The Cobblestone Era: A History


In the fall of 1960, an organization was established in Western New York whose mission was to preserve and protect the region’s cobblestone heritage. This organization was called the Cobblestone Society. Emerging around 1825 and dwindling out around 1860-61 upon the outbreak of the American Civil War, residents in the state had started constructing buildings out of cobblestones. Today, 90 percent of the remaining cobblestone structures in the United States can be found within about a 75-mile radius of Rochester, New York. As families prospered thanks to the building of the Erie Canal, homeowners wanted to build more prestigious and permanent homes. The predominantly rural building method thus took over the countryside. Despite the popularity of cobblestone construction during the mid-19th century, however, very little is known about the motivations behind the trend’s emergence or about the masons who built these structural beauties. Today, however, tens of thousands of New York State residents in Wayne, Monroe, Orleans, Ontario, Livingston, and Yates counties, and more, drive by or see these buildings as part of their daily lives. Dialogue and literature about the history of cobblestone construction in New York State is sparse, however, which tasks local historians and researchers with encouraging the masses to better appreciate and understand the history that surrounds them every day. Western New York State was a prime location for the emergence of cobblestone construction as a result of the region’s geological history. Most structures still standing today were built along Ridge Road, also known as Route 104. Ridge Road was originally implemented as a travel route by Native Americans, and over time evolved to become the major highway it is today. The geological history of Ridge Road is of particular importance in regards to why cobblestone construction was able to flourish in this region of the country. Cobblestones are a geological creation which started during the Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian periods, between 325 and 475 million years ago. Making up what is known as the Paleozoic era, “all of the Great Lakes region west of the present Hudson Valley was a great shallow salt sea filled with living creatures whose remains, falling to the bottom, gradually formed layers of limestone deposits.”

Millions of years after these limestone deposits were created, glaciers covered the region, some close to one mile in thickness. It was the movement of the ice as these glaciers receded that caused “squarish cobbles in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors” to be left behind.  Ridge Road, specifically, used to be an ancient beach front of a gargantuan lake that was left by the last of the glaciers once they fully receded. Known as Lake Iroquois, this lake is said to have been “150 to 250 feet deeper than Lake Ontario now.”  The sedimentary bedrock which was left behind by the eroding of the glaciers became exposed when the shores of Lake Iroquois receded to where they currently are now, as the shores of contemporary Lake Ontario. The eroding of the ancient beach front is what resulted in the formation of the cobblestones seen today. Cobblestones are defined as Fragments of rock from about 2.5 to 10 inches in diameter which have broken off from the parent rock and have been transported from their original position. During this transportation by glacial ice or water, erosion has taken place and the stone has been more or less rounded. It is obvious that more erosion takes place during a long path of transportation than during a short travel. It is also obvious that soft stone (fragments of sedimentary rock) will erode more readily than fragments of hard rock of igneous origin. Cobblestone construction, therefore, is an aspect of American material culture that reflects how the environment can play an influential role in shaping the way a certain population establishes and expresses traditions in social culture, such as building and architectural styles. Studying history opens a record for contemporary humans to study human experience. This allows contemporary historians and the masses to face modern socio-cultural issues with a “deeper awareness of the alternatives before them and the likely consequences of each.”  The aspects of history that we choose to explore reflects how Americans and residents of New York State see themselves as a collective society. This results in the reinforcement of a shared historical consciousness. The past defines who Americans were in the past and what they valued, and researchers are proposing that memory is one of the most influential factors in choosing what aspects of the American past should be highlighted in comparison to others. Public memory therefore contributes to the study of New York State’s history of cobblestone construction by connecting the historical values of the state’s former residents to a specific aspect of material culture. It also helps open the door for non-historians to lend their interpretations and ideas, thus bridging the gap between strictly academic history and public history. Public history that does not engage the public realm by calling upon the people to advise what some of the most inherent cultural memories are is a detriment to the field as a whole, and to the study of the history of cobblestone construction. In response to the neglect of mainstream New York history to the Cobblestone Era, there have been a select few who recognized the urgency of preserving this aspect of America’s physical cultural history and took aims to document it. Of these, some of the most significant are: Olaf William Shelgren, Jr., Cary Lattin, and Robert W. Frasch, who wrote Cobblestone Landmarks of New York State; Carl F. Schmidt, author of Cobblestone Masonry; Robert L. Roudabush, who compiled a comprehensive survey of about 660 structures in New York State from 1976-1980 titled “Cobblestone Buildings in New York State; and Rich and Sue Freeman, authors of Cobblestone Quest: Road Tours of New York’s Historic Buildings. It is estimated that more than 700 cobblestone buildings were constructed in the region South of Lake Ontario. Over time, some would carry the construction style to new areas, such as Ontario, Canada, and states like Michigan and Wisconsin. Though it endured only a short period of popularity, cobblestone construction came to be considered a folk art that was implemented to represent the values and aspirations of New York State’s Western residents. Ultimately, the roughly 40-year construction trend left hundreds of tangible imprints of American social and material culture which demand that the general public take notice of their history and not let it be forgotten.

