A gust of wind, 1900

The corner of Milton Avenue and Onondaga Road was the scene of a nasty horse and buggy accident on the windy morning of September 12, 1900. A billboard for Knox Gelatine was knocked over by a strong gust of wind, frightening the horse of a Camillus resident who was headed in to Syracuse for a dentist appointment. His companion was thrown from the buggy and suffered a serious leg injury, which led to O’Sullivan v. Knox, a case that went to the state Supreme Court.

While not inherently interesting as a legal case, it offers a detailed snapshot of life in Fairmount “down by the tracks” at the dawn of the 20th century, during a time when farmers were co-existing with new suburban residents. Several local people give testimony, so there is good information about local families, advertising practices, land ownership and daily routines to be found here. It should be noted that the intersection of Milton and Onondaga had a considerably different configuration in relation to the railroad line to Auburn prior to 1915.

(Spoiler: Ms. O’Sullivan lost her case, and also her appeal.)

A sea scorpion, 435 million B.C.

pterygotus-1At left is Pterygotus, an ancient five-foot-long eurypterid predator that hunted trilobites and fish, one of the largest arthropods that ever lived. Fossilized specimens were found in exposed bedrock in a ditch alongside Beverly Drive in Fairmount Hills, probably during the laying out of the streets for the subdivision in the 1930s. (Similar fossils were found further west around Mansfield Drive.) B


[Source: Journal of Paleontology Vol. 35, Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, 1961, p.64.]

Ice harvesting, 1878

[This post departs from my usual format, as I’ve written this one by request from a former Fairmount resident.]

Among the several engineered water features on the Geddes farm throughout the 19th century was a dedicated ice pond.  This pond was mentioned several times in various magazine articles about the farm, and in letters and reminiscences mentioning the farm’s always fully-stocked icehouse, conveniently located near the mansion and barnyard.  It turns out that the ice pond had at least two configurations, and sometime after 1861 was considerably decreased in size and contained within artificial embankments (for greater harvesting efficiency).  This post presents evidence for the possible precise location of the smaller, banked pond.

George Geddes’ 1845 map of his property (presented with his submitted farm profile for the 1845 New York state award) unfortunately omits details of the farm’s water features.  One of Frederick Law Olmstead’s 1846 letters from Fairmount contains a rough “napkin sketch” of the network of irrigation channels on top of the hill (today’s Chapel Drive).  Another channel (or “canal”) went over to the mansion house, where cold drinking water was pumped straight into a wooden basin in the parlor (and presumably, even upstairs to the house’s second-floor copper bathtub).  The sawmill built by his father James, and its associated mill pond, also apparently doubled as the source for this pumped water.  This mill pond almost certainly was located just below the hill and may have served as the larger original ice pond as well.

The current Fairmount Glen Miniature Golf course is naturally the first location one considers when imagining a location for a sawmill or ice pond.  But Olmstead’s diagram seems to imply that there was no standing water in that location, at least not in 1846.  The garden in his sketch was probably located on the hillside (now partially leveled and occupied by the golf course’s parking lot), and the irrigation channels to this garden snaked down this hill, fed by gravity.


(Legend: “B.Y.” = Barnyard, “C” = Canal, “P” = Pool)

(It’s not quite clear from his drawing whether the holding pond to the west was on top of the hill or below it, but there was seemingly no water being pumped up from the area of the present-day golf course.)

While the 1840s ice pond (which was possibly also the mill pond) originally extended across the small valley, it was inefficient, which prompted the building of an artificial ice pond of much smaller size.  This new pond was described in detail in an article in the Illustrated Annual Register for Rural Affairs, 1876-7-8:

Mr. Geddes’ ice-pond covers 100 square rods of ground, equal to nearly two-thirds of an acre… The one made by Mr. Geddes is in a small valley, and the stream which runs through it, […] is not interrupted by the embankment which separates the pond from the creek, and only enough water is admitted from the stream to maintain the level at a proper height.  When at first the embankment extended across the valley, the water did not freeze sufficiently in open winters… The water in the pond is about 3 1/2 feet deep, and being drawn off when the season for gathering ice is over, the whole of the bottom and sides, except for a narrow channel for drainage, is used is connection with the adjoining land for pasture.


This diagram makes clear that the artificial pond had to have been built somewhere along the brook’s north bank, based on the direction of brook flow, and how the pond was filled and emptied.  Keeping in mind that George Geddes was an engineer by trade, we can assume this diagram was as accurate as others he shared about his property, and that the shape and proportions of the pond and its structures are accurate in this drawing.

Hillbrook Road has pronounced “dip” down to the Geddes Brook, a feature which implies that this is a pathway of older vintage than the suburban streets around it. In farm days, this dip was probably a ford or the location of a simple plank bridge over the brook. (Google Street view, looking west, of this location)

Flipping George Geddes’ pond diagram and matching up it up with the brook’s flow direction along Hillbrook Road gives some possible insight:


If this is a correct reading of the diagram, and if the course of the brook did not meander appreciably at this spot since the 1870s, it appears that a sled access road may originally have run from 173/Onondaga Road (perhaps as today’s Inwood Drive), crossed the brook at the dip, and curved back in a loop through today’s miniature golf course, crossing the brook again, presumably back to Onondaga Road.  The five-foot-high pond embankment, where the cut ice was skidded down a fourteen-foot chute to the waiting sled,  would have been located just to the west of the dip, as seen in the Google street view already posted.

