“The French Riviera of Lake Ontario” has sunk and rebounded in a way so minor, yet major enough to feel like a triumph
By Kiki Dy
I‘m bartending at Kelly’s Other Corner, formerly known as Gabbi’s, and former to the former, Hooters–but not the Hooters you’re thinking of. The Looking Glass’s “Brandy” is playing on the jukebox. I’ve queued it deliberately to put a soundtrack to the inarticulable feeling I have slinging two-dollar Labatt Blues to my clientele of tactless townies and toothless fisherman. Without grace, I open their beers with my teeth as the song moves through its first verse about a girl who lays whiskey down in a harbor town.
Toothless Kevin, the most intolerable regular, looks me up and down. “Good song,” he says and mumbles something about how I should date his friend. “He’s handsome, just got out of prison. He’ll treat you real good.”
“Why was he in prison?” I ask.
“Arson,” Kevin says.
“Hit me with the specifics,” I say. Town gossip is my vice.
“He burnt down his ex-girlfriend’s house. Wasn’t his fault. She stole a hundred dollars and some Vicodin from him! The women ’round here is crazy. Fuck.” He takes a sip of his beer.
“He sounds really nice. Super stable,” I say.
Kevin nods in stoic agreement. He’s been drinking since our ten a.m. open, and it’s now eight p.m. I easily convince him it’s time to go and walk him out of the bar. He offers me a cigarette and staggers down the street. I light it, not because I want one or find it a necessary accoutrement, but because, as the town’s only stoplight winks yellow, I feel like I’m in a different era altogether. That’s the perverse appeal of this town; it’s impossible to exist on its edges without living in a past you didn’t experience.
There’s vomit flowing through the sidewalk cracks, and a dead deer washed up on shore—this is the French Riviera of Lake Ontario. This is Olcott, New York.
Olcott, located twenty miles from Niagara Falls and twenty-seven across the water from Toronto, owns a reputation as Niagara County’s smallest and smelliest hamlet. Clapped between cornfields and landfills, the nearest McDonald’s is twenty minutes away and the nearest shopping mall, forty. If you drive toward the main street, you’ll be greeted by a sign:
World’s Ultimate Fishing Town 2012
The sign is faded after only six years, and the symbol appears to whisper: we have been something, we are something. This allegedly prestigious accolade is owed to the students of neighboring Newfane Middle, who were required to vote for Olcott once a day on the school’s computers. Though the win provided nothing more than a sign and a shout-out, town members hoped the honor would bring tourism and prosperity; they believed the misnomer, World’s Ultimate Fishing Town, could restore their home to its nineteenth-century significance.
Formerly known as Kempville, Olcott was renamed in 1871 when Theodore J. Olcott invested $200,000 into redesigning the harbor, making him the town’s permanent namesake. In its wake, the improved port brought summertime visitors and annual Pioneer Picnics. The picnics were held in Krull Park, a green expanse bordering Lake Ontario, and were intended to honor the Pioneering lifestyle. The popular gathering began to draw crowds from cities as far as Rochester and Syracuse. Hordes of socialites attended; it was the who’s-who of the region, a reputation that would eventually usher in a young governor, Teddy Roosevelt, as a distinguished guest.
By 1889 the inlet had eight hotels, and as the century turned, four more appeared. Niagara County apples became a delicacy in Europe. Every summer, the Luna Amusement Park, predating Coney Island’s Luna Park by five years, drew a bevy of pasty tourists looking to wade in the same blue Ontario shore that Walt Whitman had scribed about forty years prior in the lines:
As I sat alone, by blue Ontario’s shore,
As I mused of these mighty days, and of peace return’d,
and the dead that return no more,
Olcott lore confirms that Whitman wrote this 1854 poem on Krull Park’s rocky shore, the same beach that would be enjoyed by guests of the Olcott Beach Hotel in 1920 and, in 2017, patronized by just a handful of risk-takers willing to swim in brown waves with waterlogged squirrels and shocking toxicity levels.
On June 22, 1901, The Olcott Beach Hotel opened to fanfare and an immediate reputation as the finest hotel on the Great Lakes. The five-story structure boasted one hundred luxury rooms, a dining room, ballroom, bathhouse, beauty salon, barbershop, and Boekmann Photography Studio; the five B’s of resort living. From 1905 to 1912, John Boeckmann used his studio to capture tourists and locals crouched in canoes in front of various carnival-themed backdrops. Guests as illustrious as Louis Armstrong came to play in the ballroom. Many New York City elites spent their summers splashing at Luna Amusement Park and having their essence immortalized in gratuitous Boeckmann portraits.
