History of Aurora
Cayuga Lake is the longest of the Finger Lakes of Central New York. Since the withdrawal of the glaciers, the lake has provided abundant sustenance to human communities on and near its shores, from Paleo-Indian hunters to the Cayuga people of the Haudenosaunee, a Confederacy of six Native nations. The Cayugas’ main and larger villages were east and southeast of Union Springs; however, the special topography of Aurora’s bay led them to establish peach and apple orchards here, along with a smaller village, Chonodote (“Peachtown”), possibly in the seventeenth century.
The American Revolution caused a serious rift in the Confederacy. Only the Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Americans; the Seneca, Mohawk, and Onondaga nations remained allied to the British. Although the Cayuga nation did not formally ally with either side, some Cayuga warriors joined the Seneca in British military actions on the American frontier. In 1779, in the midst of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Gen. George Washington sent Gen. John Sullivan on a scorched-earth campaign through Central New York, with the main action against the Seneca and Cayuga as well as Loyalists in the region. The villages destroyed included Chonodote, with its orchard of 1500 peach trees, and the Cayuga fled to Fort Niagara. Although the Cayuga were allotted a reservation on their historic lands (including part of Aurora) following the war, this dispersal led to fairly rapid sale under treaties that remain disputed.
Euro-American settlement of Aurora began in 1789, and increased dramatically with the apportionment of land to veterans of the Revolution. Those who settled in Lot 34 of the Military Tract - today’s Aurora - were from New England and Pennsylvania. The unique climate afforded by Aurora’s bay built rapid wealth from the land; lake shipping thrived. Known first as Scipio, the village was named Aurora in 1795 and incorporated under that name in 1837. It was the first county seat and the site of the first county court as well as a distinguished school, Cayuga Academy (later Cayuga Lake Academy) founded in 1799. An early (1819) and intact example of Masonic construction and iconography remains in Scipio Lodge #110. The completion of the Erie Canal made Aurora a bustling transport site for wool, grain, fruit, and pigs from the village and its environs to the Erie Canal, and thence to national and world markets; the Aurora Inn (1833) and former Morgan Office Building (1834; today The Fargo) represent this era.
This rapid growth offered opportunity in the 1840s and 1850s. African-Americans freedom-seekers joined freedmen and women who were already a significant part of the local community; skilled Irish stonemasons and carpenters were in great demand. Henry Wells, of the Wells Fargo Express Company, came to Aurora in 1852 and founded Wells College for women in 1868. These developments remain visible in Aurora’s built environment, from the Dutch-framed Patrick Tavern (1793, oldest building in Aurora and probably in Cayuga County) and early Federal homes to elegant Italianate and Queen Anne houses, as well as more modest nineteenth-century homes reflecting Aurora’s working heritage. Three brick and stone churches (two remaining active in their original buildings) designed by the same architect, Samuel D. Mandell, in three different styles (Romanesque, English, and Gothic) were built 1860-1874.
Beginning in 1973, for the nation’s Bicentennial, Aurora residents worked hard to achieve national recognition for the Village and its history. In 1976 the entire village was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and several buildings were given national landmark status. The dual Village of Aurora/Wells College National Historic District remains a significant draw to tourists and, for its residents, a prized example of now-rare village life. This page reflects the village’s ongoing commitment not only to preserve the past but to understand it.
The Aurora Historical Society
Farmers Market at Patrick Tavern:
visit Village of Aurora Historical Society
for information on online ordering. To pick up your order, come to the parking lot behind Patrick Tavern, across Main St. from St. Patrick’s Church in Aurora between 4:30-5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays. Your orders will be ready to go, and safe market procedures will be in place. Visit the Aurora Historical Society Facebook page for details.
Aurora Historical Society News
Dr. Linda Schwab is the Village Historian, serving the public by answering queries, working with the Village Archives, assisting with preservation issues, and presenting local history in a variety of ways. She can be contacted directly at 315-246-1130 or through the Village Clerk (315-364-7293).
A Sampler from Sheila Edmunds
By Sheila Edmunds, Former Village Historian
Set on ample property and clearly intended to be visible from the lake, Taylor House, as it is now known, was built around 1838 for Henry Morgan (1810-1886), third of the six Morgan brothers who shaped much of Aurora's history and appearance. It was frequently the site of village events, like Fourth of July celebrations. In 1877-78 Henry had the imposing Greek Revival mansion enlarged by the addition of a lofty dining room on the south side, designed by Russell Sturgis, a prominent NYC architect; the construction was directed by Samuel D. Mandell of Aurora.
Henry's home, inherited by his daughter, Kate Morgan Brookfield, was eventually sold to Anna R. Goldsmith, who used it, and a new building on the north called Walcourt, for a women's prep school. After her death, Miss Goldsmith's stepson, Myron C. Taylor, presented the property to the Wells College Alumnae Association; since 1936 it had been the official residence of the college's president [until the property was sold to Pleasant Rowland in 2014.] In 1998 it was designated a Village Landmark.
Cayuga Lake National Bank, Aurora
“The Bank” stands to the north of the Aurora Inn. It was built about 1840 with limestone from Union Springs, by a mason, Solomon Myers, as a home for himself, his wife and family. The design may have come from a Dowling pattern book. About 1850 the Myerses moved north to Union Springs, and their old home was acquired for a tenant house by Henry Morgan, whose home, now called Taylor House, was directly across the street.
In 1864 Henry Morgan sold the building to a consortium of local business men who were organizing the “First National Bank of Aurora,” now the Cayuga Lake National Bank. The foundations were strengthened, flagstone was brought in to floor the basement, and the roof was changed, giving the building an Italianate appearance. In 1994, an admiring architectural historian, Jonathan Hale, said of the Aurora bank, “You feel pleased to be near such a building.. . . “ In 1998 the Bank was designated a Village Landmark.
Aurora’s most romantically conceived house is a palatial lakeside Queen Anne mansion towards the northern end of the village.It was built for Alonzo Morgan Zabriskie (1867-1913), eldest son of Louise Morgan and N. Lansing Zabriskie, in 1902, the year Alonzo married. His bride was the St. Louis socialite Belle Loader.The new construction was located near the site of the “Old Homestead” his grandfather, E. B. Morgan, built about 70 years before, and was said to contain some of its bricks, probably for sentimental reasons.
According to a local contractor, Alonzo's house was “planned by the owner.” Whether or not a professional architect was also involved (and the scope of the plan makes this seem likely), it was designed on a very grand scale; it is said to have some 40 rooms, including a ballroom.
The “Zabriskie house" remained in the family until 1949. It has commonly been called the Abbott House, after Dave Abbott, the man who owned it from 1967 to 2000, [until the name was changed to Rowland house in 2014 when it became part of the Inns of Aurora, owned by Pleasant Rowland.]
Aurora Then and Now
In 2011, the local history class at Southern Cayuga High School, taught by Barbara Casper, spent a term researching historic buildings in the village that are significant for their architectural features, their ownership, their usage, or the changes that have befallen them. In the process the students consulted a number of archives and local residents, gaining an appreciation for historical research and for the public and private interest that has allowed the village to maintain its historic character. We applaud their hard work, diligence, and enthusiasm.
1 Paines Creek