ROMULUS, N.Y. (WETM) – As impressive as the construction of the Seneca Army Depot is, it came with a cost. A big cost.
Seneca County Historian Walt Gable said that the story of the “dispossessed families” goes largely under the radar when people think about SEDA, overshadowed by the igloos and the white deer. But for more than 100 families, the Depot completely uprooted their lives and left a scarring trauma that has been passed down for generations.
What’s in this article…
Introducing… the families
In the Seneca County Historian’s office in Waterloo, much of the wall space is dedicated to the Depot and its history. One frame includes a map that shows the parcels of land and their owners pre-1941. Two names that appear several times are the Lisks and VanRipers.
Sally VanRiper Eller was born in October 1941, three months after her parents (Emily and Barton VanRiper) and her grandparents (John and Edith Lisk) were forced off their land in Romulus. Sally is also the aunt of Jennifer Merkle (through Sally’s younger sister Linda) and the second cousin of Diane Theetge and Nora Creswell (John Lisk was the brother of Diane and Nora’s grandfather, Charles Lisk).
That all may be confusing, but it just goes to show how deeply connected the community was in Seneca County. That bond has continued, especially (and perhaps unfortunately) because of this giant, collective trauma.
Emily Lisk VanRiper (Sally’s mother and Jennifer’s grandmother) was entering her third trimester of pregnancy with Sally when she and her husband got a letter dated July 23, 1941.
That letter indicated the couple would have about three weeks to move out, and the government would be buying their land. That same day, they got another letter, dated July 22, saying they had three days.
The worry was even more real in the VanRiper household because Emily had had a miscarriage the year before.
“You’ve got these women who were just beginning to have children in their families,” Sally explained. “And all of a sudden they had this trauma going on, and everybody’s frantically trying to pack these wagons and get everything moved and organized, and it must have been very stressful.”
Watch Sally VanRiper Eller’s full interview below:
Emily and Barton were married in 1936 and bought their land less than a year before they were forced out. The experience marred Emily’s opinion of the US government and ultimately made her a pacifist, Jennifer said.
Meanwhile, Carl Post was three years old (born in 1938) when his family was forced off their land later, in October 1941. For whatever reason, the government moved the Post house off the northwest section of the Depot and up the street on Route 96A; their barn was left standing and only collapsed in 2022.
Still, even with the surviving house now just up the street, the Posts moved to Ovid near Cayuga Lake.
“My grandfather was very, very upset when they took the farm,” Carl said. That farm had been in the Post family for four generations.
Time to leave
In the frenzy of trying to move their entire lives, these families were promised by the Army that their homes would be guarded. But that didn’t matter. Houses were ransacked and antiques that had been in the families for generations were stolen.
Diane and Nora and Sally all recounted the story of their uncle. His house had a beautiful chandelier that he was going to retrieve the next day. He also had a small crop of cucumbers he was going to let grow another night.
But on the last day when he returned to pack up the last of his things, the chandelier was stolen and the cucumbers were gone.
“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Diane said, reflecting that as an adult, her perspective on the significance of the cucumbers drastically changed from her childhood (“Big deal!, Nora joked).
The government offered to buy the rich farmland for less than it was worth, and if the people refused, the homes were condemned anyway. There was no stopping this.
Then, the 10,000 acres were brought to the ground. One newspaper excerpt included in Walt’s book described the process of the government running railroad rails tied to steel cables through houses, churches, and barns, and pulling them to the ground, no matter what was inside.
“But a lot of the barns, as soon as the people got out, they torched the buildings,” Carl said. The same was true for the crops in the fields.
Diane and Nora’s grandfather was a grape farmer with a successful business that shipped to New York City. Jennifer’s pregnant grandmother had to ride on top of a chicken coop with her pregnant cousin to Poplar Beach along Cayuga Lake, where she and her husband built their new home piece by piece around that coop. Sally’s grandparents moved to Groton to begin working new land.
“They went all over trying to find a farm,” Carl said. “It’s farmers, that’s what they were.”
An experience like this has near-unimaginable consequences. Emily VanRiper was angry and sad about it her entire life and wasn’t afraid to say so, Sally and Jennifer said. But her husband didn’t talk about it as much.
John Lisk was sad when visiting Seneca County. His wife, Edith (Sally’s grandmother) died in 1942.
“I know my grandmother [Emily VanRiper] was also very angry and sad and felt that the stress of that move probably killed her mother, is how she put it,” Jennifer said.