In 1920, the region was accosted by nature, and the Olcott Beach Hotel suffered a fire. As the resort collapsed into an underwater collection of broken plates and tiles, the Olcott Yacht Club opened. It remains one of the glory days’ only surviving structures and the oldest active group in the area.
In addition to preserving The Yacht Club, modern Olcott has made numerous attempts to reconstruct itself. Among the establishments intended to draw tourism and trigger Saudade are Bye’s Popcorn Stand, a five-ride amusement park exclusively for those under three feet tall, a boardwalk of shops peddling one-eyed baby dolls and used essential oils, and the annual Polar Bear Swim. A callback to the rumored 1900s tradition of drunken fisherman running into the water on a mission to out-hubris one another, the Polar Bear swim is a microcosm of the Olcott way.
Kilt-clad men storm the water too drunk to notice ice cutting through their tendons, rogue children run amuck slapping adult butts, and women of all dimensions line up for the Polar Bear Queen pageant—which inadvertently may be the most body-positive pageant in the world. A tanned nubile dancer from Niagara Falls? Honorable mention at best. A local toothless Wiccan covered in chili? Winner. It’s irrefutable.
At the Polar Bear Swim, no one is self-conscious or even vaguely self-aware. You could assault someone with a hot bowl of chowder, have your kilt fly up and expose your bits, and still preserve your town-wide reputation as the world’s greatest dad. There is no concept of shame at the Polar Bear Swim, or in Olcott, for that matter. To a visitor, the town, with its abandoned alleys and muted attempts at replication, often relay an aura of poetic desperation. But you will never catch a local classifying it as desperate.
Ron Altbach is an Olcott man born and bred. More impressively, he is a concert-level pianist. Even more impressive, to those of the right generation, he was a member of King Harvest, a French Canadian rock band whose reputation is sustained on their single hit, “Dancing in the Moonlight.” Despite the band’s two-year expiration date and the failure of their other songs to garner radio play, Altbach is an Olcott treasure. Post-King Harvest, he had a fruitful run in music production and gained artistic fulfillment from solo performing classics in concert. These endeavors have earned him a spring home in the south of France, a practical apartment in Chelsea, and a modest cottage in Olcott, where he enjoys summers strolling up and down his lakeside street and stopping in his neighbors’ homes to patronize their makeshift basement bars.
Despite having toured with the Beach Boys, Altbach claims no concert has ever been more thrilling than King Harvest’s modest 2012 reunion in Krull Park. The group played “Dancing in The Moonlight” three times for a crowd of two hundred and fifty so excitable that no outsider would be able to believe this was a band forgotten by the masses. “That’s the beauty of Olcott. People only remember the best of you,” Altbach told me over an Olcott Beach sunset. The sky painted alluringly by pollution as the sun slipped behind the Toronto skyline. “I could play Yankee Doodle Dandy on the accordion, and they’d be happy.”
I spent my adolescence pacing manically, concocting my high-priority escape from Olcott, a town I harshly described to outsiders as pathetic and stagnant. I left resentfully, my middle fingers tilted toward the clouds and a litany of the town’s shortcomings in my pocket. But the further I drift from my permanent residency, the more I want to go back, and the more I acknowledge that a small town like Olcott is the only place you can feel inexorably known. Even if your legacy is nothing more than delivering an adequate performance as Cinderella in the school play, you are guaranteed a funeral at capacity and a sphere of influence so potent it could rival any international celebrity’s.
Perhaps that’s the appeal of Olcott; to a local, it encompasses more history than the rest of the world. It has sunk and rebounded in a way so minor, yet major enough to feel like a triumph among townies. Why would you be anywhere else when you can exist somewhere you are so enormously crucial? To live in a town of one thousand is to live in a world where your most menial accomplishments bolster you; in Olcott, your league championship win won’t be forgotten, nor the time you withheld toilet paper from a fellow fifth-grader, Bobby Mahon. If you stay, you are always guaranteed to be somebody, to carry with you both a history you didn’t create and one you only had to breathe to cultivate.
I’ve placed such a high priority on escaping, going so far as to base my worthiness as a human squarely upon the concept. But now, I believe I’m the one who has failed. Chasing the lofty myth of fulfillment and arranging the trajectory of my life around egotistical feats rather than relationships, have I dismissed the simple satisfaction of feeling known? Of feeling important? Next time I’m back in town, I’ll ask Toothless Kevin what he thinks. Maybe there’s a future for me in Olcott, one where my arsonist boyfriend and I dance in the Moonlight and own a lakeside cottage on blue Ontario’s shore. ■
Kiki Dy is a full-time copywriter by necessity and an amateur essayist by passion. After a three-year romp through Scotland, she finds herself back in her hometown, falling in love with the things she once resented.
Cover image via Flickr (creative commons).
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