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"A BRIEF HISTORY OF PALMYRA" by Bob Lowe
Palmyra NY Home  / About Palmyra NY  /  History  /  "A Brief History of Palmyra"  /  1700's  /  1800's  /  1900's

1900's
As the new century began, a number of significant changes occurred in our town. For instance:

In 1899, the Palmyra King’s Daughters Free Library was begun as a reading room. Two years later (1901) the library was chartered as a lending library and has remained so until the present.

In March, 1900, Messieurs O.J. Garlock and W.W. Williamson took delivery of a "locomobile" at a cost of $760.00 each. The automobile age had come to Palmyra.

At the Village Board Meeting of December 22, 1903, the Wayne-Monroe Telephone Company was authorized to construct, operate and maintain a telephone system in the Village of Palmyra.

In March, 1905, The Syracuse and Eastern Trolley began construction of a line through Palmyra. On Monday, July 2, 1906, passengers were first carried. The trolley served the communities of Wayne County until the last car left Palmyra on October 20, 1931.

On the morning of March 2, 1906, a major fire seriously damaged the Clemons block on the south side of Main Street. Before the fire was brought under control the loss was placed at nearly $8,000.00. Among those burned out were offices of the "Wayne County Journal," a pool hall and a veterinarian’s office.

At the Village Board Meeting of May 24, 1907, an application presented by James H. Robinson to operate a moving picture theater on Main Street was approved. The license was renewable annually for a fee of $2.00. The Strand Theater was built for a movie house and opened May 21, 1927. What youngster growing up in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s will ever forget the Saturday matinee? On Saturday, October 1, 1966 the Strand closed its doors and now Palmyrians need to leave town to see a "show," but its not the same.

With the advent of World War I, about 200 men and for the first time - women of Palmyra answered the call to serve. Of those who served, three were killed in action. In 1917, state militiamen were stationed in Palmyra Township to guard railroad bridges etc. Of these, one guardsman was killed by an eastbound train. Along with the usual bond drives, comfort packages etc. for the soldiers and sailors, the militiamen found time to bury their mascot, a goat, on Galloway’s Hill complete with military funeral and head stone. The marker is still there.

Both of the parks in the Village of Palmyra resulted from the kindness of one man, Pliny T. Sexton. The Main Street Park was donated to the Village about 1917. By his will, that portion of "Prospect Hill," which he owned, was given to the Village, "for public resort and pleasure ground, especially for children." Mr. Sexton died September 5, 1924 and in his honor the name of the Prospect Hill Park was renamed Sexton Park by the Village Board on January 11, 1935.

Prior to 1926, mechanization of the Police Department consisted of motorcycles. The Village Board Meeting of August 27, 1926 provided "liability insurance to be carried on the police motorcycles and the Ford runabout." In any case, the Board in April, 1929, authorized the purchase of a Ford Phantom to be used by the Police Department. The son of the chief at the time remembers the auto as an open side 4 seater. Traffic was apparently becoming a problem since traffic signal lights were installed in 1927.

One of the more unusual happenings in our town occurred in 1930. Henry Mason, a young man residing on Vienna Street, built a Heath Parasoal airplane. With a wing span of 25 feet, an 8 gallon fuel tank and a lift capacity of 350 pounds, it was capable of a flight of several hundred miles. By 1937, Henry was operating a flying service reported to be the only one between Syracuse and Rochester. On August 24, 1956, at age 49, this pioneer aviator died and is buried in the Palmyra cemetery.

If nothing else, Palmyra produced some very unusual people and projects. Regarding the latter, in July 1931, the Village Board received a petition from the residents of Vienna Street requesting to change the name to East Avenue. Probably unknown to the residents of Vienna Street was the significance of the name. In the earliest days, the route from Canandaigua to Palmyra was through Vienna in Ontario County and then by trail to Palmyra. Vienna Street was named as a result of that trail. In 1855, when the Vienna area applied for township status, it was found there already was a town of Vienna in New York State, so they changed the name of the town to Phelps. The petition was rejected.

Although there were certainly hardship cases in the Palmyra Township during the depression era (1930-40), in general, the community fared well. For example, the area’s main employer, The Garlock Packaging Company reduced hours but never shut down and showed a profit in each of the years. Quite normal activities continued. A major front page story during the fall and winter was the list of the winners of the Odd Fellows card parties. There were frequent shoots by the Garlock Gun Club and the Palmyra Rifle Club. Summer visits by Fresh Air kids and various activities by and for the Palmyra baseball team.

