A HISTORY OF THE TOWN OF ELMA
1971 article by Mrs. Courtland Briggs
Courtesy of The Buffalo History Museum
In seeking to make this review of the early days of Elma, we realize once again that we are unusually fortunate in having an excellent source of information in a History of Elma, written by a man named Warren Jackman, and printed in 1902 as a free gift to the people of Elma. Almost all that is offered in this article comes from this source.
Warren Jackman was one of the earliest settlers, coming to this area in 1851. He surveyed every road and almost every lot in town and served as the first Town Clerk, a post which he held for three years. Thus he was acquainted with every man in town. It was suggested to him many times that he write a history, since he had so much knowledge and information right at hand. So at 75 years of age, he wrote one chapter as an experiment and read it aloud at a meeting. He was urged to continue the history, and began, not realizing then the size of the undertaking. He started in 1897 and the book was printed early in 1902!
Reading this history is a delightful experience because it is filled with homey comments and tales of fun as well as statements of fact. The early residents were part of a close community. They worked together in close cooperation. The account of their accomplishments is more like a journal of the daily events of a friendly neighborhood than a history. We are also fortunate in that, at the time of our centennial in 1957, our Town Historian, Fred I. Sigman, brought this history up to date by editing The Centuries in Elma, which includes most of Jackman's history and a compilation of historical accounts by many authors.
Elma is the youngest town in Erie County. In the years following the Revolutionary War, the United States government negotiated treaties with the Indians by which the latter relinquished their title to Western New York lands with the exception of certain Indian reservations. One of these was the Buffalo Creek Reservation in which the future of Elma was included. It was the home of the Seneca Indians, and therefore, not open to settlement by the whites. In 1826, a small part of it was sold and in 1828 the first white settlement was made. It wasn't until 1842, however, that the rest of the reservation was sold and in 1844 the Senecas began to move out. The Ogden Company, the buyer, advertised that they would offer for sale most of the lands here. Very soon people came from the already developed towns of Lancaster, Alden, Wales, Aurora, Colden, and Hamburg, for reports had spread everywhere of the heavy growth of timber and wonderful fertility of the soil. The settlement of this area began in earnest.
The fact that two major creeks, the Buffalo and the Cazenovia, cross this once heavily forested area was probably the of the reasons which brought the Indians here on their hunting and fishing excursions. Later, the white people settled near the creeks which were a source of power for the sawmills soon built on every stream. As the woods were depleted, the land was cleared and the rich soil provided good farming.
Unlike most other towns, Elma does not have one central village. Instead six communities grew up within the town: Blossom, East Elma, Elma Center, Elma Village, Jamison Road, and Springbrook, each tending to live within itself. As a result, the town has maintained a more rural character. So the story of Elma often is the story of just one community, but usually what has happened in one section is similar to happenings in the others. "Big Flats" was an early name for one of the communities in Elma. The account of how this area, later called Elma Village, was first settled is probably for the most part the story of how the whole area was settled.
In the summer of 1854, four young men bought property along the Buffalo Creek where there was a good place to build a dam. The water which was to be held back by the dam would then be let out into a narrow deeper channel the men were to dig across the flatland back to the big creek, downstream from the dam. This mill-race would provide a strong current for power to operate a saw-mill.
As they lived in the neighboring town of Lancaster, they brought a supply of provisions for a few days and did their cooking by a fire built by the side of a log, and at night had a bed of hemlock boughs with blankets for what covering they needed. Soon they built a board shanty as a boarding and lodging house for the men who were to work on the dam, race, and sawmill. That fall, two of the wives took turns, one week for each, in coming from their homes and keeping "The American," as the building was named. When winter set in, the newly-formed company hired a married couple to occupy "The American" and board the hands. After the dam was completed and work on the race was being pushed, a barn was built, and then the first frame house. Next a blacksmith shop was built, and in 1847, the two mill owners, who had bought out the other partners, each built a house on opposite sides of the road. Other houses were soon built, then the schoolhouse. A storekeeper moved into one of the houses and opened up a small stock of groceries, being the first store in Elma. Descendants of these first four families are still living in Elma.
The history of our country is a history of large territories gradually being divided into states, then counties, then towns. And so it was that Elma was formed from a part of Lancaster and a part of Aurora late in 1856, with the first town meeting being held early in 1857.
As this history was begun, in February 1971, a large ice jam in the Buffalo Creek broke up as a result of a thaw and heavy rains. High water accumulating behind the jam had been threatening to inundate Elma Village. Some residents already had water in the cellars of their homes. As the ice began slowly to heave and break, the people gathered near the bridge to watch it. Soon the water broke the ice, and flooded the flatland on the other side of the creek from the houses, leaving huge piles of ice in its wake. Gradually the waters subsided and returned to their course. The villagers returned with relief to their homes.
Here was something that has not changed very much over 100 years of our town's history, and gives one a sense of continuity with the past, for we are experiencing a common occurrence. On further thought, however, the realization comes to mind that many of the things important to us today are the same things which were important to the early settlers. The differences are mostly in the size, or the cost, or the numbers of people involved.
