The Southtowns. Is it everything below the Southern line of Buffalo? Are they the truculent, intractable towns that demanded Rich Stadium (then so-named in 1973) be located south of Buffalo or threaten secession from the county? Are they some form of agrarian backwater held over from times gone by? Are they just down on their luck, awaiting the next boom? The truth is that the Southtowns are reflective of many of the areas of New York: they grew when the big shoulders of agriculture and industry grew the country. Mills, glue factories, the hum of the steel industry and furniture factories drove employment. At one point, the furniture industry was so large – and dominated by Swedish émigrés – that Jamestown had its own Swedish consulate. I know some people consider Jamestown too far removed from the Southtowns in Erie county, but bear with me, we’re going to drive north from here. I also know I can’t cover all of the Southtowns. So, I make this offer: If you want to see a town covered, tell me on Twitter or on the comment section below. I will do my best throughout the year to write it up.
So, we’re getting in the car again, or since we’re going back in time, maybe the TARDIS. Doctor Who fans will understand this, the rest of you, feel free to Google or go the BBC website. We drop back in time to roughly 100 years ago, and we’re going to take our touring car to Jamestown, NY. It is at the southern entrance of Chautauqua Lake, on the Chadakoin River. The Chadakoin is a tributary to the Allegheny River. The city is then throbbing with an industry that stands to this day: furniture production. Yes, it is not nearly the Giant industry it was 100 years ago, but there are nearly 1,000 people still engaged in the production of furniture or related industries. In our way back machine (hot tub or otherwise), we would see everything from timber to leather brought in on the train that still runs 5 times per day. Owned by CP these days, it is part of a major national line hauling goods across this nation. Supplies and raw materials still reach Jamestown to this day, but 100 years ago, there was always a bustle. As the article above mentioned, Rail helped the city build what people used for years in their homes.
So, why does rail mean so much? I work for the NYS Dept. of Transportation and rail has been, and continues to be, the primary overland mover of large shipments. I had the pleasure of helping (in a very small way) the restoration of the Jamestown passenger rail station, an Art Deco era building that is truly a small city gem. The local engineers and other interested groups have gone to great length to preserve or re-create the original station. It is here, in the heart of downtown that Jamestown hopes to rebuild. It will hold offices, a restaurant and perhaps lofts. The station is across from the Jamestown Ice Arena on 3rd street. The ice arena is home to minor league hockey and many local hockey and skating tournaments. As one local resident and area booster told me, many regional tournaments come there because of lower cost of hosting a tournament. All of downtown, and most of Chautauqua County is covered by the local public transportation system, known as CARTS.
A quick note: I haven’t eaten here as much as I’d like, so I’m not nearly an expert on the food. One of the things I do know of is that a lot of people around here love their fish fry, particularly on Fridays. A number of restaurants do offer this, and if you like a good old fashioned, fried up large piece of haddock with fries, tartar sauce, etc., there’s plenty to be found. I’ve tried Davidson’s (west of the city on Fairmount) and hear great things about the more upscale Harbor Grill. Davidson’s is a local’s place and you can hear conversations about the sports, the people, and bring the kids. Back into the city, I’ve grabbed a quick coffee-and-sandwich from Lori’s Kountry Café – good morning café near the train station, and I’ve had a slice of Pizza from Renaldo’s, out on 2nd Street. Excellent slice, by the way. By the way, if anyone wants to add a restaurant recommendation, I’m all ears (or eyes, as this is on the Internet). Feel free to tweet at me or write in the comments below.
So, we’ll travel north from Jamestown by first traveling east on 17/I-86 (or you can see more of the city by taking east 2nd street) out to Falconer, NY and up Route 62. US 62 travels from Niagara Falls to El Paso, TX. One of these days, I’m going to drive the whole road. We’ll end up in Buffalo proper, which is where my last article of the first portion of this series will detail. Whether you take 394 or 17/86, you wind up in Kennedy, NY. The Conewango Creek (which joins the Chadakoin south of Kennedy) flows through the place. As you wend your way north through the lush and fertile valleys, you will pick up the distinctive rural character of the area. Farms dominate the area. This is part of New York’s breadbasket and fruit growing operations. Drop by a farm stand, if you see one, and sample the local produce. It’s fresh, delicious and beats most of your store “local” produce. I was at one store, recently, which claimed to have some local produce. I live near Albany. Said local produce was from… New Jersey. I’m not disrespecting New Jersey, but… I don’t consider 150 miles away to be local. Now I know why they say Americans are bad at Geography. Oy.
US 62 runs along the western half of Cattaraugus county and the eastern portion of Chautauqua County. We drive northward on 62, following the Conewango Valley. Conewango is a Seneca Word, meaning “below the Riffles” and is a part of the Sacred Waterways that they guarded fiercely. These waterways and the trails that the Seneca guarded are known as “The Forbidden Path”. A spat with the Erie peoples who lived near the area led to all out war (The Beaver Wars of 1760-5), where the Erie were wiped out as an independent nation, fleeing to the Huron or being absorbed by the Seneca. Lesson learned: If the path says “Forbidden”, there’s a reason for it.
