A surprise 85th birthday party, a bag tied in the middle, chicken wings, and a rather unorthodox place to sleep. What do all of these have in common? They all constitute the trappings, as well as the happenstances involved in a trip to the far western part of New York state, Chautauqua County, particularly Jamestown, Lakewood, Bemus Point, and of course, the home of Lucille Ball herself, Celoron. If these towns don’t sound familiar to you, fear not, you are not unlike the rest of the inhabitants of New York State. Chautauqua County is about as far west in the state as you can travel. How far you ask? You are actually closer to Chicago when you stand in Jamestown, New York, than you are to New York City.
Bemus Point really has four eateries of note. The See-Zurh House, which is open all-year round. The Village Casino, a place known for its wings, live-music, and the fact that you can dock your boat right next to it, and buy beer and wings. (The Village Casino now holds the record for serving the most Buffalo-style chicken wings in one 24 hour time frame, serving 40,210 during that span. It is a certified “Guiness World Record.” No word on whether they also broke the record for most toilet paper consumed, or most toilet flushes in the same 24-hour period.) You can also enjoy cocktails and a good meal at The Fish, another place you can literally drive your boat up to. (For years it was the “Italian Fisherman,” but they closed this past winter after 35 years.) There’s also a relatively new establishment, the Ellicottville Brewing Co. on Chautauqua Lake. It would appear that pretty soon, every town in New York state will have its own brewery. The Ellicottville Brewing Co. took the place of a former Bemus Point institution, The Surf Club, a great place for seeing live bands, as well as enjoying a good chicken wing. The Ellicottville Brewing Co. doesn’t even serve Buffalo-style chicken wings. I scolded them mercilessly.
After a hearty breakfast at the Inn at Pheasant Run, my wife and I stole off to her aunt’s surprise 85th birthday party at the aforementioned Lakewood Rod and Gun. One has to be delicate when surprising an 85 year-old. Her aunt was just the right amount surprised, and had a good cry, despite the fact that my wife’s 93 year-old uncle did all he could to try to inadvertently ruin the surprise by yelling out to her. Hey when you’re 93, you can yell as much as you want.
After the party, we went back to Bemus Point. We noticed that during the afternoon, people were out drinking on the deck of The Fish, or sitting on the lawn and having a cocktail at the 138 year-old Hotel Lenhart. While the hotel itself looks a little spooky and perhaps is in need of a facelift, it does have a 19th century charm that would give one the feeling of checking into a hotel with the Astor’s or the Vanderbilt’s, discussing with them why working 12 hours-a-day for three cents an hour would cause an ungrateful sweatshop employee to have an interest in union activity.
The Hotel Lenhart was originally owned by Dr. J.J. Lenhart, and his wife Dora. The same family has owned and operated the hotel for four generations, and apparently little has changed. Check out the front desk.
Despite the happening scene that we observed during the day time, by 8pm, the place was dead. Bemus Point took on the aura of a ghost town, with very little social activity to speak of. When my wife was in her younger partying days during the 1970s and ’80s, Bemus was the place to go. So what happened? Apparently, according to three separate sources, including our bed and breakfast hostess, a severe and aggressive anti-DWI campaign had literally scared the would-be drunk drivers, and apparently everybody else right out of town. Bemus isn’t easy to get to, and there’s only a couple of ways in or out of the town, so tipsy drivers are sitting ducks for active police patrols. Fair or unfair, (It’s pretty much impossible to mount a spirited defense for the right to drive drunk.) the police are so omnipresent in the town, that nobody takes a chance and goes there anymore for fear of being ticketed or worse. Sober drivers have complained about being harassed.
The next morning, after another hearty breakfast at the Inn at Pheasant Run, we trudged off to the town of Celoron, home of the great Lucille Ball. Our famous “Hoffman timing” was working literally like clockwork, as we would just miss the opening of the new Jamestown Comedy Festival and Museum featuring Dan Aykroyd, Amy Schumer, and Lily Tomlin amongst others. (I was so distraught over missing the grand opening, I decided to protest by not laughing the rest of the day.) The very lengthy 6 1/2 hour drive back to the Capital Region did however give me the chance to think of all of the talented individuals that emanated from the greater Jamestown area. These performers include, but are not limited to…
- Lucile Ball (Jamestown) 1911-1989 – If she saw that statue they commissioned for her, they’d have some ‘splainin’ to do.
- Natalie Merchant/10,000 Maniacs – The elecletic ’80s/90s band hails from Jamestown. My wife used to date the bass player for their warm-up act. I used to play the drums in my basement and pretend to be Keith Moon. It sounds like she has a thing for rock ‘n’ rollers…of a sort.
- Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson – 1892-1954 – Not only was Jackson a Supreme Court Justice, he was the lead American prosecutor at Nuremberg, where he kind of struggled, but so what! He’s the reason why nobody from Jamestown will ever accept the excuse, “I was just following orders.”
- Roger Goodell – NFL Commissoner Goodell has the rare privilge of being quite possibly the least popular person associated with the NFL. That’s saying a lot considering Jerry Jones, Bill Belechick, and Tom Brady are all very active.
- Laura Kightlinger – The comedian, writer, producer, and former SNL member, (Her claim to fame was playing O.J. Simpson prosecutor, Marcia Clark.) is a graduate of Southwestern High School in West Ellicott, New York. She was a friend of my wife’s who seems to know all of the famous people in Jamestown. I’ll have to look into this.
We finally began our long trek back to the Capital Region. We first picked up a couple of ears of Western, New York sweet corn, the best in the world. We even tried to buy some Italian sausages at Brigiotta’s, the only place to buy sausage in Jamestown, but their sausage grinder was broken. We decided to take I86, the former Route 17 or Southern Tier Expressway home to “shake things up” a little. We used to take it all the time when my in-laws were alive because we were too poor to afford the New York State Thruway. It hasn’t gotten any more interesting, or shorter, but we did stop in Cuba, New York for their world-renowned cheese.
This little homecoming for my wife was a nice reminder of where she came from, and for anybody else, it proves that New York state has a lot of nooks and crannies worth taking the time to find. The bed and breakfast can be a nice way to learn about the local culture, but you might want to call ahead and see if they have any zombie statues in the foyer first.