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Grand Island's lost and forgotten gilded age

Sat, Feb 10th 2018 07:00 am
`The Clubs and Resorts of Grand Island 1850 to 1920` was a sold-out presentation at the Buffalo Launch Club Jan. 27. Speakers at the presentation included professor Don Burns, seated at the piano. Standing from left: Tom Frauenheim, Buffalo Launch Club (BLC) Historian; Mary Cooke, Grand Island Historical Society (GIHS) Education Committee; Traci Bedell Bissonette, descendant of the founder of the Bedell House, Ossian Bedell; Greg Ried, BLC Heritage Committee; Rich DeGlopper, Ace Technical Consultant; Curt Nestark, GIHS President.
"The Clubs and Resorts of Grand Island 1850 to 1920" was a sold-out presentation at the Buffalo Launch Club Jan. 27. Speakers at the presentation included professor Don Burns, seated at the piano. Standing from left: Tom Frauenheim, Buffalo Launch Club (BLC) Historian; Mary Cooke, Grand Island Historical Society (GIHS) Education Committee; Traci Bedell Bissonette, descendant of the founder of the Bedell House, Ossian Bedell; Greg Ried, BLC Heritage Committee; Rich DeGlopper, Ace Technical Consultant; Curt Nestark, GIHS President.
By Alice E. Gerard
At the turn of the 20th century, motorboat clubs were a new thing. In Western New York, a motorboat club was established on what is now called Unity Island in 1903. When New York state appropriated the land to build the Black Rock lock, the club had to be moved.
The members of the club "realized their camaraderie and their interest in motorboating. They wanted a place where they could enjoy themselves. People who were financially well off were interested in motorboats. They looked for a location and ended up in Grand Island," where they established the Buffalo Launch Club, said Tom Frauenheim, historian for the club.
The stories of Grand Island's clubs, resorts, and parks were told by Frauenheim and four other speakers in a program titled "The Clubs and Resorts of Grand Island 1850 to 1920." It was held on Jan. 27 at the Buffalo Launch Club.
The Buffalo Launch Club was built in 1905. It was one of many clubs, resorts, and parks on Grand Island, Frauenheim said. He explained that Buffalo smelled bad, due to air pollution. As a result many Buffalonians traveled via ferry to Grand Island. "Ferries brought hundreds of people to hotels," said Traci Bedell Bissonnette, one of the evening's presenters. "There was good beer. People raised cool bottles to their lips."
Frauenheim said that a year after an August 1931 fire at the Buffalo Launch Club, which resulted in the clubhouse being burned down, another clubhouse was built, and a cornerstone box was placed in the club, which included memorabilia, including letters. Mary Cooke, education committee chair and corresponding secretary for the Grand Island Historical Society, said that boxes of information were found at the Pfohl barn. "Much of that information concerned the beginning of the launch club. It provided material for a history room," Cooke said.
According to Greg Ried, a member of the Buffalo Launch Club's heritage committee, the club began with a group of 19 men, who were "enthusiastic power boatmen." It was the first motorboat club in the country. "It was there that we got our first taste of club life," Ried said. The first commodore was August Hagar, and the first woman to serve as commodore was Ried's wife, Rhonda, in 2016.
Only one photograph survives from Elmwood Beach, which is located at about the same place as the beach in Beaver Island State Park. She said that it was built by Otto F. Haehn, a Buffalo cigar manufacturer. Later owners of the property included Emilie Haehn and Lewis F. Allen and then the Whiteline Steamboat Company. It included a merry-go-round, a gypsy camp, a dancing pavilion with live bands, and camping. There was also an electric fountain, which, according to Cooke, was unique. In 1865, the board of directors voted to eliminate the sale of beer and liquor because "they were unable to attract families," Cooke said.
The Edgewater was another club that was described in the program. It was built in 1894 on the east side of Grand Island, off of Gun Creek. It featured a hotel, a picnic club, and an amusement park. It had such features as a bowling alley, a hoffbrau (a cafeteria-style restaurant, where a fish fry cost 75 cents for adults and 50 cents for children), a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel, games of chance, and a shooting gallery, said Curt Nestark, president of the Grand Island Historical Society. Companies had their annual outings at Edgewater.
"It was a destination point," said Nestark.
Another popular destination was the Bedell House, which was opened by Ossian Bedell in 1876 and built on land that he had purchased from Allenton Farm, which was owned by Lewis F. Allen of Buffalo. Ossian Bedell was a longtime Grand Island resident. He had moved to the Island in 1840, at the age of 8. He started his work life early, Bissonette, a descendant of the Bedell family, said. He drove a team on the canal for his father at the age of 11. By the time that he was 21, he owned a farm. He served as town supervisor from 1862 to 1863. In 1874, he built and owned the Buffalo and Grand Island Ferry. Two years later, he built and owned the Bedell House.
