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Village of Depew celebrates 125 years

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Marian Hetherly
/
WBFO News
Depew Village Hall is the cornerstone of resident services.

Depew residents will gather in Veterans Park at 7 p.m. to unearth a crypt that contains a time capsule buried in 1994. The event will kick off a weekend of festivities celebrating the 125th anniversary of a unique Western New York village with a storied history.

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Credit Google Maps
Depew is five square miles, bordered by Cheektowaga to the west and Lancaster to the east.

"Quas-qui-cen-ten-ni-al."

The Village of Depew was incorporated on July 23, 1894, but the earliest permanent settler to the area was a businessman of Welch descent named Appolos Hitchcock. He arrived to the Seneca Indian lands of Jukdowaageh (later "Chictawauga," then "Cheektowaga") from Connecticut in 1808 and is buried in Lancaster Rural Cemetery. Depew Historian Theresa Wolfe said Hitchcock built a sawmill, a gristmill and a whiskey distillery, and a drive off Como Park Boulevard now bears his name.

"They realized there were a lot of Germans in Buffalo looking for property. They were spreading out to the East Side of Buffalo," said Wolfe, who was born in 1937 and has lived in Depew her entire life. "So he started marketing his land to the Germans and they started moving in. So Mr. Zurbrick is one of the Germans that came in."

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Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
Although spelled incorrectly, Olmstead Avenue is named for Frederick Law Olmsted for designing the village.

Zurbrick is another name you will find on a Depew street sign, along with other early settlers. Although the spelling is different, there is also an avenue named for famed urban landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Also a native of Connecticut, Olmsted was invited to design the Village of Depew.

"He's the premier landscape architect in the United States and he had already designed the Buffalo Parks system and he was very well acquainted with all these men who invested in land here, so they invited him to design the village," said Wolfe, "and he had never designed a village."

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Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
The village bears the name of Chauncey Depew, who turned a rural community into an important railroad transportation hub.

It is also interesting that the man Depew is named after never lived in the area, but is the reason the village exists. Chauncey Depew, then president of the Hudson River and Harlem Railroad, helped transform the rural community into a vital transportation rail link between New York City and Chicago. Amtrak maintains a station in Depew to this day.

"Everyone wanted to get in on where the shops were being built by Depew, because that's where the jobs are, that's where the money was, and they knew if Depew was making railroad cars, it would be advantageous to have a factory right there so you could provide him what he needed," said Wolfe. "So when it came time to organize the village, they called the place where Depew would build 'Depew.'"

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Historian Theresa Wolfe tells us more about Chauncey Depew.

Wolfe said Depew was defined by the rails until the 1950s, when the New York State Thruway came through the area and transportation switched to cars and trucks. Companies like Gould Coupler and Curtiss Wright brought jobs and families into the village, as well as men coming back from World War II looking to get married and buy a home.

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Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
Depew Historians Arthur Domino (l) and Theresa Wolfe in front of artifacts from Dresser Industries, once a major employer in the village.

Like his father, Arthur Domino served as mayor for a decade (1983-1993). He worked at Dresser Industries (as did several relatives) for nearly three decades, from 1957 until it closed in 1986, three years short of the company's centennial.

"There were 1,400 people working there when I was there and then they started to drop off," Domino said. "Not only were we doing railroad work, in World War II we started making armor for the military - and that was into the '60s we were still doing that kind of work - and then that finally backed down. The railroad industry started to change and that caused it to fold up."

As a volunteer firefighter for 30 years, Domino remembers the biggest fire ever in Depew, at the former Magnus Metal - another railroad-related factory - on Walden Avenue at Transit Road.

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Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
This article printed for Depew's centennial describes the 1914 strike at Gould Coupler Company, which called in the National Guard for two weeks to keep the peace.

"I could see the smoke when I was coming from Silver Lake, when I turned onto Broadway in Darien. I could see the smoke that far out," Domino said. "It took a couple days to put it out. It kept re-igniting. They thought in the end it was electrical. They brought in national people to investigate it."

