The inventory of cobblestone structures conducted by Bob Roudabush in the 1970s identified some 660 cobblestone structures state-wide. These included churches, schools, farm outbuildings, and commercial buildings (stores, offices), but the majority (about 75%) were residences. We are using “cobblestone” here, as often referenced in sources, as a specific New York cobblestone style using rounded water-laid cobbles. Fieldstone structures of simpler design are more common and widely distributed in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Technically, “cobbles” are rocks between approximately 2.5 and 10 inches in diameter. In NY cobblestone buildings, the stones are laid in neat rows (courses), with several courses to each corner stone (called a “quoin”). The quoins are often limestone blocks four to six inches thick and 12 inches by 18 inches. Often the entire surface of the building has an outer veneer of cobbles in lime mortar. This construction style developed in upstate NY between 1825 and 1860. According to Shelgren et al., as cited in the 1992 NRHP multiple-listing nomination:
Two types of cobblestones are commonly found in building construction: ice-laid or field cobbles, and water-laid cobbles. Ice-laid cobblestones are most often found in areas of drumlins—the north-south hills that characterize areas where glaciers receded, dumping their cargo. Cobblestones can be found on or just below the ground surface, or can be quarried out of a drumlin, mixed with many other sizes of rock. Water-laid cobbles are found in areas where the cobblestones were deposited in what became and may still be a lake or stream. Water-laid cobbles are significantly more smooth and rounded than field cobbles, due to the polishing action of the waves. The shores of Lake Ontario yielded most of the water-laid cobblestones for the Central and Western New York cobblestone structures.
Yates County is on the fringes of this style, mainly because of the distance the stones had to be transported from Lake Ontario. Only eleven buildings were recorded for Yates County. One, the Round Schoolhouse in the Town of Potter, was demolished in 1920. The official list of historic cobblestone buildings in Yates County (per National Register) includes only eight of the eleven surveyed buildings. The eight listed are:
- Town of Benton, four structures
- Angus Cobblestone Farmhouse and Barn Complex, NY Hwy 14
- Barden Cobblestone Farmhouse, Ferguson Corners Rd.
- Jephtha Earl Cobblestone Farmhouse, Old State Rd.
- William Nichols Cobblestone Farmhouse, Alexander Rd.
- Town of Middlesex, one structure
- Bates Cobblestone Farmhouse, NY Hwy 364
- Town of Starkey, two structures
- Dr. Henry Spence Cobblestone Farmhouse and Barn Complex
- Daniel Supplee Cobblestone Farmhouse
- Town of Torrey, one structure
- Young-Leach Cobblestone Farmhouse and Barn Complex, NY Hwy 14
The Olney-Ryal House, also on NY Hwy 14, and the Morrison-Wagener-Guyle House in Penn Yan were not included on the National Register multiple listing in 1992, but were included in cobblestone tours conducted in the 1960s. The Morrison-Wagener-Guyle House is an early, more rustic, cobblestone masonry type made of fieldstones, rather than the formal courses of smooth cobbles; it was listed on the NRHP in 1994.
Read more: an extensive description and photos of these buildings is at Yates County cobblestone buildings. This site includes a detailed newspaper article about the Spence House.
Who Built These Structures?
Many reports claim that under-employed masons from the Erie Canal project went to work creating these cobblestone houses after the canal was completed in 1825. However, the earliest known cobblestone houses were built after 1830. Building cobblestone houses required different masonry skills. Many masons who built cobblestone houses were found to have come directly from England as itinerants.
The Cobblestone Structures blog offers additional theories on the masons and information on the many buildings.