Excerpted from the September, 1999 AHS Newsletter
Our story in May’s newsletter about Al Palmer has brought forth more comments and correspondence than anything we have written about so far. Thank you for your enthusiastic response!
One of the many calls I received was from Ben Reynolds in Tallahassee, Florida, who lived here as a child, leaving Almond after graduating from AACS in 1958.
Ben’s dad was the late John Reynolds, local historian who was instrumental in the formation of the Almond Historical Society in the 60’s. Ben tells about his excitement in receiving a box of his father’s things after his mother, Blanche, died a few years ago and the Reynolds’ house was sold. In it was an envelope containing some black and white negatives, subject of which was unknown. Ben’s wife, Donna, knowing how much his dad’s things meant to him, had the negatives developed into prints for him as a Father’s Day gift. Among those prints were two photos of the “Old Stone House”, located about four miles up Karr Valley.
Apparently John had taken the photos for the frontispiece of his book, The Almond Story, which he published in 1962. “My father was devastated when that house burned,” Ben recalled. His sister, Norma Clark, agrees: “Dad thought it was a wonderful house, and he was heartbroken when it burned,” she said. John tells it himself this way in a chapter of his book entitled, “Stephen Major and the Old Stone House in Karr Valley”: “On March 11, 1951, the fire siren sounded in Almond Village. The fire trucks screamed up over Sand Hill and down into Karr Valley. The old stone house was on fire. The firemen laid their lines and poured water into the burning building but it was to no avail. The fire had gained too much headway. In a short time it was all over. The old structure, a well-known landmark that had defied the winds and storms for a century and a quarter, was no more. Today, four massive, vine-covered walls are still standing upright as if defying the elements to the very last.
“The old house, with its eight rooms, fireplaces, halls, stairways and immense attic, was built in 1822 by Stephen Major. Its thick walls, firm and true to the last, were constructed of stones gathered from nearby fields. The heavy rafters that supported the roof and the huge 12x 12 inch plates that lay on top of the walls were hewn from the stately pines in Stephen Major’s forest. The floors were of pine boards, 18 to 34 inches or wider, without a knot showing in their entire length. Stephen Major had built well with the best materials his lands afforded,” the narration continues.
John goes on to tell about Stephen coming to Almond from the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania in June, 1797, with his wife, Margaret, and her three brothers, Walter, Joseph, and Samuel Karr. He describes Stephen as “a small man, not the rugged pioneer type,” who worked as a tailor and was also a skillful trapper. Apparently in those days a high bounty was offered for every wolf killed, which brought Stephen considerable profit, enabling him to pay for two farms. He purchased the farm of Andrew Gray in 1805 and started construction of the stone house shortly afterwards. He served in various offices, including overseer of the poor for the Town of Almond and then for Allegany County as superintendent of the poor.
Although the ruins of the old stone house are now totally vine covered, a walk through the field behind the house brings one to a little family cemetery. “This plot in which other members of the Major family are buried was originally surrounded by a stone wall about four feet high. The rear wall only now stands, the other three sides having long since crumbled,” John writes.
“At what was apparently the center of the little cemetery, at one time stood a stone, now toppled to the ground, upon which the following epitaph is carved. Here in capsule form is the life story of Stephen Major:
‘From Ireland, his native land he immigrated here to dwell
When this was but a wilderness resounding by the savage yell
Here he rose to imminence believed by all both far and near
And while possessing competence bequeathed to his children dear
This sacred spot he called his own but only one reserve he made
Here he requested to be laid encompassed by a wall of stone
Here let his sleeping dust remain until the last long trumpet sound
Shall bid it rise to live and reign where everlasting joys abound.’”
John’s book, The Almond Story, is now out of print, and the remaining copies are guarded carefully and treasured by their owners. When it was first published, an Evening Tribune full page story dated October 6, 1962, describes the publication as the “realization of a man’s dream.”
How did this man become so interested in local history? The article tells about John reading a newspaper story relating how some local towns acquired their names. “I was curious, did a little research in the library, and then wrote an article on how Almond received its unusual name. It was published, and that prompted further research. I began to delve into other features of local history, particularly information about the original pioneers. I wanted to know who they were, where they located, and other interesting information about them. Finally, I became curious as to where these early settlers were buried. That is when I started looking around in the old cemeteries,” Reynolds related.
