For this installment of Travels Through Town, let’s look into the history of an area that is currently in the middle of the town’s commercial hub. While it may be hard to believe now, Transit Road and its vicinity were once the agricultural center of Lockport.
Strauss Road runs west off Transit and dead-ends. While the road is currently flanked by fast food restaurants, its beginnings were a much different type of commodity: agriculture.
The road’s namesake is Jacob Phillip Strauss, Jr. He purchased the farm in 1897, from the estate of his father-in-law. However, both the property and Strauss have complex histories before that time.
Let’s start with the farm: Edward C. Wicks purchased 52 acres from the Holland Land Company in 1835. The Wicks family cleared the land, burning the trees to create charcoal. They shipped the charcoal down the Erie Canal to sell in New York City markets.
Like most early settlers, the Wicks family first lived in a log cabin. Once they accumulated enough resources, they built a frame house and barns about 1840. They also purchased additional land.
In 1854, the Wicks estate sold the property, now containing 96 acres, to George E. Wheeler. Wheeler was known for his horses. Legend has it General Stonewall Jackson’s beloved mount, “Little Sorrel,” was from the Wheeler farm. (Alas, this does not appear to be true.)
The path to the farm became known as Wheeler Road.
The next owner of the property was Henry Kayner. Kayner, who lived on Transit Road, purchased the farm from the Wheeler estate in 1868. He bought it for his son, Menzo, who he hoped would become a successful farmer.
Meanwhile, Jacob P. Strauss, Jr. was born on South Transit Road in 1854 to German parents. He was the second oldest of four brothers.
After the Civil War, the Strauss family moved from Lockport to Martinsburg, West Virginia. While farming, they plowed up guns and spent ammunition. As the bygone battlefields did not make productive farmland, the Strauss family soon returned to Lockport.
Jacob apprenticed as a blacksmith in Shooktown, a neighborhood in Lockport named after the Shook family who ran a blacksmith shop.
On Christmas Day in 1878, Jacob married Emma Kayner. The intrepid couple began their life together by moving west to Eaton Rapids, Michigan in 1879.
The Strausses heard about a group of Lockportians who settled in the Dakota Territory under the Homestead Act. This act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, allowed citizens to file an application with a $12 fee to gain rights to a parcel of land in 160-acre increments. Applicants were required to farm and improve the property. After meeting the requirements for five years and paying a final $6 fee, the settler would receive the deed.
This opportunity prompted a contingent of Niagara County residents to move westward during the Great Dakota Boom, a population spike attributed to the Homestead Act. As a nod to their erstwhile home, these settlers named their Dakotan outpost “Niagara” in 1882. At this time, North Dakota was still a territory; it would not become a state until 1889.
Captivated by westward expansion, the Strausses sold their Michigan farm in December 1882 and returned home to Lockport to prepare for their journey west. Jacob and Emma made the trek by covered wagon to Niagara, Dakota, in 1884 to claim their 160 acres.
The Strausses lived in a sod house on the prairie. There is abundant grassland in the Great Plains but few forests; timber was difficult to source and expensive. Sod houses could be erected quickly and cheaply. Sod was cut into bricks and these bricks were arranged to form a dwelling.
Farming in North Dakota was tough and many crops were lost due to the harsh conditions such as extreme cold, prairie fires and grasshopper plagues.
Since farming was not as prolific as he hoped, Jacob used his blacksmithing skills on the Great Northern Railway. At its height, the railroad reached from Seattle to Saint Paul. Jacob worked on the stretch north of the Rocky Mountains.
While her husband was busy working on the railroad, Emma took charge of the farm. Harvests included hay, wheat and oats. Emma would run the binder (harvesting equipment) while her son, Frank, guided the horses.
When Emma’s father, Henry Kayner, passed away, the Strauss family returned home to Lockport by 1894. Emma rented the house next door to the Kayner farm while her husband traveled back and forth from North Dakota. After the Dakota land was sold, Jacob moved back permanently and the Strauss family rented the Kayner farm.
Tragically, Emma died at the age of 42 on April 5, 1897. Her health had been fragile since living on the arduous prairie. Her death was attributed to pernicious anemia and/or pneumonia.
As a tribute to his wife, on Aug. 31, 1897, Jacob purchased the Kayner farm from the estate of his father-in-law. The purchase price was $3,805 — or about $120,000 today. Jacob raised his three children, Frank, Elmer and Cora, while managing the farm on his own.
In addition to cropland, the 96-acre farm boasted orchards and a dairy.
The lane, which was originally a dirt path just wide enough for a carriage, soon became known as Strauss Road. Jacob added gravel and stones to improve the drainage and traction.
The Strauss home, a federal style frame house built about 1840 by the Wicks family, is located at the terminus of Strauss Road.
Jacob passed away in 1937 and his three children inherited the farm. His son, Frank, took the lead in managing the property. After a childhood spent farming, Frank was less interested in plowing and planting. Instead, he specialized in selling farm equipment and guns. At one point, he was one of the largest gun dealers in New York state. The family home was often used to store the firearm inventory; one room was lined with hundreds of rifles leaning against the walls.
Frank and his siblings sold the farm to his son, Merle Strauss. Then Merle’s son, Daniel, inherited it. More than 150 years and six generations later, the property is still owned by the Strauss family today.
Jacob P. Strauss is buried in Glenwood Cemetery while his wife Emma Kayner Strauss is buried in Cold Springs Cemetery.
The Strausses were genuine pioneers, moving west not once but twice. However, the town of Lockport remained their true home.
Enormous thanks to Sherry Bauer and Brittney Strauss for sharing their family’s history.
Jean Linn is Lockport's town historian, as well as archivist and librarian at Niagara County Community College.