Perhaps two events illustrate Palmyra’s response to the depression. In January, 1937, the Ohio and Mississippi river basins were hit with severe flooding. The National and Wayne County Red Cross sought aid in both supplies and money. Palmyra responded with over $1,000.00 in cash, plus a railroad car of produce, food, etc., and an additional car of furniture and clothes. Closer to home, the first Palmyra Community Chest was established in May, 1939, with a goal of $2,700.00. The July 9th issue of the Courier Journal stated in part, "Chest Drive over the Top."

With the advent of the war in Europe in 1935, the United States began to prepare. When the United States became an active participant, production increased at Garlock, which created jobs, and fund drives were held for refugees. In December 1941, two aircraft observation posts were manned, scrap drives organized, bond drives held, evacuation of people from cities to our area planned, blood drives promoted, and much more. During the war itself (1941-1945) Palmyra furnished over 450 men and women with 13 of them giving their lives.

It was during the war in 1944, that Samuel Hopkins Adams, wrote his book titled, "Canaltown." Palmyra had always considered itself to be a canaltown but this book suggested that Palmyra was the canaltown.

Shortly before the end of World War II, the Palmyra Community Center was opened on the second floor of the Village Hall on June 2, 1945. Outdoor sport programs were held in the Village Park across Main Street from the Center, dancing, pool, boxing, basketball, etc. were held inside. In 1977, a fund drive was originated to build a new Community Center building on land leased from the Fair Association. The facility was built through fund raising and opened in 1979. The facility remains today a mecca for kids of all ages (including senior citizens) who want a well-managed place for recreation.

Although Palmyra had many fires, few have resulted in the loss of life. One exception was the Fassett block fire which occurred on Friday, March 25, 1949. While cleaning a clock with gasoline, an explosion and resulting fire caused the death of Maynard G. Fassett, the son or Mr. and Mrs. R. D. Fassett, owners of the jewelry store in which the clock was being cleaned. Fire companies from Newark, Macedon, Williamson, Marion and East Palmyra responded and limited the blaze to the block on the West corner of Main and Market Street. The absence of the third story of this block is very apparent today.

As early as 1915, Fresh Air kids had been coming to Palmyra under sponsorship of the New York City Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund. The 1953 project sponsored by the local Rotary Club, brought 10 children (boys and girls) to spend two weeks with families in Palmyra. Many of the children had had limited opportunity to see lawns, trees, farm animals, and swimming holes. Prior fresh air kids credit this experience as their first guide post toward a better life.

When the North Korean troops breached the 38th parallel on June 25, 1950, "police action" by the United States followed. Despite the fact that 33,629 Americans died in this conflict which ended January 31, 1955, national interest never reached that of World War II. From Palmyra, approximately 150 men and women were called to serve, including a number of World War II veterans who had remained in the Reserves. Undoubtedly one of the most poignant episodes of this action was the release of Sgt. Ralph G. Eveland, Jr. from a prisoner of war camp in North Korea on August 18, 1953. No Palmyra service person lost their life in action during this war.

At the Village Board meeting of March 3, 1959, the Sexton Hydrant Hose and the Hook and Ladder Companies advised that they were combining to form one unit to be known as the Palmyra Fire Company. Officers of the new company were James O’Brien, Chief, Donald Wilkinsen and Maynard Mc Gee, Assistant Chiefs. At this time, the fire apparatus was housed in bays located in the Village Hall. A plan was proposed in 1976 to build a seven bay Fire Hall on a site near the intersection of Routes 21 and 31 on the east side of the Village. Voters approved a $275,000. Proposition to build such a structure in March 1977. On Saturday, September 30, 1978 the new fire hall was dedicated.

Consideration of an urban renewal plan for Palmyra began with the Village Board meeting of November 17, 1964. By October, 1966, Palmyra was designated to receive $150,771 for the first phase of the project with a reserve allowance of $890,000 for completion of the project. Palmyra thus became the first village in Wayne County to launch a federally approved and backed Urban Renewal Program. After many changes, heated discussions, sweat and nearly 12 years of effort, Palmyra’s experience with Urban Renewal ended with Main Street intact, Towpath Manor built, parking areas created and some ulcers. The agency closed its doors on September 3, 1976.