One example is the schools. The early settlers in town were anxious to give their children the elements of a good education and so schools were provided as early as 1831 when the first schoolhouse was built of logs. It was in the Mile Strip section, a part of the first area sold by the Indians, By a strange coincidence, over 100 years later the first superintendent of the centralized school in Elma has his home on this same corner.
In 1847, in the second section sold, a rough board structure, 12 x 16 ft,, was built in Elma Village, It was replaced within a year by a larger school, painted red, with white trimmings. Others were soon built in other communities. When Elma became a town, it became a part of a regular School Commissioners District, and 11 school districts were formed within it. In 1864, a Catholic schoolhouse was also built. One of the 11 districts was discontinued after a few years, and the ten remaining districts went unchanged until 1952 when the Iroquois Central District including Elma, Marilla, and Wales was formed. Today the Junior and Senior High Schools are in Elma, with schools for primary children in each of the three towns.
Mr. Jackman tells us that "as a rule the building of the first schoolhouse in a neighborhood or school district would meet with little or no opposition, but when a move was made for an addition or a new house the opposition would be out in full force." This has a familiar sound to those who are well aware of school bond issues that have been voted down in recent years!
Jackman goes on to tell of a school- house which in, 1852, would no longer accommodate all the children of the district. At the annual meeting, it was unanimously agreed to build a new house. Thereafter followed a long series of meetings and adjournments, of motions made and later rescinded, of putting off the decisions for years, of building additions and making repairs, and finally, 20 years later, the inhabitants of the district voted to have a new house built! In 1875, in another district, very much the same thing happened, and 25 years later the problem was resolved only under threat of having public moneys withheld from the district.
An indication of the change in the size of Elma's educational system is afforded by a comparison of the statistics of 1900 with today. In 1900, the total of Elma children in school was 522, and the year's expenses were $3,592.74. In 1971, enrollment of all children in the Iroquois Central School is 3,934 and the yearly budget of the whole district is $5,302,300.
Another desire common both to us and to the early settlers, is for a place of worship and religious instruction. Often the schoolhouses were the first meeting-places. In Elma Village, an arrangement was made for two ministers, one a Methodist and the other a Presbyterian, to come over from Lancaster to hold meetings on alternate Sunday afternoons. In 1849, a Methodist class of five members was organized, and this was the beginning of the Elma Methodist Church.
The way in which the church building came about in 1859 is interesting as an example of the cooperation among those first residents. The schoolhouse was no longer adequate to hold all the people who wished to attend the meetings, and so even though times were hard and money scarce, a plan was evolved which made construction possible. Each person furnished what he could either in materials or labor, and arrangements were made with suppliers in Buffalo to accept payment in lumber or wood. The whole thing was done by an exchange of materials, and the structure was all paid for when it was dedicated in 1860.
This same determination had resulted in another place of worship being built five or six years before, mostly for an old lady known among her neighbors as Mother Freiburg. She had felt very bad on leaving her home in Germany as she feared she would be deprived of her church privileges. While getting her things together preparatory to moving to America, she found a five franc piece for which she could find no owner. She took it to her priest and there told him what her fears as to America. The priest told her to take the piece of money with her and she could find a good place to use it when she was there.
When Mother Freiburg was settled in Elma, she found it difficult and often impossible to go to Lancaster to attend church, and so with the five francs, and the help of her neighbors, a chapel was built near her home in the woods. It was 10 by 14 feet, and 8 feet in height. The priest from Lancaster came and held services there twice a year for several years, until the good woman moved away. The building was sold and moved to a new location, which later became the site of a Catholic church. At the time of Elma's centennial. Mother Freiburg's little building was renovated, and now stands as a memorial chapel.
One of the Ebenezer Society's settlements was in the area now called Blossom. On a lot near Elma Center they built a house for the accommodation of the men when at work cutting logs. It came later to be called the "Prison House". It got its name in this way.
It was a rule of the society that a man and woman planning to be married must be separated for a year before the ceremony was performed. One young couple defied this rule and married secretly. When this disregard of the society came to the ears of the ruling elders, the culprits were punished by being banished to this house where they were to remain in solitary confinement for a year. They were supplied with clothing and provisions, and the man worked in the woods, but there was no communication, either spoken or written, between them and any member of the society. After the year was up the prisoners were released and went among their friends. This incident caused much talk and indignation among the people of the town. In 1855 the Ebenezers began their removal to Iowa. The "Prison House" still stands and is now in use as a private home.
One of the first churches was built in Springbrook in 1850 by the Catholic church, the Methodist church was built in 1859, and the Lutheran society built in 1873. Other religious societies have come and gone, but these three, with their several churches, still remain. A new Lutheran church has recently been built, and a beautiful new building is under construction by the Catholic Church. In recent years, a Baptist church has been built in the Jamison Road area, and a Wesleyan society has been meeting in an older building in Blossom.
