Story and Photos by Alice Gerard
Senior Contributing Writer
Grand Island History Weekend on Sept. 23 and 24 offered an opportunity for people interested in local history to take a tour of some of Grand Island’s historical sites, which include the Grand Island Historical Society, the Alt Farmstead, and Kelly’s Country Store, which held a fall festival.
Grand Island Historical Society at River Lea in Beaver Island State Park
The Grand Island Historical Society’s display at its September open house was an exhibit of the history of St. Stephen Roman Catholic Church, Grand Island’s oldest church.
Denise Dewey, a member of both the Historical Society and of St. Stephen Church, said, “I think that most people don’t realize that St. Stephen has had five churches, and they’re all still standing. The first church was built in 1864. It’s near the overpass for the Thruway on Baseline Road. It was moved when they built the old church. Following the old church was Mary, Star of the Sea.”
Mary, Star of the Sea, was a chapel that was built near the Bedell House, in the southern part of the Island.
“It was built because of the influx of summer residents,” Dewey said. “St. Stephen couldn’t accommodate all of them, so they had Mass at Mary, Star of the Sea. It was supposed to become a church. They only did the first floor. They never added the second story. Following Mary, Star of the Sea, was the auditorium in 1957 that we used as a church for many years. Then the new church was built. So, there were five churches.
“Now, the old St. Stephen church is going to become a community center. The Knights of Columbus has taken that over. They’ll be based there, and the church is being rehabilitated right now. I think it’s a beautiful church. That church was added on to in 1948.”
The open house at River Lea attracted a crowd, said Curt Nestark, society president.
He said, “We knew that Sunday is a Buffalo Bills game. We switched to Saturday because we knew there was no game, and we knew we would get a good turnout. Not only that, but we also partnered with the schools. They sent out an email blitz to everybody about the open house and the history day on the Island, as well as the churches. We were able to connect with the churches, especially St. Stephen, because we’re doing a St. Stephen-related history program today.”
The open house gave visitors a chance to learn more about St. Stephen Church.
“A lot of people didn’t realize there was a barn at St. Stephen,” Dewey said. “In fact, my son said to me, ‘Why was there a barn?’ I told him that was because they came to church in a horse and buggy, or their horse and wagons, and the horses had to go into the barn. At later times, it was a focal point for neighbor days, then family reunions and that kind of stuff.”
Photographs of the Alt family.
Nicole Gerber’s open house at the Alt Farmstead at 2489 Whitehaven Road focused on preserving family history, and on the project she and Dave Reilly are undertaking to preserve the land – as well as the buildings on the land. Visitors took self-guided tours of the farm, which included the gardens, as well as the buildings.
Buildings on the farmstead include a house, a barn, an icehouse, and a one-room schoolhouse. The schoolhouse “was originally at Bedell and Baseline roads,” Gerber said. “It was moved here so Great-Grandpa could start Alt Chevrolet. So, this building was moved, and what is wonderful is being able to preserve a building that’s got Grand Island history in it, and also turn it into a new educational space, as far as the Alt Nature Center. It’s been fun to reimagine how this educational space can be used by the community.”
Gerber said she heard many stories about the Alt family as she grew up on the farm, which she said was originally 200 acres.
“Alt was one of the founding families of Grand Island,” Gerber said. “As the family farm grew, that’s when you get all the different outbuildings. The house was built in 1870, the barn in the late 1800s. There’s a lot of family and farming history here on this land.
“Back in the day, the family all lived on the same land. Then Great-Grandpa carved off a little piece for his children. When my mom got married, he carved off a little piece for her. Having grown up with family all around and having the fields and the woods to play in was amazing.
“I am so excited that the Western New York Land Conservancy’s conservation easement is in place. Now, all the fields that great grandpa used to farm and all the fields that I played in as a kid are going to be preserved in perpetuity.”
In the barn, Dave Reilly exhibits one of the farm tools that may have been used on the Alt Farmstead.