Toys, Civil Rights, History, Art, Vinyl, Beer, Bowling and Booze: A Rochester Primer

FIRST OF ALL, I DID NOT TRY THE “GARBAGE PLATE.” Of all the things I saw in Rochester, my hosts did not see fit to put the famous Garbage Plate on my itinerary. I don’t know why – frankly, it sounds pretty great. Maybe they think it’s gotten too much attention or maybe they were keeping it all for themselves, but I wanted to get this out of the way up front, to head off any criticism that I skipped a major stop on my Rochester tour.

There’s a lot to see and do in Rochester, not all of it focused on Kodak and photography. My own tour started at the Strong National Museum of Play, probably one of the greatest family destinations I’ve ever seen – and soon to be an even greater one. It was founded by Margaret Woodbury Strong, whose family were early investors in Kodak. Margaret was an avid collector of toys, and her collection – initially conceived of as the evocatively-named Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum of Fascination – became the core of the Strong.

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The Strong features every kind of toy and aspect of play, from dolls, storybooks and board games to pinball and videogames, in a constellation of exhibits and interactive stations. All of it is housed in a sprawling building full of architecturally whimsical details, with unexpected features like the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden. The Strong is about to become an even bigger family destination with the construction of an adjacent complex featuring shops and a hotel, so watch this space.


Susan B. Anthony Museum & House (with marble bust of Anthony by Adelaide Johnson, 1859-1955, carved ca. 1905-6, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs Murray Whiting Ferris, 1906. [06.1264])

Rochester played a major role in civil rights history, as the home of two friends who defined the struggle – women’s suffrage pioneer Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The two met fighting against slavery, and believed that the cause of freedom for slaves and votes for women were linked. Anthony and her family moved into a house on Madison Street in the Southwest neighbourhood at the end of the Civil War, and the house is now a museum, preserved much as it would have looked when Anthony was head of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association.


Frederick Douglass’ grave, Mount Hope Cemetery

The house is open for guided tours, and staff and volunteers are enthusiastic about presenting a vivid picture of Anthony and her work – so much so that they’re still upset about the recent death of a horse chestnut tree that shaded the sidewalk outside the house when Anthony lived there.  Both Anthony and Douglass are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, which will appeal to graveyard enthusiasts – it’s both loaded with history and suitably picturesque, with areas both well-tended and gently decrepit.

History enthusiasts and families will want to journey 20 miles from Rochester to the Genesee Country Village and Museum, a recreated historical settlement of nearly 70 period buildings assembled on what was overgrown farmland when it was founded in 1966. Organized in groupings from pioneer to antebellum to late Victorian, it features homes and shops in addition to a brewery, a blacksmith, a cobbler, a gunsmith and as many other trades as you’d find outside the cities.


Opera House, Genesee Country Village and Museum

There are several gems, including the homes of Nathaniel Rochester, founder of the city, and the boyhood home of Kodak founder George Eastman, in addition to an octagonal house and the stunning Opera House – a pocket-sized theatre above a store, where performances were given by gaslight. The real treasures of the GCVM, however, are the volunteer docents and re-enactors – a dedicated group devoted to the roles and trades that were lived out in the buildings, describing the duties and skills with enthusiasm and passion that makes the place come alive.

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On the way back from the GCVM, it’s worth taking a trip on the Sam Patch, a replica packet boat built like the ones that ferried passengers up and down the Erie Canal. The Canal – a marvel of engineering in its day – was the economic lifeline of upstate New York in the early 19th century, and a short trip on the canal on the Sam Patch from the town of Pittsford, just outside Rochester, will take you up through Lock 32 and back again, a leisurely tour under bridges and by waterside homes with Captain Thomas Axx at the helm.

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There’s plenty of history on display at the Memorial Art Gallery, a gem of a museum that’s been called the “Little Met” – a pocket-sized version of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The collection bears this out – a carefully chosen cross section of fine and decorative art from around the world and across the centuries, showing French Impressionists and old masters from its collection alongside vernacular art like its display of antique sculpted commercial signage from the city’s past.


Signage and folk art at Memorial Art Gallery

There’s art and history of a different kind at the Record Archive, a massive vinyl shop, bar and performance space that’s been in business since 1975. The selection here is truly staggering, with bins full to bursting in addition to shelves running around the room. On the shop floor I meet Dan Lilker, founding member of heavy metal legends Anthrax, Nuclear Assault, Brutal Truth and Stormtroopers of Death. The Queens-born bassist is a Rochester native now, an employee at Record Archive and full of stories, only some of which made it into his recent book.


Dan Lilker at Record Archive

Railroad Street in the Marketview Heights neighbourhood is a hub of dining, brewing and distilling. The street name gives it away – a former industrial precinct that has become the home to businesses like Rohrbach’s Brewery, the city’s first craft brewery whose production brewery and beer hall serves great pizza and the full range of the brewery’s distinctive and outrageously named beers.


Beer flight at Rohrbach’s

Next door is Black Button Distilling, another first – the first spirit distillery to be opened in the city since Prohibition. Owner Jason Barrett’s family have been button makers to high end tailors for four generations, but Barrett decided to follow a different path thanks to a minor disability: He’s colourblind. (The name of the distillery is a family joke.)


Jason Barrett at Black Button Distilling

Started just six years ago, Black Button’s core offerings includes gin, vodka, bourbon and rye, Irish-style whiskey and an apple-flavoured moonshine, as well as a delightful bourbon cream liqueur that manages to be neither sweet nor cloying. The bar at the front of the distillery is a fine place to sample what they sell; I recommend the Old Fashioned.


Ten pin lanes at Radio Social

One of Rochester’s newest destinations is in another former industrial district. Radio Social opened last year in the former Stromberg-Carlson radio factory building as an all-purpose adult hangout featuring shuffleboard, foosball, pool, skee ball, darts and miles of bowling alleys in addition to a music venue, an event space, and a bar that serves very tasty Middle Eastern fare. Coming from a city where bowling alleys are closing all the time, it was a shock to see all those shiny new ten pin lanes. The space is also loaded with Instagramable potential.

At the end of the day, at least part of Rochester can be found by Cobbs Hill Reservoir taking in the sunset over the city’s downtown. The best location seems to be next to the radio tower by the side of the reservoir, where I took my spot next to a dozen other photographers with their tripods and long lenses snapping an unusually vivid sunset over a deceptively colourful city.


Rochester, NY at sunset from Cobbs Hill Reservoir

Rick McGinnis was hosted by Visit Rochester, which has not approved or reviewed this story.

Photos and story © 2018 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved