Tonawanda News

November 29, 2012

History for the holidays: Long Homestead opens doors for 2012 Christmas season

Long Homestead opens doors for Christmas

By Jill Keppeler • jill.keppeler@tonawanda-news.com
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The Benjamin Long Homestead is putting on its Christmas finery once again this season in hopes of drawing history buffs new and old to the 183-year-old building at the confluence of Tonawanda and Ellicott creeks in Tonawanda.

Carole Barnard, caretaker of the homestead at 24 E. Niagara St., Tonawanda, said the building will be open from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 16, offering a way for visitors to see the historic home in an environment somewhat different than its usual Memorial to Labor day summer hours — instead decked out for a Victorian Christmas.

Even if that’s not exactly what it would have looked like in its heyday.

“We have to remember that when the Longs were here, it wouldn’t have been like this,” said Barnard as she showed off the largest Christmas tree in the home’s front parlor, where the first church services and Sunday School classes in the Tonawandas were held. “They were Mennonites, simple folk. If anything, it might have been a scraggly tree. This is what we believe could be done.”

For a number of years, the homestead has been decorated for the holiday season by the Garden Club of the Tonawandas. That didn’t happen this year, but members of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas were able to do the job using decorations provided by the club, Barnard said.

Pine boughs hang at the doors. From the kitchen to the dining rooms and parlors, and from the study to the upstairs bedrooms, tables and windowsills and mantles are decked with greenery and ribbons and candles — the electric kind. Decorated Christmas trees stand in many rooms, and old-fashioned Santa figures rest on desks and chairs.

“We’re so blessed to have what we have here, in the legacy of this house,” Barnard said. “The furniture is all period furniture; any of it could have been here.”

The Long Homestead was built in 1829, the year after Benjamin and Mary Long and their five daughters, ranging from 6 months to 16 years old, arrived in Tonawanda from their home in Lancaster County, Pa. Mary Long had inherited the 200 acres at the site from her father, Christian Hershey, who purchased it in 1815.

More than 100 years later, the house was purchased in 1975 by the City of Tonawanda and restored to the way it would have been in 1929. It is furnished and operated by the Historical Society of the Tonawandas.

Its original materials are completely local to Western New York, from black walnut walls and and white oak beams, and from gray stone excavated from construction of the Erie Canal to Medina sandstone quarried and then transported on that same canal, Barnard said. While not all the furniture in the home is associated with the Long family, it mostly dates from 1790 to 1840 and could very well have been there, she said. 

Besides the decorations, there are other seasonal touches, including colorful quilts and other textiles from the homestead collection, to give the illusion of comfort and warmth to the (often chilly) home.

“Just looking at the textiles, you have wonderful history,” Barnard said. “At this time of the year, I like to pull out the more colorful textiles and get a warmer feel.”

People think of the Victorians as being boring, she said, but “in reality, the colors were more garish. They had to be, to show up under the candle- and the lamplight.”

Benjamin Long’s study on the first floor is full of pieces of history including a document — a receipt from Col. John Sweeney of Tonawanda’s $1 donation to help build the Washington Monument — signed by Henry Clay, Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams; a portrait of Long in his later years; a notebook that he used; and his will.

A small tree also stands in the study for Christmas. Unlike its tall, straight brethren in the parlors, this one is more what Barnard would term a “Charlie Brown” tree — and is probably more authentic to the house, she said.

“If they had a tree, this is what it would have been like,” she said. “They were not chosen for their symmetry. They just went out to the field and cut down a tree.”

Two toys, a little older than the general time period of the house, wait beneath the tree: a cast iron train from 1900 and an 1870s toy horse.

In addition to the holiday decoration and the textiles, the decor also currently includes a number of dolls from the 1800s, something which, with the numerous Long daughters, undoubtedly were present in the house in the 1800s.

In the dining room, the table is currently set with modern red and green china — not something that would have made an appearance in the 1800s. (Barnard also showed off a set of Blue Willow porcelain, which usually graces the table.)

It’s there for the high teas that will be presented in December by Rose Marohn, a member of the historical society. Marohn said the events will include soup, scones, sandwiches, Christmas cookies and live entertainment by musicians.

Teas will take place Dec. 7 and 8, but only the 2 p.m. Friday slot currently has openings. Call 694-3350 for reservations.

Marohn said that teas also take place at the house in May and September. They started in 2009 and continued in 2010, but didn’t take place last year.

“At Christmastime, it’s especially nice,” she said. “It’s just very relaxing.”

Bernard said the teas serve a purpose beyond that of providing a little bit of Christmas relaxation.

“It does a wonderful job of getting people into the house — and we need to get people into the house,” she said. “People don’t know this place is here. It’s a wonderful piece of history.”

IF YOU GO • WHAT: Benjamin Long Homestead holiday hours • WHEN: 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 16. • WHERE: The homestead, 24 E. Niagara St., Tonawanda. • FOR MORE INFORMATION: Call 694-7406 or email tonahist@gmail.com. • IN ADDITION: Christmas Teas will take place Dec. 7 and 8 at the homestead. Openings remain at 2 p.m. Dec. 7. The cost is $15. Call 694-3350 for reservations.