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Sayles: Memories of summer in Fair Haven
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Sayles: Memories of summer in Fair Haven

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Although I love the summer events usually found at Emerson Park, Hoopes Park and other city/county parks in Cayuga County, I grew up in the town of Victory and went to school in Red Creek. And when you live in northern Cayuga County, your summer playground is the village of Fair Haven and Fair Haven Beach State Park.

The village of Fair Haven probably doubles in size by the end of June, when people come back to their cottages and campsites along beautiful Little Sodus Bay and the shoreline of Lake Ontario. They have weddings/family and school reunions, visit the village and town historical societies, frequent the many stores/restaurants/gift shops, attend the weekly Saturday night band concerts in the village park, go to the field day grounds, enter their classic car in the car show, see the boat parade on the bay, taste wine at the local winery, attend the fireworks and delight in viewing an hour-long parade down Main Street celebrating the Fourth of July and America.

These are childhood memories that continue today. Because of the coronavirus, many events are scaled back or cancelled. However, most restaurants offer takeout and some are starting to have outdoor music and dining again. The bands in Fair Haven are fantastic, and there is one restaurant that has a weekly, Wednesday night open mic.

When my sisters, brothers, friends and I were in elementary school, the Red Creek Central School bus made the rounds and picked us up at home each day, and we spent a week at the beach and diving channel taking Red Cross swimming lessons. It was so much fun. High school children learned sailing in the yacht club. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts also camped at the park, and earned badges for outdoor activities.

Because we lived in Victory, just 15 minutes or so south of Fair Haven, my family often had weeknight and late Sunday afternoon swims and picnics at the beach. By late Sunday afternoon, crowds and campers were leaving the park and it was a great time to swim and find a picnic table, plus it was cooler. My father was a swimmer in the Army (World War II) with the amphibious forces, so we all learned to swim at a young age. My mother would pack a picnic supper, usually a salad and a cake, and we would roast hot dogs and hamburgers on the fireplace at our site. For a family of eight, this was economical, plus the admittance to the park was 50 cents back in the '50s.

In one picture with this column is the late William Sliter, our mathematics teacher at Red Creek High School, who spent his summers collecting the fee at the park tollbooth. We learned a lot and he was a strict teacher, but he was very nice in the summer, always had a smile on his face, was glad to see us, and told us to have fun. Behind Mr. Sliter is the Fair Haven Beach State Park visitor center, the Civilian Conservation Corps monument and Civilian Conservation Corps cabin museum, all dedicated on June 5, 1999, on Heritage Day in Fair Haven.

There was a sign outside the tollbooth that gave the lake temperature. It was seldom above 65 in the summer, but when you are kids you don’t care and the waves coming in to shore are great to jump in. It was a long, sandy walk out to the water, but over the years, the lake level has artificially risen (for shipping) to the point that the beach is half-gone from the level it used to be. Recently, I have attended birthday and anniversary parties in the large pavilion on the hill, the rustic Sabin Hall, where there is a huge stone fireplace.

Fair Haven became a state park (SP36) around 1928, and when unemployment hit 25% during the Depression with 14 million people out of work by 1933, President Roosevelt and the War Department created the Civilian Conservation Corps. At Fair Haven, from 1932 to 1942, young men 17 to 25 were taught to build roads, to plant trees, to use tools and the stone crusher, and to build cabins under the tutelage of local craftsmen. They were paid about $30 dollars a month, and most of that was sent home to parents.

At Fair Haven, cabins were built in a rustic style with sawed, rough-cut edges and stone patios/walks were made from split stones from nearby farms and the lake. Hand-sawed logs for buildings still have “ax” marks from tools. There were five military-style barracks on the bluff with a flagpole in the center. There also was a barn, farm and infirmary, as everything was provided for these youth. A blacksmith shop was run by Mr. Thompson from north Victory, where young men learned to forge the hardware, all the black fixtures, for doors and chandeliers, with many still there today. The fireplaces were all made in a special stone design and the diving boards at the channel were also secured by beautiful stonework.

Any fights or differences among workers was settled in a boxing ring, where it is said that most came away friends. The other picture with this column shows my uncle, Donald Coleman, at right, with his buddies at the boxing ring at the CCC site on Howland’s Island (Farm Island Camp) within the towns of Conquest and Montezuma, where he served three years, 1933-1936. Many of the CCC sites closed in 1941 when World War II commenced, and then housed German prisoners of war from 1942-1947. They worked on local farms and canning factories while our men were away at war. A memorial stone was placed at this site in the early 2000s to recognize the contribution of the CCC men. Since 1992, Howland’s Island complex has been owned by New York state and managed by groups including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and the Audubon Society.

As more places are opening up, we can expect our summer outings to continue with some limitations, maybe a lot of outdoor events with social distancing and wearing masks to protect others.

If you’ve never been to the village of Fair Haven or Fair Haven Beach State Park, I suggest it wholeheartedly.

Beverly Coleman Sayles is the Victory town historian and a New York state registered historian, and can be reached at (315) 730-3183 or


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