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WHY GO: In the mid-1800’s, America was questioning its ethics and morals vis a vis slavery, women’s rights, and the demon rum. At the same time, little Seneca Falls NY, on a branch of the Erie Canal near Lake Ontario, was drawing Abolitionists, Suffragists, proponents of Temperance, and other agitators. A whirlwind of evangelical fervor so hot, this corner of Northwestern NY came to be known as, “The burned over District.”
Advocates for Women’s Rights, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Anti-Slavery Activists like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, spurred on movements that gained national attention.
Even now, there’s an energy here that more and more visitors tap into. They do this by visiting the Women’s Rights National Historic Park, Stanton’s Seneca Falls Home, the Women’s Hall of Fame, and even It’s A Wonderful Life Museum – based on the uplifting, one-person-can-make-a-difference Frank Capra Movie.
End the day in the small Erie Canal town of Newark, in the former home base of the company that brought the “mail order rose” to mass market USA on this Women Power NY Getaway.
Things to Do in Seneca Falls and Newark NY
TOUR: Women’s Rights National Historic Park, Seneca Falls
Seneca Falls NY was the site of the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. Though Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas moved to this land of Temperance and Abolition after escaping slavery in Maryland, the story of Seneca Falls focuses most on suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Stanton had attended a 2-day Women’s Rights Convention in London where only men were allowed to speak. In other words, women could be seen, but not heard.
Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls
Stanton, who lived in Boston with her attorney husband, swore she’d rectify that with a true Women’s Rights Conference.
In an attempt to tame his feminist daughter, Stanton’s father sent her, along with her husband, to Seneca Falls – a Quaker stronghold. Living so far away, her father assumed, she wouldn’t cause trouble in Boston.
But without the distractions of the city, Stanton’s fervor for women’s equality blossomed. At the time, women didn’t have rights to their own children, title to property, or ability to vote. Stanton presented her Declaration of Sentiments – an “alt” Declaration of Independence – at a hastily planned Women’s Rights Convention.
The 2-story Historical Park building features a wealth of exhibits about the Women’s Rights movement – then and now all over the world.
Mingle among 20 statues of women and men Suffragists. Most famous were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott (Abolitionist from Philly), Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Richard Hunt (financial backer who helped pay for the Wesleyan Chapel), and Martha Wright (known to neighbors as “a most dangerous woman”).
Declaration of Sentiments
The tour continues outside. A fountain-like “Water Wall,” etched with the complete Declaration of Sentiments, also features names of the 68 women and 32 men who signed it. Next door step into the restored Wesleyan Chapel, site of the Convention itself.
Over the years, the Chapel had been used as a laundry mat, and even a car mechanic shop. In 1980, the National Park Service purchased the property, and in 1993 opened it as a restored historic site.
Though 300 people attended the Women’s Right’s Conference, only 100 signed The Declaration of Sentiments, as it was dangerous to do so.
The First Women’s Rights Convention got the ball rolling on a very public issue. However, it needed a firebrand to turn it into a movement. That’s where Susan B. Anthony, who did not attend this first conference, came into play. Open daily in summer 9-5.
PHOTO OP: When Anthony Met Stanton sculpture, Seneca Falls
In May, 1851, Susan B. Anthony was in Seneca Falls for a Temperance meeting when a mutual friend, Amelia Bloomer introduced her to Elizabeth Cady Stanton on a street corner. Connecting Bloomer, the inventor of the women’s lib pantaloons, with this persuasive writer, turned out to be a chance meeting that changed the course of history.
It’s been said that “Elizabeth forged the thunderbolts, and Susan hurled them.” Until then, Susan B. Anthony’s focus was temperance and anti-slavery. Stanton turned it towards women’s rights.
VISIT: Elizabeth Cady Stanton House, Seneca Falls
Elizabeth Stanton raised 7 high-spirited children in this modest house. It’s now about half the size it was originally, in 1847, when she moved in. In those days, referring to pregnancy or birth was scandalous. But that didn’t stop Stanton from flying a pink or blue flag outside her home each time she had a baby, shocking the neighbors.
Stanton’s Unruly Kids
The home has a multitude of windows. Stanton loved natural light, and felt fresh air was healthier than being closed in. Because Stanton’s mother was “super strict,” Elizabeth raised her own children with few rules.
