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Mountain Home Magazine

Big Anniversary in Big Flats

May 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Dennis Miller

In 1615 Etienne Brule, a French explorer, traveled through the area we now know as Big Flats. Then (as now) it was both—big and flat, that is. Etienne gets little credit for settling or exploring, though, as his travels came to an abrupt end when his Huron warrior guides killed and ate him. Other Europeans were more fortunate, however, and today Big Flats encompasses over forty-seven square miles, including retail landmarks Arnot Mall and Consumer Square (probably not named to commemorate poor Etienne). Big Flats is just off Route 17 between Elmira and Corning. When you get off the highway, you’ll find a quiet residential area with churches, baseball and soccer fields, with a growing number of high tech companies pointing the way to the future. And, of course, retail.

“Big Flats is the largest retail area in Chemung County,” says Town Supervisor Ed Fairbrother, who has served the town for more than three decades. “Big Flats has four school systems and seven zip codes. We also maintain seventy-five and a half miles of road, and 300 acres in our eighteen parks.”

It’s also celebrating an anniversary this year.

After All These Years...

Eight years before Christian Myneer arrived with his wife and seven children in 1787, the Sullivan-Clinton campaign had obliterated the Big Flats Runonvea village, one of the oldest Native American settlements in New York. Explorers who preceded him had been impressed with the lush land and fertile soil. The Myneers, with 320 acres on a steep hillside leading down to the Chemung River, were the first white settlers in what would become known as Great Flatts, later Big Flats. On April 16, 1822, just thirty-five years after the family’s arrival, the town of Big Flats was formally established.

Over the years, Christian Myneer’s surname morphed into Minier. In 1873, his great-great grandson, Samuel Minier, opened Minier’s Store, and the market has been in the family ever since. Brothers Samuel and Henry, both World War II veterans, took over the business in 1950 and constructed a new building.

Russ Minier, Samuel’s son, thirty-four at the time, returned to the area in 1980 after a stint at Wegman’s in Buffalo with plans to expand the building into a plaza. The family-operated store was being surrounded by chain groceries.

“We couldn’t survive as a stand-alone unit,” he says. Russ’ son, Paul, an eighth generation Minier, now runs Minier’s Neighborhood Meat Store & More, keeping the operation in the family for five generations.

“A small business is personal,” Russ says. “It’s a place to see your neighbors and friends and talk. It’s also a place to go if someone needs help. It’s all about community.”

Trees, Tobacco, and Transportation

Early on, the area’s primary economy was lumbering. By 1850 there were at least nine saw mills. As the flat lands and hillsides were cleared, agriculture took over as the main economy. Tobacco was a lucrative new crop—specifically, cigar tobacco. More than 2,000 acres in Big Flats were devoted to it. Cigar factories followed.

“Everyone who had a spot of land grew tobacco,” says fifth generation resident Tom Rhodes, a retired farmer. “Tobacco is nutrient hungry and depletes the land quickly. Before commercial fertilizers were around, a stockyard in Buffalo shipped the manure down here and left it on the track siding where farmers loaded onto their wagons. The whole area smelled pretty bad, but nearly everyone grew tobacco, so nobody complained.”

His great-great grandfather, an earlier Thomas Rhodes, came here from England in 1830 and built his home on Harris Hill. Part of his property later became the Harris Hill glider field. Tom farmed thirty-four years, selling in 2002. It was the last dairy farm in Big Flats.

At first, water was the main method of transport. The Chemung Canal, completed in 1833, ran from the Chemung River to Seneca Lake. The sixteen-mile Feeder Canal, completed that same year, ran through Big Flats.

Then the trains came—the Erie Railroad in 1849 and the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western in 1882. Trains stopped in Big Flats morning, noon, and night, transporting school children, commuting workers, farm animals, coal, and milk.

In 1911 the EC&W electric trolley made its first trip from Elmira through Big Flats to Corning. In its early years, it carried up to 5,000 people a day.

Finally, in 1943, Chemung County bought 350 acres from area residents and built the Elmira Corning Regional Airport.

Community Counts

“Big Flats has always been community oriented,” says Ed, the town supervisor. “Residents always come together in times of need.”

One of the most inspiring examples of that happened in memory of New York State Trooper Andrew J. Sperr.

On March 1, 2006, two men robbed the Chemung Canal Bank in Big Flats. Trooper Sperr spotted them in a car. One of the suspects fired, striking the officer twice. During the ensuing gun battle, he was hit two more times; he wounded the assailants before they fled.

Officer Sperr died at the scene. The wounded robbers were apprehended.

The community, along with New York State Police, came together and created Sperr Park in tribute to the fallen trooper. One resident describes it as a “serene place, almost spiritual...a living memorial to a local fallen hero, a man who loved nature and who gave his life in the line of duty.”

Big Flats’ Past, Present, and Future

The Big Flats Historical Society Museum, on 258 Hibbard Road, encompasses two centuries, in two buildings, of the town’s history. There are hundreds of displays, including old medicines, early hair curlers, musical instruments, children’s toys, farm tools, photos, and print articles. One especially unique item is a partial mastodon tusk—believed to be over 10,000 years old—excavated along Route 352.

At the National Soaring Museum on Harris Hill, Director Trafford Doherty says, “We have the best collection of classic gliders on the East Coast.” That includes the 1930’s era wooden Bowlus Senior Albatross single-seat glider. “There are only two left in the world,” Trafford says. “We have one and the Smithsonian has the other one.”

The Wings of Eagles Discovery Center, formerly the War Plane Museum, on 339 Daniel Zenker Drive, started as a war plane museum with planes and other equipment used in World War II up through the Vietnam War.

“With the new name we could move into educational endeavors,” explains Discovery Center President and CEO Tracy Sink.

Nearby, the Tanglewood Nature Center Museum, at 443 Coleman Avenue, maintains more than ten miles of trails, offers educational programs for children and adults, and exhibits more than forty native and exotic animals. Also nearby is Tag’s, a busy outdoor concert venue that draws music fans from hundreds of miles.

“Big Flats is a beautiful area,” Ed says. “It’s rich in culture and history and we’re proud to be celebrating our 200th anniversary.”

Join in on Friday, May 20, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the community park at 100 Main Street for live music, food vendors, and fireworks. The 200th anniversary dedication ceremony is on Saturday, May 21, starting at 10 a.m., at the Community Center at 476 Maple Street.

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