NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Aunt Hat’s Garden Cottage


Although we are now in the middle of winter, it might be pleasant to look ahead to spending warm summer days near the shore of Lake Ontario. In order to help us look forward, we are going to look backward, more than 100 years, to a small summer house in Olcott, affectionately known as “Aunt Hat’s Garden Cottage.”

The cottage and its story were brought to the History Center’s attention by Carol Harding, a Newfane native who now lives in Michigan. “Aunt Hat” was her great-grandaunt. She commissioned an Ann Arbor artist, Bill Shurtliff, to create a color postcard based on a circa 1920 sepia photo of the cottage. In 1936, Ms. Harding, then a four-week old infant, was the youngest guest at Aunt Hat’s 72nd birthday party held at the cottage, and she is now the only surviving guest of that gathering. She attended other events at the cottage until Aunt Hat’s death in 1940.

“Aunt Hat” was Harriet Delia Branch, born on August 12, 1864, in Burr Oak, Michigan, to Harden and Eliza Munger Branch. The family moved to Hess Road in Newfane in the early 1870s and Harriet attended the nearby District #2 school (she would later be a member of the “Old School Friends” club and host reunions at her cottage). As a young woman she married Andrew Bowman of Royalton and they had two daughters, Ethel and Eva, before Bowman passed away in 1889. A year later she married Michael Sheehan and had a son, Earl.

Over the next 20 years, Harriet lived first in Lockport and then in Buffalo where Michael Sheehan was a produce dealer. The couple later divorced and Harriet married Wesley “Wes” Church in 1918. He was 11 years younger than Harriet and would later work in the advertising department of the Miami Herald. It was after her marriage to Wes Church that the story of Aunt Hat’s Garden Cottage really began.

Less than a year after their marriage, two brief announcements appeared under “Olcott News” in the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. The first, on June 12, 1919, stated that the couple “came on Monday to spend the summer at their cottage here.” Two months later, on August 8th, the same paper reported that “Mr. and Mrs. Wesley Church have purchased the home owned by James Rose.”

The James Rose house was on Clinton Street in what was (and still is) known as the Bluff or the West Bluff, in Olcott on the west side of Eighteen Mile Creek. When the house was originally built is uncertain. According to maps, prior to James Rose, the property was owned for many years by Ezekiel Babcock and may have been part of a property dispute in the early years of the 20th century. At that time, it was described as having both a house and a cottage on the same lot.

It is interesting to note that on a 1938 property map, there are two lots next to each other on Clinton Street, the smaller one in the name of Hattie Sheehan and the larger one in the name of Hattie Church. It is possible that Harriet purchased the cottage before her marriage to Wes Church and then she later bought the Rose house next door. The Churches named their new summer home “Southland Manor.” At that time, the couple were living in Charleston, South Carolina, and spending the summers in Olcott. They later moved to Miami, Florida, but continued to summer on Lake Ontario.

The Olcott property was perfect for the Churches and their particular interests. Harriet loved flowers and gardening and as you can see from the postcard image that accompanies this article, the cottage was surrounded by a variety of wildflowers and cultivated plants. It was embellished with topiaries, giving it an exotic look. Wes Church was interested in woodwork and during remodeling of the house and cottage, he was very particular about what wood was used. High quality wood, such as mahogany, was featured in both structures. Wes also operated an arcade game at Olcott Beach, known as the “kitty” game, where you threw a ball to knock over wooden cats to win a prize. He took this game to other fairs and carnivals around the state.

Wes and Harriet loved to entertain, and would host garden parties throughout the summer for various groups and occasions. The highlight of the season was Harriet’s birthday party in August. A photo sent by Ms. Harding shows a table on the veranda of the main house set for guests with fresh flowers and a birthday cake in the center. Fresh, locally grown fruit was another treat enjoyed by the guests. Singing was often provided by Ms. Harding’s father, Roland, with her uncle, Walton Scott, on the guitar and Aunt Hat on the piano. These were idyllic times fondly remembered by family, friends and Olcott residents for many years.

Harriet Church passed away at her Olcott home on October 15, 1940, after having suffered a stroke. She was 76 years old. Wes Church returned to Florida but continued to spend his summers in Olcott. He died of a heart attack on October 25, 1949, a few days before his 75th birthday. He is buried with Harriet in Wrights Corners Cemetery.

After Wes Church’s death, the property was sold. The cottage was abandoned and fell into disrepair. A photo shared by Newfane Town Historian Bill Clark from 1957 shows the cottage overgrown and barely visible. In the mid 1960s, the main house was occupied by the Louis Tall family and was destroyed by a fire on January 22, 1966. The Talls later rebuilt a one-story home on the site which is still standing.

Tax records indicate that the cottage was taken down in 1968, two years after the fire destroyed the main house. Today it is hard to discern that the beautiful cottage was ever there. In 1980, Cindy Mecca, who had been at “Southland Manor” as a child, drew a sketch of the property from memory. It is the only known image that shows the cottage and the main house together.

I would like to thank Bill Clark and Geoff Harding for providing information for this article, and most especially Carol Harding who supplied the sketches and photos of Southland Manor,  as well as many memories of the people and events associated with it. Copies of the postcard depicting Aunt Hat’s Garden Cottage can be obtained at the History Center of Niagara, 215 Niagara St., Lockport.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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