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PLACES: Jackson Street: A 19th-Century Working-Class Neighborhood



Penn Yan early got a reputation for being relatively hospitable to fugitive slaves escaping the South. Several black families spent much of the 19th century in the village, leaving only after the rural economy gave way to manufacturing near the turn of the century. Political considerations were also important; the Republican party's original commitment to containment of slavery drew many local abolitionists and other reformers, but by the middle of the 1870s Congressional Republicans abandoned efforts to aid the freedmen in the South, and enhanced its orientation towards big business nationwide. The small local black population gradually left the village and the area, until at present Yates County has the smallest nonwhite population percentage of any county in the state.

Some of the 19th-century black population found work as teamsters and coachmen with the well-to-do families along upper Main Street. Behind Main and parallel to it between Court Street and Head Street was a narrow alley called Back Street, then Jackson Street, now Linden Street. The houses were and are small, sitting on small lots with their back yards running down to Jacob's Brook. A row of carriage houses at the rear of the Main Street lots faced these small houses, and in some cases provided employment and indeed extra housing in upstairs apartments.

Several black families built houses on Jackson Street and lived there for decades, including the barber Henry Garner, a native of Kentucky; John Thomas, born in Maryland; John Saunders of Virginia; John Minisee of New York City; and others. Other local black families, including the Maxfields, the Frames and the Dallases, had houses elsewhere in the village. Jackson Street was home as well to Irish immigrants in the 19th century, who worked in the big houses on Main just as their black neighbors did. This was a quintessential working-class neighborhood for decades.

Few of the houses remain in anything like their original condition. The County, ever-hungry for parking space, pulled down Henry Garner's house with its integral Southern-style porch, in 1995. The Minisee house next door was razed by New York State Electric & Gas Corp. at the same time. John Thomas' house remains, though it has been vinyl-sided over the original narrow clapboards; and so does the Saunders place nextdoor. Neither has been very well-maintained and the neighborhood is not now one of Penn Yan's best by any means. It is adjacent to the village's large and successful Historic Preservation District, and an attempt was begun to add this row of houses to it that was cut short by the demolitions in 1995.

Click on this small map to see what part of Jackson Street looked like in 1931.