The story goes one: “Reynolds’ cemetery diary begins on October 29, 1944 when on that Sunday afternoon he and his son, John, visited several old cemeteries in Karr Valley. From the gravestones found amid the tangle of briars and wild rosebushes, a listing was started.”
But John was a busy man in those days, which necessitated that this hobby be put “on hold” for several years. He and his wife, Blanche, had eight children, and he worked in the Erie Railroad stores division, a job he faithfully executed for forty years. To supplement that income, John and Blanche entered into a couple of entrepreneurial endeavors, including tending a large garden plot with neighbor Don Smith, selling corn, peas, tomatoes and other vegetables from a roadside stand.
John’s love for gardening expanded to a six-acre field located adjacent to Woodlawn Cemetery (where Vince Petric now lives) which he transformed into the Reynolds’ famous strawberry patch. “I was brought up on my knees,” son Ben jokes. . . . . “crawling down the strawberry patch!” Ben called this his dad’s labor of love, which enabled folks to come from all over each year to buy their strawberries. Norma’s husband, Merwin, remembers John’s purchase of a “brand new 1942 John Deere tractor from Percy McIntosh, which he paid for with his strawberry profits.” Today, John’s grandson, Doug Clark, has completely restored the vintage machine to its original condition. Merwin also adds that his son, Doug’s, restoration of his “treasure” cost twice as much as the tractor cost brand new.
Another business also evolved. Many of us remember Reynolds Dairy Bar, where Blanche sold her wonderful pies and the family helped dip huge ice cream cones for customers. Located “below town” beside the family home on the road to Hornell (now the John McHenry home), it was like today’s “convenience store” without gas pumps. “I wonder how they ever made any money,” Ben muses, considering his parents’ generous helpings. He remembers college students who roomed in Almond enjoying their evening meal there, and local folks who stopped by for a hamburgers or hot dogs, or a quart of milk.
Before moving to that location in the 50’s, the Reynolds family owned two other homes in Almond: 86 Main Street (where the Paul Gabriels now live) and the Chapel Street home now owned Norma and Merwin. John’s concern for his neighbors and his community took him into the political arena. He ran for the Village Board and was elected trustee, serving from 1934-1941. After the death of Mayor Floyd Straight, John was appointed acting mayor and was subsequently elected to the office, serving until 1946. A defeat from “Upper Battery” candidate John Johnson removed John from office for four years, but he was once again elected mayor in 1950 and served four more years.
At the same time he was involved in Village government, John also served on the AACS school board for several terms in the 40’s and 50’s. A proud moment came for him when he presented his son, Keith, his diploma. One would consider John’s plate pretty full, but the list of activities continues. His children also remember his involvement in Evening Star Lodge #44, and his serving as an elder at Almond Union of Churches where he even assisted Pastor Arthur Guild write a book.
When the war years came, his daughter, Doris, remembers her father rendering another type of community service. “During World War II, we would have blackouts and drills. The old town whistle would ring and people would draw their drapes to block out any light. My dad would travel up to the fire station without lights on his car, where the village authorities would discuss our safety. We had airplane spotters who would sit and watch for the planes and report them to sources. We had rationing of sugar, tires and many other materials. Many of the young sons and daughters of Almond went into the service, including my sister, Norma, and my older brothers, John, and Richard. It was a difficult time for many families residing in our small town. The stars hung in front windows to remind people to pray for our fighting men and women,” Doris writes via e-mail from her Houston home.
Steadfast employee, creative entrepreneur, faithful public servant: one wonders how John had time to be a dad and a husband. In those days, the great time-stealer, TV, had not invaded the homes of families, and simple family outings are remembered by John’s family. His insatiable interest in Almond’s history caused him to use these family times to instill a similar love in his children. Doris gives us this personal glimpse of her father: “He was a wonderful guy, a good father and loved to talk about history and genealogy. He learned to write by taking creative writing lessons through a mail order course. I remember his hunt and peck system on his old typewriter. He used to let me read his material and when I got older I would help him type his pages. He would go over them with a fine-tooth comb and edit many, many times.