A quick check of the acreage (from Google Maps) confirms that a 2/3 of an acre pond could easily have fit between the brook and the hill at this spot.  (This is not the case within Fairmount Miniature Golf course, where a pond of this size would not have fit on the north bank, unless the brook meandered greatly from its current path.)

Some further light is shed by the 1898 topographic map of Fairmount, which is the earliest one available.  It shows a pond of approximately the correct size, location, orientation and shape as the flipped Geddes diagram.  (It does appear to show two channels exiting the east end of this pond, which makes the pond’s situation to the brook a little unclear, though this map was surveyed 15 years after the diagram was published.)


The earliest aerial photos of Fairmount Hills are from September 1938, and show vegetation which is not inconsistent with wetland or the dry bed of an old pond, but don’t offer any conclusive evidence either way.

On the ground today, there is no evidence of a north or east retaining earthwork for a pond, but it’s likely that if any earthwork here survived the farm, it was destroyed when sewer lines were run through the neighborhood in 1947.  A photograph hosted at FairmountGlen.com shows sewerpipe-laying operations going on (Photo #3) right where any retaining earthwork would have been located (where equipment is parked, upper part of photo).

The northeast corner of the proposed small pond location does today contain permanent standing water.  Given the extensive development of sewer lines, road buildup and building sites, however, it’s more likely that this standing water is a byproduct of poor drainage that is merely coincidental to the location of the ice pond.  I feel that topographical features, map evidence and George Geddes’ diagram are enough to make the call: that the small, seasonal artificial ice-harvesting pond was located at 207 and 209 Hillbrook Road.  (These two homes, incidentally, were among the very last ones built in lower Fairmount Hills.)

Exploring the location of the small ice pond does leave a few other questions unanswered.  An article from the early 1920s on the property mentioned an “artificial lake,” and indeed the entire Fairmount Hills tract is known on property deeds as “Lake Lawns.”  What was the relationship of the artificial ice pond to the artificial lake?  Was the small pond expanded again?

I’d also like to further investigate the possibility that original earthworks from a different holding/drainage project still exist along Inwood Drive (earthworks created by original Erie Canal engineers in the middle of a suburban neighborhood would be quite an interesting find.)  And there is also another drainage project, possibly further west of this site, described in detail by George Geddes which I would be interested to locate.

A mill pond, 1807

1024px-chara2Frederick Pursh, an eminent German botanist, visited the Fairmount area in the summer of 1807 on a plant-investigation trip through the Northeast.  He passed by the mill pond of the Geddes farm (via today’s Onondaga Road) on July 13:

Near Mr. Geddes I found the Blitum virgatum in fruit, and in his mill dam a monstrous thick covering of Chara fragilis, which emitted a most horrid smell, the dam being broke and dry, and the whole of this Chara turn’d to be sun, and changed its green color, which it has, when under water, to a clear white; at my first coming to the creek, I thought the bottom of the pond or dam was a kind of marl by its color; but getting down to it, I found it to be the Chara which had covered the bottom all over.

[Journal of a botanical excursion in the northeastern parts of the states of Pennsylvania and New York, during the year 1807] Photo: Christian Fischer

Fairmount Fair: the band


It appears that the Athens, Georgia-based group Fairmount Fair has broken up (yes, they’re named after that Fairmount Fair), but you can still hear some of their demos on Myspace.

To some Fairmount Fair is a band based in Athens GA that makes experimental hip-hop songs and short films, often addressing issues of the pains of suburban sprawl and other such evils.

Fairmount Fair, in essence, has always broken down to one thing: finding that glimmer of beauty, not in something that everyone agrees is the norm, but in something that you find for yourself and that makes YOU happy.

Dinner at the Geddes farm, 1846

Source: Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmstead, by Justin Martin, pp. 46-47

[Frederick Law Olmstead, future creator of Central Park, stayed with the Geddes family during the summer of 1846 to learn advanced farming techniques.]

The long hours of farmwork were followed by a ritual that Olmstead found immensely appealing. Geddes ended each day by scrubbing up and sitting down to a large and sumptuous meal. It was often lamb or veal, fresh milk flowed freely, and there might a currant pie for dessert. Sometimes there were even pineapples, an exotic delicacy grown in hothouses on neighboring farms. The table was set with “silver forks every day,” Olmstead noted with wonder. Subsistence farming, this was not.

At dinner, Geddes invariably held forth on a variety of topics. He was a man of broad interests who made a point of staying informed about issues of the larger world, far beyond the realm of farming. In 1846, war had just broken out between the United States and Mexico. Geddes believed that both armies (all the world’s armies, for that matter) should be disbanded. He was an avid follower of Elihu Burritt, a blacksmith who was one of the founders of the pacifist movement. Just as the food at Fairmount wasn’t typical, Olmsted noted, neither was the conversational fare.