Monday, April 14, 2008


Sue Freeman, an author of WNY adventures submitted this article to us:

Historical Secrets Revealed, In and Around Gasport
by Sue Freeman

Drive across Western New York State and you may find yourself wondering about the houses that look like they were built with potatoes. An architectural student from New York City certainly did, as he drove to visit the Landmark Society of Western New York. After arriving, he asked Cynthia Howk, the Architectural Research Coordinator, “what are those potato houses I passed on the way to Rochester?” “They aren’t potato houses,” she replied, “they’re cobblestone houses and, they’re more special (and certainly more durable) than a house built with potatoes.”

Over 700 cobblestone buildings are found within a 65-mile radius of Rochester, New York, and nowhere else in such abundance. They’re so common here that they’re often taken for granted. But, each is a unique work of folk art that tells the story of our pioneer history. They were all built before the Civil War as commerce boomed and settlers prospered with the opening of the Erie Canal.

The cobblestones, brought south by glaciers, and rounded by Lake Ontario wave action, were an impediment to the early settlers who tried to farm the land, until they hit upon the idea of using them as an inexpensive building material. Bricks were expensive to manufacture, wood could be shipped away on the Erie Canal as a cash product, but the cobblestones were free for the picking.

Building with cobblestones evolved into an art form, with each mason developing his artistic creativity over time. Early buildings were rough structures built with the field cobbles. Random cobblestones of mixed colors, shapes and sizes were combined to create each wall. As the artistry developed, the masons sourced their cobblestones from the shores of Lake Ontario by ox cart over the frozen land in winter. The cobblestones were then sorted by children or women in groups called sorting bees. The masons, or sometimes the farmers themselves, built the structures with uniform stones, stripes, herringbone patterns, and creative flourishes that said “this is my artistic canvas and stones are my medium.” Cobblestone homeowner Margaret Deans counted the stones in her home and estimated that it took 14,402 cobblestones to build her circa-1860 farmhouse. That’s a lot of ox cart loads of cobbles.

Mortar recipes were guarded as trade secrets. Masons varied where they sourced the ingredients (lime, sand and water), the proportions used, and their mixing and storing methods. Some aged their mortar mixture in a pit covered by sand or cow manure for up to a year. The magic was that the soft lime mortar they created cured slowly, allowing the stones to settle and bear weight. It took up to 35 years for a cobblestone building to fully harden.

To build a cobblestone structure required carpentry as well as masonry skills. There was no Home Depot or Lowe’s store where the builder could purchase windows, doors, flooring, etc. Each element in the structure was custom made on site to fit a specific opening. Because of the manual labor involved, it often took 3 years to build a cobblestone home.

Houses were not the only buildings erected with cobblestone construction. The same method was used to build churches, schools, mills, barns, stores, shops, factories, carriage houses, garden houses, gate and toll houses, smokehouses, pumphouses, hophouses, privies, stables, turniphouses, piggeries, decorative walls along roadways, and even cemetery markers and cemetery receiving vaults. Many of the cobblestone buildings are standing and still in use, a testament to their fine craftsmanship.

The cobblestone buildings are clustered in a region that begs a driving tour. 17 different driving tours are described in “Cobblestone Quest”:


This is a guidebook that inspires cobblestone discovery tours and explains the history behind these unusual buildings. Read first hand accounts of what it was like to build a cobblestone home from a child’s’ perspective. Among the cobblestone buildings are museums, bed and breakfasts, and restaurants where modern explorers can touch and smell the cobblestone buildings and prove once and for all that they’re not potato houses. “Cobblestone Quest” is available from Footprint Press at or 1-800-431-1579. Tour #2 is centered in Gasport.--

Sue Freeman
Footprint Press, Inc.
NY Outdoors BLOG:
303 Pine Glen Court, Englewood FL 34223
phone & fax 941-474-8316