The Seneca People, keepers of the Haudenosaunee (whom your textbooks often called the Iroquois) “Western Door” are the most prominent of the known First Peoples bands in the area and have extensive gaming, tobacco, fueling and other businesses in the area. There are an additional, smaller band of Seneca called the Tonawanda Band of Seneca, who are more traditional in their ways of living. If you happen through either Seneca Nation, be respectful and look over their traditional craft and goods. If you’re so inclined, purchase them. You will be helping to preserve a very special and important culture in western New York.
As you go further north from the town of Conewango (named after the Creek), you arrive in very rural Leon, where some of my family lives. Here, you are deep in the Heart of the Amish Trail of NY. The trail runs from Gowanda, NY to Randolph, NY in the southwest and Salamanca, in the Southeast. I can’t begin to detail all of the Amish goods you can buy here. That alone would take up four articles. Please, enjoy the jams, jellies, whoopee pies, and whatever else you may find. I bought a cast iron Dutch Oven from The Mystic Hill Olde Barn on Cattaraugus County Route 5. By the way, the Amish usually sell from roadside stands. The stores with electricity and similar furnishings are retailers who sell Amish goods for them. The Amish Trail is hugely important to New York’s reviving tourist industry. It is a source of local pride and local jobs. If you want to support the economy in western NY, be a part of it. Take the time to drive here, buy here, and be here. I promise, you won’t regret it.
North of Leon, there’s a town called South Dayton, just off of 62, on Route 322. Two of the greatest eateries in the Southtowns are there. On the west side of this small village is The Mustardseed, an excellent place and tucked in where you’d never expect to find it. Whatever you eat there, have it on the incredible homemade Sunflower bread. Do a few extra laps at the gym, this bread is worth it. And then, there is the Duper, formally the South Dayton Super Duper Supermarket and Pharmacy. There are two things that are made at the store that are food sins worth going to food hell for. One is their Pizza Logs. Wrapped crust with cheese and pepperoni, rolled into a log / taquito form. Thick with cheese and good pepperoni, these things are tasty. The other is quite possibly the greatest donut I’ve ever head. I’ve had donuts everywhere. There are great donut shops in Western NY, and even the chain donut store of record, Tim Horton’s, is decent. However, nothing compares to a Duper Donut. Ever. They are thick, redolent with creams, jellies, or whatever fruit filling you want. The cake portion of the donut is moist, and absolutely perfectly textured and flavored. I don’t know if the Baker made a deal with a Higher or Lower power, but I don’t care. You can travel anywhere on this planet, and I can guarantee you will not find a donut its equal.
Back onto 62, we come to the village of Gowanda, bisected by Cattaraugus Creek and its tributaries, which tragically flooded in 2009. Villages in NY predate town and county lines, and the village of Gowanda, founded in 1810, is now located on the north side in the town of Collins, NY and on the south side, in Persia, NY. The creek is the divisor between the two. Every year, the Hollywood Happening, a motorcycle rally and show, occurs here. It is one of the best times you can have. In addition to the wild motorcycle rallies and stunt shows, there’s magicians, vendors, things to do for the kids, and possibly the best lineup of tribute rock acts over a weekend I’ve seen in sometime. Proceeds benefit the restoration of the Hollywood theater. This is a classic 1920s Art Deco theater, replete with an ornate dome, leaded glass, brass lighting, etc. It is as beautiful a structure as you’ll find in a small town. The theater, like the village, has seen hard economic times over much of the last 30 years. It was closed in 1992. However, restoration efforts have been proceeding, and every year, more and more can be done in the building. Donations are always accepted throughout the year.
Gowanda was part of the scenery for the 1987 comedy, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, including the Olympia Diner, where I had one of the largest Omelets I’ve ever consumed. I didn’t need to eat for another 12 hours. Absolutely outstanding diner food in a classic setting. Just like Davidson’s, it’s a place where you can hear the locals chat about their lives, the days’ news, and times gone by. Places like this are part of the character of an area. East of Gowanda is the Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area, some of the best hiking in the northeastern US. Beautiful, and some very high challenge areas. Please be careful, when they say the trail ahead is dangerous, they mean it. Every year, a number of people are rescued. However, if you love a truly great river valley hike, there’s nothing quite like Zoar Valley.
One last place to cover is one of my favorites: The Palm Gardens, A Motel, Lounge and … Karate School. It’s on the northside of the village, as you head out of town from the south. I stayed there a couple of years ago on my way to a family event. It’s no frills, has WiFi, but anything that’s a Motel, Lounge and Karate school must be seen. $55 a night – not bad, and no bedbugs.
