Upstate Summer Magazine Interview

Mike’s Interview with Upstate Summer Magazine

Letchworth State Park was recently crowned the best state park in America and is quickly becoming one of NYS’s most significant tourist destinations, attracting just under 1 million visitors per year.

Upstate Summer Magazine interviews Mike Bellamy (owner of the Silverlaken Estate & Glampground) to find out what is so special about the park and surrounding area.

What would you say to someone that is thinking about visiting the area?

The 17-mile-long Letchworth State Park divides the greater Rochester metropolitan area from the rural countryside.  In the communities along the western edge of the Park, you will not find a single fast-food chain or any strip malls. The pace of life is slower and the natural beauty of the landscape more pronounced.  Cows outnumber people in Wyoming County. But rural does not mean boring.

Hot air balloon at Archery Field Overlook. Letchworth State Park.

Hot air balloon at Archery Field Overlook. Letchworth State Park.

Adjacent to Silver Lake, the historic little Village of Perry NY serves as the western gateway to Letchworth State Park.  It offers a unique mix of small-town charm, vibrant arts scene, craft beverage, destination dining, agriculture, outdoor recreation & unique overnight accommodations.

Any can’t-miss features of Letchworth State Park that you want to point out to visitors?

After discovering the 3 main waterfalls and exploring the 550-foot-deep gorge, most visitors will agree that Letchworth State Park’s “Grand Canyon of the East” moniker is well-deserved.   Check out the Humphrey Nature Center for interactive exhibits and guided tours with the Park Rangers.

Sadly, some visitors rush in and out of the Park without learning the stories of our two most famous residents- William Pryor Letchworth and Mary Jemison.

At age 12, Mary Jemison (1743 – 1833) was taken captive in Southeastern Pennsylvania by a Shawnee raiding party during the French & Indian War.  She was later adopted by the Seneca tribe, assimilated into their culture, took the name “Dehgewanus” and ended up raising her family in what is now known as Letchworth State Park.  She witnessed the turbulent transformation from wild frontier controlled by the indigenous peoples into farmland dominated by European settlers.

Mr. Letchworth (1823 – 1910) was an American businessman and philanthropist that purchased, preserved, protected, and donated the land to create the State Park.  His mansion, the Glen Iris, sits prominently next to the Middle Falls.    However, hidden behind the parking lot, across the road, is as museum dedicated to sharing the stories of William Letchworth and Mary Jemison.

The little gallery also serves as Mr. Letchworth’s personal “wunderkammer.”  The collection of curiosities includes a mastodon skeleton, indigenous weapons, antiques, and other historic, cultural, and geological items of significance.

Take the steps behind the museum up a short trail to pay your respects at Mary Jemison’s grave and admire the larger-than-life statue above her final resting place.

What sort of things are most popular or unique in your area near the State Park?

When you leave the State Park, do yourself a favor and do not let google maps send you to the nearest highway and back to urban sprawl.  Take the country roads, through the cornfields and forests, westward out of the Park and over the hill to Perry.

Downtown is compact, walkable, and full of little shops, the lumberyard steakhouse, a wine bar, and microbrewery.  The splash pad at the Village Park is a great place for the kids to cool off.  Just outside the village is a creamery offering grass-fed artisan cheese. Their 24-hr cheese vending machine shows up on Instagram a lot!

Perry and Silver Lake are connected by walking, biking and even kayak trails.    A well-marked, 2-mile-long path starts at the downtown mural, meanders along the Silver Lake outlet, passes the Pioneer Cabin (where you can visit a one-room schoolhouse) and ends up at the Village Beach and lakeside pavilion.

Perry Public Beach.

Perry Public Beach.

Kayaks, Paddleboats, Sailboats and Motor Boats are available for rent on Silver Lake. Explore the protected wetlands at the North or South ends of the lake to find turtles, beavers, and bald eagles.

