Step Back in Time to
the Era of Cobblestone
By Sue Freeman
It's winter so you better hitch up the wagon with skids. Mr. Jeptha Earl is paying you good money to make the 45-mile trip north to Sodus to hand select a load of cobblestones from the Lake Ontario shoreline. He's preparing to build a mighty fine home. It will be a difficult trip, what with camping out in winter and all, but it sure is easier than if you had to deal with the muddy, rutted wagon roads when they weren't frozen over.
That's only one of the myriad of complexities that pioneers to the frontier faced as they tried to build homes before the Civil War. It was the era of the Erie Canal. Times were prosperous, so wealthy farmers looked to upgrade their log cabin homes, entrepreneurs sought to build factories, and communities showed their pride by building schools and churches. Lumber could be shipped via the Erie Canal as a crop that yielded a good price. The material on hand, either scattered in farm fields, or lining the Lake Ontario shore, was small glacially rounded stones called cobblestones.
Early on (1825-1835) farmers gathered random cobblestones and built structures using a mixture of sizes and colors. As time progressed, building with cobblestones became a form of artistic expression with three periods of successively refined techniques. Between 1825 and 1860 when the Civil War raged, over 1,000 cobblestone structures were built in upstate New York. Many still stand to this day. The Civil War caused inflation and made building with cobblestones cost prohibitive because it was so labor intensive. But, before the craze ended, cobblestones were used to build houses, smokehouses, stagecoach taverns, factories, schools, churches, stores, crypts and even grave markers.
Today, you can take 17 driving tours to view these structures. One tour offers 19 buildings scattered around Geneva, Seneca, and Gorham in the Finger Lakes Region. On your tour, stop at The Cobblestone Restaurant (3610 Pre-Emption Road, Geneva) for a meal. On the way in, you can see cobblestones up close and inspect the way the stones were placed in mortar. Inside, look closely at the window wells to see the extreme thickness of cobblestone walls. As you eat, you can enjoy the artistry of cobblestone building, but be thankful that you live in a much less labor intensive era.
To learn more about the technique of cobblestone construction, locations of remaining structures, and the history of specific cobblestone structures, pick up a copy of the book "Cobblestone Quest - Road Tours of New York's Historic Buildings."