomfield (2 South Ave, 657-6260, antiquewirelessmuseum.com). Hear the sounds of old-time radio pump through period speakers, and look back at the birth and evolution of radio communications and entertainment. Valuable originals are on view alongside interactive pieces, from the classic NBC chime to the sci-fi Jacob's ladder and Tesla coil. The current displays only feature 15 percent of the museum's collection, so plans are set for a new word-class facility and media research center to open in 2013, complete with an Art Deco cobalt blue Spartan radio facade where visitors will enter through the dial.

            A perfect companion to the AWA Museum is the Sunshine Radio Museum in Sodus (8 E Main St, 315-483-8451, sunshineradiomuseum.org), which takes particular interest in the human component of radio. Director Ray Seppeler has a glint in his eye when he shares his knowledge and experience of radio's golden age. See the storefront showroom's free display of vintage radios typically found in the American home during that era WHICH IS?, or arrange a custom tour of the detailed upstairs museum at a special rate -- ideally for groups, to encourage shared stories.

            Nostalgia for bygone days is a certain draw for visitors, especially at the Jell-O Gallery in Le Roy TWO WORDS? (23 E Main St., 768-7433, jellomuseum.com). See how the "dainty dessert" formed and cooled in 1897, with unexpected sociological implications. "Jell-O democratized an elitist food," ASPICS? says Lynne Belluscio, director of the gallery and nearby Historic Le Roy House. Of course, most just come for the fun: see fascinating ad campaigns (including original oil still-lifes of Jell-O molds), memorabilia (check out Jell-O Fun Barbie and Jell-O casual wear for Ken), and classic "Jell-O-mercials." Cast a vote for your favorite flavor, and find out which flavors didn't set properly (celery, anyone?).

            It's fanciful to imagine Jell-O boxes on the shelves of William Phelps General Store & Home, one of four museums that make up Historic CAPPED? Palmyra (132 Market St., 315-597-6981, historicpalmyrany.com). The 1826 building served many uses until the late 1800's, when Phelps opened his store. Phelps' son Julius shut its doors in 1940, leaving what remains today -- a "retail time capsule" ready to explore. Go upstairs to the family home and get to know Sybil Phelps, who lived there until her death in 1976. Next door, you'll find the Palmyra Print Shop. The evocative brick interior holds the Palmyra-produced equipment that so influenced the world's printing industry. Printers, cutters, presses, type and typeset, blocks, ink bottles, foundry tools, vintage signs -- anything that has to do with printing at all -- awaits exploration and use.

            LOTS ON PALMYRA AT THIS POINT. DO WE NEED? Palmyra's role in history is a revelation to any visitor; just walk through the nearby PalmyraHistoricalMuseum. The 23 themed rooms in this former hotel and tavern show Palmyra's connections to American history - even to Winston Churchill. Notice the coverlet in the bedroom - that's right, the woven bedspread - reminding you that a block away stands the AllingCoverletMuseum. This is the largest collection of hand woven coverlets in the United States, where you'll find looms, spinning wheels, jacquards (and their surprising link to computers), a quilt room, and an unusual gift shop.

            The gift shop is a highlight of any museum. Browse the tiny gift shop at the CharlotteGeneseeLighthouseMuseum (70 Lighthouse St., 621-6179, geneseelighthouse.org) to find lighthouse-themed anything. In the museum, see a 19th-century nautical map of LakeOntario and a timeline of Charlotte's history, which includes the once-bustling OntarioBeachPark and the Ontario II -- yes, the passenger ferry to Canada that operated a century ago. Climb the 42 steps of the Medina Sandstone CAPPED? tower, and find out why it's so far from the lake. Get your special passport stamped and continue your lighthouse adventure at the Sodus Bay Lighthouse Museum (7606 N. Ontario St., 315-483-4936, soduspointlighthouse.org).

