A History of the Town of Amherst,
New York, 1818-1965

A History of the Town of Amherst, New York, 1818-1965 (306 p.), was published by the Town of Amherst in 1965 and written by the Town Clerk and Town Historian, Sue Miller Young. A descendent of some of Amherst's oldest families, Mrs. Young was one of the founding members of the Williamsville Historical Society and an accomplished archer. Sue Miller Young also wrote a highly informative column for the Amherst Bee on the history of Amherst. These articles are indexed at the Niederlander Research Library and Archives at the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village & Museum at Amherst.

This book, the first book-length definitive history of the Town of Amherst, has been out of print for quite some time and is therefore in frequent demand by local historians and genealogists. Another book on the history of the Town of Amherst was published more recently in 2000 (Glancing Back: A Pictorial History of Amherst, New York, by Dr. Joseph A. Grande). The Young publication is essentially a chronological narrative of the area, beginning with a very brief introduction of pre-European geography and settlement, the influence of the Holland Land Company on European settlement, the origins of the town's name and a description of events and people in the first half of the 19th century until the Town's incorporation in 1850.

From that point on, the book relates the historical development of several hamlets within the boundaries of the Town of Amherst, including the schools, churches, government offices, and businesses that were established in each. Concluding chapters include overviews of topical subjects as they relate to the history of the Town of Amherst as a whole, including transportation, entertainment, newspapers, and military conflicts from the Civil War to the Korean Conflict. The book ends with a look at Amherst in the 1960s (the decade of the book's publication) and a chronological listing of town history. There is an index, but the book lacks any notes listing primary or secondary materials that identify sources of various citations and images used throughout.

The Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village's permanent exhibit, "From Forest to Front Lawn," is an excellent visual complement to A History of the Town of Amherst. "From Forest to Front Lawn" explores the history of the town from the 1800s to the present. In 2,500 square feet of the Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village museum's main exhibition area, visitors can see how the town has developed from a thickly forested area to an agricultural town and finally to the active suburb it is today. Some key highlights of the exhibit are a recreated facade of the Centre House tavern, a 1950s Nash Metropolitan Convertible, and a portion of a recreated Jimmy's Diner with interactive exhibits for kids. The exhibit goes beyond the end point of Young's book, looking at the development of Amherst into the 21st century, paying particular attention to the environmental and economic challenges taking place today.

Soon to be added are two additions to the exhibit including a section on Native Americans who were in the area before European settlement and a history of the Police and Fire Departments in the Town of Amherst. In addition, the Museum at Amherst has an education program with presentations, live demonstrations and other activities that bring a visual sense of understanding to the history related in Sue Miller Young's book.

The Town of Amherst was established, along with many other towns in the area, as a result of the westward migration of people from New England who had either purchased land from the Holland Land Company or were on their way further west via the Great Lakes. The path of movement lay along a route that had been well established long before Europeans were on the continent. Before this time the roads were mostly narrow Indian trails like the "Great Iroquois Trail," which crossed New York State from Albany to Lake Erie. Joseph Ellicott hired men to improve the trail between Batavia and Buffalo so settlers could travel to Western New York more easily. This improved road was first called the Buffalo Road. It is now called Main Street. The Town of Amherst, and specifically the Village of Williamsville, lay directly in the path of this main road. In the earliest days, Ellicott encouraged people to buy land along this main route with the purpose of opening a tavern to accommodate the streams of settlers on their way west.

The War of 1812 brought an increase in activity and settlement as American and British soldiers engaged in conflict in the surrounding area. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 also brought a significant increase in commerce and settlement to Amherst as part of the Canal passed along the northern edge of the town. Many German settlers in particular came to the area as farmers attracted to the open, fertile lands in North Amherst. The water resources of the area provided not only a source of transport for moving people and goods, but also a source of energy for commerce. Grist mills, saw mills, and several other types of factories populated the area along Ellicott Creek.

During the period around the two World Wars there was a massive migration of African Americans into urban areas, including Buffalo, NY. Segregation and discrimination were still strong attitudes and practices in white communities, so many African Americans and other minorities were forced to live in isolated and poor areas of the city as well as work for the lowest wages. Poverty and crime became associated with these minority groups and therefore the suburbs became a way to avoid contact with the new populations coming into the cities. The invention of the automobile, along with statewide road improvements, encouraged more people living in the city of Buffalo to move out to the less congested and "safer" suburban areas, including Amherst. The movement to the suburbs was further compounded by the boost in consumerism following WWII. Open farm land parcels were rapidly bought up by developers and transformed into substantial housing developments. New and expanding businesses also established themselves in Amherst, bolstering economic growth and subsequently allowing the municipal government to provide the best amenities for its citizens, including parks, recreation, fire, police, and library services. The decision of the University at Buffalo to locate one of its campuses in the town of Amherst has also had a significant and lasting impact on the character of the town.

Moving into the 21st century, the town of Amherst faces several new challenges and opportunities. The metropolitan Buffalo area continues to lose population at a significant rate. This has had an impact on the economic and social fabric of Amherst as well as other surrounding suburbs. Opportunities for new growth continue as Amherst communities and businesses continue to advance in education and technology sectors.

Additional Resources

Collection owner: Buffalo Niagara Heritage Village (formerly Amherst Museum)