There are two ways up into the Buffalo area: northwest on 438, which heads through the Seneca Nation’s Cattaraugus Lands and towards the shores of Lake Erie, or continuing up 62. In this case, we’ll continue up 62, into the town of Collins. Another time, I think, I’ll review the impact of First Peoples in football and geography.
One warning about the Town of Collins: Don’t speed. Don’t even think about speeding. Just don’t do it. I’ve been warned since I started coming out there, don’t speed. They are dead serious. When the speed limit is 30, it’s 30. Not 31. Not 30.5. 30. Same applies in North Collins. It’s ok, sit back, relax, take the foot ever so slightly off the accelerator. You’re welcome.
We start finally coming into the Suburbs of Buffalo as we reach Eden, NY. Eden is a classic ex-urb, far from the city, but not too far that it limits commutation for the well-to-do. One place worth checking out is O’Brien’s Pub, which has its own smokehouse (typically only during the Easter season), and a fine assortment of pub food and live entertainment. The Buffalo Fries, topped with wing sauce and crumbly blue cheese, are a good excuse for food. While, like most Irish-American places, it’s less Irish on the menu, and more Irish in atmosphere, it’s a good place.
Finally, we begin to reach the suburban areas of Buffalo, starting with Hamburg. Hamburg, like many areas around Buffalo, began to struggle as the factories and steel mills started closing in the late 1970s. In recent years, however, the village has seen a revival, not just as a bedroom community for the growing Health and Research industries, but as a revived village. A new traffic rotary has improved the look and feel of the historic village, and restored Main Street pride. I am a firm believer in roads being built for the people and businesses that are on them, not for the cars driving through them. Hamburg was the town incorporation of the former Barkerville.
Hamburg has a number of beautiful restaurants and sites. 62 forms both Main Street and Buffalo Road in the village, and later becomes South Park Rd, where we’ll eventually drive to the Ralph. I know I’ve said I’ll avoid chains, but I’m going to break a rule just once: Mighty Taco, Buffalo’s own answer to Taco Bel, Del Taco and every other cheap wannabe-Mexican place ever. Try a Buffito, Buffalo chicken wing sauce, chicken and whatever fixings you want. I don’t eat fast food if I can help it, but I break down regularly for Mighty. OK, I’m sorry for breaking my earlier rules.
OK, for non-chains, there’s a really good Mexican place called The Coyote Café, and since I’ve been so unhealthy before, try the Diablo Salad. Upscale you have Daniel’s, which I hear is excellent. There’s escargot and other things to be had from the finer cuisine of life. Notably, there’s a Wine and Food Pairing Menu, which changes dates, times and gastronomical mixes. Bring a bigger wallet for that one. There’s also another Buffalo-area institution, John & Mary’s. It’s always got a fresh slice of pizza or hoagies (subs for most of the US) and the usual complement of wings and other Buffalo-area food. It’s very unpretentious and simple – much like a great deal of Buffalo.
There are some unique features to Hamburg: namely that it has two incorporated villages within its bounds, the Village of Hamburg and the village of Blasdell, which incorporated themselves in the 19th century. This was done to institute local control over services. Now there’s a movement to disincorporate villages and return them to the towns from whence they were often carved. Villages occupy a unique spot in New York: they are capable of taxing, providing services, and forming districts for garbage, water, sewer, etc. They are often created in times of plenty, and sometimes dissolved in times of lean. I wonder if many villages not bisected by town or county borders (like Gowanda) will eventually fade into obscurity as the demand for lean government grows stronger.
The Erie County fair, according to some accounts, is the second largest county fair in the nation. While I don’t know if this is true, it’s pretty darn big. Next year is year #175 and it is doubtless a huge attraction for many people who reside in Erie County. It is held on the county fairgrounds in Hamburg. Side note: I love county fairs. They’re great for the kids, and if you budget wisely, a days’ worth of fun can be had for not a lot of money. It also lets you see a lot of vendors and helps kids to interact with local agricultural efforts. Not all of us get to see farms and farmers in action, but county fairs are excellent ways to see all of your local major producers of the food you put on your table.
We’ve just about come to the end of our journey for this article. I know, a lot of you are screaming about East Aurora or Lackawanna, Springville or Lake Shore. I will cover more of the Southtowns, I promise, if you’d like them, I’ll cover them. Why are we so close to done? We’re close to the Stadium. US 62 reaches US 20 in the north end of Hamburg, passing Hilbert College, a small liberal arts and professional business school. Route 20 is Southwestern Blvd, upon which Erie Community College’s South Campus sits. Finally, you turn on Abbot Road, and there you have it, Ralph Wilson Stadium. The place the Bills call home, and the place Bills fans roar and boo, eat wings and drink (responsibly, please) and cheer. I hope you’ve enjoyed this part of the tour. Next week, I’ll head to Buffalo proper for the last part of this installment. After that, I leave it to you, Bills Nation. Tell me a place. I have requests for Springville, Saratoga, and Colorado Springs. I look forward to learning about your town, researching a place or places, and taking a virtual tour with all of you. Thanks again for reading.