            From Charlotte, the Genesee Riverway Trail takes you to HighFalls, the center of downtown IS IT REALLY?. Visit the aptly named Center at High Falls (60 Browns Race, 325-2030, centerathighfalls.org) in one of Rochester's most significant historic districts. Open year-round, the CHF is what director Sally Wood Winslow describes as "a gateway attraction, highlighting Rochester's history, geography, commerce, and culture." See the10,000-year glacial formation of the Genesee I THINK A WORD IS MISSING THERE elapse in seconds; hear brief biographies of dozens of Rochester notables; and ride a virtual taxi to Rochester attractions. Then, return at night for gallery openings exhibiting contemporary art of local interest. While downtown, make the essential Rochester stops: the Susan B. Anthony House (17 Madison St., 235-6124, susanbanthony.org) and nearby FrederickDouglassResourceCenter (36 King St, 325-9190, frederickdouglassrc.com).

            Much of Rochester's history is told through its evolution of transit at the New York Museum of Transportation in Rush (6393 East River Road, 533-1113, nymtmuseum.org). Examine and explore authentic rail cars, and most any other form of land transportation -- each with its own story to tell. Enjoy the interactive HO-gauge layout in the model train room, right next to a miniaturized running replica of the old Rochester subway line. Outside, the only trolley line in New YorkState will take you on a scenic ride to the Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum (ADDRESS? 533-1431, rgvrrm.org).

            Don't forget those engines that run in the air. See them up close at the 1941 HistoricAircraftGroupMuseum in Geneseo (3489 Big Tree Lane, 243-2100, 1941hag.org). The museum hangar is packed with an impressive fleet, including the famous Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortress" featured in the movie "Memphis Belle." Ever climb into a warplane before? Be prepared for a kind of shock and awe as you step over the bomb-bay doors and into the turret -- it's not the sort of perspective you get every day. The museum also hosts a huge historic air show every July.

            There would be no Geneseo Air Show if the Holland Land Purchase never took place in the 1790's. The sweeping 3.3 million acres west of the Genesee became what we now call Western New York. How was it acquired, and why in Batavia? Find out at the HollandLandOfficeMuseum (131 W Main St. TOWN?, 343-4727, hollandlandoffice.com), where director Jeff Donahue is alight with stories beyond the exhibits -- and behind the people who shaped history. Be sure to ask him why railroad watches are so important.

            Someone who appreciated a good timepiece was Augustus L. Hoffman, a Newark watchmaker who opened the Hoffman Clock Museum in 1954 (121 High St. TOWN?, 315-331-4370, hoffmanclockmuseum.org). The museum is a permanent wing of the Newark library, featuring "horological artifacts" from mostly the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many styles of luxurious carved wood-cased clocks fill the rooms, as do curious tools and machinery. Once inside, a person can both lose and gain a sense of time.

            Simply put, there's no time like this moment to explore Greater Rochester's treasures. LET'S REPLACE THIS WITH A LINE ABOUT HOW THIS IS ONLY A SAMPLING OF OUR LOCAL HISTORICAL MUSEUMS, AND FOR MORE PEOPLE SHOULD CHECK OUT THE SIDEBAR ATTACHED TO THIS ARTICLE ONLINE.

In This Guide...

    ANNUAL MANUAL '11: Introduction

    Putting it all together
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    ANNUAL MANUAL '11: Rochester blogs

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    ANNUAL MANUAL '11: Rochester outdoor galleries

    A guide to Rochester’s notable outdoor art
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    ANNUAL MANUAL '11: Rochester's Pizzerias

    A survey of Rochester’s neighborhood pizzerias
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    ANNUAL MANUAL '11: Rochester Sports

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    ANNUAL MANUAL '11: 2011 Festival Guide

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    ANNUAL MANUAL '11: Welcome to the Neighborhoods

    Get to know the Greater Rochester area
    MonroeCounty is about as diverse a community as you can find: a mid-size city, rural areas with orchards and farm markets, suburbs with 20th-century tract houses and shopping malls, and quaint, Victorian villages. The GeneseeRiver and the Erie Canal bisect the county, more or less vertically and diagonally, so geology and history are a constant presence, shaping everything from traffic patterns to architecture and public festivals.

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