Before roads and railroads crisscrossed the land, Native American trails passed through the dense forest and along the Oatka Creek. When the Iroquois came to the area, the Woodland People had already left behind evidence of their encampments at Fort Hill and along the banks of the Oatka. Early settlers wrote about burial sites and collections of arrowheads. The Iroquois camped along the creek and had contact with the settlers. As pioneers streamed into the region after the Revolution, the old trails were overrun by thousands of wagons and the Native Americans found refuge in nearby reservations.
Early in 1793, Hinds Chamberlain traveled into the region and camped overnight by the creek, which at that time was called Allen’s Creek. The water spilled over the black shale and Chamberlain remarked that it looked like buttermilk, so the area became known as Buttermilk Falls. In 1797, Charles Wilbor arrived and built a cabin on the Mill Tract. Located on the east side of town, the Mill Tract was the earliest of the three land tracts and attracted the first settlers. Open for settlement next was the Triangle Tract, which was surveyed in 1801. Ezra Platt bought 500 acres of the Triangle Tract for the future village of LeRoy. The third tract was the Craigie Tract located on the west side of town. It was promoted by Thomas Tufts, who arrived in the area in 1810.
When Capt. John Ganson bought Charles Wilbor’s cabin in 1798, he established a tavern and inn. Its reputation spread far and wide and the area became known as the Ganson Settlement. A bridge was built across the creek in 1801 and 1802, and a dam was built to harness the waterpower of the rapids. Richard Stoddard and Ezra Platt built the first gristmill on the west side of the creek. In 1812, the settlement became known as Bellona after the Roman goddess of war, but in less than a year the town was named for a wealthy New York merchant, Herman LeRoy.
The early settlers established churches and schools throughout the area. In 1837, Marietta and Emily Ingham founded the LeRoy Female Seminary. In 1857, the seminary was granted a charter to become a university. In the 19th century, Ingham was one of seven nationally recognized women’s universities. It closed in 1892 because of financial difficulties.
LeRoy’s early industries were dependent on the agricultural economy and the natural resources in the area. Flour, salt, limestone, wool, apples, beans, cattle, and poultry all came from LeRoy. Entrepreneurs built shops for furniture, carriages, railroad cars, stoves, patent medicines, cigars, hats, agricultural implements, milled lumber, malt, dynamite, silos, porcelain insulators, organs, automobile parts, airplanes, and most notably “America’s Most Famous Dessert”—Jell-O. But the thriving community changed. The LeRoy Salt Company closed shortly after World War I. LeRoy Plow Company closed after World War II. Most of the patent medicine companies ceased operation. Jell-O moved to Dover, Delaware, in 1964. People in LeRoy were driving to Rochester and nearby communities for work. Today there are very few LeRoy industries that have been in business for more than 20 years.
In Western New York, before the opening of the Erie Canal, farmers and merchants depended on a network of overland roads that were often impassable during the spring and intolerable in the hot summer months. The Erie Canal passed 17 miles north of LeRoy. Lake Road led directly to the canal at Brockport. The road was filled with wagons until the first railroad arrived in LeRoy in 1853. By the end of the century, three railroads had stations in the village and two others skirted the town. Today only one railroad is still in operation. Passenger service was discontinued in 1953. The decline of the railroad was matched by the growth of the automobile and the improvement of roads and highways. Route 5, which passes through LeRoy, was the main east-west road through New York between Buffalo and Albany. With the advent of the interstate highway system in the 1950s, LeRoy became Exit 47 of the New York State Thruway and the western exit for Rochester. Exit 47 is connected to downtown Rochester by Interstate 490.
Obviously, the earliest history of LeRoy was not captured by photographers, but as early as 1841, a photographer had a studio at the Eagle Hotel. A succession of photographers plied their trade recording the people, landscapes, and events of this community. The most complete photographic record of LeRoy was made in 1940 by Oscar Wieggel as part of a community project. He assembled over 500 images, which were bound in a large album that is now in the collection of the LeRoy Historical Society. The challenge for this Arcadia Publishing book has been the search to find the images that best tell the story of LeRoy.