I grew up in the middle of nowhere. Actually, I grew up on the outskirts of nowhere—just a couple houses up from the borderline between one nowhere and another . Town Line, the outskirts of Alden, on the very outskirts of the County, twenty miles from dying Buffalo.
Like so many young boys, I read a lot of fantasy. Lord of the Rings, John Carter of Mars, Narnia. Each of those stories have a moment when the heroes learn of a larger, magical realm. Frodo leaves the Shire, John Carter gets yanked from his own body to the red sands of Mars, or the Penvensies finding a portal in the midst of old furniture.
The secret charm of the stories is that these fantastic realms lie just below the surface of our mundane world. Platform 9 3/4 is just behind that brick wall, and all the wonder of Hogwarts too.
It occurred to me the other day that this was my experience in learning the history of Western New York.
Research became something of an obsession as I found more and more layers in the area’s rich history. Finding out Mary Willis’ story, and the stories of her family, talking to her descendants, finding a display case of Native artifacts that had been dug up in my back yard. I lived in Town Line for over a decade, and beyond stories of the secession that never quite made sense, there was never really a mention of any of the area’s history.
1860s map of Town Line, Alden side
1860s map of Town Line, Lancaster side
Mary Webster and daughters at the Willis House, circa 1910