The countryside overlooking Keuka Lake

The countryside overlooking Keuka Lake

By Jim Ferri

I was driving on a ribbon of road that slowly rose and dipped with the hills I was crossing. It was almost arrow-straight, cutting across swatches of fields and forest, past little farm buildings and neat little houses. Signposts along the way pointed me to places called Leicester, Avon and Warsaw, all hinting at the origins of early settlers in the region.

I was in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, a wonderful new world for one so accustomed to urban life in America. Its little towns absorbed me with the minutia I passed ­– a Little-League diamond tucked away on the outskirts of town, fallow fields bursting with wildflowers, building fronts draped in bunting, a sign for a dentist hanging out by the street – each another little piece of the Finger Lakes jigsaw slowly forming about me.

Buffering the southern end of picturesque Keuka and Seneca Lakes in upstate New York, the area is a pretty pocket of rural America. My problem was that I had too few days scheduled there and as I drove towards the town of Corning I was determined to make the most of it.

The Corning Museum of Glass

The Corning Museum of Glass

Corning and Its Incredible Museum of Glass

Corning, an iconic upstate New York town surrounded by wooded hills, is filled with centuries-old redbrick buildings, many certainly lovingly restored, and a walk about it is a step back into 19th century America.

Listed as one of “Top 25 Small Cities for Art” by American Style Magazine, Corning boasts two wonderful museums and I was determined to see them both during my short stay in the city.

The first, the Corning Museum of Glass, is a fascinating place to learn about the making of glass. They host visitors with an interesting glassblowing show and every once in a while at one of the shows they’ll give a few lucky visitors some of the pieces made, which can range from a small decorative table piece to a vase or pitcher.

The Corning “Make Your Own Glass” experience

The Corning “Make Your Own Glass” experience

They also offer glass-making experiences: for an additional fee (most in the $20 – $30 range) you can join the “Make Your Own Glass” experience to make any one of a variety of glass pieces (I made a glass flower) with the help of an experienced glassworker. Most pieces need to be picked up the next day or they can be shipped to your home. There is also a very large museum shop.

What Corning is best known for though, is its stunningly beautiful Museum of Glass (see 10 Really Interesting Small American Museums). It contains 45,000 glass objects spanning 3,500 years (including the glass portrait of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh), some of the most beautiful things you’ll see in any museum anywhere. When I visited, throughout the museum there were little kiosks manned by high school or college students who explained in hands-on exhibits the different types of glass I’d be looking at.

Corning’s Other Museum: The Rockwell

The Rockwell Museum

The Rockwell Museum

The other renowned institution in Corning is the Rockwell Museum. Until recently known as the Rockwell Museum of Western Art, the museum was renamed to reflect its collection of American art, not solely western art. It’s linked to the Corning Glass Museum by a shuttle bus that runs continuously throughout the day all year long.

The Rockwell is a wonderful, manageable, interesting small museum that portrays the American experience through art. When I visited I was intrigued by the exhibition “The World of Man, Animals and Spirits”, nearly two dozen soapstone and bronze sculptures by artist Abraham Anghik Ruben gallery that had previously been in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Equally beautiful and fascinating was an exhibit of Native American contemporary pottery with interactive touch screens that let you delve deeper into the history and artistry of the pieces.

The Rockwell is in the old 1893 City Hall, which encompasses the old city offices, firehouse and police station. When you enter the museum shop look to your left and you can see the hole the ceiling where the fireman’s pole originally stood.

Keuka Lake at Hammondsport

Keuka Lake at Hammondsport

I stayed at the Radisson Hotel Corning, only a block from the museum.

The “Coolest Small Town in America”

In picturesque little Hammondsport (population about 700) on the southern end of Keuka Lake north of Corning, I found people still head-over-heels about being voted “The Coolest Small Town in America” by Budget Travel in 2012. In reality, Hammondsport tied for first place with Beaufort, NC since­ in the final hours with the vote very close, the voting became so heavy the server hosting the vote crashed­. Tie or not, you only need to walk down Shether Street, the town’s main drag, and you still get a feel for why it was so popular.

The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum

The Glenn H. Curtiss Museum

One of Hammondsport’s most popular attractions is the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum dedicated to the town’s favorite son, considered to be the “architect of American aviation.” It’s a fascinating place that takes you back in time and opens your eyes as to the incredible problems that had to be overcome in developing the airplane prior to World War I and throughout the war. Curtiss also invented the world’s first seaplane.

Before becoming involved in aviation, Curtiss was a young cyclist and mechanic who invented the motorcycle and while the museum shows many things related to his life and inventions it also shows all sorts of things having to do with the local Hammondsport area. As the director of the Museum told me, “we’re selling nostalgia.” As I told him, they do it well.

Ed Whightman at the Finger Lakes Boating Museum

Ed Whightman at the Finger Lakes Boating Museum

Later that day I visited the Finger Lakes Boating Museum, a tiny, recently launched museum dedicated to preserving the history of Finger Lakes boats. Although the museum is in its very early stages, I was lucky enough to be walked about it by its director, Ed Whightman.

The museum has a small collection of Finger Lake boats but what I found most interesting was when Ed brought me into the workshop where the museum is teaching teenagers the art of building a boat from scratch with no power tools. They will also be providing hand-on class in boat restoration. If you’re interested in boats it’s worth a stop.

Next week: The Black Sheep Inn, Watkins Glen and on to Elmira

If you go:

The Corning Museum of Glass
1 Museum Way
Corning, NY 14830
Tel: (800) 732-6845
www.cmog.org

The Rockwell Museum
111 Cedar St.
Corning, NY 14830
Tel: (607) 937-5386
www.RockwellMuseum.org

Glenn H. Curtiss Museum
8419 New York 54
Hammondsport, NY 14840
Tel: (607) 569-2160
www.GlennHCurtissMuseum.org

Finger Lakes Boating Museum
8231 Pleasant Valley Rd
Hammondsport, NY 14840
Tel: (607) 794-4567
www.FLBM.org

Steuben County Conference & Visitors Bureau
1 West Market Street
Corning, NY 14830
Tel: (607) 936-6544
http://www.corningfingerlakes.com/

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