As summer wanes and fall colors begin to appear, road bikers should be in prime biking condition. You’ve probably biked many of the same familiar routes this year. Maybe you need a new goal – a new reason to head out for a spin. I recommend going on a cobblestone quest.
In your travels you’ve probably passed cobblestone houses, but not given them much thought. Most peopel don’t realize that they’re unique to Central and Western New York State. In fact, over 90% of the cobblestone buildings ever built in the world are within a 65-mile radius of Rochester, NY. The 700+ buildings were constructed between 1825 and 1860, before the Civil War. Each is a creative work of folk art.
Imagine moving slowly by wagon, over roads that were mere ruts of mud, to build a log cabin in a remote wilderness. This is precisely how the early pioneers to upstate New York arrived. They purchased plots of land from the Phelps & Gorham Land Tract or Holland Land Company and had to clear the trees from the dense forest to create fields for farming.
In the process, they discovered the fields were full of fist-sized stones (or cobblestones), evidence that glaciers scoured this land before the forests grew. Those pesky stones had to be moved out of the way, and as they plowed, the cobblestones seemed to multiply. It was hard work, but the land was productive and the pioneers were able to grow enough produce to feed their large families.
When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, it created a way to get their produce to larger markets. The farming business flourished, enough so that the farmers began to think about building better homes for their hardworking wives and 10+ children. Why not put those pesky cobblestones to use and build a dandy home – they were, by golly, lying about free in the fields, just waiting to be gathered. And, the pioneers were not strangers to hard labor.
The original cobblestone homes were simple farmhouses. Over the 35-year span during which all the cobblestone buildings were built, they became progressively more elaborate and refined. Construction methods evolved and masons began to select stones, sorting them by size and color. They build homes with stripes, herringbone patterns and artistic patterns created with the cobblestones.
Today, many of the cobblestone buildings are still standing and in use, a testament to fine craftsmanship. A few of the masons who built houses in upstate New York migrated farther west and built a spattering of cobblestone buildings in the mid-west. But, by far, the bulk that were ever built, are in upstate New York, south of Lake Ontario.
The cobblestone buildings clustered in this region make great biking tours. 17 different tours are detailed in the guidebook Cobblestone Quest – Road Tours of New York’s Historic Buildings. The shortest tour is 22 miles, the longest 83 miles, with most in the 45 to 55-mile range. They wind through backcountry roads, passing cobblestone houses, barns, smokehouses, stores, factories, and even cemetery markers. The guidebook describes the technique of cobblestone building and the history of the buildings, so you will understand what you’re passing. As you ride along, marvel at the skill of the masons and admire the dedication of the homeowners who have lovingly maintained these buildings over the centuries. Hop on your bike and take a fall tour through the unique history of our region.