Welsh Heritage in Western, Central, and Eastern New York State
Rochester, New York Welsh Before 1970
Not even a torrential rain could dampen spirits at Rochester's "Great Gymanfa" of 1953. On September 5-6 that year "the Flower City", home of Kodak and Xerox, became the temporary home of the 22nd Annual Welsh National Gymanfa Ganu (Festival of Song). Over 2,000 Welsh folks from around the world, including Argentina, Australia and Wales, gathered at the Powers Hotel in downtown Rochester. The Rochester and Northeastern Gymanfa Ganu Associations coordinated the event. For the city's Welsh, hosting this renowned cultural festival was like hosting the Olympics, a crowning achievement for a small Welsh community organized thirty years earlier.
Above: 1953 Gymanfa program. Welsh-American Heritage Museum, Oakhill, OH.
"There is a certain sense of challenge in bringing the Gymanfa Ganu to Rochester, one of the truly great musical centers in America. To the Eastman Theater of the University of Rochester, where the Gymanfa Ganu sessions will be held, have come the greatest of musical artists, the finest of choral groups. The Eastman School of Music of the Universtiy is one of the outstanding schools of its kind in the country. Rochester knows its music thorougly. You will meet this challenge of Rochester's musical tradition, my fellow Welshmen, at this coming Gymanfa Ganu...You will carry on the precious, priceless heritage of your race--the heritage of music in song. Reach deep into your Cymric souls and sing with the harmony and the 'hwyl' of the unconquered and unconquerable people you are."
Right: A 1950s postcard showing the Eastman Theater, site of the National Gymanfa of 1953.
Several decades later, Rochesterian and octogenarian Susie Rees recalled that "Great Gymanfa" when thousands had thronged the Eastman Theater. But by the 1970s things had changed a great deal since those glory days. Welsh activities in the city had declined. Those who had been active in the Rochester Welsh community from the early-1920s to the late-1950s had grown old, died or moved on. Then in the early 1970s a new Welsh group emerged at Nazareth College under the leadership of Dr. Richard Loomis. This group eventually evolved into the current St. David's Society of Rochester and Genesee Region. By the 1990s the earlier Rochester Welsh community of the 1920s and 1950s was hardly remembered.
Rochester Welsh Organize
Below: Rochester Welsh immigrants reunite with Welsh kin. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, March 9, 1949. Gannett Rochester Newspapers.
German and Irish immigrants far outnumbered other ethnic groups in nineteenth-century Rochester. The Welsh, one of America's smaller ethnic groups, were hardly noticeable. There is no evidence of a Welsh community, Welsh church or Welsh organization. A small number of Welsh-born residents were scattered throughout Monroe County. However, several Rochesterians of colonial period Welsh heritage loom larger than life: Rush Rhees, the president who transformed the University of Rochester into a modern university, and Lewis Henry Morgan who's work on Iroquoian kinship earned him the title "Father of American Anthropology."
By 1900 there were only 59 Welsh-born residents in Rochester, but over the next three decades their numbers would increase modestly as more Welsh immigrants and descendants of Welsh immigrants came to participate in the Rochester economy. Particularly after World War I the Welsh industrial economy took a nosedive and many workers left Wales for better prospects.
By the 1920s there must have been a sufficient number of Welsh residents with a sufficient level of Welsh-identification to create what is believed to be Rochester's first Welsh organization--the Welsh Cambrian Society.
Below Right: Edward "Ted" Lloyd first president of the Welsh Cambrian Society of Rochester, N.Y. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, March 3, 1940. Gannett Rochester Newspapers.
The Welsh Cambrian Society of Rochester was organized on February 13, 1922 at 81 East Avenue in the office of Francis H. Thomas, a real estate agent. What sparked that meeting or exactly who was there is not known. Certainly Edward "Ted" Lloyd (pictured at the right) must have been there for he was elected the society's first president and held that post for more than 18 years. Other officers were: John Dale Williams, vice-president; David T. Evans, secretary; David J. Hughes, teasurer. Also on hand at the founding were out-of-towners David T. Harries of Chicago, John R. Stevens of Chicago and Steven Hughes of Utica, N. Y. These men may have been associated with chapters of the Cambrian Society in their respective cities.
Within weeks of its founding, the fledgling society held its first St. David's Day Banquet on March 1 at the Osburn House, a popular meeting, convention and travellers hotel in downtown Rochester. In later years the banquet was held at Sibley's Tea Room and the Monroe YMCA with 100 to 200 members in attendance.
By 1939 the Society claimed 400 members and a Junior Welsh Society. The young people studied the Welsh language and sang Welsh folk songs. Another group, the Cambrian Glee Singers, made its first public appearance in 1923.
The Rochester Cambrian Society maintained ties with other New York Welsh. Meetings were exchanged with Welsh societies in Utica and Buffalo. In 1953 the Freedom, New York Welsh in rural Cattaraugus County invited the Rochester Welsh to attend their annual Welsh Day. The Cattaraugus Settlement (est. 1841) had once been the largest Welsh community in western New York, achieving its heyday in the 1870s and 1880s. Welsh Day had been held there since the late 1920s. By the twentieth century the rural Cattaraugus Welsh declined as fewer Welsh farmers came to America. At the same time, an influx of fresh new industrial immigrants from Wales caused the urban Welsh communities of Rochester and Buffalo to flourish.
Besides those mentioned above, other inviduals associated with the Rochester Welsh community through the years include:
These names were extracted from newspaper accounts and the patron and membership lists contained in the program to the 1953 National Gymanfa Ganu.
Anyone with momentoes, records, information or memories of the Welsh community in Rochester, New York, please e-mail Barbara Henry.
Dr. Richard Loomis
Thank you to the Gannett Rochester Newspapers, the Rochester Public Library, and the Welsh-American Heritage Museum in Oakhill, Ohio for permission to reprint images.
© Barbara R. Henry