A fire which broke out December 20, 1964 on Market Street in Palmyra resulted in the death of seven people. It was believed to have been Wayne’s County’s most tragic fire to that date and probably still is. Tom Rifenberg, a fireman with the Palmyra Fire Company describes the weather as bitter cold with water freezing on streets and clothing. Fire companies from Newark, Macedon and Walworth also responded. At home at the time of the fire were Mrs. Anna Breeden and her six children ( Mr. Breeden was in Chicago on business). Mrs. Breeden’s body was found in the charred rubble and the firemen believe the children had escaped but even had they known the children were inside there was no way humanly possible for anyone to have gotten into the house. When it was discovered that the children were in the ruins, Chief James O’Brien called a number of firemen to meet him at the firehall. There he asked each one individually if they were willing to search for the children. As Tom said, "none refused and none returned dry-eyed." A memorial service was held at the Presbyterian Church with pastors of various Palmyra churches officiating. The bodies were flown to Jefferson City, Tennessee, the Breeden parental home for burial.

The first American combat troops landed in South Vietnam in March, 1965. Ultimately 536,100 United States service people took part in the conflict. Of that number, approximately 300 of them were Palmyra people. As in previous combat operations, a number of our people were recognized by our government for bravery, meritorious service, wounds and heroism. Two Palmyra men lost the life as a result of service in this war. Although not directly connected with the Vietnam conflict, Palmyra native, Ronald L. Byers was among those lost when the nuclear submarine, Scorpion was reported lost at sea in 1968.

Palmyra is fortunate to be the beneficiary of three celebrations each year. In July, the Mormon Pageant brings thousands of visitors, in August, the Wayne County Fair attracts people from all over the area and Canaltown Days in September usually means more thousands of participants. Since its inception in 1967, the event has expanded into about 2 ˝ days of celebration of the Erie Canal. Each year the events and attractions seem to get better than the previous year.

Fires were not the only cause for disaster in our town. On Sunday night, August 30, 1976, a thunderstorm packing high winds and rain knocked down trees, overturned mobile homes, flooded roads and homes. One of the more severely damaged buildings was St. Anne’s Church. The pastor, Rev. John J. Healy, estimated the damaged to be in the $75,000 range. A weird occurrence took place at a store on Main St. The wind apparently created a vacuum outside the building momentarily bulging the plate glass window outward. A crack was opened between the edge of the glass and the window, The bottom of the curtain which hung inside the store was sucked through the crack. The window then snapped back into place unbroken, leaving half the curtain inside the store and half outside with the glass as tight as ever. The Palmyra area rarely has such severe storms which greatly contributes to the pleasure of living here.

During an interview in 1976, Harold E. Contant referred to himself as a "has-been." It is difficult to associate the term has-been with a person who possesses the following record: All American Skeet Team-10 times, New York State Champion - 14 times, and inducted into the National Skeet Association Hall of Fame. Harold owned a gasoline station in Palmyra for more than 33 years with a clientele which gathered there to discuss sports, politics, town problems, and more. The station referred to as "Texaco Tech" was given to the Village of Palmyra in 1980. All American, Harold Contant continues to live quietly at his home on Hyde Parkway.

Written histories tend to deal with very somber subjects, i.e., crime, fires, natural disaster, recessions, politics, to name a few. But there is another side which is infrequently presented. For example: "it is said when a young lad kisses a Portland gal she pouts and says "You don’t dare do so twice more." Not much different are our Palmyra ladies. If you kiss one of them, so we are informed, she immediately kisses you back with a lovely smile of indignation exclaims "there, take that, Sir." Wayne Sentinel, May 11,1842.

A fleshy object found on a Palmyra sidewalk earlier this month has been identified. It is a bear’s paw. The paw had been skinned and the claws removed. Passing youngsters found the paw December 3 and called Palmyra Police. Apparently whoever planted the paw prepared to resemble a human hand and hoped it would be taken as such. It was! Palmyra Courier, December 24, 1986.

Palmyra has been around for over 200 years. We have had tornadoes, floods, fires, fairs celebration, political battles and any number of other events. Palmyra consists of people and the only reason they are still here is to see what is going to happen next.

© 1998 Bob Lowe

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