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Preserving Ellicottville’s ‘Town Square’: The Significance of the Four Corners

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By Mary Fox

You don’t have to drive through many towns in Cattaraugus and adjoining counties to see that most have a “town square” that serves as the center of the town or village.

For some, this focal point distinguishes the town as being laid out by the plan of the Holland Land Company, the developers of Western New York. Ellicottville’s Town Square is intersected by Washington and Jefferson streets with green spaces on each corner. And there is a movement in the works to establish the “four corners” as a special historic district.

Joseph Ellicott, surveyor and chief agent of the Holland Land Company, laid out the town in 1815, designating each corner for the pursuits of religion, education and government. The town was given the name Ellicottsville in his honor (later the spelling was changed to Ellicottville).

1887 Building

A two-story schoolhouse was built on the southeast corner of the square in 1824. When the town disputed over school districts, it was purchased and moved by Nicholas Devereux to become the Catholic chapel for the Church of Philip Neri. In 1850, the factions reunited and a Greek Revival frame school was built on the corner. In 1887, the 1850 building was moved to the site where the M&T Bank is today. A new school was built on the corner using the stone from the old County Jail behind the County Clerk’s Office (where the post office is today) for the school building’s foundation. It served as a school until the late 1970s, when it became office space and the location of the library.

The 1887 Building has gone through many changes over the past 127 years but has stood the test of time, as have its companions the County Courthouse/Town Hall built in 1829, St. John’s Episcopal Church built in 1837 and the County Clerk’s Office built in 1858.

Town Hall

Until 1868, the Cattaraugus County Courthouse in Ellicottville served the judicial and governmental needs of the people of Cattaraugus County. The original squared log structure built in 1818 included the first-floor jail and above it, the courts. It burned in 1829 and was replaced by the brick building seen today. At that time, the County Jail was moved across the street to where the post office now stands. Another fire in 1969 did not destroy the entire building so that it could be rebuilt to its previous appearance.

After the county seat was moved to Little Valley in 1868, the building became the Ellicottville Town Hall. A stage was built in the old courtroom on the second floor. That room was then commonly called the Opera House or Academy of Music, which meant that it became the place for lectures, plays and various kinds of entertainment and meetings of organizations.

In 1947, the upstairs was remodeled to accommodate some of the classes of the school district. In the early ‘80s, it was remodeled again to take up the business of the town. The Village Gazebo was built in 1983 to be used for community gatherings, and social and cultural events.  Once a week in the summer, a band or entertainer uses the gazebo as their stage. Weddings and other ceremonies and festivals are held here. It truly is, as Ellicott intended, a place for people to gather.

Ellicottville Historical Museum

The County Clerk’s Office was not built until 1858. After the County Seat was moved to Little Valley in 1868, it served a variety of purposes such as a church, millinery shop, bank, post office, fire department, schoolroom, library and currently museum. As the town’s museum, it is run by the all-volunteer Ellicottville Historical Society, with new exhibits designed and created by the society every two months.

St. John’s Episcopal Church

In 1829, an Episcopal missionary referring to Ellicottville as the “Western Wastes” came here to establish St. John’s. Parishioners met at the schoolhouse and the County Courthouse until their church was built in 1837. The eyes are drawn upward by the Gothic Revival architecture of the church, which stands tall on the southwest corner of the “town square.” It has stood virtually unchanged for 177 years as a testament to the pioneers who believed in the future of Ellicottville.

Cattaraugus County was the last area in Western New York to be developed by the Holland Land Company. Joseph Ellicott held little hope that the land in the mountain wilderness of Cattaraugus County would attract settlers. But, as you can readily see, Ellicottville did attract settlers and continues to today.

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