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  • Frances Schwabenland

Hanging Out With The Ghost of Jimmy Stewart and having a wonderful life!

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

I know...the title is a tad too long, but I couldn’t help it! Hopefully, it captured your attention and you will read on!

Day 2 Finger Lakes Region

Orange zest was resting on top of home made maple syrup covering thick pieces of French Toast cooked to perfection. Not my everyday run of the mill breakfast but then again, I don’t usually breakfast in a mansion! The Glen Iris Inn is worthy of a top spot in the Rolodex!

Our goal was to see and do as many things as possible in 3 days so rather than hike the Trails to discover more of the rich history of this park, we put the key into the car ignition. Driving right out of the Inn and up the hill, we came upon the reason why this is called, “The Grand Canyon of the East”. If you are scared of heights, don’t look down, just out and take in this vast expansiveness.

Speaking of vast expansiveness, we kept driving up to the point where both the Upper Falls and the Middle Falls could be seen. Mountain top views are always so inspirational and we could enjoy it without being out of breath!

William Pryor Letchworth became very interested in the history of the Seneca Indians who lived in this area and was a very active member of the Buffalo Historical Society. A remarkable woman from the past and from this area became known to Letchworth. Mary Jemison was born on a boat from Ireland headed for America in 1743. As a teenager, she was kidnapped during the French and Indian War. Her family was killed and she was adopted by a Seneca tribe, assimilating their culture. She married and lived with the Seneca Indians until her death and came to be known as the "Old White Woman Of the Genesee". Her grandchildren asked Letchworth to help arrange for her remains to be removed from a decaying burial ground (no pun intended) and moved to the the bluff above the Middle Falls in 1874. William dedicated a statue to her in 1910. It depicts Mary with her son Thomas on her journey to the Genesee Valley. Letchworth also discovered the Council House which was built by the British and Seneca before the Revolutionary War. Council Fires forged relationships and promises. He provided the funds and had it restored and moved to its present location next to the statue. The Council House was re-dedicated on October 1, 1872 by the last Indian Council of the Genesee. Mr. Letchworth played a significant role in preserving the Valley's past and was known by the Senecas as Hai-wa-ye-is-tah, the "Man who always Does Right."

WORD OF CAUTION: We unfortunately depended totally on the phone GPS and were so lost for the next leg of this trip. Be sure to print out directions before you leave home because in this area, we could not get any cell service at all. We ended up asking for directions at a veterinarian's office, a small diner and finally from a teenager on the street named Landon who tried very hard to help us because "I am a Ranger and that is my job ma'am!" (I liked Landon but could have lost the "ma'am").

After driving an hour and a half, we finally made our way to Seneca Falls. Continuing with the theme of historical information but now we transitioned from nature to Hollywood. Legend has it that Frank Capra visited Seneca Falls looking for inspiration while writing the script for "It's A Wonderful Life". According to Life In The Finger - both were mill towns and there are many common geographic locations close by. Harry Bailey's wife was from Buffalo. Sam Wainwright opened a plastic factory Rochester. Seneca Falls has the Victorian homes similar to what George Bailey and Mary settled into after they were married. John Ramsey of Seneca Falls was a generous industrialist, who during the 1920s aided his workers in attaining low-cost housing on a local tract of land, a neighborhood which to this day is referred to as Rumseyville. Hmmm, Bailey Park…Rumseyville?

Another coincidence can be drawn between the two towns and the famous bridge. While these details could conceivably be coincidences, nothing is quite as telling as the real life story of Seneca Falls resident Antonio Varacalli. On Thursday, April 12, 1917, Antonio Varacalli drowned while successfully rescuing a young woman who had jumped in from the bridge attempting suicide. Varacalli was a young 19-year-old when he heard a woman scream for help. He rushed into the canal and managed to bring her close enough to shore where another man helped to pull her to the bank. Unfortunately, Varacalli drowned.

The original newspaper story that ran mentioned the name of Ruth Dunham, the woman whom he saved, but it did not mention Antonio Varacalli’s name, instead referring to him as a young “Italian… whose first name was Tony.” In response, a letter to the editor was written by William Bours Clarke, pastor of the Trinity Episcopal Church, calling for full recognition of his “supreme heroism and self-sacrifice.”

The town came together to recognize the young man and he was awarded the Carnegie Hero Medal and they raised money to fulfill Antonio Varacalli’s dream of working to save enough to bring his mother and sisters over from Italy. Several years later in 1921, a plaque was erected and placed on the bridge where it can still be seen today.

This is believed to be the possible inspiration for two key scenes in the movie. Prior to Frank Capra coming on as director, the George Bailey character did not jump into the water to save Clarence, rather he is stopped by a mysterious man who says, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” in response to George contemplating suicide. The true story is also believed to possibly be the inspiration for the end scene when the town comes together to raise money to help the man who changed their lives, much as the people of Seneca Falls came together to raise money to bring Antonio Varacalli’s family to America.

So, if you get to Seneca Falls, walk across this most famous bridge. It just feels good knowing Jimmy Stewart and his guardian angel without wings was once there! Look up to the black lampposts with the signs, "George Bailey Lane", "Clarence Street", "Angel Avenue". Visit the It's A Wonderful Life Museum and then finish with a treat at Bailey's It's A Wonderful Life Ice Cream shop and enjoy this wonderful town as you enjoy this wonderful get a way!

Side Note: The Seneca Falls Convention was the first women's rights convention in the United States. Held in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, the meeting launched the Women's Suffrage Movement, which more than seven decades later ensured women the right to vote. We wanted to visit the National Women's Hall of Fame which is housed in a former knitting mill but it was closed. It showcases great women whose lives are truly inspirational. As of this year, there are 293 inductees...another one of the many reasons to return to this region.

A sunset cruise along the second deepest and longest of the Finger Lakes, Cayuga Lake was the last part of the adventure on this day. There are many different cruises to choose from...some provide music, some provide a meal but we wanted to learn more about this area and chose to go on the eco-educational Discover Cayuga Lake Boat Tours. Their purpose is to provide equitable access to Cayuga Lake and to foster appreciation of the importance of the Finger Lakes, watersheds for local ecosystems, human use, and natural beauty. There were snacks and local wines provided (we were all adults) with a very interesting narration of the lake and hands on experiments getting us all involved. We learned more about plankton than we could have ever imagined while collecting samples and viewing under a microscope. Discover Cayuga Lake Boat Tours is a non-profit and we wanted to support their efforts sustaining the Finger Lake waterways for future generations.

We slept so well that night.

Heights depths deep breathing

History philanthropy

Movies remembrance

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