by Barb Chapman - Wheatland Town Historian
I recently purchased the September 16, 1882 issue of The American Rural Home on e-Bay. The front-page article of the paper describes “The Farmers’ Picnic” held at Kelly’s Grove in Garbuttsville that was attended by some 500 farmers from around the region. I have previously written about the May Day Celebration held there in 1880, and I have discovered local newspaper clippings describing many church picnics and other social gatherings that James Kelly hosted in his grove.
James H. Kelly was one of the most prominent and influential men who ever made his home in our town. He was born in Saratoga County, New York in 1819. He married Helen Augusta Peacock in 1844. According to an article in the Rochester Daily Democrat, Kelly succeeded J. H. Palmer in 1846 in the Manufacture of Tobacco, Snuff and Cigars at No. 1 Arcade Hall in Rochester. The following year it was reported that he sold 3500 cigars at the New York State Fair. By the 1870s Kelly had abandoned the tobacco business and had become the owner of the Kelly Lantern Company, manufacturer of headlights for locomotives. He was interested in the development of electric lights and went to Menlo Park to talk with Thomas Edison about the possibility of using them in his train lights. In 1878, Kelly predicted that Rochester Streets would be lighted with electric lights, and sure enough! In 1887 the Edison Illuminating Company lighted two and a half blocks of Spring Street with incandescent bulbs.
Before 1880 the Kelly family moved out of Rochester and into the Town of Wheatland. They purchased the former John Garbutt farm east of Union Street and on the north side of Scottsville-Mumford Road. James Kelly improved the grounds and built a white picket fence along the front of the property and along Union Street as far as the cemetery. The beautiful grove he created, sometimes called “Oak Ridge Farm,” became a popular picnic grounds for several years. The 1882 article in The American Rural Home explains why the prominent businessman left the city to become a farmer in Wheatland. Three boys, Frank, born in 1845; James, born in 1848; and Mortimer, born in 1865 had all died at a young age of disease. When his last remaining son sickened, James blamed the “poisonous gases” and the “miasmatic vapors pregnant with living germs” in the city “where hundreds of living beings crowd together on a single acre,” and he sought the “broad green country” in Wheatland.
Ward Kelly was the only son of James and Helen Kelly, along with daughters, who lived to adulthood. When Ward was a young man he moved to Pasadena, California where he married and had two children. He died in 1926 at the age of fifty, and was buried in the family plot at Mt. Hope Cemetery.
An undated article from the periodical Railway Life tells the story of the Oliver Allen headlight. In the mid nineteenth century there was talk of building a railroad from Rochester to Pennsylvania. D. D. S. Brown of Scottsville, and Oliver Allen and Donald McNaughton of Mumford led the promotion of the railroad, and in 1869, the Rochester and State Line Railroad Company was incorporated. It was reported that, early in the planning of the railroad line, James Kelly had told Oliver Allen that if they were successful in getting the railroad started, he would present them with a headlight for their first locomotive. He kept that promise by providing a beautiful lamp painted in gold and bright colors with life-size portraits of Oliver Allen on each side. In 1874 the headlight was placed on the locomotive named for Oliver Allen who was president of the railroad line from 1876 to 1883. In 1915, after its retirement, the light was presented to the Rochester Historical Society.
James H. Kelly made significant contributions to the Wheatland community while he lived in the area. Shortly after he arrived, he purchased the property at 24 Main Street, no longer standing, and made repairs to the building. When the people of Scottsville organized an Episcopal Church in 1885, Kelly was chosen as one of the vestrymen. It was James Kelly who had the beautiful building still standing at 30 Main Street built. He chose Charles Ellis as the architect and Myron Pope as the builder. In 1888 Dr. Lyman C. Galpin moved into the building and conducted a drug store. Galpin had the first telephone in the village installed there. A few years later, Kelly took possession of the old Hanford house at 32 Main Street and had it razed. Through his efforts, along with Thomas Brown, Isaac VanHooser, Selden Brown, Isaac Salyerds, and others, Windom Hall was built on that site and opened on February 17, 1892. Again Charles Ellis was the architect and Myron Pope the builder.
The 1882 article from the American Rural Home gives interesting information about James Kelly as a farmer in Garbutt. The writer observed that when Mr. K first came out to farm, his neighbors laughed and jeered at the “city farmer.” He was very resourceful, however, and determined to grow oats even though the local farmers told him that the soil here was wheat ground and would not grow oats. In the fall he plowed deep and turned over the soil, and then in the spring he covered the field deeply with manure. That year he grew an immense drop of oats, which he followed with a crop of wheat. He found that the farm had many large spots of hard clay soil. He went to the city and bought loads of refuse lime that had been used to purify gas, spread that on the clay areas, and harrowed it in. After many months of conditioning, the soil became fine and mellow and yielded a fine crop of wheat. So James Kelly won over the people of Wheatland by becoming, not only a successful businessman, but also a congenial host and a successful farmer.
James H. Kelly died in January 1900. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle described the services held at his home in Garbutt and at the home of his son-in-law Frank Upton in Rochester. So many floral tributes were sent that they filled an entire carriage. The Veteran Union Grays published a tribute to James Kelly in the newspaper citing the “frequent excursions and sumptuous dinners” he had hosted that endeared him to all.
In 1905 Kelly’s property was sold to Smith Eggleston for $15,000. Anthony and Mary Balzer bought the place in 1932 and opened a tavern they named the “Walnut Inn.” The popular restaurant continued under the ownership of Charles Logel and others into the 1980s. Although the farm has been divided, and the house is now privately owned, John Garbutt, James Kelly and the owners of the venerable “Walnut Inn” made the location at 866 Scottsville-Mumford Road one of the important landmarks in Wheatland history.