They learned “bad language” in local taverns, which they’d spout as they served food to guests. (Some visitors, like Lucrecia Mott, didn’t care. She also swore like a sailor). Stanton’s husband called his children “miserable underdeveloped vandals.” (One would imagine, and hope, with some bemusement).
Susan B. Anthony visited often to watch the kids so Stanton could write, mostly while Stanton’s husband was off doing his Abolitionist work.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was born in 1815, died in 1902 at age 87, and left diaries and letters. One was a missive to Teddy Roosevelt, informing the then President that he could be the “next Lincoln” if he emancipated women. That letter was never sent. Fri-Sun 10-4, but check NPS website first.
VISIT: National Women’s Hall of Fame, Seneca Falls
This museum’s mission – “Showcasing great women, inspiring all” was long in coming. Textbooks do not address progress in Women’s History studies. Just 10% of historical figures represented are female, even now. Twenty women were first inducted in 1973, with 10 more inducted every other year. Important women are nominated by the public and adjudicated by experts in each field.
Over 266 women – in politics, science, business, sports, arts, and entertainment – are showcased here on HOF plaques. These include Abigail Adams, Maya Angelou, Susan B. Anthony, Hillary Clinton, Emily Dickinson, Ella Fitzgerald, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Helen Keller, Annie Oakley, Georgia O’Keefe, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Oprah Winfrey.
The Women’s Hall of Fame has outgrown its store-front space. In the summer of 2020, the whole exhibit will move into a new/old space across the canal – the 1844 Seneca Knitting Mill. Open Wed-Sat 10-4, Sun-Tues 12-4, closed Sun and Mon. Jan-March, $4.
VISIT: It’s A Wonderful Life Museum, Seneca Falls
It’s A Wonderful Life Museum opened in 2010 inside Seneca Falls first movie house, built in 1913. One of only a handful of museums in the country devoted to a single movie, it’s a bit strange that this particular one is in Seneca Falls NY, as this beloved film was made entirely in California.
Frank Capra’s Inspiration
But, here’s the thinking. Director Frank Capra did visit this small town. At the time, he would have read the plaque on what’s come to be known as “Bailey’s Bridge,” honoring Antonio Varacalli, who “gave his life to save another” on April 12, 1917.
Varacalii, Italian like Capra, jumped from the bridge into the water to save a drowning man and died in the process. It’s assumed that the Director used this event as basis for his movie.
It’s A Wonderful Life was not originally slated for a Christmas release in 1947. But, because Sinbad the Sailor was not ready, it was sent to theaters ahead of schedule, proving to be the movie’s downfall in popularity at the time.
Although marketed as a romcom, the story of a man contemplating suicide was quite the holiday downer. Especially since Americans were just returning from war. Consequently, It’s A Wonderful Life tanked at the box office, only finding a new and growing audience decades later on television.
The museum is full of artifacts from the movie, and items representing Capra’s unifying values. Among them, a ceramic bell inscribed with the famous quote, “Every time a bell rings, another angel gets his wings.”
There’s an exhibit about Donna Reed’s organization, “Another Mother For Peace” and its associate poster, “War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.”
Karolyn Grimes: “Zuzu”
And, you can look through the portfolio that 6 year old Karolyn Grimes showed Capra when auditioning for the movie.
Come the 2nd weekend in December, and you can meet and greet Grimes, (along with other Bailey children actors), who played 6 year old Zuzu in It’s A Wonderful Life.
Now, still beautiful at 77, Grimes had the kind of life rife for a Capra film. She grew up in Hollywood, and worked with Buster Keeton, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant (her favorite). When Grimes was 14, her mother died of cancer. The following year, her father was killed in a car accident.
So, Grimes was shipped off to her Uncle and “mean Aunt” in Missouri. There, she was forbidden to act. Subsequently, Grimes “learned about real people,” – merchants, teachers and others who “gave her the opportunity to see there are good people in the world.”
She became a Medical technician, married three times (her first husband was killed while deer hunting), and had seven children. In 1980, “a reporter called to ask if I played ZuZu in It’s A Wonderful Life.”
This led to fan mail, interviews, and her very first viewing of the movie. Ever. At age 40.
Its A Wonderful Life, Popular Again
In 1993, Target used It’s A Wonderful Life in its ads. Hence, Grimes, with the other Bailey-kid actors, was hired to represent the film where it was supposedly set. In Seneca Falls NY.
