Famed freethought orator Robert Green Ingersoll returned to the county of his birth only once, when he was fifty-six years of age. On September 24, 1889, he arrived in Penn Yan, the seat of Yates County, accompanied by his wife Eva and his daughters Maud and Eva. (Plainly this was a sentimental journey, as Ingersoll almost invariably traveled alone on his lecture tours.) The family lodged at the Benham House, Penn Yan's finest hotel. Later that day the Ingersolls visited the nearby village of Dresden, visiting his birthplace and the former church (by then a private residence) where his father had once preached.
On September 25, Ingersoll gave a free lecture to a crowd of eight thousand persons at the Yates County Fair. Much of his oration's content was drawn from his 1877 speech "About Farming in Illinois," an apt choice for the rural audience. In an unusual turn toward religious imagery, he declared: "To plow is to pray, to plant is to prophesy, and the harvest answers and fulfills." But Ingersoll was not above engaging in some local puffery: "I want to congratulate myself that I was born in Yates County, the most beautiful spot in New York State, although I went away from here nearly fifty-six years ago. Since that time I have seen much of the world. I have been in many places and seen many people. As I come back again I will congratulate myself that I was born in such a splendid, lovely county."
He also made more substantive remarks while remaining in a jovial, celebratory register: "Let us congratulate each other again that we are citizens of such a great republic. I want to hasten the day when liberty will preside throughout the earth, when labor will be adequately rewarded, when there will be no more slavery, no more suffering, no more criminals, no more penitentiaries, nothing but happiness. The only thing in the world worth living for is happiness. I want to see the day when liberty, fraternity, and equality, like the rings of Saturn, shall encompass and surround this world of ours."
A local newspaper covered the event in ecstatic terms: "There is nothing that can compare with the original and the magnetic presence, voice, manner, and indescribable humor of the incomparable Ingersoll himself. He is a marvel of natural gifts, talents, and graces, and whatsoever his religious views and opinions may be, there are but few better men today on the face of our little planetary world."
The Site. From 1871 to the mid-1950s, the Yates County Fair was held on a parcel east of Lake Street, extending from around the present-day intersection of Lake and Monell Streets to a southern boundary defined by present-day South Avenue. (Before 1871, the Fair had been held on Keuka Street in downtown Penn Yan; since the 1950s it has been held on a suburban tract off of East Main Street.) Today most of the site is occupied by a shopping center, the Lake Street Plaza.
Thanks to Richard MacAlpine for research assistance.