LYONS — The history of this Erie Canal village cannot be told without talking about peppermint oil — in particular, the H.G. Hotchkiss International Prize Medal Essential Oil Co. of 95 Water St.
Lyons’ peppermint heritage was once again celebrated during the four-day Peppermint Days, which started Thursday and ends today.
On Saturday, members of the Lyons Heritage Society conducted tours of the part of the Hotchkiss building that is still standing. The society now owns the building.
Checking out the Hotchkiss building were Ron and Lucy Schram LaFleur of Texas; Lucy is a Lyons native and 1971 Lyons High School graduate.
“I was aware of the peppermint history growing up here. I still find it fascinating. We planned our visit back home to see my family around Peppermint Days and my husband took his first tour today,” Lucy said.
Ron, who joked that “peppermint isn’t big in Texas,” said he loved it.
“The whole story is amazing and there is a lot of original equipment that has been preserved to help tell the story,” he said.
Lucy was particularly impressed with how well the building has been preserved.
One tour was guided by docent William Pulver, who just graduated from Lyons High this past June. He led a small group into the reception area right off the front door, showing them a massive old safe.
“This safe was on the top floor but when the building burned, the safe dropped all the way down into the basement,” Pulver said.
“Somehow, they got it up to the main floor,” he said, pointing out the many small compartments inside.
Pulver said he can’t shut the safe door “because no one knows the combination to the lock.”
Next, he went into Hiram G. Hotchkiss’ office, which includes an original 1865 wooden desk used by Hotchkiss, complete with many small compartments including a secret one that housed money.
The office houses a display of the many glass bottles the peppermint oil was shipped in. A recent discovery, a large apothecary jar dating to the 1840s, was in a glass display in the corner.
Pulver then led the group to rooms where the oil was filtered, bottled, labeled, corked and put into shipping boxes.
The basement is where barrels of the peppermint oil were filled and moved out a door to waiting wagons, which would take them to canal boats for trips down the Erie Canal to New York City and beyond.
Another tour guide, “Peppermint” Patti Alena, said the flow of visitors was steady all day long.
“What was the big deal with peppermint oil?,” asked one visitor.
The guides were quick to point out a written list of the “Top Ten Medicinal Uses” of peppermint oil: helping gas, the heart, headaches, hot flashes, heartburn, insomnia, motion sickness, nervous problems, pet nervousness and stomach problems.
It is also used in toothpaste, cooking, tea, candy, desserts, gum, ice cream, mints and flavoring.
No Peppermint Days celebration would be complete without Dick Kelley, also known as “Mr. Peppermint” as a name tag on his vest indicated.
Kelly was in the village park, decked out in a red and white striped vest and hat, white shirt, red bow tie and red pants.
“All from eBay,” he said.
Kelly has an extensive collection of bottles, but “got addicted” to Hotchkiss peppermint oil bottles about 35 years ago. He’s collected Hotchkiss bottles from all over the world and exhibits many of them at the Hotchkiss building.
Peppermint was an important industry around here for a long time, Kelly noted, and H.G. Hotchkiss was the “King of Peppermint.”
“He had his own fields for growing the peppermint plant and many farmers grew it and sold the distilled oil to him,” Kelly said.
When he first started, Kelly explained that Hotchkiss had to overcome a prejudice against native oil since the consensus was that the best peppermint oil came from England.
“But once he got his oil to Europe and it was tested as the best, the market opened up and the company grew,” Kelly said.
That success eventually diminished when farmers found they could grow more profitable crops on their land. Plus, there was a push to move oil production west, first to Michigan and Indiana, and then to Oregon and Washington, Kelly said.
The last peppermint oil produced in Lyons was in 1990, ending 171 years of production in this Wayne County village.
Other events Saturday were a farmers market, three-on-three basketball tournament, tractor square dance, music and numerous food, craft, plant and other vendors in the village park.
There was also a firefighters’ water ball competition, a peppermint parade and fireworks show.
Today, Peppermint Days concludes with a 7 a.m. breakfast, a car show at 9 a.m., more food and craft vendors, Hotchkiss building tours from noon to 3 p.m., music at noon and a duck race on the canal.
The Hotchkiss Company ... at a glance
Proof of the Hotchkiss Company’s worldwide fame may be found in the regional history collection at Cornell University. That’s where more than 100 years of the company’s business records and letters are on file.
The company was started by brothers Hiram and Leman Hotchkiss, owners of a general store in Phelps. They began producing peppermint oil in Phelps in 1839 then set up a second plant in Lyons in 1841 because of the canal.
In 1855, the brothers had a falling out and split. Leman went back to Phelps and made peppermint oil, competing with his brother. He also built the Phelps Hotel in 1868.
By 1860, Hiram was producing a third of the peppermint in the United States. He had the oil bottles produced at the Ely Glass Works in nearby Clyde.
Leman sold his peppermint business to Hiram in 1868. In 1884, fire destroyed the original Hotchkiss Building in Lyons and a new facility was built on the site, the one that exists today.
Leman died in 1884 and Hiram died in 1897. The business remained in the Hotchkiss family until 1982, when the company was sold to the William Leman Company of Bremen, Ind. They continued production here until 1990, then shifted operations to Indiana.
The building was donated by Anne Hotchkiss to Wayne County in 1991 and last year was transferred to the Lyons Heritage Society.