Looking for Marcus in Rushville
Much of the Finger Lakes region in western New York State is Marcus Whitman country. More than one school bears his name, and Highway 364 has been officially dubbed the “Marcus Whitman Highway.” As you enter his hometown of Rushville, beautifully-lettered signs proclaim “The Birthplace of Marcus Whitman,” and an official blue and gold state marker has been placed near the site of his birth. But what kind of place is this tiny town, located where the sluggish West River meanders at the border of Ontario and Yates Counties? Can it teach us something about its most famous son, over 200 years after his birth?
Tough Times in the Finger Lakes
On the surface Rushville (once known as Federal Hollow) is like a hundred other sleepy towns in western New York. With over two centuries worth of history tucked under its belt, the village’s vigor is long gone, and the pervading atmosphere is one of gritty survival. Change comes slow here, and businesses rotate through older buildings rather than risk new construction. If you’re a shrewd shopper and not too picky, you can probably find a decent pickup at Little Bucks Auto, where colored streamers flutter over a dozen or so models, most of which have seen better days. You can find “Food, Fuel, and Friends” at The Station, and for those hoping to crack the line-up of the Antiques Roadshow, there’s Rushville Junction Antiques where colored glassware sits on quiet and dusty shelves.
The village boasts a smorgasbord of churches, the congregations’ diversity making up for their lack of size and splendor. Besides the ubiquitous Methodist and Catholic churches, the “Way of Truth” Baptists hold court in a tan, adobe-like structure, and the village even boasts a Congregational Church and a Worldwide Church of God, with the latter meeting in the Rushville Masonic Lodge #377, a building covered with red shingles made to look like bricks.
The very topography adds to this pervasive sleepiness. Hills are rolling, their gentle inclines neither high nor steep; and the rivers and streams wander in broad arcs, creeping along like the occasional Mennonite Buggy one meets on the roads. Modest corn and soybean farms compete with vineyards to create a patchwork effect in the hollows, leaving the rest of the hills for the oaks and maples, with smatterings of pine. But these farms are not the frenzied corporate operations of the West and Midwest, and the only logging that goes on is the occasional small family operation: we have to dig deep to find the bustling Rushville that Marcus would have known.
Towns of Fire
Rushville is in the heart of what was once called “The Burned-Over District,” a tumultuous region that was swept by flames of religious and spiritual fervor in the 19th-century, the likes of which is unique in the annals of American history. Spread out a map of New York State and trace the parallel routes of Interstate 90 and the Erie Canal eastward, as they bisect the state from Buffalo to Albany. It is this lengthy strip of land that upstate author Carl Carmer labeled a “wide psychic highway, a thoroughfare of the occult,” and faiths as various as the Shakers, Mormons, the Oneida Community, and the Millerites all began their journeys in or near this strip. Jemima Wilkinson, the famous “Universal Friend,” led her devoted followers away from Rhode Island Quakerism to her “New Jerusalem” just a few miles from Rushville, and her house still stands nearby as a quiet testimony to a time in which her prophecies and mannerisms made her one of the first true celebrities of the new republic.
In the early 1800s Rushville was also the site of numerous camp meetings—outdoor gatherings of folks (usually Methodist or Baptist) wanting to experience God’s touch full measure, without the encumbrance of walls and a roof. As a young man, Marcus would have been well aware both of the popularity of these gatherings as well as the dire warnings of more staid denominations such as the Presbyterian and his own Congregationalist. In this period of frenzy, the Rushville hills rang with the shouts, prayers, and laughter of eager worshippers, and religion was a mighty river that could easily sweep a young man’s thoughts toward the distant west and the mysterious peoples who lived beyond the Rocky Mountains.
When the Fires have Cooled
Today, whatever energy there is flows through the town not from it. Pull over next to The Lunchbox, a diner that serves both as eatery and unofficial center of Rushville, and you can sense it. Converging highways are full of cars, trucks, and even the occasional stretch limo searching for wineries. Since its founding in 1791, the village has always been the hub of important local and regional highways, and this continues today.
Canandaigua, Geneva, Penn Yan, and Naples are the major towns that frame the region between Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes. If one draws an “X,” linking Canandaigua to Penn Yan and Geneva to Naples, the lines would meet near Rushville, making it a natural location for the intersection of busy roads. The very year that Marcus enrolled in medical school (1825), the Erie Canal was completed, and “Clinton’s Ditch” added to the town’s importance. Local farmers and merchants rushed to get their produce and products north to Canal ports, then anxiously awaited return shipments of goods from Rochester, Buffalo, New York City and points beyond. Rushville was a place on the go, there was money to be made, and the town was an important player in the heady world of agricultural commerce.
Now, instead of exporting its products out, Rushville (like most of western New York) is largely dependent on tourist energy and dollars flowing in. Sadly, few tourists stay long in the area, preferring to spend their time and money at the wineries and destinations located on the lakes, and the area’s beauty scarcely camouflages growing poverty rates and issues with creating and keeping good jobs. Boarded-up buildings are everywhere, and there is no quick fix to the malaise that has settled over this region and beyond.
Still, if one is willing to slow to the pace of the village, to tread gently on the low-lying hills and let the region’s quiet power work its magic, it’s still barely possible to hear the shouts of an excited young man, flush with the fervor of his first trip west, ready now to marry Narcissa Prentiss, a girl from down the road in Prattsburgh. The village then was as bright with promise as a shiny dollar, and the way west—although fraught with uncertainty and peril—was as open as a broad highway stretching toward the warm afternoon sun.
Written for Whitman Mission National Historic Site