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A Return Home Finds an Extended Family Still in Existence

Times Arts Editor

What Thomas Wolfe meant, obviously, is that you can’t go home again and stay. You can always go home again on a visit, squinting at passers-by in the hope of sighting a familiar face, searching amid the changes for any surviving traces of your past, feeling at last, it may be, only like a stranger in a strangely familiar yet foreign land.

It was more than 40 years ago that I left Hammondsport for good, and despite many a summer visit over the years I ought by rights to feel myself something of a visitor, anxious all too soon to say goodby again to my ghosts and be on my way, leaving town and traveler to get on with their lives.

But it’s never been like that. I always leave reluctantly, as I did the first time, and with the suspicion that I am nuts not to stick around, at least until the first snow.

After a dry winter it has been a wet spring here. Lake Keuka is high. The trees and the lawns and the hills are a soft and astonishing green. The grapes are already heavy with growth. There has been rain during the visit, the gentle, straight-falling rain that soaks in and does not turn the gullies into brown torrents.

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Two or three times a day, rain or shine, Stanley Clark’s 400-passenger Keuka Maid, its nonfunctional but decorative red paddle wheels now in place, thrums down the lake, horn tooting, bell clanging. On its evening cruise, it is lit up like an arcade and the sounds of live music drift across the water.

In its partial first season last year, Clark told me, the Keuka Maid carried 27,000 passengers. It will do many more than that this year. There is a wedding on board almost every summer Saturday morning, and the weekend dance nights are jammed. The rock and country rock groups are very popular, the big band sounds are less so, which is a disappointment to Clark, he said. That is his era, and mine.

I’ve thought a lot about Hammondsport over the years, wondering whether it was unique or whether only my own nostalgia made it seem so.

In the ‘30s and ‘40s the town felt to me like a very extended family, in which almost everyone knew almost everybody else, and had for years. The past was a strongly felt presence; it was somehow just around the corner on the next street.

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You lived with a strong feeling of community and of continuity, and there was as well a sense of self-sufficiency; everything, even the telephone company, was locally owned.

The telephone company is no longer a local institution; there is in fact no telephone person in town anymore, only a building in which clicking noises can be heard, and the local ghosts include Nan Wright and Laura Bailey and the other operators who used to say “Number” when you picked up the receiver.

The local wineries, briefly owned by Coca-Cola and then by Seagrams, have been bought out by a management group, Vintners International, and their fiscal destiny is still shaped in New York. But they are operated by the local chief executive, a lawyer named Mike Doyle who has survived three ownerships, owns the house Fred Taylor of Taylor Wine built and clips his own hedges.

Doyle has made the cellars, as they’re called, feel like local enterprises again. Times are not easy; the brands suffered from unbenign promotional neglect, but sales are rising again and so is optimism.

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The smaller wineries--Walter Taylor’s Bully Hill, Peter Johnston’s Heron Hill and the others--appear to be prospering, and attendance at the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum of Local History is running ahead of last year.

The biggest employer in town is Mercury Aircraft, started in 1920 to make spare parts for the Curtiss Jennies that were barnstorming all over the country. And Mercury is still privately, locally owned, a big help to that sense of self-sufficiency.

Hammondsport has I think never looked prettier. The village square has a thick carpet of grass, which could never be made to grow in my day. The gingerbread bandstand (built in 1892 at a cost of less than $400) is in fine repair, waiting to be put to more than decorative use. There are trees and flower boxes everywhere in the village, and nearly all the storefronts are trimly painted.

I’m still not used to the video rental store where Jim Smellie’s pharmacy was, nor the handsome new building of the volunteer ambulance corps where Johnny Frisk’s barbershop and Athan Carrasas’ Keuka Restaurant used to be, but they do symbolize progress rather than decay.

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Progress, as always, fetches problems along with it. There is an acrimonious debate as to whether to build a lot of condominiums or a state boat launch down at the lake front, and I judge that the prevailing local sentiment is to do neither and leave the scenery just as it is. I wish I were more confident the sentiment would prevail.

They say lakeshore property now goes for as much as $2,500 a foot; a year-round cottage just sold for nearly $500,000 and the quadrupling of assessments and therefore of taxes has drawn cries of pain and outrage.

Nothing stays still, of course, but if you are lucky the changes are positive. (Decay is its own kind of change.) It is hard to be sure on short reacquaintance, but it seemed to me that Hammondsport continues to enjoy a strong sense of community, despite all the tendencies toward alienation and dispossession in the larger society.

The lawyer, whom I’ve never met but who lives in the house my great-grandfather built, heard I was in town and left word at the museum that if I wanted to come wander through the house again for old times’ sake I was more than welcome.

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I wasn’t able to--or I guess, more accurately, I was afraid the visit would be fraught with more memories than I could handle. But I was very touched by his thoughtfulness, and it seemed to me to prove that the feeling of the town as an extended family had survived all the dispiriting changes of a half-century.

I’ve been amazed how many familiar faces there’ve been to see and greet. The tradition of continuity appears to continue as well, although among my contemporaries there also appears to be a mass exodus to Florida along about Nov. 1.

Despite Thomas Wolfe, I think a man can home again--to Hammondsport, at least. There is only one problem, which did not enter into Wolfe’s thinking. If the prices keep rising, I’m not sure I would be able to afford it.


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