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Williamsville has a special place in New York’s history

Feb 17, 2017

You probably know that Buffalo is prominent in the history of Western New York, but the village of Williamsville has its own significance in the early development of the region. Among its many charms are its historic landmarks.

The village was incorporated in 1850, but this lovely place drew visitors for centuries before that. An ancient Native American trail between Batavia and Buffalo crossed Ellicott Creek just above Glen Falls, and it isn’t difficult to imagine that those early native travelers stopped here to enjoy their beauty.

In the early 1800s, settlers from New England made their way west from New England along this and other native trails. Joseph Ellicott, a surveyor, land office agent and lawyer, saw the area’s potential and financed improvements to the road to encourage people to buy land. As a result, the village and neighboring towns like Amherst attracted settlers. (Ellicott laid out the village of Buffalo in 1804.) Ellicott, an agent for the Holland Land Company, which owned most of Western New York, enticed folks to establish farms, inns and taverns by offering land for as little as 25 cents. Settlements began to take root along the Buffalo Road.

Incentives like the improved trail and the water power offered by the falls led Jonas Williams, a miller, to the area. Williams, for whom the village is named, arrived in 1805 and built the first mill. Several others sprouted near Glen Falls to produce necessities like flour, cornmeal and lumber.

During the War of 1812, American troops were garrisoned in the tiny village of Williamsville. Barracks and a field hospital were built along what is aptly named Garrison Road. At one time during the war, a Williamsville residence served as the headquarters of Col. Winfield Scott, who had distinguished himself on the Niagara Campaign front and survived captivity by the British. He planned and led the capture of Fort George, Ontario, the headquarters of the British Army, in May 1813. During that spring, some 5,000 to 6,000 men were stationed in Williamsville. When the British burned Buffalo to the ground in December 1813, the small village became a refuge for folks fleeing the fire.

After the war, the pace of Williamsville’s growth slowed. The settlers’ mettle was tested by unusual weather in 1816, when snow fell as late as May and frosts persisted through July, killing crops and leaving them with little to eat the following winter.

After the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, though, things picked up as it was easier for settlers to get to the region. Many people of German heritage, and especially German-speaking Mennonites, established farms in the northern Amherst area. The area began to prosper, and Williamsville became its commercial center.

In 1841, a raceway was built to bring water from Ellicott Creek to the mills, creating an island. According to an account of Amherst’s history by the Amherst Museum, by mid-century, there were seven grist mills along the creek, and various businesses including blacksmith and harness shops, forges, a tannery, boot and shoe factory, paper mill and breweries had been established. Schools and churches were organized and constructed. In 1850, the village of Williamsville was carved out of Amherst and incorporated as its own entity.

The canal, of course, spurred huge rebuilding and growth in Buffalo, which became the dominant population center. In the 20th century, Williamsville attracted folks who enjoyed a less congested suburban lifestyle. And so it is today.

Williamsville residents are proud of their village’s history. Each summer, they celebrate Old Home Days with a parade and carnival held on the raceway island, known today as Island Park. Tours of Williamsville’s historic landmarks are a popular way to glimpse the village’s past as well. Among them are:

The Williamsville Water Mill, 56 E. Spring St. Jonas Williams opened his flour and grist mill in 1811. When the building of the Erie Canal spurred the need for materials, the milling operation was converted into a cement business, which flourished from the 1820s to the mid-1880s. Then it reverted to a mill. More recently, the building fell into disrepair, but it was purchased and restored by the village in 2005. It is the home of the Williamsville farmers market.

Village Meeting House and Museum, 5658 Main St. The Disciples of Christ constructed this building in 1871 and occupied it as their church until the congregation disbanded in 1976. The village and the Williamsville Historical Society bought and restored the building, which now is a venue for community events.

Glen Park, 287 Glen Ave. This lovely park might have been turned into a commercial site had it not been for volunteer and government efforts to preserve it as a tribute to the past. The site of scenic Glen Falls, it housed an amusement park and casino until a large fire destroyed the buildings in 1968. In 1976, a federal grant enabled the Village of Williamsville and the Town of Amherst to develop it as a park. It’s one of the most popular spots in Western New York for wedding pictures.

Cambria Castle, 175 Oakgrove Drive. A castle in Williamsville? Yes! It was built by a German-born stonemason, Ignatz Oechsner, who pined for the castles of his native land. He started construction around 1917 on Dream Island and worked on the structure for 25 years, but died in 1942 before it was finished. You used to be able to tour the castle and grounds, which included a main building, gatehouse, tower, coach house and picturesque bridges over waterways, but today it is a private residence.

Dr. Hughes’ Office, 5430 Main St. This building is typical of many brick Greek Revival-styled structures along Main Street constructed in the mid-19th century. It was the residence of Joseph Seitz and later, his son John, who owned a boot and shoemaking business, and later was converted to commercial use.

Residents of Canterbury Woods enjoy outings to Williamsville, where they can see these and many other historic structures. If you’d like to know more about this special continuing care retirement community, please give us a call at (716) 929-5817 or request information here.

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