As a family, we would get into the family Model T Ford and visit the old stone house in Karr Valley. He always envisioned writing about it, and so he did later in life. Each time he would relate to us about the first settlers of our valley and how brave and courageous they were. We would take Sunday rides up on Bully Hill and get lost just to see where it came out. Sometimes the old Model T would not make it up the winding dirt roads (with high grass in the middle) and we would have to back up the hills. We had so much fun in those days. Dad, with a crop of red hair that he inherited from his grandmother, would raise up his head and laugh so hard with us children. With that laugh of his, everyone laughed with him! I miss my dad!
“Our family dog would accompany us and he would leap out and run after birds and rabbits when we didn’t go very fast. We used to talk about the pioneers and what they raised as crops, what they wore, and how the women washed clothes in the little streams. He would tell us how the men hunted a variety of deer, wild birds, squirrels and rabbits in the woods to keep a fresh supply of meat for their families. We would visit old farm houses way up in the country where families had lived. Sometimes only the chimneys remained, but all around the houses were a variety of rose bushes, currants, and berries, which always interested us. Everytime we went for a ride in the country with my Dad, we had a history lesson, and I thank God for him and his knowledge and pen,” Doris writes.
Numerous phone calls and e-mails from Ben in Florida describe John as a “gentle man who never raised a hand to me (my ‘lilac-switching mother’ took care of the dirty work)! All dad had to do was look at us,” he recalls. Fishing the local streams and hunting the area woods with his boys always became teaching moments, Ben went on. “I guess some of the great memories I had with Dad were on our hunting trips up Karr Valley and Bully Hill, along with Newcomb. It was a learning experience or a trip back in time as dad would explain to me who owned this farm, as we sat looking at an old falling down foundation that had been abandoned during the depression, or to explain where a now overgrown road once went. While we were out hunting, we sometimes came across an old cemetery and Dad would want to ‘rummage through it’ — -but we wanted to hunt! I think my dad took great joy in teaching and being with his boys in the woods,” Ben said.
After reading about John’s long list of activities and responsibilities, one could conclude that the excuse, “I don’t have time,” was not part of his conversation. In spite of a seemingly jam-packed schedule, he still found time to pursue his long-time love and passion, the preservation of local history.
Describing his dad as a “great story-teller,” Ben remembers the “enormous amount of time spent in research for his book, taking notes from old-time residents, and reading everything he could find about Almond’s history..” Ben tells of his dad’s fascination with the late Horace Stillman, an “old-timer” well versed in the history of Almond. “He visited him often and took endless notes,” Ben recalls. “I remember as a boy hearing him banging way late into the night on that old manual typewriter. He used the Christopher Columbus typing method: find a key and land on it!”
Norma’s daughter, Melanie Clark Austin, wrote about her grandfather’s book in 1974 for a college history paper preserved in the Almond Historical Society archives: “My grandfather worked on the book for many years. He wrote many letters, visited many people who could help him or lead him to others who might, and he tramped all over the valley and the town itself.”
John was truly a self-made man. Born in 1901 in Chicago, he came back to his father’s home town, Jasper, when he was about five years old. “Dad went to school through the eighth grade, and then he tried to go on to high school in Canisteo,” according to Norma, “But the only way he could get there was by riding a bike. When winter came, he could not get there, and he had to give up going to school.” However, John’s capable leadership abilities, his excellent command of the English language, and his flawless writing skills are a tribute to his God-given gifts and the strict teaching of the ABC’s in the old country schools.
Too early in his life, in 1972, John suffered a bad stroke. “After that, he had a hard time talking, and was very frustrated,” Ben remembers. He died in 1976, with his wife, Blanche, and six living children surviving him: John, in Boulder, CO; Keith, in Williamsburg, MI; Ben, in Tallahassee, FL; Norma Clark, Almond; and Doris Cuccia and Jane Augustini, in Houston, TX.
John was a man who used his time and talents faithfully, leaving a permanent mark on here in his beloved Almond. His book, The Almond Story, was a huge undertaking and we are all thankful for that permanent record of the history of persevering pioneers settling in a swampy marsh up to the Civil War years. We will continue the story next time about John’s vision for starting a local historical society, and his cemetery hobby with friend, Wayne Kellogg.