Chris Clemens, 38, of Rochester has visited numerous small towns around the state, highlighting exceptional destinations for history, food and culture. He writes the Exploring Upstate blog, running the site while working a full time job as operational manager for a non-profit in Rochester.
Clemens will be the keynote speaker on Thursday during the Cobblestone Museum’s annual meeting at The Village Inn. He will share some thoughts on small town success stories and sites that are must-sees. (Call the museum at 585-589-9013 to RSVP or click here for more information.)
Clemens and a friend started a blog in 2011 about the Burnt Over District, the many historic religious sites in Upstate. In 2014, Clemens shifted to the Exploring Upstate blog.
He is the creator, owner and “chief exploring officer” for the blog. “Regardless of how you define ‘Upstate’ or break New York up into regions, it would be impossible to deny that we have an unending amount of intriguing places, people and things to learn about,” Clemens writes on the blog.
He was interviewed last month in Brockport at Java Junction, a coffee shop on Main Street. (Clemens first had to stop at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church to check out the church’s Tiffany stained glass windows.)
Question: How many blog posts have you written?
Answer: It’s easily 250.
Question: Is that between Albany and Jamestown? What is the most farthest away?
Answer: The most western point is probably Lily Dale. And then probably the most northern point I’ve actually written about is Clayton.
Question: Why Clayton? What’s going on there?
Answer: There are several reasons. There is the Antique Boat Museum right on the river. It’s the place where Thousand Islands dressing was invented. There is River Rat Cheese Shop. If you’ve ever seen a snow plow with a wedge, that was invented in Clayton. (Click here to see the post about Clayton.)
Question: That’s interesting because many small towns might not bother to make a big deal of that. And why not celebrate something that came from your town. That’s why I wanted to talk with you. I thought you could share how some of these small towns have used their heritage to help stay vibrant, by utilizing some of the history and stories in their past. I’m curious about places you’ve been to that have done a good job and maybe some that missed the mark.
Answer: One that has done really well with that is Jamestown. If you look at Jamestown with the Lucy story. Most of Jamestown tourism is Lucy. People come from all over now that they have the Comedy Festival, the brand new theater just for comedy. So they are really, really building on just one story. Jamestown has done really well. (Click here for the Exploring Upstate post about Jamestown.)
Question: And Jamestown was really late in embracing the Lucy Ball connection.
Answer: In looking at Western New York, when you look at the growth of Buffalo, when you look at the growth of Rochester, and the growth of all these places that are moving, it is grass-roots people who are volunteering to do this stuff. It is people who start an Instagram account to show people all the cool stuff that they find. You don’t see people going into a town and developing a campaign and investing a whole bunch of money to bring in tourism. You see people saying we want to celebrate what we have here, it is our heritage. Other people start to resonate to go see it.
There are towns like Cuba (in the Southern Tier). They had a real tough time with their Main Street. And their opera house burned completely. It was all volunteers who rebuilt the entire thing themselves. And now their Main Street, the vibrancy of that Main Street, surrounds that former opera house. Now there are other people investing in main Street, who say I’ll open up a store. But it was a bunch of people who said we can’t let this go away. We can’t let this die. We need to do something. They made it their side hustle and as a result everyone benefits.(Click here for the post about Cuba.)
What is unfortunate is no one has found a way to truly monetize the investment of heritage tourism. What company is going into a small town and saying we’re going to create the tourism infrastructure around heritage things. It’s not happening. It’s the people who are invested and excited about it who are shouting it from the hilltops.
Question: I feel like Albion, for example, has a lot of heritage sites with five nationally recognized districts close together – the awesome Mount Albion Cemetery, the downtown, Courthouse Square, the canal and the Cobblestone Museum. To me that feels like it could be a package.
Answer: Sure, it is essentially monetizing it.
Question: You have all the Tiffany stained-glass windows at the Pullman church. The product is there. You have compelling stories with the very first Free Methodist Church, Grace Bidell and many others.
Answer: It depends on who you’re trying to attract. What people are starting to find out is some of the greatest advertising, especially for the under-40 crowd, is Instagram. So when you have an Instagram-able moment, that is when people start to connect with and resonate with, and what drives them to go check something out. I don’t know that you have a 20-year-old going on Trip Advisor to read the reviews of people who have been to the Cobblestone Museum. You have a 20-year-old on Instagram and using a hashtag and looking at a photo and saying, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s cool, and I want that same photo for myself to show my friends.”
Question: The Shark Girl in Buffalo pops up in my Instagram feed a lot.
Answer: It is so iconic. It’s on T-shirts. It’s everywhere.
