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12 High Street

12 High Street
Brockport, NY 

History researched and written by Carol L. Hannan
© Copyright by Carol L. Hannan – February 2013 All rights reserved

Bill and Ruth Phipps Colby
Owners/builders (?): 1838-1850s

Perched on a rise overlooking the length of Park Avenue north to the Erie Canal, 12 High Street has been an elegant addition to the village from a very early date. The first documented owners and probable builders were Bill and Ruth Colby, who moved here from their Sophia Street home in Rochester’s upscale 5th Ward.

Bill Colby, a native of Salisbury, New Hampshire, relocated to Rochester with his siblings John and Sally. His parents, Philip and Abrea Greeley Colby, were relatives of the Colbys who settled in Ogden, Monroe County. Philip was described as a builder prominent in public affairs; characteristics he passed on to his son. Ruth Phipps was the daughter of John and Cynthia Thomas Phipps, natives of Brookfield, Massachusetts, where John was a property owner before moving to Vermont.

Bill Colby made his fortune and a name for himself in Rochester. He was a cabinet and chair maker with a business and warehouse on Buffalo Street. He was an active member of the “Mechanics’ Institute,” a trade and lobbying organization, served as a superintendent of the First Methodist Church’s Sunday-school program, was a 5th Ward fire warden, vice president of the Franklin Institute, a school of higher education, treasurer of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and one of many noteworthy Masons who returned their charter and ended their organization in 1834 during the height of anti-Mason sentiments.

Bill and Ruth married in 1824 and had four children: John Phipps, Charles G., Charlotte S., and Edward F., none of whom ever married. John served in the Civil War, after which he and Edward moved to Florida and worked in the lumber industry. Edward became a farmer after John’s death. Charlotte graduated from Boston University in 1875 and spent the remainder of her life teaching “elocution” (elocution is the study of pronunciation, grammar, style and tone in formal speaking) in Boston. Nothing is known of Charles’ life.

A great misfortune for the Colby’s and most likely Brockport, as well, was Bill’s death in 1839; although it was apparently not unexpected, as his will was written just a month before his demise. Ruth administered the estate and continued to live in the Brockport home with her children. Details of the family’s life in Brockport after Bill’s death remain largely a mystery, however, we do know that Ruth contributed money to buy the mortgage and rebuild the Baptist Collegiate Institute which became the Brockport Normal School and then ultimately the College at Brockport. Ruth reportedly moved to Brattleboro, Vermont, where she died in 1868. Although separated by great distances later in life, the family was reunited in death, to lie beside Bill in the Brockport Cemetery. Death may have deprived the village of a successful businessman and public servant but not the enduring legacy of a gracious home.

Horace J. and Caroline N. Brace Thomas
Owners: 1860s to 1880s

The second known owner of what was then number 2 High Street was attorney Horace J. Thomas and his wife. Horace was the son of pioneer farmer Peleg Thomas and his wife Theodosia Comstock. Caroline’s parents were Samuel John Mills Brace and his wife Susan Newell, who ended their family’s westward journey in Brockport.

Horace was active in politics. Shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War, he and fellow Republicans organized a “Lincoln and Hamilton Club,” with himself as president. After the war, however, Thomas was a Democratic delegate to his party’s state convention. He was nominated as a Democrat for the state assembly in 1871 and continued political involvement at least through 1876, when he organized a “Tilden and Hendricks Reform Club.”

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Thomas enlisted as a Captain in Company K, 13th Infantry, which recruited its members from the village. No details are known, but Thomas was discharged for “disability” four short months later. He returned to Brockport and resumed his legal career, at first in partnership with E. P. Butts, then in a solo practice for some 45 years in total.

Before the war, Thomas and his wife had shared their home with the Chickering family, whose husband was studying law with Horace. In 1870, Thomas’ nephew Oscar, a doctor, lived with Horace, Caroline and their household help. Horace also either worked on shares or rented a farm in Sweden. In 1863, he paid a tax of $10.62 on his attorney’s income of $354. Caroline, too, contributed to the household’s income as a teacher before her death in 1881.

It is not clear whether Horace and Caroline had children of their own. In 1892, census information listed the 69 year old Horace, a servant and 15 year old Giles E. Thomas living together, but Giles was almost certainly a nephew rather than a son. In the Beach Ridge section of Lakeview Cemetery, in adjoining graves, however, are found Horace, Caroline, Harry and Giles Thomas. Horace’s headstone was erected by a Town of Sweden commission charged with burying and marking the graves of its honorably discharged deceased veterans.

William Henry and Benjamin Franklin Cooley
Owners: 1880s to 1924

Cooley is a name familiar to generations of local residents, although it has not received the attention other families have enjoyed. The achievements of Brockport’s native son William H. Cooley should help remedy that oversight. William and “B. Frank” were sons of Levi Cooley, Jr. and Elizabeth Mabel Story. Levi, Jr. and his father, according to biographical sketch in the History of Rochester and Monroe County, were both contractors and Levi, Jr. was the architect/builder of the original Normal School and the owner of a sash and blind manufacturing business in the village. Their uncle, Orville, also a Brockport native, was a prolific inventor of agricultural equipment. Elizabeth Story’s family history is unknown.

Both William and Frank studied at Brockport Normal. Frank became an educator. William began studies at the University of Rochester, which were unfortunately cut short by the death of his father, as he was obliged to leave college and tend to his father’s business for the next several years. The 1880 special manufacturing schedule gives us a glimpse of the business. There were 8 employees working 10 hours days at $2/day for skilled work and $1.50/day for “ordinary” laborers. The business was located on the canal and ran on steam power with one boiler and one 25 horsepower engine. Total capital invested in the business was $2,500. His father’s business however, was not to be William’s vocation in life.

To say that William carried on the family tradition of mechanical inventiveness is an understatement. He was so successful an inventor and patent solicitor, it became his life-long vocation; reportedly taking him to distant cities as an expert consultant. His inventions were numerous and varied, with many relying on his mechanical and electrical expertise. Patents included, for example, an electric system of distribution and control for electric railways, an electric motor, a camera and a machine for cutting and corrugating sheet metal. William maintained a local office in the Powers building in Rochester and was a member of the International Inventors’ Congress.

William and Augusta H. Harrison, an Ontario, Canada native married in 1888. They had no children. William died very suddenly in 1913. A protracted legal battle immediately began between his widow and his brother, which continued until 1924. At question was who would inherit William’s home and the bulk of his estate. Frank claimed to be his brother’s sole heir and Augusta countered that her husband had left the home and the estate to her in a will which Frank had found and destroyed. Augusta eventually lost all but the required widow’s share of the estate and Frank took ownership of the Brockport home, which he immediately sold.

By the time of his brother’s death, Frank had long since moved to Brooklyn and then Oyster Bay with his wife, Alice Wall, and family of four surviving children: Homer K., Mabel E., Frank L. and Dorothea H. He never returned to Brockport. Augusta Cooley moved to Rochester where she spent the remainder of her life. She died in 1931 of a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery, Rochester. A number of Cooley’s forbearers rest forever in Brockport Cemetery, but the location of William’s grave is unknown. It seems likely that no monument marks the grave of this most creative, successful native son.

Epilogue 2013
The early brick residence was enlarged through the years and at one time, two barns were erected at the back of the property. A historic photo shows that decorative ironwork originally located on the home’s roof was removed, but today, during its second century, the house remains an imposing single family residence overlooking one of Brockport’s most gracious and historic streets.

© Copyright by Carol L. Hannan - February 2013. All rights reserved.