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Magazine

Combining Town & Gown: The Insider's Guide to Fredonia

NYSOM Contributor and longtime Fredonia resident, Amanda Marie Rogers, shows us how to navigate all that her town, located in the Chautauqua-Allegany region, has to offer. When you exit the I-90, Fredonia appears to be a fast-food wasteland, home to mega-chains like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Bob Evans. At first glance, you may consider continuing on to other places. But notice that even among this industrial strip there are local treasures — Tuscany Fresh Meats and Deli is wonderful locally-owned specialty store. Continue into the town itself, and you’ll find things change quickly. You’ll discover that Fredonia is an easily-accessible, quaint Victorian town, an hour’s drive from both Buffalo and Erie. Fredonians keep our history close. In 1821, William Hart drilled the first natural gas well. The nation’s Grange #1 (of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry) was erected on Main Street during the 1860s. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union came into being here in 1873. Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, once walked our streets and relocated his mother and sister to town. In Fredonia, history and modernity meet in sharp contrast — a side effect of containing a thriving university (SUNY Fredonia), a world in and of itself. We’ve got first class research: on plastic micro-beads polluting the Great Lakes, on Marcellus Shale’s ability to yield vast amounts of natural gas, and on viticulture and the science of wine- making. SUNY brings in world-class performers, such as cello player Yo-Yo Ma and Run DMC. I.M. Pei, who designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre museum in Paris, also created some of the buildings on campus. These stark juxtapositions make for an eclectic experience, and a variety of activities to suit your interests. Turn left immediately off the thruway, make a right on Main Street, and drive straight. Notice the local businesses: farm stands, cherry orchards, hair salons and health practitioners. Stop at Farmer John’s and try the cherry cider; it’s delicious. Check out the Masonic Lodge, where our farmers market is located in the winter months. If it’s a Saturday, stop there to marvel at the winter harvest, which is almost as plentiful as in the summer months. On summer Saturdays, you’ll find farmers and crafters selling their wares on Church Street, in the heart of the village. Continue exploring down Main Street to Barker Commons. Find a bench and sit in the park. It will seem like most of the village is passing by — on foot, bike or by car. A few villagers might join you on the seats and strike up a conversation. You might catch an event that takes place in the village square. During the summer, you can watch as 1890 comes to life during the Victorian Dazzle, or listen to music during the Red, White and Blues festival (Sept. 5-6, 2014). In late August, we’ve got a Farmer’s Festival that spans the entire Commons, welcoming the university’s students and their families for another academic year. In autumn, you can take a horse-drawn carriage on a ghost tour around town and through Forest Hill Cemetery. In the winter, ignore the bite of cold temperatures with a warm beverage while viewing the lights of the Christmas tree in the gazebo through the window of the Kangaroo Café. Or, across the park diagonally, you can sample The Upper Crust’s mind-blowing soup and baked homemade bread.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The 1891 Fredonia Opera House. Photo: Amanda Marie Rogers.
From all of these vantages, you can spot the rising tower of the 1891 Opera House, a must-see Fredonia landmark. Tour the classically-styled theater with its grand chandelier and horseshoe-shaped balcony. Run your hands over the finish. Stick around to see a movie or maybe a live show — including plays arranged by college students, folk concerts, the “Live at the Met” series and recent cinematic masterpieces. Branch out from the town center. Take a walk and enjoy some of the beautiful architecture on Central Avenue. More than 250 buildings with Greek revival style elements survive today in Fredonia, according to Daniel Drake Reiff in Houses From Books (Penn State Press, 2000). Look for buildings with columns and bold, simple moldings. Follow and fish for trout and salmon in the Canadaway Creek, which cuts through the village and flows into Lake Erie. The creek was originally named “Ga-na-da-wa-o” (meaning “running through hemlocks”) by the Iroquois—the pronunciation later was mutated by European settlers. Explore the Chautauqua-Lake Erie Art Trail over Memorial Day weekend to meet artists and see their work and studios. Fredonia is a place known for its bars, and you can find all varieties. During the school year, the students come out in search of midnight food and fun. Townies chuckle a bit at the outfits the young bar crawlers aren’t wearing, but it’s all in good fun—after all, we’ve been there. We see new faces all the time, so you’ll feel perfectly at home. Dive bars such as BJ’s host local and well-known musicians and comedians, such as folk rock n’ roll band Well Worn Boot and winner of the Queen City Comedy Competition, Kristen Becker. (Check BJ’s website for upcoming acts.) Friendly banter, locals and philosophical discussions await at places like Coughlan’s Pub or Heenan’s. We’ve got the classy ones too, like The White Inn or The Ellicottville Brewing Company. After you go for a drink, grab a bite at P*Dubs, which is right there on Main Street. You’ve got to try the Chicken Finger Sub with barbecue Sauce—the source of great nostalgia for many SUNY Fredonia alumni. Or, if you’re feeling fancy, find Rocco’s, where you can taste upscale Italian in a cozy, low-key environment (their chicken parmigiana is delicious), or The Brick Room, where the desserts are heavenly (their crème brulee is a favorite). Make Fredonia your base of operations for exploring the Chautauqua-Allegany region. We’re well-connected to the rest of the region. But a word to the wise: don’t go too far. There’s plenty to do within a half-hour radius. Stay local and relax by taking a boat on Lake Erie or exploring the Lake Erie Wine Trail, specifically Fredonia-based wineries Liberty Vineyards, Willow Creek Winery and Woodbury Vineyards. During the winter, discover trails in Arkwright hills to cross-country ski.  If you want to get some distance under your belt, go to other Chautauqua county treasures—The Chautauqua Institution, Lily Dale or Jamestown’s Lucy Desi Museum (all are less than an hour away). Above all, try a little of everything—after all, there’s no better small town to experience big culture.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Barker Commons. Photo: Amanda Marie Rogers.