History and Culture

Where the community of Geneseo lies today was part of the “far west” more than 150 years ago when eight families from Genesee County in New York settled here. Caught up in a religious fervor that swept through the eastern and middle states during the 1830s, they had decided to establish a colony in the Midwest so as to bring religion and education to the region. The year was 1836 when the first five families arrived; the other three came the next year. They included: Cromwell K. and Catherine Bartlett and their seven children; William C. Bartlett and his wife, six children; Elisha and Eliza Cone, four children; Reuben and Harriet Cone, two children; Roderick R. and Clarissa Stewart, seven children; John C. and Mary Ward, two children; Harry and Lucy Manville, six children; and Rufus Hubbard and his wife and five children.

Religious life governed the new colony, whose members were Congregationalists and Presbyterians and they immediately formed a “church in the wilderness.” Spirituality has remained an important part of the city’s culture and, today, Geneseo is home to a strong faith community of many denominations.

A commitment to education also marked Geneseo’s founding families, so much so that the original town plan contained a provision calling for proceeds from the sale of remaining settlement land (that not for public use or for individual families) be used to build a manual high school where students would receive a “practical education.” In the century and a half plus since that time (Geneseo celebrated its Sesquicentennial in 1986), that commitment has flourished to create quality public and private schools in the community. Plus, access to higher education and life-long learning opportunities at public and private colleges and universities is less than an hour away.

The early settlers also abided by their church’s ban on the production or use of any intoxicating beverage; and, its stated belief “that the holding of their fellow man in bondage or slavery is a sin and hence are willing to do what they can to break every yoke.” Geneseo became a station on the “Underground Railroad,” the secretive system of travel that gave refuge to runaway slaves. The stately home located at the southwest corner of State and Second streets, now the Geneseo Historical Museum, is believed to have been the Geneseo link. The most recent proof was the discovery of what is surmised to have been a “hiding hole” lodged in the cavernous basement area near the “keeping room” for fugitives, most likely used to shelter young children, especially babies, who would be sedated to prevent their cries from alerting those in search of the slaves.

Basic services such as a gristmill, sawmill, blacksmith shop, and a general store to supply dry goods quickly sprouted on the prairie. Overall growth of the settlement lagged, however, until the Rock Island Railroad came to town in 1854, bringing markets for the settlement’s crops, prosperity, and a population surge of newcomers from the east. Later, it brought a flood of immigrants from Europe. The pioneer days were over.

Now, as the Geneseo community moves toward its 200th anniversary, it presents a welcoming picture for 21st century newcomers, one that includes a host of churches and civic organizations, progressive city government, sound financial institutions, excellent educational opportunities, a thriving business community, forward-thinking community development, and an abundance of cultural opportunities.

An image of “Victorian Geneseo” has emerged in the past two decades, an identity that has it roots in a signature event, the Annual Victorian Walk in December. This pre-holiday happening spotlights pieces of Geneseo’s history and culture via “living windows” in the downtown, live music of the season, collectibles marking the star-studded night, “sugarplums” galore from community service organizations; and, hopefully, a dusting of snowflakes. Thousands of people, many with little ones in tow, come to stroll the streets and soak up the ambiance and hospitality that make Geneseo a great place to visit and an even greater place to live.

On the opposite end of the seasonal spectrum is the Annual Geneseo Music & Craft Festival, this time strewn across the summer landscape. The multi-day event offers fine art and crafts galore in the city park, parades for both big and little kids, summertime foods and, of course, the sound of music-music-music in all its glorious forms enveloping the scene, which includes an array of gleaming Victorian-era homes a glance away from the city park.

Woven between major events, Geneseo offers an on-going abundance of resources to feed lifelong learning appetites and cater to an appreciation of the arts. Community theatre flourishes throughout the year via productions at the venerable Richmond Hill Theatre overlooking the city. Top-rated cinema selections can be seen at the downtown Central Theatre.

A bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln stands watch alongside the Geneseo Historical Museum. The Lincoln piece was originally commissioned by the French government and came to Geneseo via the Union Stockyards in Chicago and the generosity of a local resident. The museum is home to permanent displays featuring thousands of local artifacts, a collection that defines the settling and growth of America’s heartland. These and various changing displays are complemented by special events and programs such as those devoted to tales of the Underground Railroad and children’s Victorian teas.

Just a short distance away from the museum is the current home of the Geneseo Public Library, which has come a long way since it began on the site of the present Congregational Church under the direction of Geneseo’s earliest settlers. The library was so important to them that there has always been some type of library here since 1836. Today’s version houses an extensive collection of books and audiovisual materials, plus a wide array of periodicals. As part of several library systems, it is able to reach outside its walls for other sources of information. Children’s programs draw thousands of little ones each year. Computers and Internet stations, plus a host of other services, are available to the public. The library, with a new location in sight, is looking forward to offering its patrons an even wider array of materials and programs in the future as it continues on a journey that began almost 200 years ago.

The Geneseo Art League, along with other community arts groups and civic organizations, offer residents the opportunity to develop, showcase and share their respective talents with the entire community. School-generated plays and musical performances highlight talent in the making and provide yet another venue for the arts. A spectrum of musical styles is served up during the summer months at the city park, accompanied by old-fashioned ice cream socials hosted by the many community service groups in the city. Held under a thick canopy provided by the abundant maple trees in the park, it’s a perfect way for families, friends and neighbors to spend a lazy, crazy summer evening together.

More than 150 years have come and gone since the families Bartlett, Cone, Stewart, Ward, Manville and Hubbard planted their dreams and values here. Dreams and values that have grown, flourished and prospered with succeeding generations so that, today, Geneseo offers the best of the 21st century while laced with the best of its founders.