The Charcoal Corral & Silver Lake Twin Drive-In Theatre is a stand-alone destination. Come over for the BBQ and stay for the mini-golf, ice cream or drive-in movies.  Dairy cows like to hang out behind screen 2 and photobomb the tourists.

If your timing is right, you can also catch an outdoor concert or vintage car show at the Corral.

Do you have any annual events or special events that you recommend to your guests?

For a village with less than 4000 residents surrounded by farms and fields, there is an amazing variety of things to do in Perry NY. There is an event happening just about every weekend in the Summer.

I’ll provide links to the master calendars of events at the local, county and regional levels (at the end of the article), but here are some highlights:

 

Is there any background information and recent changes to tell people about?

To be honest, when I was a child growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, downtown Perry was depressing.  The factories moved overseas, young people left for the cities, vacant shops dotted main street.  The Silver Lake outlet was full of old tires and broken bottles.  Agriculture alone could not save the town.

Today, most villages in Western NY are still stuck in that same position with no way out.  Perry on the other hand was blessed to have Letchworth State Park in our backyard.

Archery Field Overlook. Letchworth State Park.

Archery Field Overlook. Letchworth State Park.

New businesses popped up to service the growing number of State Park visitors.  The local leaders and civic organizations realized that outdoor recreation and the arts could help revitalize the town.  The young people who left started to move back, raise families, and invest in Perry.  As a result of the Covid experience and climate catastrophes, Perry is even welcoming “domestic refugees” who are sick of city life or natural disasters. Perry does get some snow and the occasional drought, but no earthquakes, hurricanes, tornado, wildfires, or floods!  We have plenty of fresh air, clean water, and affordable housing.

In 2023, Perry was recognized as a model for rural revitalization and given a $10 million grant from New York State to improve the few remaining distressed buildings downtown.

What is your favorite thing about your part of Wyoming County next to the State Park?

When I think about Perry, two words come to mind: Duality and Discovery.

Duality

A small rural village offering a level of art, food & beverage, and events on par with those found in the large urban areas.  There is also a duality in distance.  Buffalo and Rochester are only an hour’s drive away, yet Perry feels very remote thanks the buffers of Letchworth State Park and the vast countryside.

Perry has a split personality too.  A vegan may be buying tofu and drinking kombucha at Butter Meat Company, while a 7th generation farmer has a glass of milk with a steak at the diner across the street.  It is not uncommon to see a rainbow pride flag flying next door to a “don’t tread on me” banner.

Despite the differences, those same folks end up sharing a pew at church, breaking bread together the Rotary club lunch and serving on the same local government committees.

Discovery

Letchworth State Park and Perry have found ways to benefit from tourism in a sustainable fashion without sacrificing what makes them special.

When I visit certain parts of the Finger Lakes wine country or Niagara Falls, I am turned off by the tour buses and over-development.  In Perry, visitors are personally welcomed at the individual level.  Locals are humbled to see that visitors are interested in our culture, products, history, and events.

I am happy to report that Letchworth State Park is not as well-known or developed as the State Parks in Watkins Glen & Niagara Falls. There are not too many places left in New York State where you can feel like you discovered someplace special that your friends back in the city don’t know about.

Is there anything else I have not asked about you would like to say to people to inspire them to visit?

When you visit Silver Lake and Perry you may notice a lot of Sea Serpent imagery. Back in 1855, a group of men fishing from a boat swore they saw a sea monster the size of a dinosaur appear on the surface of Silver Lake at dusk.

News spread and train loads of people arrived daily in hopes of catching a glimpse of the monster.  Harpoon boats were launched.  Armed men patrolled the lake.

No trace of the monster was found… until a fire broke out at the Walker Hotel. A serpent like wire frame and some green mesh was found in the rubble.  Mr. Walker confessed he had created the monster to attract tourists to the town and his hotel. To this day, the locals of Silver Lake and Perry celebrate the story and retain the monster as a mascot.