Walking (or driving) about Rochester, it may be hard to imagine our fair city as sprawling wilderness, but it once was. It took early pioneers with creativity and balls to carve and create a city out of what was vast forest and bodies of water. It certainly took a particular type of person to leave all that they knew and carve out a new life here. Luckily for Rochester, one such guy was Oliver Culver.
Culver was born in Connecticut in 1796. He lived with his family there, in Vermont and near Fort Ticonderoga. At the age of 18, he and a friend signed on for a surveying job in Cleveland. When the journey was delayed, young Culver grew restless and set out on foot, coming to Irondequoit Bay. He lived near the bay, hunting, fishing, trapping and with very little human contact.
Eventually Culver and a crew made it to Cleveland for work, but he must have liked it here, because he came back, twice, finally deciding to live here. Culver worked hard in the burgeoning community, overseeing operations at a sawmill and working in a general store as well as continuing to hunt, fish and trap.
During this period, Culver gained a few scars and stories that he enjoyed regaling listeners with, throughout his life. On his head, was a large scar from a tomahawk injury that nearly killed him. Culver and a buddy were out checking on some traps that they had near the mouth of the Genesee. When they got there, they caught some Native Americans in the act of stealing the traps. Culver wasn’t going to let them get away with it, a fight ensued and he gained a tomahawk scar. Despite almost dying due to the incident, Culver liked to brag that he won the fight and saved the traps.
Another time, while Oliver Culver was out hunting with his friend near the bay, they caught sight of a massive bear, out for a leisurely swim. Culver needed to get that bear, claiming it was easily over 400 lbs, he saw money when he saw that bear. He and his friend got in a canoe and pursued the bear. The bear grabbed onto the canoe during the struggle, capsizing it. According to Culver, it was no easy feat, but he got that bear. Somehow, having survived that escapade too, he was boastful, always of the price he received for the bearskin he got and sold as a result of the battle with the bear.
Culver wasn’t just a wild man, fighting Native Americans and bears. He helped build a log school-house at the age of 24 and having had no formal education, attended school there despite being the oldest student. He helped establish and build St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Fitzhugh Street. He helped to lay a stretch of road that would one day become East Avenue. Culver purchased 105 acres of land, along the North side of East Ave from present day Goodman to Barrington. He built a grand home there, (70 East Boulevard) for his family, that still stands today. He showed interest in politics, even serving in the State Legislature.
Besides all of that work in creating a new community, he was an active businessman. He traded in furs, rum, brandy, fish, produce and cattle. Later he started making ships and other vessels made for travel on the Great Lakes. He made the very first canal boat and did a good business with them thereafter as canal-use grew.
Culver died in 1867 leaving a legacy for Rochester to remember and an example of what kind of man it took to build this city. He also exemplified characteristics that we like to think are indicative of a Rochesterian: value in education, enterprising and able to tell a good story.