History of Port Byron and Mentz

The village of Port Byron and the town of Mentz are part of the Military Tract, which encompassed most of central New York. This tract was used as a land bounty to encourage men to sign up during the Revolutionary War. At the time, there were no villages, only 6000 acres townships cut out of the wilderness. Many of the towns were given names that have a classical background; Brutus, Sempronius, Cato, Cicero, and so on. The township were then was divided into lots of 640 acres, and these were numbered 1 to 100. Forty acres in each lot was reserved for roads. Six of the 100 lots were reserved for public needs, such as schools and churches, The land was then balloted out, one lot to a soldier. The Indigenous people of the land, who had lived here since the ice age, were forced onto reservations or moved west.

The first settlers to move into this area were Phillip King, Peter Elsworth, Morris Lent, and Elijah Buck. They came around 1795, and they found that they were lucky enough to have been given lots along the Owasco Outlet, which is the sole outflow of Owasco Lake, one of the Finger Lakes. At that time, there was no village and the Township was named Jefferson. But in 1806, the postmaster made many of the "Jefferson's" of the state changed their name to make mail delivery a little easier. So our Jefferson became Mentz. No one knows the origin of the name. The Outlet had good clear water and the flow was great enough to provide power for water powered mills. In this way, the early cluster of homes and businesses was a mill seat, a place of mills and water power. Not all of the War Vets were fortunate enough to have won such good land.

As the place grew, it was first called Kings Settlement, for Phillip King. By 1817, the residents learned that they were on the route of the new Grand Western or Erie Canal, and they changed the name to Bucksville, to honor the Buck family who would give away land in order to get people to settle along the new canal.

Within a couple years, the canal was ready for use between Montezuma and Utica. The 90 miles of new canal was opened for business in 1820, and the residents and businessmen found that their world had changed forever. They were no longer an isolated community in the wilderness, they were now part of the worldwide economic community. In 1824, the name of Port Byron was adopted. The use of “Port” reflected the hamlets place on the canal and “Byron” was to honor Lord Byron.

Over the years, the canal would grow from 4 feet deep and 40 feet wide, to 7 feet deep and 70 feet wide. The route of the canal would change. When it was built, the canal was the newest, most modern form of transportation known to man. But this would only last for 20 years or so. New transportation in the way of railroads, and then trolleys, and then the automobile, would change the way that people lived and worked in Port Byron. By 1917, 98 years after the canal was first opened in Port Byron, the canal was closed for good. The canal never closed, but the route was shifted to the Seneca River, four miles north of the village. For the purpose of this guide, the canal routes will be called the 1820 canal, or the first canal, and the 1858 canal, the enlarged canal.

The village still had a active life. The roads that pass through Port Byron had since its beginning, carried traffic east and west. As the canal waned and automoblies took over the job of moving people, the old road became State Route 31. This was a very active road, second only to Route 20 to the south of here. Many new service stations and garages were built to serve this highway. But in the 1950’s, the new super-highway, the New York State Thruway, was built and the old Route 31 lost its importance. Since then, the community has shifted to being a bedroom community to Auburn, Syracuse, and Rochester.

As you drive or walk around the village, you will find remains of all these periods of growth. The homes and businesses reflect the building styles of the time, with the most of the growth being in the Greek Revival and Italianate style. The lay out of the streets reflect the old canal route. You can find two buildings left over from the trolley era. The homes of Brigham Young, who lived here from 1825 to 1829 remain intact. And of course, many canal remains can be seen in the village.