Diane and Nora saw that their grandfather was depressed and resentful, but similarly, he didn’t say much. Nonetheless, the trauma was known and hung over the families.
“Of course, back then you didn’t address those issues,” Diane reflected. “You just swallowed them. You swallowed them.”
“If that happened today and that happened to me, I would be out there screaming from the top of my lungs, ‘This is happening! This is an injustice! Pay attention!'”, Jennifer said. That’s not to say these 100+ families didn’t feel that way, but times were different. Plus, they had just come off the Great Depression, which Jennifer said probably started in the 1920s for most of the agriculture industry.
Watch Jennifer Merkle’s full interview below:
“I feel anger about it and I feel anger for my family because I just don’t believe this is how it had to be,” Jennifer continued. “I just feel like they were taken advantage of in a way that people with power made some decisions that were convenient to them at the expense of an entire community that was decimated.”
Case in point: the tiny village of Kendaia—which the NYS Department of Health had about 15 people when the Depot arrived—was effectively wiped off the map. All that remains is the tiny Kendaia Baptist Cemetery on the west side of the Depot that the Army allowed to remain and would even open up to the community every Memorial Day.
Still, there are clues to the past that can keep their memories alive.
Jennifer said her grandmother had anxiety for the rest of her life and felt they could have done more to salvage more of their belongings.
“But they saved an incredible amount of stuff,” she said, describing their experience as deeply humbling. “Letters and diaries and photographs. I have just a treasure trove of items.”
Diane and Nora’s grandfather Charles moved in with his daughter, Florence, in Ovid. The sisters live in that house today and pointed around the property, recalling things from their childhood that they knew came from his farm. The family managed to bring leghorn chickens, a row of purple raspberries, a yellow rose bush, a set of china teacups, 10 panels of grapes, and even a wicker rocker.
This trauma and these stories become very real when visiting the Depot. Tucked off to the side on one road of igloos is a foundation for a small barn that once sat on John and Edith Lisk’s property (Sally’s grandparents). Maybe 30 feet away is a small well that’s partially sunken in.
The foundation is covered in moss and cracked, but it’s a stark reminder that these were real people with real lives. It’s also ironic: the barn foundation is on the opposite side of the road from the igloos and a few hundred feet diagonal from one. It wasn’t in the way, but the military’s logic is still understandable.
And to drive it all home, one of the most emotional things I saw when visiting the property were random patches of daffodils in, frankly, odd places. Some are near the remnants of a sunken building foundation; others are behind chain link fences. Truman Bells, manager of Deer Haven Park, said that these daffodils are actually left over from 1941.
These flowers that once grew in the gardens of these families’ homes have survived the last 80-plus years and serve as the ultimate reminder of the trauma this once-lively and productive community suffered.
The Depot closed in 2000, which meant it would no longer employ anyone in the county. All the descendants of the dispossessed families we interviewed — Sally, Jennifer, Diane, Nora, and Carl — recognized that the Depot did at least pump money into Seneca’s economy. But they all feel some kind of resentment or disappointment for the state the county was in after the Army moved out.
While there weren’t many people in their family that actually worked at the Depot itself, Diane and Nora know how connected it became to the community; everyone knew someone that worked there; everyone had some kind of business there.
But the sisters described the county as a job desert in the wake of SEDA’s closure, something Sally, Jennifer, and Carl echoed.
“It’s a big waste. It was beautiful farmland, apparently,” Sally said. “Very rich, fertile farmland from the days when the Indians used to do a lot of farming there.”
“It just seems like such a shame that it was once this thriving community,” Jennifer said, “and it was wiped out and fenced off for years and years and years… I just wish…. It’s a shame. I wish there was more opportunity here.”
Watch Carl Post’s full interview below:
Sally pointed out that the story of Seneca County has now, in some ways, come full circle twice.
In the 1779 Sullivan Expedition ordered by George Washington, the Iroquois were forced off their land in Seneca County. Then, 162 years later, in 1941, these families were dispossessed and forced off of that same land to make way for the Depot. Many of them moved to lakeshore properties elsewhere in the Finger Lakes because, as Sally explained, those properties were cheaper than the fertile, valuable farmland.
However, she reflected that today, the cost of lakeshore properties has skyrocketed.
“Now everything is completely switched, and they’re going through that whole process of many of those families that moved over to the lakeshore are having to move out because they can’t afford to pay the taxes anymore,” Sally explained. “So, in a way… it’s kind of like being dispossessed all over again.”