Take a walk down Main Street in Penn Yan, heading in the direction of the bridge, and you can’t miss a somewhat unusual building on the corner of Main and Water streets, perched just a few steps away from the Keuka Outlet. Constructed of bricks painted a light cream color with dark brown trim, the building was done in the Italianate style, complete with a turret. A modern addition protrudes from the front. This is the Knapp Hotel, a 37-room inn constructed in 1897 by Oliver Knapp.
This block upon which the Knapp sits has been the site of many important historical developments in the village, especially because of its association with the Wagener family and Abraham Wagener in particular.
Wagener was the son of David and Rebecca Supplee Wagener, who had followed the Public Universal Friend from Pennsylvania in the 1790s. David laid out what is now Main Street. He also purchased land in 1796 along the Keuka Outlet and constructed a gristmill on the south side and a home and sawmill on the north side, where the Knapp Hotel sits today. Rebecca stayed in the home after David’s death, and it became known as the Grandmother House. Abraham inherited a large amount of land north of the Outlet, and aggressively purchased and developed additional lots. This — plus his push to have Penn Yan made the county seat in 1823 — is why he is referred to as the founder of Penn Yan. Wagener was known to have a difficult personality, but he was successful in shaping Penn Yan into a community, albeit a very rough one in its early years.
After Rebecca Wagener’s death in 1812, her house was moved to Chapel Street and Abraham began construction on a new and larger frame house for himself. It was finished in 1816 and called Mansion House. (Many early histories claim that Mansion House was the first frame house in the village. This is not correct, but Wagener’s previous home may have been. It was a much simpler house, built in 1799 near the site of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.) His sawmill stood on the same lot.
Apples and a name
During his life, Mansion House was the site of two very important events in the history of Yates County, both of which occurred before the county even existed.
The first took place when George Wheeler, a native of Dutchess County, moved to Benton in the 1790s and acquired several very large lots in what is now the village of Penn Yan. Wheeler brought with him apple seeds from an unknown variety and planted an orchard on his property along the Outlet. This was part of the land David Wagener purchased in 1796. After building the Mansion House, Abraham Wagener harvested the apples and had them marketed under his own name. Sadly, George Wheeler got no credit for bringing the seeds north and planting the trees. Wagener apples became a major variety throughout the 19th century, even outside of New York state. The apple was excellent for making cider, but also for baking and eating. According to S.A. Beach in The Apples of New York, “Wagener, at its best, is an apple of superior excellence. The color is a beautiful red with some contrasting pale yellow; it has fine texture, high flavor and excellent quality. It is very desirable for culinary uses but is especially esteemed for dessert.”
The Wagener apple later became the parent apple to both Idared and Northern Spy, which was developed in nearby East Bloomfield early in the 19th century; both apples remained favorites in the Northern United States well into the 20th century. (The Wagener apple is very hard to locate, but through 2022-2023, members of the Yates County Bicentennial Committee sold the few Wagener trees available to local people and they have since been planted in Yates County. One is at the Yates County History Center in front of the Underwood Museum).
The second event of great importance came when the people of the village decided they wanted a real, official name. Several names had been tried on and discarded, including Snellstown. An Englishman traveling through the area called it “Pen Yang” as early as 1809.
Accounts differ as to when the name was officially chosen, but one detail remains the same: A group of villagers selected the name while gathered around a tree at the foot of Main Street, or where Mansion House stood. “A number of citizens met under a large pine tree at the foot of Main Street to agree upon a name for the village. They had a runlet of whiskey with them; they bored a hole in the tree, drove in a peg and after taking a drink round, hung up the runlet. Then business commenced.” It is likely much business was commenced this way in the village, since one of the names it had been known by previously was Pandemonium. Penn Yan was chosen to represent the heritage of settlers from Pennsylvania and the New England Yankees that came even earlier. In a 1931 letter to the editor, Theodore O. Hamlin added to the lore of the Mansion Hose with a description of tragic carriage and work accidents that took place on the property or in the busy intersection out front throughout the 19th century.
Eventually, Wagener moved his family out to the Bluff, where he built a spectacular mansion that stands today. His home in the village was not as fortunate. After Wagener sold Mansion House, it was enlarged and then turned into an inn called the Mansion House Hotel. By the 1870s, Oliver Knapp owned the Mansion House and eventually it was razed to make way for the new Knapp Hotel. Various old buildings near the site were declared to be a part of the property over the years, although none were ever positively identified as being part of the Mansion House property. The last one of these buildings, a small house on Wagener Street rumored to have been used for servants or sawmill workers, was demolished within the last three years.
This block is now home to several businesses and a busy corner in the village. Most people walking or driving by do not know how integral the site was in Yates County’s past. The next time you go by, imagine the site with a fine orchard of trees, or a group of villagers meeting under a tall pine.
Tricia Noel is the executive director of the Yates County History Center.
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