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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Those of us who live in, or very close to, Burt, NY, have a strong sense of pride in the town that very few people know anything about.  Just mentioning the name of Burt, NY, almost immediately receives a return question of,  “where is that?”  But more important to Where it is located are the facts behind Who it is named after.  Hopefully this article can put some light on the issue, and better inform all of us for our responses in the future.

In 1807, a man by the name of James Van Horn purchased 673 acres of land from the Holland Land Company, and moved there with his wife Elizabeth.  Elizabeth died shortly after the move, and almost immediately James married his second wife, Abigail Carpenter.  It was Abigail that named their plot of land “New Fane.”  In those days, the word “Fane” meant church or temple, and Abigail wanted her home to be blessed by God. Over the years, the entire area would soon be referred to as Newfane.

When the War of 1812 erupted, many settlers in this part of the State simply packed up and left the area, but James Van Horn refused to give up so easily.  An early settler here, James figured that the darn Red Coats were beaten before, so there was no need to fret just yet.

In December of 1813, at the height of the war, the British along with their Indian Allies, reached Eighteen Mile Creek. Their orders were to destroy all before them west of the creek. They burned everything - homes, mills and factories - leaving the settlers that remained to the mercy of the woods and the harsh winter environment.  James Van Horn’s property was located all on the east side of Eighteen Mile Creek.

The British attacks did spare the east side, except for in the case of the Van Horn's.  Their flourmill was considered to be a military target since it supplied Fort Niagara with flour. The mill and everything inside was burned to the ground. The fortunate part is that the soldiers followed their orders and spared the family home.  And as the saying goes, with the war hitting “a little too close to home,” James subsequently moved his family to the safety of Seneca County and left their Newfane property completely unattended.

By 1819 the entire family returned, officially settling back into their log cabin home. That same year, with a much brighter and peaceful future ahead, James was inspired to build what would become the
first brick building in the area, and which is better known today as the Van Horn Mansion. The new home was built a little further south on their property, and was constructed using bricks from their own brickyard, and it took a total of four years to complete.  That same year, in 1823, the Van Horn’s would also see the birth of their youngest child, Burt.  Their new home was an immense structure, dwarfing their humble log cabin, and much more fitting for their very affluent family.  Their new home was so well received that it also became the site of Newfane’s first Town Meeting on April 6, 1824.

In terms of American history, the most famous of the Van Horn family would be this Burt, who would grow up in this family home, and go on to become an extremely influential man in Niagara County.  Burt Van Horn would serve 3 terms as both a Member of Congress from his Congressional district, and as a Member of the State Assembly. His political career began even before the eventful Civil War years, and he was elected to the 37th Congress in 1860, supporting the policies of President Lincoln. Burt publicly liked to brag that he was elected on the same day Abraham Lincoln was elected president.

After retiring from Congress, in 1869, Burt spent most of his time working the family farm while also dealing extensively in real estate. He had also inherited the family home from his brother James Jr., and was raising his own family there now, consisting of his second wife, Abigail Schuyler, and three sons and a daughter.

In 1877 he was appointed U.S. Internal Revenue Collector for the 28th Collection District of New York, comprised of eleven counties (offices were in Rochester, NY).   While away, his sons feverishly worked the farm.  Burt returned to Lockport in 1881, and handed the family business down to his children.  Burt remained in the area until his death in 1896, and the Van Horn family interned his body in Glenwood Cemetery.

Young Burt Van Horn worked the family’s fruit farm from a very young age, and would use his skills as an adult to turn his father’s land into one of the finest fruit farms in the country.  Burt Jr. would go on to become a graduate of Yale and a lawyer, and a very accomplished businessman of his own.

The restored Van Horn Mansion. (CONTRIBUTED PHOTO)
Towards the end of the 19th century, the family mansion was now under the control of Burt Jr., who remained in the family house.  He built a large expansion to the house adding a third story and constructed two skylights within it, one over the other. The interior one was imported from the French Exposition of 1899, which still exhibits a beautiful collection of ornate stained glass panes surrounded by lead. The one above was added as a protective cover for the lower one.  A new staircase was built to better accommodate the center of the house- a house that could now truly be called a mansion.

Burt never forgot his childhood in Newfane, and he would now begin to create a vision of linking Buffalo’s growing population with the picturesque landscapes of Niagara County, and the pristine sands of Olcott Beach.  That vision would soon draw traffic directly through his property.

In 1901, the township of Newfane shifted south, renaming the area that had been called Charlotteville. The northern-most acreage of the Van Horn property, including where the mansion stands, would be renamed as the hamlet of Burt, after Burt Jr.’s father, the Honorable Burt Van Horn.

So the next time anyone asks about Burt, you will have enough background to answer the Who and Where – a well liked Politician from the 1800’s, and a place somewhere between Newfane and Olcott.

More about young Burt’s vision next time.

+Dr. Scott Geise , a local businessman, has an active interest in Erie Canal history, specifically surrounding the local Mill Race in Lockport. His column, "Historically Relevant," appears on the first and third Saturday of each month.

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  1. The first home was not a log cabin it was post and beam and is still standing .I live in it.It was lit on fire by the British when the mill was burned down but only sustained a little damage the rough hewn beams in the cellar are charred in places.It is sad how people get this wrong.Our house is three houses north of the Mansion where it has been for 205 years.Burt was a great place grow up and raise my kids.

    1. Interesting. I've been with the Newfane Historical Society for over 10 years, and this is the first time I'm hearing this. I believe the original building was closer to the creek and the foundation has disintegrated. However, it is very plausible the house your referring to was built by a van horn. James Van Horn Sr. had 7 sons, and there were multiple James Jr's. I also had a bunch of friends who lives in houses built by Van Horns. Concerning the article, I'm not going to lie, there are some huge discrepancies about the history, and some of it just plainly left out all together. (Believe me, the whole truth is more interesting) however, as long as it gets people talking about history, good! Do love Burt NY!!

  2. Really interesting article, great job, Scott! (Made me proud to have been a small part of your education. LOL) I love all the history that is included in your article, very informative. At Fredonia, I was friends with a boy from Burt...and he took a lot of teasing about it. The whole area around Newfane, Burt and Olcott is beautiful. So happy that I got to spend my career teaching down there!

  3. Great article! "Burt" was my fraternity nickname. I was born and raised on the East Lake Road just 2 miles from Olcott and our post office was Burt, NY, so when I went to college at Gettysburg College I pledged Phi Delta Theta fraternity and all my paperwork listed my address as Bill Bush from Burt, New York and one of the older fraternity brothers picked up on the alliteration of "B"s in "Bill Bush from Burt, New York" and the brothers began calling me "Burt" and it stuck. Also, I was good friends in school with the Bridgeman family, George and Cookie and spent many a day and night at the mansion when they lived there and shot pool on the pool table under the skylights and hid in the secret cubbyhole room that was behind the cupboard where the early Van Horns hid from Indians.

    1. George and Cookie must be George and Cookie Bridgeman. George was a volunteer fireman and played the sousaphone in the Miller Hose marching band. I don't remember much about Cookie, except that she was George's sister and was hot.


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