SENECA FALLS — Walt Gable was a Mynderse Academy social studies teacher in September 1999 when then President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton — who were vacationing on Skaneateles Lake — visited Seneca Falls and Waterloo.
Gable was among a handful of local residents to shake hands with Clinton, who found it interesting that a street near the Women’s Rights National Historical Park was named Clinton Street.
More than 20 years later it remains a cherished memory for Gable, now Seneca County’s historian.
“In a lifetime we Finger Lakes residents meet many people,” he said. “If we are really fortunate, we meet a noteworthy person.”
With the Finger Lakes Times observing its 125th anniversary this month, Gable and other local historians weighed in on some of the area’s more notable visitors and residents.
“While the Finger Lakes is basically a very rural area, in the span of the last 125 years there are several rather famous people who have had some direct connection with the Finger Lakes,” Gable said. “Perhaps the person grew up in the area or spent summers here. Perhaps the person was drawn here to enjoy the scenic beauty or the rich history of the area.”
One of them was Rod Serling of “Twilight Zone” fame; he spent summers at the family cottage on Cayuga Lake in Seneca County, near Sheldrake. Also spending summers in that area (as a child) was Ann Dunwoody, the first woman in U.S. military history to become a four-star Army general.
The half-nephew of Adolf Hitler, William Patrick Hitler, served in the U.S. Navy after fleeing Germany. He trained at Sampson Naval Station on Seneca Lake.
“He came to the United States and tried for several years to overcome the stigma of the family name and be allowed to serve in the U.S. forces, fighting the Nazis in World War II,” Gable said.
More recently, in 2013, then-President Barack Obama visited the Women’s Rights National Historical Park.
“He arrived in a bus amid heavy protection, with the result that few people assembled managed to shake his hand unless they were part of those planned to meet the President,” Gable said.
Gable added that Hillary Clinton made subsequent trips to Seneca Falls after the 1999 stop — as a U.S. senator and in 2005 when she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Ontario County Historian Preston Pierce said 13 U.S. presidents visited the county — either before, during or after they were in office — including John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and George W. Bush. The latter was in Canandaigua in 2006.
Two of the more notable county residents were Frederick Ferris Thompson and Mary Clark Thompson, the namesakes for Thompson Hospital in Canandaigua. Their summer home was Sonnenberg Estate, now Sonnenberg Gardens.
Women’s rights icon Susan B. Anthony, a frequent visitor to Canandaigua, had her famous 1873 trial at the Ontario County Courthouse.
Konstanin Frank, a Ukrainian winemaker who emigrated to the U.S. after World War II, worked at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva before opening his own vineyard in Yates County and pursuing the “vinifera revolution.”
Stephen A. Douglas, who lost the 1860 presidential election to Lincoln, grew up in Manchester — near the village of Clifton Springs — and attended Canandaigua Academy. Prophet Joseph Smith, who also grew up in Manchester, was the founder of the Mormon Church based on his experiences in Sacred Grove and Hill Cumorah.
Actor Humphrey Bogart spent summers at his parents’ cottage on Canandaigua Lake (Seneca Point).
Many of the U.S. presidents who visited Ontario County made their way to Geneva, including Martin Van Buren, Andrew Johnson, Grant, Chester Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, and Richard Nixon. Arthur came to the city in 1884 for the funeral of his Secretary of the Treasury, Charles Folger, one of Geneva’s most famous residents and the namesake for the C.J. Folger Hook & Ladder Company of the Geneva Fire Department.
While those presidential visits drew big crowds, it was perhaps a 1964 visit by a man who may have become President — if not for his assassination in 1968 — that many Genevans remember today. It happened at the Hotel Seneca.
“Based on talking to people over the last 20 years, I would say Bobby Kennedy’s Sept. 29, 1964 visit when he was running for U.S. Senate stands out,” said John Marks, curator at the Geneva Historical Society. “Everyone either says they skipped school or were allowed to go and see him.”
A list of well-known women from Geneva includes Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S., musician Christine Lavin and actress Lauren Holly. Among the more memorable male Genevans are artist Arthur Dove, Bishop John Hobart (the namesake for Hobart College), musicians Matt McGinley and Travie McCoy (Gym Class Heroes), and jazz bassist Scott LaFaro.
Among the more famous visitors were actresses Bette Davis and Jane Russell, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Fred (Mister) Rogers, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, boxing great Joe Louis, author Kurt Vonnegut, and TV personality Savannah Guthrie.
Geneva, and in particular the Smith Opera House, hosted many famous musicians over the years. They include Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Hornsby, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Duke Ellington, Gordon Lightfoot, Graham Nash, Judy Collins, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Tony Bennett.
Perhaps Yates County’s most famous resident was Admiral Frank Schofield, the son of a Benton tenant farmer whose only chance for higher education was a service academy. Accepted to the Naval Academy in 1886, he graduated four years later near the top of his class.
“His 42-year career included heroic action during the Spanish-American War, being a top advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations during World War I, and an advisor to President Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference,” said local historian Rich MacAlpine. “When he retired in 1932, he was a four-star admiral at a time when there were no five stars and was commander-in-chief of the entire American fleet. In 1929, he was described by a fellow admiral as the ‘ablest strategist in the Navy.’”
One of Yates County’s most famous visitors was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered the baccalaureate address in 1963 at Keuka College and received an honorary degree.
Despite its small size, Yates County has hosted visits from notables of all walks of life including Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Tom Thumb, and John Philip Sousa.
Like Yates County, Wayne County boasts a Naval hero in Rear Admiral William Sampson, who was born in Palmyra in 1840 and graduated at the top of his class from the Naval Academy. He was appointed by President William McKinley to command the North Atlantic Squadron and the blockade of Cuba and Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.
Under his command the U.S. Navy annihilated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Santiago Bay, making Sampson a national hero. Sampson Naval Base, now Sampson State Park, was named after him.
Another notable Wayne County resident was Ann Collins, who was born in Lyons in 1916. Due to her father’s tuberculosis the family moved to Colorado before Collins’ first birthday, where she discovered a love of art and horses.
She returned to Lyons when she was 16, graduated from high school and earned a degree from Syracuse University’s School of Fine Arts. She went to Saratoga Springs in the 1930s, then the mecca of the world’s wealthiest horse racers, and became one of her generation’s most skilled artists of thoroughbred horses.
She sold her first painting to Col. E.R. Bradley, the first man to own four Kentucky Derby winners, and was commissioned to paint more than 75 horses during a career that spanned six decades before her death in 1999. That included horses owned by Walter Chrysler and Bing Crosby, among other celebrities.
Wayne County was also home to the Fox sisters, who were important to the creation of spiritualism. Sisters Leah, Margaretta (Maggie) and Catherine were mediums in the now defunct hamlet of Hydesville, in modern-day Arcadia.
Perhaps Wayne County’s most famous visitor was Abraham Lincoln, who made a railroad stop in Clyde in 1861 while going to Washington, D.C.
Larry Ann Evans, executive director of the Wayne County Museum of History, also noted that the maternal grandparents and great-grandparents of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill lived in Palmyra and Marion.
Wayne County Historian Peter Evans said in 1870, a young woman — Susan Cleveland — took a job as principal at Walworth Academy. The sister of then New York Governor and later U.S. President Grover Cleveland, she met and married Lucien Yoemans in 1873; Yoemans was the son of Theron Yoemans, owner of one of the largest dairy operations in Western New York and one of the first farmers to introduce the Holstein cow to North America.
Evans said Grover Cleveland visited his sister for Thanksgiving dinner in the early 1880s, and later returned — when he was president — in 1891, when Susan's two daughters were married in a double ceremony.
Mildred Frick (Taylor), who was born in Lyons in 1905 and lived her whole life there, ran for state Assembly in 1947 and represented the 130th District until 1960. She was buried in Lyons in 1981.
Myron Taylor, born in Lyons in 1874, earned degrees from Cornell University and Cornell Law School. He moved to New York City in 1900 and joined his brother's law practice on Wall Street, and later became chairman and CEO of U.S. Steel.
He was later appointed special envoy to the Vatican by for Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
Other notable Wayne County residents include farmer and industrialist H.G. Hotchkiss (Lyons); Frank Darling of Lyons (music director of the Ziegfield Follies); William Sherwood (Lyons), a renowned pianist; and Bud Paxton of Newark, who began his broadcasting career at radio station WACK and later founded the Home Shopping Network.