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.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I took the long ride on Interstate 90 traveling westbound all the way to Buffalo. From there we continued on I90, finally exiting in Fredonia, (I don’t want to say that Fredonia is obscure, but the Marx Brothers used the name for their fictional country in “Duck Soup.”) and then driving the final 26.5 miles on NY-60 before landing in Jamestown, New York. (Many have called this 26.5 mile jaunt from Fredonia to Jamestown, the longest 26.5 miles on Earth, particularly in winter.) New York state, extends much further westward than most people are aware. When you are traveling to the far western part of the state, and you arrive in Buffalo, and you still have almost another two hours to go, you are definitely on a western jag.
My wife is originally from Chautauqua County, Lakewood to be exact, and although most of her relatives who lived there have either passed away, or moved out of the area, the family of one of her few remaining aunts decided to stage a surprise 85th birthday party for her in her hometown. The party was to be held at the Lakewood Rod and Gun, a private institution that one has to be a member of in order to gain access to. In order to become a member one has to be sponsored. (I’m still waiting. Fortunately my wife’s childhood friend, “Mouse,” provided us with entry.) What are the perks of a membership to the Lakewood Rod and Gun? As best as I can tell, inexpensive food and drinks, plus you can gamble by playing “the tickets,” which means you purchase a bunch of cards with pull tabs which provide you with multiple chances to win a cash prize. Many a Lakewood Rod and Gun member has spent a fair amount of their time sitting at the spacious bar, drinking very affordably priced drinks, (A round of four mixed drinks cost me 16 dollars!) and “pulling tickets” with the hope of cashing in. All in all, a very enjoyable and relaxing setting, plus you get to mock those who can only gain access to the Celeron Rod and Gun Club…ugh!
Upon arrival in Jamestown, we immediately proceeded to one of my wife’s favorite haunts, Johnny’s, as in Johnny’s Lunch. Johnny’s has been churning out hot dogs, curly fries, burgers, shakes, and other delectables since 1936. It is a Jamestown institution. The key to Johnny’s is their sauce, known very simply as “Johnny’s Sauce.” It is a type of chili/meat sauce, but it has an almost gravy like quality to it, which offers a hint of nutmeg and clove. I’ve been a denizen of Johnny’s since 1986, and the only other place on Earth that I’ve ever tried anything that resembles Johnny’s sauce was in a diner in Cincinnati that had been made famous by Guy Fieri on an episode of Diner’s Drive-ins, and Dives. While you can enjoy the sauce at Cincinnati’s Blue Ash Chili restaurant on hot dogs and hamburgers, their specialty is to pile it on top of spaghetti, and then top it with a magnum of shredded cheddar cheese. I’m not sure that Jamestown, or anywhere else for that matter is ready for that treat.
Johnny’s features their grilled hot dogs and hamburgers that they put through a meat tenderizer, and then place them upon a steamed bun, where they then pile mustard, sauce, and a heaping of chopped white onions upon them. Their curly fries, and shakes are also not to be missed. While the multitudes that come from this part of New York state may scatter to the four-corners of the Earth, they will always come back for Johnny’s. (Just as a side note, much of Johnny’s offerings are traditionally enjoyed by those who have imbibed in the sport of drink, so that may temper the memories if one returns to wallow in all that is Johnny’s in a state of sobriety.) Since Johnny’s had previously gone through a change in ownership, there had been rumors of their demise. Fear not Jamestown dwellers, the memorable creations originated in 1936 by Johnny Colera are back in the capable hands of Gus, Diane, and the rest of the familiar faces that have brought Johnny’s back to its legendary status. My wife left satisfied, and with two quarts of sauce.
We eventually made our way from Johnny’s to our bed and breakfast in Bemus Point. Bemus Point is literally the area in the middle of Chautauqua Lake where it comes to a point. If you’ve never seen Chautauqua Lake, it is a long, narrow lake that looks like a bag tied in the middle. Incredibly enough, that’s what the word “Chautauqua” translates as, “Bag tied in the middle.” (It’s a good thing it doesn’t have the shape of a toilet.) At any rate, the town of Bemus Point is famous locally for being an excellent vacation spot for those who are looking to escape the heat of nearby Cleveland, Ohio. (Cleveland is only about two hours away.) Bemus is really an excellent spot for anybody, tourist, or towny who has a boat, and is looking for a good place to waterski, skidoo, tube, fish, or find a cool area to dock one’s boat, and find a place to get a little lunch or dinner. Bemus Point is anything but commercial, and the locals have kept it about as quaint and quiet as is possible, especially for a place that many come to spend their summers.
Our bed and breakfast was a little off the beaten path, and perhaps about a mile or two from the lake. It was in a secluded spot in the woods. The home was beautiful, and it sat on acres upon acres of land. The back of the property had a giant gazebo that was built out over the top of a pond. It also had a swimming pool as well. Proprietor Donna Sample’s Inn at Pheasant Run, possessed all of the charms of a giant country home. The inside was like a museum filled with art work, gadgets, and historical artifacts that ranged from the Middle Ages to the Civil War. It also was a little bit like the Museum of Natural History due to the copious amounts of taxidermy on display. Donna’s family it would appear, likes to hunt. The inside of the beautiful country house is adorned with mounted heads of antelope, moose, two stuffed bears, a stuffed mountain lion as well as a bobcat. There was also a life-size figurine that I couldn’t quite figure out, but it looked like this.
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 “Guinness 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 Commissioner Goodell has the rare privilege of being quite possibly the least popular person associated with the NFL. That’s saying a lot considering Jerry Jones, Bill Belichick, 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.