This research will first introduce the audience to the geological origins of cobblestones. The geological history of cobblestones will assist in supporting why the regions of Central and Western New York State were a hotbed for the formation of cobblestones, as a result of the ancient super lake, Lake Iroquois, and contemporary Lake Ontario. Establishing the geological origins of cobblestones also helps to pinpoint where the techniques for cobblestone construction came from. Before 19th century New York residents took up building structures with cobblestones, they were preceded by the Romans, Normans, Saxons, England during the Middle Ages, Italians and late 18th century Englanders. Following the discussion on the geological history of cobblestones and some of the first uses of cobblestone construction by historic populations, the audience will be guided through a chronological outline of New York’s Cobblestone Era. The Cobblestone Era consists of three distinct phases, or periods, that reflect specific design characteristics and construction techniques. By understanding how the Early, Middle and Later Periods of the Cobblestone Era are distinct from one another, and seeing direct examples of historic cobblestone structures from each of these periods, readers will become familiar with the varied techniques and styles so as to become better equipped to identify these buildings themselves as being specific to a particular Period when encountered in daily routines. Readers will also learn how concurrent culture phenomena such as the construction of the Erie Canal played a vital role in helping cobblestone construction strive from 1825-1861. In addition to understanding the differing characteristics of the Early, Middle and Late Periods of the Cobblestone Era, it is essential for audience members to have knowledge of the current, though few, historiographical analyses currently available. The secondary source literature currently existing on the Cobblestone Era is mainly focused on the cultural and environmental implications of the era. For example, authors such as Allen G. Noble and Gerda Peterich provide much needed discourse on the intersection of environmental and cultural history by way of evaluating the impact of the Erie Canal on the economic wealth of the region. Others, such as Robert Roudabush and Robert Moynihan, add to these arguments by weighing the possibility of whether the stone masons recruited to work the Erie Canal may have been the same masons who also built the region’s many cobblestone structures.

Lastly, understanding how the Erie Canal increased the economic wealth of many of the area’s residents requires audience members to consider how this is reflected in the architectural styles chosen by masons and homeowners. Cobblestone construction is not an architectural style in itself, of course, it is just a construction technique. It was therefore up to the homeowners and cobblestone masons to choose how they wanted their buildings styled, such as in the Federal or Greek Revival styles. Each architectural style has specific design characteristics which provide visual examples of how those across all social classes prospered from the Erie Canal during the Cobblestone Era. The final chapter in details how historians and researchers may be able to fill some of the current research gaps by applying a sociocultural lens for analysis. This lens will use the concept of public memory to discuss why the Cobblestone Era is such a significant period in not only New York State history, but the history of the United States overall. The Oxford Research Encyclopedia defines public memory as: The circulation of recollections among members of a given community. These recollections are far from being perfect records of the past; rather, they entail what we remember, the ways we frame it, and what aspects we forget. Broadly, public memory differs from official histories in that the former is more informal, diverse and mutable where the latter is often presented as formal, singular, and stable. Some examples of public memory are pyramids, statues, or, more specifically to the proposed research, cobblestone buildings. By looking at how some of these buildings are also gateways to broader New York State and United States history, audience members are evaluating how these objects are acting in such a way so as to become “shared, passed on, and in this way, form a broader network through which people gather a sense of collectivity.” Specific examples of this are buildings such as the Martin-Harris House and farm in Palmyra, New York, the ThroopGraeper House in Pultneyville, New York and the Charles Bullis House in Macedon, New York.