Another of his most vivid memories was in 1954, when an American Airlines flight had to make an emergency landing. He said, fortunately, that west end of the village was open land at the time, even during his tenure as mayor. Today filled with homes, a plane landing there would have a catastrophic outcome.

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Former Mayor Arthur Domino (1983-1993) talks about changes in the village, its biggest fire, its plane crash, working for Dresser Industries and more.

Peterson said the five square miles of Depew are still affordable for first-time homebuyers and new families. 

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Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
This American flag is hung on the fence surrounding a Depew home.

"One of the things we tried to do is promote a sense of community, so we've developed a lot of that in the Veterans Park area, down here on Terrace," he said. "The post office is nearby, churches are nearby, up to Broadway for shopping, the Boys & Girls Club. The Fire Department is there, the Village Hall is there. We have park facilities, a pool, an ice rink. So there's a lot to offer."

According to the U.S. Census and City-Data, Depew's 15,303 residents are 95% white, the median age of 41 and enjoy a crime rate less than half the national average. Nearly all adults have a high school degree or higher and they most commonly work in manufacturing and retail (31%). Households boast a median annual income of $56,ooo, median monthly rents are $757 and the median price for a home - which were mostly built before 1970 - is about $122,000. Median property taxes are $4,000 a year.

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Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
With about 550 students in grades 9-12, Depew High School is considered small.

"People come here knowing that they're gonna pay a village tax. They'll also pay either a Town of Cheektowaga tax or a Town of Lancaster tax, as well as whatever school system they belong to," the mayor said. "I think what came about two years ago with 'Dissolve the Village' was, people are okay with paying the taxes provided they get the services."

"Dissolve the Village" was a resolution put to the residents for a vote most recently in January 2017 over concerns about rising village debt and increasing costs for 170 public employees. The resolution failed by a 3-1 margin, but there are rumblings it may resurface in another two years, when a new vote is allowed.   

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Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
The former high school has been turned into a senior living facility.

Lifelong resident Eleanor Lewandowski was against dissolution. She likes the "smallness" of Depew and when asked what makes living there unique, Lewandowski said "a lot of personal contact with the village itself."

"Depew is the kind of town that, no matter what happens, if you have a problem at home, all you do is pick up that phone, you call the cops and they're there," Lewandowski said, in between games of bingo at the senior center. "You have something you have to take care of with the village - we're cutting branches all the time - you call the village, they're right there. You don't have to wait a week or they say they're tied up so they'll have to put you on the schedule."

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Lifelong resident Eleanor Lewandowski tells WBFO's Marian Hetherly what makes Depew unique.

Therese Chapman grew up in Depew, moved away for about 10 years after getting married, then bought a house in Depew and later downsized to her parents' house in Depew after her children grew up. Chapman remembers as a young girl, when busy George Urban Boulevard was a one-lane dirt road.

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Therese Chapman swears by Sal's chicken wings.

"If a car was coming at you, you had to squeeze over and sit still while one of you crawled by the other - and it was all woods," Chapman said.

And you can't talk Depew, she said, without talking Sal's wings.

"This little, tiny bar over on Olmstead that has been there for years, that has the most phenomenal monster chicken wings," she said. "It's like a thing when people come back to town, they have to go there."

Broadway and Warsaw Street is another longtime favorite place to eat and drink. For the last three decades, it has been Magruder's Pub. Before that, it was the Mexienda. If a sweet tooth needs to be satisifed, Antoinette's Sweets traces its roots back to 1915 on Buffalo's East Side, but has called Transit and French roads home since 1958.

Chapman said she likes knowing people wherever she goes and said she hopes Depew can be preserved without becoming a financial burden on its residents.

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Therese Chapman and her daughter tell WBFO's Marian Hetherly what life is like in Depew.

Until another vote, Depew has survived another year.

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Credit Marian Hetherly / WBFO News
Veterans Park will be the hub for anniversary festivities.

After Tuesday's time capsule unearthing, the celebration will continue all day Friday and Saturday. Wolfe will be leading historical bus tours and Veterans Park will be the site of entertainment, children's activities, a beer tent, food trucks, vendors and first responder demonstrations. A Founder's Day parade will organize at Neoga and Main streets and begin at noon Saturday.