The Genesee Country Village & Museum - Mumford NY
I'm pretty sure my love of the 1800’s stems from “The Little House on the Prairie.” I don't mean the TV show.
My Mom is a huge fan of the series and even has some seasons on DVD. When I was young and started to develop my intense love of reading she lent me her boxed set of the books. When I first slid one of the books out of its cardboard box the cover was smooth and the pages were unbent.
By own admission, I read these books until they almost disintegrated. They still sit dog-eared and with missing pages in their box on my bookshelf. (Of course, after all these years they don’t all fit as easily into the box as they once did.) My Mom must have realized how much I love them and she’s never asked for their return. Thanks, Mom!
This isn’t about my love for Little House, but really my intense fascination with the late 1800’s and my continued search and determination to be a tourist in my own backyard.
“Hey, have you ever heard of the Genesee Country Museum?”
Of course, I hadn’t, so I asked her to tell me about it.
“My Mom took me there as a kid,” She said, “It’s really cool, I think you would like it.”
Knowing my interests the way she does, of course, she was right. Some preliminary research revealed that Genesee Country Village & Museum is New York State’s oldest “living history” museum. I was pretty shocked that I didn’t know this museum existed until Adrienne told me. (Why am I always so surprised when I discover someplace new? Isn’t this the point of my series, to discover new places? I ask myself these same questions.)
I quickly put the museum at the top of my “Places to Visit” list.
Adrienne was unavailable to come with me, but thankfully my wonderful and adventurous Mom was free and excited to join me, since she had also never been there.
The Saturday we chose for the visit was only two days before I left for a Disney World vacation. Somehow during the week previous, my daily commute had gone from “Hmm, are my brakes making a noise?” to “Oh my God, I’m going to die.” Due to my upcoming trip, I had put off fixing them just so I didn't have to worry about it until I came back.
So, because I like to operate under forced delusions that my problems are not “that bad” in order to make myself feel better, (this happens in many aspects of my life, not just my car), I stupidly still offered to drive my Mom and I to the museum which was just over an hour away.
We screeched along the highway, my wheels grinding and moaning, which elicited winces from my mom and anxiety from me. “I know they’re bad,” I said, as we whipped along, my car making sounds I would most closely relate to those of a banshee, “But I’m getting them fixed when I get home from Disney! I swear!”
My brakes were loud but still functional. We weren’t really in any immediate danger. ( I didn't think, but I'm not a mechanic.) But as we bumped along the quiet road that was flanked by fields and small spurts of woods, my car shrieking, I sort of started to regret not taking my Mother up on her offer to drive.
Stones and gravel ticked along the underside of my car as I pulled into the parking lot, and we spotted the path that leads up a small hill to the ticket booth and gift shop. The weather was a little cloudy and grey, but not cold, and lucky for us the less-than-perfect weather seemed to have deterred other visitors. My mother and I saw only a few other small groups the whole visit.
One of my favorite things about this museum is the way it’s designed. I included a picture of the map, which makes it easier to visualize.
The entrance is called The Great Meadow, which is a large field rimmed by a path and buildings. A few of the buildings are seasonal restaurants that hadn’t opened yet. (We were visiting the second weekend of the season.) The other buildings were an art museum, a general exhibition hall, and a carriage museum. The field was crowned by a white bandstand, which I believe they use for weddings, concerts and other events.
We ducked into a few of the buildings. In the exhibition hall we saw vintage clothes and belongings from the 1800’s, and in the he carriage museum we found the coaches to be way taller than we expected. They didn't look so large in old movies. )Or indeed, in old "Little House" episodes.)
I want to climb it” my mom remarked, as we gawked up at the mannequins poised on the seats of the coach. We giggled at her comment and exited the building, heading for the entrance of the village.
Many of the building at the Genesee Country Village and Museum are repurposed, which means that the building they are using as a general store may have been a home in the 1800s, or another type of store, or maybe doctors office, but the building itself is historically accurate for the period.
The Pioneer Settlement - 1790's - 1830's
We entered under an arch next to a red house, a sign marking it as a toll bridge worker’s home, and headed to the left. This section is representative of a pioneer settlement from the 1780’s - 1830’s. Farms, a schoolhouse, a barn, a blacksmith and other buildings make up this relatively small section.
We followed the path and poked our heads into the schoolhouse, viewing the rows of pew-like desks, the old antique fireplace, and a very enthusiastic worker dressed in early 1800’s style of clothing.
Before the museum acquired the building, she told us, the schoolhouse was actually someone’s home.
“These walls were covered in layers of wallpaper.” The employee indicated the now white plaster, “It took them a long time to scrape it all off.”
I asked her about the prop primers and spelling books on the teacher’s podium, wondering if they were original.
“No, they aren’t, but these ones are.” She pointed at a small shelf that was high on the wall, “I’m not allowed to touch them.” she chuckled.
We thanked her for her time and continued on.
The Antebellum Village - 1830's - 1860's
The buildings in this section are bigger, with less of a homestead look. I found the highlights of the Antebellum Village to be three buildings; the printing office, the Methodist church, and the Livingston-Backus House.
At the printing office we were shown the work needed to complete just one page of a newspaper. The print master demonstrated how exact the tiles needed to be placed, the inking of the machine, the lowering of the press, and then hung the pages to dry. It was really fascinating; I had never put much thought into how arduous the process was back then.
“What’s so interesting,” I told my mother as we left the printing shop “Is that what we just saw was a way quicker way than when they used to hand write books and newspapers before that printing press was invented! Hard to imagine how slow that used to take."
We made a large half circle and passed a doctor's office, a general store, and a law firm, and stopped at a white steeple. A Methodist church, as indicated by the sign. We walked in and admired the huge chandelier and the clean white walls and pews. Simple and beautfiul.