Some other needs felt in any town, whether one that is just getting started or one of many years, can be met only through public moneys and acts. Post offices, roads, and bridges are among these.
The place later known as Elma Village was called "Big Flats" by the Indians when they lived there, and later it went by the name of "Hurd or Briggs' Mills" after the first settlers in that area, or by the name of "Milford." The place was known all over by all of these names. Letters for persons living there would be directed to the Lancaster post office with any of these names added and the Lancaster postmaster knew where they belonged. Obliging teamsters, on their way home from hauling wood or lumber, would stop in to take any mail back for their neighbors. Usually they took it to the small store in the village, where people then called for it. "Why not have a post office and have our mail brought regularly?", was asked, and then a need for a name was felt. Several names were brought out, but none seemed entirely satisfactory until someone said, ''There is a big elm tree at the crossing of the two roads. Why not add the letter 'a' to the elm tree and call the post office Elma?" The suggestion was accepted, and after the proper procedures were carried out, the new Elma post office received mails three times a week. This was in 1852. There were post offices in other areas, too, and they could be found in many different places: the store, a tavern, a house, or the justice's office, depending on where it was most convenient for each newly-appointed postmaster.
Bridges were always a major concern. The first one was built across the Buffalo Creek in 1844. It was carried away by high water and ice the next spring, and rebuilt. A spring freshet carried it off again in 1849 and another was built that summer. This bridge was damaged when the ice went out in the spring of 1851, was then repaired and remained until an iron bridge was built in 1871. When a new bridge was placed over the mill-race in 1893, a ''bee" followed, to haul and place stone and gravel for the approaches to both ends.
Roads, too, were also constantly needing attention. They began as foot paths through the woods, then wagon and sled roads among the trees and stumps. High and dry ground was selected when possible, but when it was necessary to pass over brooks or swamps they were covered or bridged over by placing logs or poles side by side close together. This was called causeway or corduroy. These roads were rough, and in ordinary summer weather would be muddy, but in rainy seasons would be almost impassable. Most of the lumber was hauled in the winter for this reason.
Gradually good roads evolved, generally along the lot lines, and many of them were named after some prominent old settler or resident on the road. In 1890, when some of the road records were revised, the Town Board directed that so far as possible the roads should be given the name of an old resident on the road, and in that way help to keep the names of some of the old settlers in remembrance. Very recently some of the new roads in Elma have been named after some of the first inhabitants, one of them honoring Jackman by bearing his name. The new Aurora Expressway, going diagonally across the town, is undoubtedly the biggest change in this respect since the original footpaths were worn through the forest, except for the railroad which was built through Elma in 1867.
Lumbering was Elma's first industry, and then farming, once the land was cleared. Lumber, dairy products, and farm produce were shipped into Buffalo by rail. Grist mills and cider mills were plentiful. In 1852, with water as power for the machinery, a bedstead factory was built, later becoming a chair factory. The road nearby came to be called the Chair Factory Road and this is still its name, although the factory has been gone for over 80 years. For a time there was a woolen factory in East Elma. Of course there were blacksmith shops, and grocery stores. But Elma has never had any heavy industry, and as farming dwindled land was sold mostly for houses, and many of its residents now commute to Buffalo to work.
Up until this point, the emphasis of this article has been placed on concerns common to the first residents and to us today. But it would not be a true picture if it were not mentioned that these early residents had good times, too. There were annual basket picnics on the 4th of July, chowder parties celebrating birthdays, golden wedding anniversaries with tables set out on the lawn for 250 people. Once it rained and everything was moved indoors, but everyone had a good time nonetheless.
In July of 1900, the Elma boys, with a little outside help, worked and practiced daily and nightly to present a grand circus and hippodrome that would put the "Traveling Circus" in the shade. ''July 28th was an ideal circus day; fair weather, gentle breeze, temperature just right, and everything was ready on time." More than 300 persons were there. "Every part of the program was perfectly rendered -- not a slip or jar. At the evening performance more than 400 persons enjoyed the entertainment which by general assent was declared to be better than had been promised. This effort proved so satisfactory that it was decided to have another 'circus' the next year."
This burlesque circus, complete with band, grand parade, "wild animals," chariot races, wild-west riding and shooting, and other attractions was presented twice more. Special trains brought friends out from Buffalo, and were met at the station with hay wagons for a ride to the performance site. This event is a particularly good example of the same cooperation in having fun that was so often evident in the work.
It is good to look back on the history of a town. It renews our feeling of appreciation for the results of the foresight and hard work of its first settlers. It also reinforces our determination to help our now rapidly growing town to remain a good place in which to live.
Article use courtesy of The Buffalo History Museum.
click to enlarge
Note: the third image above of the District No. 6 School states the building was "now the Town Hall." In 2004 a new Town Hall was built, and put into use the following year. The old building was sold. Images of the new Elma Town Hall are below.
Elma Town Hall under construction – Sept. 2004.
Elma Town Hall in Autumn – Oct. 2015.