Western New York: Lovin’ the Southern Tier
Who Doesn’t love Lucy? And a Gigantic New Comedy Center? The Southern Tier has it all!
By Max Hartshorne
I’m back from a late-summer excursion to a place that I have no excuses about having never been.
It’s not far from my New England house, but Western New York, the area referred to by locals as the Southern Tier, is full of wonderful places and really imaginative natural and man-made attractions.
One of the biggest stories here is the National Comedy Center, opened appropriately in Jamestown, the hometown of Lucille Ball. The comedy legend also has her own museum here named for her and her longtime husband, bandleader Desi Arnaz. More on this below.
Corning and Finger Lakes
Corning’s incredible Museum of Glass offers a chance to not only see world-class glassblowers performing in front of you, but there is a museum that traces the fascinating history of glass over the centuries.
Corning is a lively small town with a really nice downtown, one that invites you to shop, stop for a coffee, or listen to a local band, all on the historic main drag, Market Street.
In Watkins Glen, you can watch a NASCAR race with a twist…instead of a boring oval, everlasting left turn, this track is curvy, four glorious miles of black asphalt, and it makes for a much more exciting race.
The actual Watkins Glen is a renowned hiking spot that’s the most famous place for outdoor fun in the Finger Lakes. Check out the waterfalls and beautiful rock plateaus and crevices.
There is more to the Glen than speed. It’s at the end of one of the eight finger lakes, Seneca Lake, which offers kayaking and sailing as well as swimming.
The huge factories you see next to Seneca lake are salt mines, with a deposit of rock salt under the lake that has been mined for hundreds of years.
On our visit to this small village, nearby Burdett NY, we opted for a different kind of transport, and joined the vivacious owner of Painted Bar Stables, Erika Ekstrom, on a trail ride through fields, woods and over streams.
Each horse has its own personality, and Ekstrom knows her 32 horses well enough to match each steed to the right rider. Splashing through the brook and winding around the trail with such pretty views of farm fields and deep woods was exhilarating. Painted Bar Stables.
We headed west and our first stop of the day was a museum that will soon be open to the public, right across from the Seneca Allegany Resort and Casino, which has injected a huge amount of money into the local economy since opening up in 2004.
Gambling might not be my cup of tea, but speaking with the Ellicottville Chamber boss, Brian McFadden, it was clear that they’ve helped fund a whole lot of things that I do care about.
Their new museum is the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, which documents the lives of the local tribes over the centuries. Our guide told us that the tribe has suffered mightily from the drug epidemic that sadly, has been a scourge to both native Americans and Americans all around these parts.
But he also said that there has been an awakening and a realization that they have to help each other to survive.
This new museum is a point of much pride for the tribe and will be a welcome addition to Salamanca, a town that hasn’t had the prosperity of its neighbors.
On to Ellicottville
We had much more to explore, and Ellicottville turned out to be one of the most fun small towns I’ve ever had the joy of visiting. It’s the home of a tiny ski hill called Holiday Valley that turns out to have the most ski days of any resort in the state!
Our introduction to the town came from the delightfully outgoing Brian McFadden, who has run the tourism board here for decades.
He’s definitely a well-known guy around town as we found out when we accompanied him on a romp to five of the nightclubs and bars that make up the tiny town circuit.
The New Yorker Magazine called the village “the Aspen of the East.” I’d have to agree!
There is something about having so many music clubs, outdoor patio bars, and welcoming saloons that attracts people from all over. And as we enjoyed beers at the Villagio, one of the clubs where a killer rockabilly band was blasting out from a second-floor balcony, Brian said that you never know where people are from here, or what they do for a living.
“They could be a billionaire, they could be homeless, but here, everyone is welcome and out to have a good time. It’s an unusual little town, people come here and pack these bars even with such a small ski hill.”
Plan a stop to Ellicottville some evening when you’re in the area, and you’ll see what Brian means. “It’s just an old-school ski town with great apres-ski. Very laid back, no pretensions,” said another visiting writer. Ellicottville website
Rushing Down the Mountain
The Mountain Coaster at Holiday Valley is a rush for any age. Shooting down a steep slope on rails, hanging on as you experience both terrifying curves and the rush of speed. My friend Mike from Liverpool, England went down the whole time never touching the brakes….yup that’s what these things are for. I enjoyed the speed along with the brakes, I guess I’m just an old guy. website
Natural and Man-made Wonders
In this part of New York, there are lots of places of natural beauty. One of them is privately owned and is called Panama Rocks.
We toured this natural formation of crevices, giant boulders and hanging roots on a sunny September morning.
Some of the crevices are 60 feet high! Panama Rocks are located on a 15-acre park so there are woody trails to explore as well as the rocks to get lost in. website
Boating at Bemus Point
We headed west again, this time all the way to the tip of Chautauqua Lake, to Bemus Point, where a legacy of classic wooden boats is kept alive at the Lawson Boating Heritage Center, right on the lake.
After amassing his own personal wooden boat armada from his family, Dave Lawson Jr. donated land to put them all in a museum–and got some of his fellow boaters to donate their own gorgeous old Chris Crafts and dozens of antique boat motors. The museum also has photos and models of some of the glorious steamships that plied the lake and Lake Erie in the days when huge wooden hotels lined the shores. website
Nearly all of these grand summer palaces succumbed to fires except one–The Hotel Lenhart, that today is only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and welcomes visitors to sit a spell on their grand wrap-around porch.
Jamestown and Lucy
Jamestown isn’t the nicest city I’ve ever seen, it’s a bit down on its luck. But it does have something that no other city can boast about. Perhaps the most influential female comedian and TV producer who ever lived was born right here, and today there is a museum devoted to her legacy.
The Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Museum is a treasure trove of memorabilia, sets, and costumes from the longest-running sitcom in TV history, “I Love Lucy.”
A tour of the spacious museum takes you through the lives of both the Cuban politician’s son and future bandleader, Desi Arnaz, and the girl who grew up wanting to be a model, and not a redhead, who turned out to be a talented television show producer and movie mogul.
Shows like “Mission Impossible,” “Mannix” and many, many others were produced by this dynamic duo, and they brought innovations to television like multiple cameras and a live studio audience, that hadn’t been done before.
The tour even includes the actual sets used in the TV show, of both the New York apartment and their Hollywood home. Anyone who still loves Lucy will be in heaven here! website
The National Comedy Center
But wait. Jamestown has more. A lot more.
The world of comedians has been waiting for decades for such a center to be built. And the National Comedy Center does not disappoint.
A cavernous building located right near the river and across from another arena, the center is built not as a comedian’s hall of fame, but more a history of how stand-up and all forms of comedy evolved over the decades.
They incorporate some interesting high-tech methods to ensure the visitor has the best time possible by having you fill out a survey about the kind of things that make you laugh.
Then as you move through the exhibits and are presented with screens, they can put up the comedians whose routines you know you already like. It’s ingenious!
From the earliest comic strips to the present-day antics of Amy Schumer, this center is so full of fun that I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes comedy. Interactive displays allow you to really become immersed, and there really is something for everyone.
If you want to go even deeper, visit the Blue Room, (by elevator only), to hear the likes of Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and Red Foxx get down to their R and X-rated routines.
There is so much more to this giant state than I knew before I came up. It’s waiting for you with friendly people who truly value your visit. Put New York state on your travel radar! website
Listen to the author discuss this trip on the radio:
This trip was sponsored by NY State Tourism, but the opinions are the author’s own.