History of the Town of Portland
Portland, in common with the whole of Western New York, originated from the vast holdings of the Holland Land Company purchase.
On March 30, 1802, the State Legislature established Genesee County which was substantially all the state west of the Genesee River and Steuben County. At the same time four towns were created, Northampton, Southampton, Leicester, and Batavia. Batavia was the county seat and the headquarters of the land company for the area. This territory of Batavia township included virtually all the land within the present counties of Niagara, Cattaraugus, and Chautauqua. Rapid immigration brought about a further division in April of 1804 when Batavia was divided into the towns of Batavia, Willink, Erie and Chautauqua. By 1810 the county of Chautauqua had been established with a land office at Mayville, the present county seat. William Peacock was appointed Land Agent. Towns were also designated. Portland, when first established, included all the present land in the townships of Portland, Westfield, and Ripley. Further growth in numbers of people and the arising of differences of opinion led to the subdivision of Portland into the townships of Portland, Westfield, and Ripley.
Portland is the smallest township in Chautauqua County, except for Dunkirk and Kiantone, having an area of roughly twenty-eight square miles. Its northern boundary edging Lake Erie is a high rocky cliff. Two or three miles back from this is a level clay-loam soil area and, stretching back for another mile, is a strip of slightly higher rich gravelly soil. Then the surface rises to the hilly ridge forming the beautiful Chautauqua Hills, a part of the great water shed which forms the continental divide for our country, elevation 1800 feet.
Geologically, the town belongs to what is termed the "Portage Group of the New York System" and is under laid with Coshugua shales, Gurdean flagstones and Portage sandstone. One interesting geological feature is the presence of springs of carbureted hydrogen gas found in several places along the border of Lake Erie. Sulphur springs, too, have been located in various places.
There are few streams of great importance within Portland. Slippery Rock Creek is the principal stream. Other creeks of lesser note find their way through the town to Lake Erie. Once these streams were the location of various mills whose existence can be imagined by the remnants of old mill ponds or the careful perusal of early deeds which define land boundaries by such terms as "the high water mark on the mill pond".
Previous to 1804 the entire town was covered with heavy timber; whitewood, beech, cucumber, hemlock, walnut, cherry, chestnut, birch, elm, and oak. Wild plums were a welcome find to the new settlers and traveler alike. These forests abounded in wild animals: bear, beaver, wildcat, deer, fox, rabbit, raccoon, muskrat, mink, weasel, and squirrel. More than one organized hunt was held to drive the wildcat out.
When the earliest settlers arrived, there was no evidence of any present Indian occupation. Ruins and burying grounds have given proof of an early Indian habitat, probably of the mound building tribes followed by the Eries who fled in the 1600's before the onslaught of the conquering Iroquois. Following the conquest, the region became a hunting ground, particularly for the Seneca tribe.
It is believed the great French explorer LaSalle was the first European to travel the shores of our town. Another Frenchman, Celeron di Bienville, is known to have led an expedition which disembarked at Barcelona, portaged to Chautauqua Lake and proceeded by boat down to the Ohio country on a mission to strengthen French claims to that region, the first actual settler within Portland Township was Captain James Dunn, a Revolutionary soldier. He filed claim to approximately 1,100 acres of land near the center of the town in 1804. Later he purchased another 1,000 acres. Most of his holdings he sold to other settlers. The next year he moved his wife and six children to his new holdings where he had built a shanty near a spring. The Dunns moved to Portland by means of a four-horse team from Pennsylvania near what is now Meadville, There were no roads as such. The journey was difficult in the early spring. Often the people walked. More often, heavy bars had to be used to pry the wagon wheels over gnarled roots and mud holes.
In 1806 Mr. Dunn built a better home which rapidly became a center for the new settlers. Dunn was a leading citizen for many years. The first church services were held in his home by Rev. John Spencer, a travelling preacher, who chose the text, "For my yoke is easy and my burden light" for his first sermon in this wilderness. Mr. Dunn gave the community the land for the first cemetery which is embraced today by Evergreen Cemetery. He established the first school and provided for the teacher. He erected the first Inn, or Tavern as it was known. This became the first stage coach stop. He had the first post office and he planted the first orchard. He served in public office in different capacities. During the War of 1812 he organized a volunteer company and trained them near his home. None of his family remain in the area.
In 1806 other settlers came into the township, principally from the New England region. Among these were the Fays. Elisha Fay settled on land purchased from James Dunn. In 1807 be returned to Massachusetts for his wife. They loaded their goods on an ox drawn wagon and walked most of the journey to Portland. In 1828 Mr. F'ay built. a stone house which still stands occupied and is the oldest house in the town. Mr. Fay was the first to introduce the standard varieties of apples-russet, greenings, Baldwin, and others. He brought the seeds with him from Massachusetts in 1807.