Fifteen years ago, the It’s A Wonderful Life Festival drew a few hundred people. Now, 10,000 to 20,000 people attend. The Museum, however, is open year round. Open Tues-Sat 11-4, free.
VISIT: Seneca Museum of Waterways and Industry, Seneca Falls
The story of Seneca Falls industry is told throughout exhibits on three floors. Seneca Falls was considered “The Fire Engine Capital of the World” as base for Silsby Engines, and manufacturing center of Sylvania Color TV’s and Westcott Rulers.
Best of all, the museum sits right on a spur of Erie Canal overlooking the Bailey Bridge. There are four canal locks (two double), in town, so plenty of boats tie up right outside. Besides exhibits, this museum offers toilets and other amenities for boaters on its ground floor. Open Mon-Sat 9-6, in summer, closes earlier other times of year, Sun. 12-4, free.
This stately 1855 Victorian home is stuffed with Victoriana, of course. But it also contains artifacts specific to the town. Check out the tea set in the Drawing Room. First purchased by President James Monroe, and used by Abraham Lincoln, it was disposed of, in a way, by Mary Todd Lincoln.
Mary gifted the complete set to her friend William Seward (of Seward’s Folly fame), who lived nearby. The White House has since asked for the return of “Lincoln Tea Set,” but the Historical Society plans to keep it.
If you are into exceptional women of the 1800’s, you’ve hit pay-dirt. The SFHS displays the writing desk that belonged to Elizabeth Cady Stanton (one she left here when she moved to Brooklyn).
Most noteworthy is the camera owned and used by Grace Woodworth, the photographer best known for her portraits of her friend, Susan B. Anthony. Quite possibly taken with this very camera. Open Mon-Fri 9-4, $15.
CYCLE/BOAT: Erie Canal – now the Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor
It’s 365 Miles from Albany to Buffalo. Since local road trips are becoming all the rage, travelers are now discovering small towns along the way. “End to Enders” as they’re called, are growing in numbers.
Where to Eat in Seneca Falls NY
This cute cafe references the 19th Amendment. It’s a cool breakfast and lunch spot, offering fresh-fresh soups, salads and sandwiches. Totally funky and modern with lots of Suffragist Pop Art.
Where to Stay
The Vintage Gardens Bed and Breakfast, an exquisite 5-room inn, has a special pedigree. It was the home of Charles Perkins and headquarters of the Jackson Perkins Rose Co. – the floral brokers who brought roses to America.
So, you can just imagine how beautiful the grounds are. (Prior to the Jackson-Perkins Mail Order Rose introduction at the 1939 World’s Fair, only the very wealthy could afford these flowing plants).
Just 30 minutes from Seneca Falls in the small, walkable Erie Canal town of Newark, Vintage Gardens is a pure escape from crowded cities and suburbs.
In 2006, Kimberlee and Michael Meeks moved from California to Newark. According to Meeks, Newark is a “Mayberry picturesque community on the Canal.” They purchased this fine Tudor mansion – first built in 1838, renovated in the 1920’s – and have been “restoring it ever since.”
Many guests are through bicyclists on the Erie Canal Bike Trail looking for a splurge, TLC and a luxury overnight. They find it all here.
First Impressions of Vintage Gardens B&B
The inn stands in a residential neighborhood, a couple of blocks from both a commercial highway and the Erie Canal. Both its location and ambiance was a delightful surprise, with naturally stunning gardens, a striking interior, and genuinely nice owners.
Kimberlee greets guests in a sun-flooded solarium room. She offers fresh baked goodies and lots of information about the town and home.
To get to your room, you must walk on unusual burnished wood floors. These feature bowtie and round peg inlay in fumed oak – the hallmarks of original Stickley. In the 1920’s, when the home was renovated, the Stickley factory just happened to be located nearby. Kimberlee is understandably protective of these floors, so asks that you carry your rolling luggage off the ground.
Rooms at Vintage Gardens B&B
Each themed room is distinct, pristine, cozy and charming. Towels and welcome Hershey’s Kisses await on each bed.
The Asian Lily Suite brings you to the Orient. It features Japanese prints, polished wood floor in the bathroom, stand alone soaking clawfoot tub, and crisp linens on a pillow-top iron canopy bed.
Kimberlee’s Stuffed Peach French Toast is the star of the A.M. – and hearty enough to get you through most of the day. Rooms from $115 – $165 (Asian Lily Suite $165). Include gourmet breakfast, afternoon tea and cookies, wi fi and parking.