Next to the church is the Livingston-Backus house, a stunning Greek-revival style mansion and, in my opinion, the crowning jewel of the Antebellum Village. I had spotted it from far away and was itching to get inside.
The entryway of the house is dominated by a spiral staircase and ornate wallpaper. The parlor and the formal dining room is to the left, with the latter decorated in a pineapple motif that I found that pretty quirky and cute for a 19th century home. (Though, that’s likely not the original décor.) The building was originally constructed by James Livingston in 1827, who was a descendant of a prominent Hudson River family and a milling tycoon in his own right. In 1835 he sold his property to businessman Joseph Backus, who responsible for the adding the Greek revival elements of the home and expanding the front entrance and back kitchen.
It was in the kitchen that we found another actor dressed in a smile and an apron. “The Backus family would have employed me for all of their cooking and baking needs. My day would start at 4 am as I came down to start the fire and begin breakfast.”
She showed us a little pound cake covered with edible flowers. The actor explained that these flowers were picked from the garden out back, left to dry overnight, and painted with a sugary substance and placed upon the cake. She also demonstrated how the kitchen workers would test if the oven was hot enough. “So, you stick your whole arm in, and if you can leave it in for five seconds without having to take it out, the oven is hot enough but not so hot you’d burn the food.” She indicated a small iron door set into the brick where you would place the baked goods. “Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously.” She confirmed.
She also told us a little about the house and all the luxuries the wealthy family enjoyed, like a water spigot in the kitchen and an actual indoor bathroom! We peeked in the bathroom and it was simply a bare room with a bench that had two holes cut into it. Two holes. An outhouse indoors.
“Did people go to the bathroom at the same time, do you think?” My mom asked me as we exited the back of the house through the gardens.
“Most likely, they probably didn’t care.” We laughed.
The Turn of The Century - 1870’s - 1920’s
I was most excited for the Turn of the Century village, as I absolutely adore Victorian-style homes. This section of the village is small, but holds arguably the most beautiful and must-see buildings at the museum.
Our first stop was the Hyde House, a decidedly unconventional home with architecture I wouldn't have expected to find around the turn of the century.
The octagonal-shaped home once belonged to Erastus Hyde and his wife Julia. He was a physician, and he and his wife were music fans among other interests. (Note the violin in the picture below.) Hyde was inspired by a book written in 1848 by Orson Squire Fowler, in which Fowler claimed an octagon-shaped house has more space and more windows than a traditional square house, if you compare the same wall space. Hyde and Julia were also spiritualists, a movement that began in Upstate New York in the 1840’s. If their home is of any evidence, they were definitely a couple that marched to the beat of their own drum.
Next door to the Hyde House is what I would describe as my dream house. (I’m like, kind of kidding but not really.) Huge, cream and brown with a manicured lawn and a stately opulence. It’s the type of house I’d gawk at from the street even now, so I can't imagine how impressive and beautiful people must have found it back then.
The Hamilton House, as it’s known, was built in 1870 by John Hamilton. Originally he was a shoemaker, and he eventually moved into the tannery business where he made most of his considerable fortune. Tannery being, of course, leather. “He owned all the tanneries in town” The actress perched just inside the front door chipped.
“So….he was really wealthy.” I said, sort of stupidly since that was obvious from the house.
“Oh, incredibly.” If the employee thought that it was dumb, at least she didn't show it.
The actual design of this house is Victorian Italianate, which you can tell based on its L-shaped structure, tall chimneys, and bay windows. The grand tower is also an indicator of this style of architecture. (Note: I'm not that smart to just know the architecture like that, I found the information on the website here.)
Old photographs of the actual house allowed the museum to reproduce the original landscaping. The iron fence is also original, having been stored in the basement of the house for years before the museum acquired the building.
(I got most of this information on the rebuilding and the history of John Hamilton and his home from the Genesee County Museum website here. )
Two more buildings rounded out this corner of the musuem. The Davis Opera House, which wasn't actually an opera house as you would think. It was a combined music hall, community center, and general store which was a typical structure and common in 19th century New York
There is also the Pavilion Garden, which is a seasonal restaurant and was still closed. Latticed blue and green wooden arches and delicate metal chairs and tables made it look like a pleasant place to sit and enjoy a meal. I took a look at their menu online and they serve light food like sandwiches and salads.
Highlights and Final Thoughts
We left the museum at its closing time of 4 pm, and I already would love to go back and continue to explore and learn. I am still in awe that a museum that's so in my wheelhouse existed without me finding it. I have to mention again how in love I am with the different time periods represented and how the museum is designed. I love the idea of the employees dressed in periodic clothes, however, they were never so immersed that they wouldn't answer your questions or talk about the former owners of the buildings. (Which I love.) We also particularly enjoyed the food demonstration in the Livingston-Backus house. We had no idea how many everyday flowers were edible!
Seeing the Hyde house with its uncommon shape and interesting backstory was unique and special. The fact that Genesee museum obtained and MAINTained a house like that is really something to be proud of. I’m so glad a structure like the Hyde House is still available for viewing since it is so unusual.
The grounds are beautifully maintained, the actors and other workers friendly, and overall the sheer amount of houses and building to look at and learn about could easily be a few hours to a full day. We went early in their opening season, as I keep mentioning, and there are many events and festivals that happen later in the summer. You can see a list of them here.
If you are within a few hours driving to this fabulous living history museum, then it is well worth the trip. It’s great for history buffs or those who just have an interest in antiques, the 1800s, architecture, and everyday life of the 19th century.
The Genesee County Village & Museum is another jewel in the crown of Western New York, a region that is full of rich, varied history and is proud to showcase it.