Elijah and Nathaniel Fay were the first to settle in what is now the village of Brocton. It was Elijah who propagated the first grapes and established the first vineyard. Later he made it his home and sold the first wine for medicinal purposes. The business proved so successful that the first wine company was formed by: Mr. Fay, Mr. Ryckman, and Mr. Haywood on the same site as the present winery of the National Grape Company Plant of the Welch Company.
Other early settlers included Ahira Hall in whose memory the family established the public library; Wolcott Colt whose descendants still occupy a portion of the original farm; and David Eaton who was long a prominent leader in the area.
The main body of early settlers chose lands beneath the foothills away from Lake Erie's shore. There were two main reasons for this. One was fear that any invasion (The Revolution was still fresh in their minds, the War of 1812 imminent) would menace settlements close to the lake shore. The other was geographical to the extent that the land between the gravelly belt and the lake was presumed to be swampy since its, soil was clay and during heavy spring rains water did not readily leave the surface.
Thus it can be seen why the first roads did not follow the lake shore nor even today's main highway. The earliest road was really little more than a path known as Paine's Trail. It was so named after Colonel Paine who followed an old Indian trail near the base of the foothills as he led a small group of settlers into the Ohio country to found Painesville, Ohio. The first actual road was the Erie as it was later (and presently) called, Ellicott Road. It was surveyed in 1804 by William Peacock for the Land Company. Later the South Road (Webster) was laid out. The North Road which later became the Main or Route 20 followed and Lake Road later on, the settlement at Brocton was long called Salem Crossroads and the hamlet in Portland, Portland Center. The story is that with the advent of better mail service confusion arose over two Salems within the state. An open town meeting was held to discuss the possibility of a new name. Tempers waxed strong and language stronger. In the final analysis a name was drawn from a hat. Even then compromise was effected when parts of two names were joined to spell Brocton. The "Center" was dropped from the name and Portland was accepted for both township and hamlet.
Farming was the main occupation of the settlers. It must not be presumed that it was the only one. The abundance of timber led to the establishment of many sawmills, asheries, and at one time four tanneries for leather processing. There were numerous grist mills, several cider mills, a carding machine, a book bindery, wagon shop, and as before mentioned the wineries. Saw and grist mills located on the various streams were so numerous that at one time thirteen were located on Slippery Rock Creek alone. Later there were several steam mills in operation.
The first organized church was the Congregational at Portland Center in 1818. Previous to this religious meetings were held whenever the services of an itinerant preacher were available, usually not Sundays but weekday evenings. The Congregational Church was followed by the Methodist, then Baptist, Universalist, and others. Today there are approximately a dozen denominations holding' regular services.
The life of the early settler was never dull and never easy. 'I'he year 1810 witnessed an extremely severe winter. Streams and mills were frozen. Settlers had to resort to mortar and pestle to grind grain, and grain was scarce. One account of early life in the words of Mrs. Elijah Fay is as follows:
"Shopping was not a mere past time but a stern matter of necessity. Going to the store was not a matter of everyday occurrence. On such a day the work must be done at an early hour and all things placed in order for leaving.
The horse would be brought to the door on which the woman would be seated with a little one or perhaps two, taken along for safe keeping. In this condition a ride of from seven to ten miles was necessary to procure the articles
needed. It occupied a whole day and was the hardest day of the year."
"I lived in constant fear for a year or more with no neighbors nearer than a mile and no roads but a winding footpath. This fear was in no sense diminished by the presence of the tracks of bear and other wild animals near our door nearly every morning. In fact an old bear at one time carried a pig from our yard in the daytime. The Indians were a contant terror to me. The first that visited our shanty so frightened me that I left everything and with my child under my arm ran a mile to the nearest neighbor but to be told when I got there I was foolish. After a while my fears subsided and I began to enjoy my life in the forest as well as I could so far from my early home and friends."
Mrs. Fay's account seems far removed from today's life of easy transportation since a trip to her "early home" could be easily accomplished in less than a day. Our broad vineyards, modern machines, and well kept homes betoken little of the former wilderness. Yet it is upon the foundation of these earlier industries and farming that our prosperity rests today.
Today (1963) the Town of Portland has a population of about 3000. Within the corporate limits of Brocton are 1300 of these inhabitants. The Brocton Central School District is composed of the townships of Portland, Stockton, and Pomfret. Here the descendants of the early settlers receive ,their basic education from grade one through high school. About thirty percent go on to some form of higher education, and few indeed of these college graduates return to the town of their birth to "live out their days" as did their fathers before them.