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If Walls Could Talk: The Fish Tavern — A Pioneer Haven

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By Mary Fox

Route 242 between Ellicottville and Little Valley, known by locals as Fish Hill, was named after Nathanial Fish who built a tavern/inn at the top of the hill, which is still visible today 2 miles west of Ellicottville in the town of Mansfield at Winsor Road.

Today, the Fish Tavern is in ruins, a sad destiny for a historical landmark that survived almost 200 years.

Fish Hill was originally a trail built in 1812 by the Holland Land Company that extended from Franklinville, over Bryant Hill through Ellicottville and to Mayville in Chautauqua County. The road was built to carry pioneers through a wilderness of towering trees, wolves and unimaginable hardships.

Pioneers traveled this road as they made the long arduous journey to Ellicottville and west to the Ohio Territory, seeking land and freedom to choose their own destinies. They walked with ox-drawn wagons through dense forests along Native American footpaths that often had to be widened to accommodate the settlers’ wagons.

Along this road, The Holland Land Company encouraged the building of inns/taverns by prospective landowners by selling them tracts of land on longtime payments without interest and at the lowest prices.

Early in 1800, Aaron Rasey a brother-in-law of Nathaniel Fish, purchased 150 acres on the top of Fish Hill from the Holland Land Company, where he built the Fish Tavern in 1824. It was one of the earliest inns on the Chautauqua Road and operated as an inn for 24 years.

Nathaniel and his wife Nancy came to Ellicottville in 1819. They were among the first settlers in the town of Mansfield. He was very active in town and church affairs.

The Fish Tavern was a popular inn or “place of entertainment” for covered wagon emigrants who desired an overnight stop. It was a favorite resort of the early military organization of the town and the site was used for periodic drills.

As late as 1867, drovers from the West going to markets in New York stopped with their droves of sheep and cattle. The road became well worn and so stony that the animals often became footsore at times, and so bad that it was necessary to stop for days. The Fish Tavern was popular with drovers, because it provided fenced enclosures for the sheep and cattle, preventing them from straying.

“The Fish Tavern was built after the plan popular at the time. Half of the first floor was one large room used as a dining room and lounge. Across the back of the house was a huge woodshed, having an opening at either end large enough to allow a yoke of oxen to be driven in drawing a whole tree to be cut for firewood. Drovers could help with chopping if they wished a bigger fire in the fireplace,” said Charles Locke, grandson of Nathaniel Fish (the Post, Jan. 24, 1940).

“In the second story was a large room extending the whole length of the house with bedrooms on either side. This room served many purposes such as town meetings, a short term of school, a courtroom for justice courts, and occasionally for divine service when a circuit minister happened along.

“I judge from what I know about it and have been told that there was more happiness in that room when they held an old fashioned dance than at any other time. Where both old and young with all cares gone with the wind battered the floor dancing to the enticing strains of the Money Musk, Opera Reel and other old tunes that would put new life into old bodies,” said Locke.

After a succession of owners, the tavern was opened in 1940 by Charles and Herbert Windsor to accommodate skiing parties.

“A half dozen skiers stayed over the weekend and enjoyed themselves to the fullest … especially Mrs. Windsor’s Sunday morning breakfast in real country style,” said Locke.

“The establishment of a ski course on Fish Hill has added a new interest in the old tavern and surrounding country, and it is a pleasure to me to know that many others are enjoying shooting down the same slopes on modern equipment that our barrel stave brigade enjoyed 75 years ago (circa 1865),” said Locke.

Exposure to weather over the years and a fire have battered the old building, but you can still see the remains when traveling Route 242 from Ellicottville to Little Valley.

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