Penn Yan (pop. approx. 5,000) is a village on Keuka Lake and is the seat of Yates County. The area was first settled (ca. 1790) by Jemima Wilkinson’s eccentric religious community. Ninteenth-century Penn Yan drew settlers from Pennsylvania and New England, hence its name: Penn(sylvania) Yan(kee). The economy centered on agriculture, trade, and for a time a regional canal. Today, central Penn Yan is an attractive historic district.
(The banner graphic above is a hand-drawn, lithographed "bird's eye view" map of Penn Yan dated 1874.)
Methodists split over slavery in the early 1850s. In Penn Yan, abolitionist “Wesleyans” built a small church and supported multiple reform causes. Susan B. Anthony led a regional woman’s rights convention there in 1855 (nineteenth-century practice was to use the singular, woman's; later practice was to use the plural, women's).
In later years, local freethinker Charles Elmendorf demonstrated that during the early twentieth century, open freethinkers could rise to social prominence even in a small community such as Penn Yan.
In 1889, famed freethought orator Robert Green Ingersoll took a sentimental journey to Penn Yan, accompanied by his wife and two daughters. (This was unusual since on his lecture tours Ingersoll almost always traveled alone.) On September 24 the party visited Ingersoll's birthplace in nearby Dresden; on September 25 Ingersoll delivered a rare free lecture to some 8,000 persons at the Yates County Fair.
Thanks to Richard MacAlpine for research assistance.