We are on a mission in the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, a town of 27,000 in New York’s Finger Lakes Region. We want to find the graves of Harriet Tubman (1822?-1913) and William H. Seward (1801-1872).
The former was a slave who helped other slaves find freedom through the Underground Railroad; the latter an election opponent of Abraham Lincoln who became the president’s Secretary of State. (He also was instrumental in the purchase of what is now Alaska. The transaction was derisively known as Seward’s Folly, which history proved it was not.)
Both of these bigger-than-life American figures made Auburn their home.
We find Tubman’s grave easily. Her simple headstone is near a perimeter road and easily identifiable because of the plethora of offerings left in her memory — flowers, tangerines, coins, pine cones and an unopened bottle of Malbec.
Finding Seward, on the other hand, provides more of a challenge.
We finally locate him and his family resting in a culvert in the cemetery’s center, reached only after deciphering a confusing map of tangled roads and paths. The graves are more ornate than Tubman’s but unadorned by offerings.
It’s a cold, damp October day, and a mist slides slowly over the forested rolling hills. Auburn sits at the north end of Owasco Lake, one of the 11 Finger Lakes, so called because their geographic pattern resembles two skeletal hands with an extra digit.
Native Americans who inhabited this area thousands of years before Europeans arrived, believed the world’s creator reached down to bless the land and left the imprint of his hand.
Today, the names of these 11 lakes remind us of the Native American nations that lived here. Had I not done likewise for 10 years, I’d find some of the names a puzzle to pronounce: Conesus; Hemlock; Candice; Honeoye; Canandaigua; Keuka (not to be confused with Cayuga); Seneca; Otisco; Skaneateles (locals pronounce it Skinny- AT-lis); and Owasco, one of the smallest lakes.
Thanks to the generosity of friends, we spend two days in a spacious log home on Owasco’s shore, our base for exploring the area.
Created by scouring glaciers millions of years ago, the Finger Lakes have become a three-season tourist destination. I remember that, growing up about an hour or two north of this area, that the countryside could be pretty spectacular when blanketed in ice and snow, but when you’re a kid, it’s all fun.
Now I’d much rather hike through the area’s autumn woods, delve into its history, and do a bit of window shopping in the various towns (quaint, quaint, quaint) whose storefronts and homes are decked out in seasonal splendor. Pots of gold, orange, yellow and purple mums line the sidewalks. Towers of multi-colored pumpkins and gourds grace storefronts. Witches, ghosts and skeletons cling to buildings and trees.
The picture-book architecture in the 200-year-old-plus towns that line the lakes is a source of fascination to us stucco-oriented Southwesterners. We stop and stare at the mansions and near-mansions in the styles of embellished Victorians, Queen Anne revivals and stone Gothics, and marvel at the amount of maintenance they require. We are grateful their owners appear to be keeping up.
The foliage during our visit is not at peak color (it seems to arrive later every year), but there is enough red, orange and yellow to produce photos that will cause folks at home to oooh and aaah.
A $5 million Finger Lakes Welcome Center in Geneva on Seneca Lake opened in May. See www.visitfingerlakes.com.
For more photos and commentary on the Finger Lakes Region, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.