Question: There was probably a lot of naysaying when the money was spent for Shark Girl.
Answer: What made Shark Girl popular? It’s the fact you can take a selfie with her. It’s an Instagram moment and that is what is driving a lot of traffic.
Question: What about the World’s largest Garden Gnome? How did that come about it and was it worth the drive?
Answer: It was commissioned and someone came and created it. I don’t know who paid the money. I totally thought it was cool, and I drove an hour out of my way. I was driving to West Point on that trip. I had to drive way off of the Thruway and travel on all of these winding roads. I love doing that. I totally loved the Gnome. It was totally worth it.
Question: Is the Giant Gnome an attraction? How many people would make a one-hour detour to see it?
Answer: I know of few now who have done because I told them about it and they said, “I have to go do that.” The cool thing is it’s easy to find out. You can go to the GeoTag on Instagram and find out all of the people who have posted selfies with the Gnome. If you look at the GeoTag there are photos of people doing other things at that farm. They have mini-golf. They have tractors through the fields.
I don’t think every place needs a kitschy statue. There are a whole bunch of other ways that people have created Instagram-able moments that don’t include a character. It essentially comes down to: Is it fun? There is a bridge in Rochester that is an old train bridge that spans the Genesee River, over in the St. Paul area. It’s just slightly north of High Falls. It’s an old train bridge. It’s not important. But two guys went and took some really cool photos there. It now has it’s own hash tag because so many people want to go there and take their own photos. That’s the nature of the social media influence is that when one person finds something and shares it with another, and other people say, “I want to do that, too.” That’s how we create that buzz, and that’s not going to happen with everything. In social media marketing it’s trying to figure out what’s the element of something that will go viral. That’s what everyone’s trying to create, that next viral moment.
Question: The Cobblestone Museum did a first-ever outhouse tour this year and it was wildly popular.
Answer: The outhouse thing is quirky and fun.
Question: What got you to start blogging and why about Upstate history?
Answer: I’ve been someone who has been curious about trying something new and learning a new skill, even if I don’t have a method for applying that skill. Sometimes I just want to learn something new. At that time my buddy and I were talking about going to all of these places in The Burnt Over District. I told him I wanted to write a blog about us doing this.
Question: What drew you to the Burnt Over District with all that history about religion?
Answer: I’ve always been curious about things that I find really, really interesting, and I need to go see them.
Question: Did you have a sense there was a lot of material out, places to explore?
Answer: I knew there was a bunch. I read a lot of regional history books. It’s pretty common for me to read through a Wikipedia. I’ll pick a town like Albion, and I’ll read through the Wikipedia page on what it says about Albion. There will be a quick line that mentions something. I’ll take that line and then go read the story about that. The bigger story is how interesting it was that my friend and I, we were both in our early 30s, and there were so many things we hadn’t done locally. We would travel to all of these places and go do stuff. We would spend money. He had gone all over the world, but there was a lot of stuff in our own backyard that we didn’t see. We had never been to Newark and stood on the exact plot of land where the Fox sisters first claimed they could interact with the afterworld.
Question: Is there a marker there?
Answer: There is. They moved the house to Lily Dale and it burned down. What remains is a stone outline where the house existed. They built a big shed over the top of it to protect it.
Standing in the exact spot where on March 31, 1848, where modern day Spiritualism began, that stuff intrigues me and intrigued my friend Luke. That is essentially how we did (the blog). I’m excited to experience new places and see new things and go to towns I haven’t been to before. That excites me.
Question: It’s exciting to see small towns that are very much alive, places like Seneca Falls and I would say Medina. But many of these small towns are sad stories.
Answer: There are a lot of sad stories, but if you dig there are plenty of great stories, but it takes digging. Earlier this year I went to Cuba, New York and I spent a day. Everybody I told they said, “What are you doing in Cuba? There is nothing to see.” After I got back I told them all of the things I did. They had no idea there was so much to do there.
We mentioned earlier how their Main Street was dead. They revitalized their Main Street community with this grass-roots effort to rebuild the former opera house. Then a coffee shop opened up next door. And then an antiques shop opened up next door to that. If you like at how it all unfolded, it is a happy story. If you go there you can visit the exact oil spring where oil was discovered in all of North America. It’s in Cuba in this little park. The Cuba Cheese Shop has some of the best cheese curd I’ve ever had. The Block Barn – all of this stuff is amazing. The average person is going to drive right by Cuba because they think it has nothing so they don’t bother. And that is a shame.