The Bedell House featured "light and airy rooms that faced a veranda," Bissonette said. It also featured rose gardens, a livery and a laundry. In addition, several cottages were built. The first Bedell House was destroyed by fire in 1877. A second Bedell House was built 10 years later. "The Bedell House had a staff that included children," Bissonette said.
"The ferries brought hundreds of people to hotels. Grand Island was full of people," Bissonette said. "There were boat races adjacent to the Bedell House." Other events held at the Bedell House included bridal showers, '50s dances, political rallies, and live concerts, featuring such local performers as Don Burns, who was the pianist for the Jan. 27 event at the Buffalo Launch Club.
Ossian Bedell described the atmosphere on Grand Island as very healthy. "Let the sick come to Grand Island and live. We have tree-lined streets and the best health record of any place in the United States," Bissonette quoted Bedell as saying.
The Bedell House burned down again in 1935, at the time that the Grand Island Bridges opened. The first vehicles to use the bridge were fire trucks from the Sheridan Fire Co. that had come to fight the fire. They were unable to save the building. The last Bedell House burned in 1988. All that remains of the Bedell House, said Bissonette, is the Rose Cottage and a hot dog stand. Another thing that survives of the Bedell House is a 5- foot by 4-foot lithograph of the Bedell House on display on the second floor of Town Hall.
The Oakfield Club was founded in 1873 for social purposes, as well as hunting, fishing and yachting. According to Cooke, there are no surviving photographs of the building, which was located in the area of West Oakfield Road, along the West River, an area known as the Gold Coast. The Oakfield Club burned down on June 17, 1884, and was rebuilt. There was another fire in 1908. The clubhouse was again rebuilt. In addition to the clubhouse, members had the option to live in one of 10 cottages that the club built on the property. "Some of the cottages still exist, Cooke said. One of those cottages, the Taylor Cottage, is still standing and is now a private home. In 1931, the Oakfield Club property was sold to Frank Smith, said Cooke, and it became a camp for girls there. Activities included swimming, crafts, and horseback riding.
The Falconwood Club was on the West River, on land that is now Beaver Island State Park. According to Cooke, the Falconwood had a dock that was 110 feet long. A steamer, called the Falcon, was built in 1860 to transport people there from Buffalo. Cooke said that the original structure was designed by Joseph Silsbee and that "several sources report that Grover Cleveland helped his uncle (Lewis F. Allen) build Falconwood." The club featured a bowling alley and an assembly hall. Falconwood was a public resort until 1865, said Cooke, when the Falconwood House Co. purchased it and opened it as "an exclusive private club for about 70 very prominent Buffalo families." The steamer became the club's private yacht. The building burned and was rebuilt once. The club ceased to exist in the 1920s, after a second fire.
Other clubs that Cooke described included:
•The McComb Hotel, at the corner of what is now Alt Boulevard and West River Road. Matthew McComb purchased the property in 1873 and opened a five-story hotel in 1887, said Cooke. People could travel to the hotel from Buffalo via the Huntress steamer. The club featured docks and piers. Lots were available for sale for construction of cottages and private homes, Cooke said.
•Another one was the Island Club, which featured a circus. Acts at the circus, according to Cooke, included "a dance of the savagest bear, the strongest man on Earth, the cantering camel, and the Great Roman Chariot Race."
•The Beaver Island Club was one of the more famous clubs. It was formed by a group of hunters and fishermen called the Jolly Reefers. One of the members was Grover Cleveland, who served as the 22nd and 24th president of the United States. The clubhouse featured a first floor "finished in Norway pine and black and French walnut," Cooke said, adding that the "second floor bedrooms had furniture especially designed and manufactured for the club."
•Eagle Park was a popular resort on the West River. On June 23, 1912, the resort's dock collapsed while 300 persons stood on it, waiting for a ferry back to Buffalo. This disaster resulted in the deaths of 37 individuals, mostly women and children.
"Many of the clubs have been forgotten; the evidence of them is gone," Frauenheim said.
Cooke said that researching the clubs and resorts of Grand Island was an interesting project. She said that she found a website called Fulton History, which is an online archives of newspapers. "That is where I found the only surviving photograph of Elmwood Beach. We had nothing. I have more work to do on that. I continue to be interested," Cooke said.
Pictured is one of the many gilded-age clubs of Grand Island. (Photo by Alice E. Gerard)

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