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Mountain Home Magazine

The Three Bears

Jul 01, 2024 09:00AM ● By Gary B Xavier

There are three of them. They sit, majestically, nearly 1,000 feet above sea level and over 500 feet above the beautiful waters that form the border of the county between Seneca and Cayuga lakes. Ovid was the seat of government for Seneca County—the county between the lakes—in the days of the nineteenth century. The biggest of the three was built in 1845 in the Greek Revival style common of the day as the county courthouse. It served as such for over a century. I can only imagine how those passing by on the village’s muddy streets were awed by the imposing structure. The smallest of the three buildings was built with the courthouse as a records storage building, but when progress outgrew it, the center building was added in 1862. They sit in mute silence to the passing of time.

It wasn’t always so…

The park was full that evening nearly seventy years ago, with lights flashing, music playing, and all around the sounds of carnival-goers. Hardly a square foot of grass was visible beneath the scores of human feet, as friends played games, rode the rides, and ate and drank together.

It was the annual Firemen’s Carnival, held every summer in the park that hosted those three buildings on the hill, and, as a child, it was my favorite time of year. It was when the carnival came to town, and we’d watch in awe as our park—where we played ball and rode our bikes and searched for treasure beneath the overgrown bushes atop the hill—became the carnival site once again.

Hammers swung as nails were driven to construct game booths, food concessions, and a local favorite—the cake booth—where cakes baked by nearly every housewife in the village were raffled off by the spinning of the big wheel mounted on a post at the back of the booth. We always tried to win Mom’s cake—we knew just how delicious it would be.

And the carnies—as the locals called them—those hardy souls who traveled from town to town carting rides and games and gaudy prizes, and then went about the chore of once again constructing those rides from what seemed to us to be a giant Erector Set. With frames of steel to support the Ferris wheel, the swings, and the wildly spinning teacups and saucers, it seemed they’d never find a level spot to secure their means of making a living off our enjoyment. With the help of cement blocks, bricks, and a bunch of two-by-eights, up went the giant wheel, reaching into the overhanging branches of the stately maples and oaks lining the park. And though it wobbled and groaned and sometimes looked as though it were about to topple, it never did.

My father was always there, out of the public eye as he preferred, standing a dozen feet from wherever an announcer, whomever that might be, put their mouth near the microphone. For that microphone, the amplifier that powered it, and the speakers that broadcast those words, were Dad’s. So he stood by, fine-tuning the settings on his Stromberg-Carlson as the announcer leaned in to begin. “Ladies and gentlemen…”

For several decades, from the 1940s until portable sound equipment became prolific in the 1970s, Dad was there every time there was a public gathering. Xavier Radio, the speakers proclaimed in beautiful gold leaf lettering for all to see. The advertisement he got from his name emblazoned on those speakers was his only compensation, and as the sounds emanated from those leather-bound speaker cases hung high on a pole or a nearby tree, I basked in the glory of my dad’s involvement in such a wonderful enterprise.

And then the sounds, the lights, and the crowds were gone…

The carnival moved to other venues in later years, and then disappeared from the local scene forever, apparently victim of liability issues or maybe just a lack of enthusiasm on the part of those who struggled to make it happen. But the park survived, and those magnificent buildings aged and grew in moderate silence.

My ball-playing days had ended, and my lawn-mowing days had begun, and, for a short time, I pushed a mower through the grass on that vibrant hillside, trimming closely to each and every tree as my big brother rode his Ariens up and down the hill. I looked at those buildings as I worked, marveling at their beauty, but never knowing that they represented not only classic architecture, but also a testament to those who constructed them.

As the years went by, the northern end of the county became more densely populated, and Waterloo was named to be a county seat as well. Ovid now shared its status as the center of government, making Seneca a dual-shire county. Court continued to be held in the Ovid Courthouse until the 1970s, when the decision was made to move all proceedings to Waterloo. No longer in use, the massive building began to fall into disrepair.

In 2002, a group of concerned citizens organized to help preserve and protect this historic complex, locally known as The Three Bears. Though still owned by Seneca County, the buildings are now maintained through the efforts of this vibrant group of volunteers known as Friends of the Three Bears ( Through their work, the courthouse complex and the park have been reborn. Tours, lectures, and craft shows dot the summer calendar, and the park is host to a farmer’s market on Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and lawn concerts in the gazebo June through August. The center building, Mama Bear, is home to the Seneca County Tourism Center.

We walk up the glistening concrete sidewalk, my best friend Brandon and I, and as he stops to sniff where others have walked, I look at those three buildings built nearly two centuries ago, and think of the thousands, perhaps millions of feet that have walked this same path. The smooth dark gray slate sidewalk of my youth is gone, as are the steps that led from the street to the courthouse, replaced now with gently sloping concrete.

I miss the old slate, but its slippery-when-wet surface caught me off guard many times, and those steps, despite the fact that our bikes often went down them with a clatter and a bone-jarring finish, are better now that they’re gone completely. I think of the years I’ve spent in this park and remember the tree stump that served as home plate for our little games of home-run derby, and the water tower that rose on the north side of the courthouse—where local legend had it a nest of copperheads lived.

And if I close my eyes I can feel the joy of the carnivals of my youth, and I know, somewhere, that Dad is minding the sound from his speakers, as the smoke of Prince Albert tobacco wafts from his pipe.

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