EC200 | A Brief History of Elma

On April 2, 2021, Erie County celebrated its bicentennial anniversary, kicking off a year of celebration. This significant milestone is an opportunity for the community to reflect on the history, stories, and legacies of the many men and women who came before us.

Nestled near the center of Erie County, with a population just over 11,300, sits the youngest town in Erie County – Elma. Residents might tell you it’s the heart of Erie County.

The history of Elma and the land it sits upon is an interesting one. The area was first settled 3000-5000 years ago by indigenous people, along the Cazenovia and Buffalo Creeks. Eventually the Seneca Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy would call the area home. As the 1700s approached, the area slowly attracted settlers from Europe and U.S. East Coast.

1866 Map of Elma Village – Courtesy of the Elma Historical Society

After the signing of the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797, through which the Seneca had given up their rights to their traditional homelands, consisting of approximately 3.5 million acres, in New York State, settlers began to filter into the area attracted by the fertile land and abundant timber. By the 1820s, they had joined those earlier settlers who had settled in the “mile strip.” The Ogden Land Company purchased the land in the 1840s.

Only known photo of the inside of the original Hurd & Briggs Sawmill – Courtesy of Elma Historical Society

The abundant forests and access to waterways via the two creeks. This allowed a number of sawmills to be established. Once the forests were depleted, farms began to take their place. Using land from portions of Aurora and Lancaster, the Town of Elma was formally established in December 1856. While most towns have a singular, centrally located village, Elma has several hamlets and villages that sprung up around the town, including the hamlet of Springbrook, the hamlet of Blossom, which was known for its association with the religious sect known as the Ebenezer Society, the village of Elma and East Elma.

1866 Map of Upper Ebenezer – courtesy of Elma Historical Society

The Ebenezer Society built a house near Elma Center which was to accommodate men when they worked cutting logs; this house would come to be called ‘Prison House.’ One of the rules of the Ebenezer Society was that before the wedding ceremony could be performed, the bride and groom had to be separated from each other for one year. When one couple defied the rule and married in secret, word eventually reached the ruling elders. The couple was banished to the house where they would remain in solitary confinement for one year. They received clothing and other necessities but were not allowed to speak or write to anyone within the society. After the year was up, they were released but by this point the incident had left a sour taste in the mouths of some of the town’s denizens. By 1855, the Ebenezer Society slowly migrated to Iowa. The ‘Prison House’ still stands to this day, but as a private residence.

Ebenezer Society’s Prison House – image courtesy of the Elma Historical Society

A cooper, or barrel maker, by the name of Thomas Hanvey, was Elma’s first inventor. His first patent, filed with the US Patent Office and patented on August 25, 1863 was for an improved stave machine. For those who aren’t into barrel making, defines a stave as “one of the thin, narrow, shaped pieces of wood that form the sides of a cask, tub, or similar vessel.” He also patented improvements for hoop-locks for casks, making cheese boxes, barrels, veneer-cutting machines, trunks and an apparatus for grinding wood pulp. You can check out all 13 of his patents here.

By 1867, the Buffalo and Washington Railroad, later known as Buffalo, New York and Philadelphia Railroad, was built through the center of town in 1867, allowing for increased communication and commerce. The railroad would transport lumber and dairy products to the surrounding areas while also carrying high school children to East Aurora from three Elma stations that were located on Woodard Road and Jamison Road. At one time, Elma was home to 11 public schools as well as a number of religious schools. By 1952, the 11 districts would be consolidated into the Iroquois Central School District, which includes Elma, Marilla and Wales.

Elma Centre Train Depot – image courtesy of the Elma Historical Society

Built in 1831 by Martin Traber, the North Star Tavern, which was originally adjacent to a Native Trail that would become the Aurora-Buffalo Plank Road in 1846, is still in operation today. In addition to the many locally owned businesses, Elma continues to thrive today, with Moog Incorporated, a manufacturer of aviation, defense and aerospace components, located there. It is also the headquarters for beverage maker Elmhurst 1925 as well as the Made in America Store.

Elma some residents who are considered important in a historical context. Warren Jackman worked as a road surveyor in the late 1880s. In 1902, he would go on to publish “History of the Town of Elma, Erie County, NY: 1620 to 1901.” (You can download a free copy of the book here.) With the exception of 1952-1962, from 1936-1987 Elma was governed by one family – the Lexo Family. Earl Lexo served as town supervisor from 1936-1952. His son, J. William Lexo, would be appointed to the position in 1963 when the current supervisor, Merle Ruether had passed away. What was truly remarkable, was that Bill Lexo would be re-elected 12 times! He was known for bipartisan efforts between Democrats and Republicans and under his leadership, Elma became the first town in Erie County to be able to offer water to all of its residents. Other famous residents include folk singer Jackson C. Frank, Olympic silver medalist archer Jake Kaminski, soccer player Otto E. Orf II, and astronaut James Pawelczyk.

If you want to learn more about the Town of Elma, be sure to visit the Elma Historical Society.
3011 Bowen Road, Elma, NY 14059 | 716-655-0046, 716-652-9458
Hours: Thurs: 1pm-4pm or By Appointment

Elma Business Center circa 1913 – image courtesy of Elma Historical Society

About WNY Heritage

WNY Heritage Magazine has for the 2021-2022 Erie County Bicentennial published an 80-page legacy publication that highlights events, people, and places across Erie County’s history. This includes profiles of towns, cities, and Native territories, and never before published images. WNY Heritage has the goal of fostering a pride of place through the knowledge and appreciation of the art, architecture and history of Western New York. When you purchase a 2 year subscription to WNY Heritage Magazine (a bargain at $60),you will receive “Erie County, 1821-2021: A Bicentennial Profile,” this Erie County Bicentennial Commemorative publication. You can also pick up a copy at their website for $10, at Talking Leaves, the History Museum Shop, and other select retail locations.

495 Pine Ridge Heritage Blvd, Cheektowaga, NY 14225 | 716-893-4011
Website | Facebook | Download the WNY Heritage App

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