Bath is another one. The First Presbyterian Church is one of the only churches in the entire United States where Louis Comfort Tiffany completely designed the sanctuary, the paint, the tiles on the floor, everything. There are a lot of churches that have windows by Tiffany, but that church in Bath is incredible.
Question: I wonder how they promote that? Many of the churches around here are pretty remarkable artistically but it is promoted. The Episcopal church in Seneca Falls makes a real big deal out of having Tiffany windows. The Pullman church in Albion has more than 40 Tiffany windows.
Answer: What people struggle with is how to monetize that. The Pullman church, you can promote it, but where do you promote it? Who is the audience that you’re looking for? Is the audience going to come there and pay money to see it? Maybe you don’t charge them because they will be coming and spending money in our diners or coffee shop, maybe planning their stay around a farmers’ market, so they’re spending their money that way. So you develop this plan. What is it we want people to monetize? Do we just want people to come to our downtown or do we specifically want to make money off people coming in to see these windows.
Question: If you had unlimited money or a plan that the state would back, ideally you would have a Pullman Sleeping Car right by the church and that would be your coffee shop.
Answer: That would be awesome. But all of that takes money. You would need someone who wants to purchase that Pullman car, renovate it and put it in place. Now you’re talking about creating a business. Anyone who wants to create a business is going to create a business plan and say, “How much traffic are we going to get?”
If they do that before you have the tourism, any investor will say we don’t have the traffic so we’re not investing. So with tourism and small town revitalization, you’re looking for the chicken or the egg, you don’t know which is which. But you capitalize on the things you do have that will bring in traffic. That is sort of what Buffalo did with Canal Town. They invested a whole bunch of renovations and new builds in Canal Town, but they’re not done and can’t be done, because what they did created a whole spring of other problems centered around tourism, like parking and public transportation. The problem is do you want people down there or great parking, you don’t get both. You either have a lot of activity or you have the problem of trying to bus people back and forth and transport people to where they want to go. You don’t invest in a rail line prior to having all of the people down at Canalside.
You’re not going to pitch to someone that we want to build a high-end electric rail to nothing. You work through the next problems as they show up. That’s what we’re doing in Rochester with the Inner Loop. We have it for 50-60 years and in many ways it destroyed downtown. Now we’re looking at revitalizing downtown, reinventing it and becoming something new. Now that we’re starting to fill in (the Inner Loop), people are saying they are willing to invest because they understand it’s going to bring people into this area.
Question: You definitely see a comeback in Buffalo. I hoped you would see that spread out into some of the smaller towns in Western New York. You see it in Jamestown, but it many small towns there is the smell of death. How do you say that nicely?
Answer: I don’t know if it’s that bad. It takes people who are invested and celebrating their town.
I was just in Albion, and I know a lot of cool people in Albion. There is an alley by the canal with sandstone pavers. That alley is a totally Instagram-able alley. It’s a super cool shot. I can envision lights being strung across. It’s super cool.
Question: In terms of reclaiming some of these downtowns of historic sites, it seems some communities wait for Superman, the person with deep pockets, or they hope the government will take the lead.
Answer: There is no doubt it’s a ton of work and there are a lot of different ways you can tackle the plan. You start with a small grass-roots movement and it just takes a little bit to get the ball moving. That’s what happened in Buffalo. Fifteen years ago Buffalo wasn’t cool. Now it is generally regarded as one of the cooler, hip cities in the country.
The average person isn’t the type of person to say, “I wonder what there is to do in Albion?” If they Google what is there to do in Albion and don’t come up with anything, they just assume there isn’t. They aren’t the type of person to go on to Wikipedia and start reading. They’re not the type of person to go on to Instagram to read GeoTags and really, really hunt. If you find those type of people you want to reach out to them and build partnerships. People look to me with that function as an influencer. They say, “Hey, we’d love for you to write about us because you have a reputation for knowing this stuff.” But it’s a ton, a ton of work.
Question: So you’ve been to Albion, Medina and Holley?
Answer: Oh yeah. Holley is an interesting one but I’ve never written about Holley. I’ve been interested in the Birdhouse Church by Holley Falls. That is interesting to me. That’s the type of stuff that I like when I roll into a town. I bet the story behind that Birdhouse Church is really interesting.
In Medina, I’d like to see the Medina Sandstone Hall of Fame.
Question: Is there a site in your travels that just shocked you?
Answer: Yes. I have a short memory and I go back to Cuba. I was there two months ago. People think of that town and they think there is nothing to do, but it was such a cool place to go visit. There really was a bunch of cool stuff to go see for a great day trip. That is the kind of stuff that shocks me.