Near the Seneca River bridge in Montezuma is a historic marker indicating that the Aboriginals named the river area, Squagonna, “Paradise of Mosquitoes.” This was one of the most difficult crossings to make when building the Erie Canal. Yet one of the reasons it was known as a paradise was not only for the mosquitoes, but for its rich, abundant wildlife that both the Indians and white settlers were attracted to. Their very survival once depended on listening to and feeling their connection with nature. One of the most beautiful natural nature settings in Montezuma Heritage Park looks out over a swamp near the original Erie and Cayuga-Seneca Canals. Plans are being made to make a bird-watching outlook deck near the site of the former Meil’s Drydock.
The swamp land was formerly owned by Harold Helmer and acquired by the Town to be preserved and enjoyed in the Montezuma Heritage Park. Harold was a life-long resident of Montezuma who came from a long line of avid outdoors men making a living from the area’s wildlife. Along with his five brothers, he began trapping muskrat and other small game with his father, John, at very young age. This turned into a life-long career along with hunting and fishing.
Harold, his brother Foster and Foster’s son, Bob, contracted with the Monetezuma Wildlife Refuge to keep the muskrat population under control. Foster did research there finding and observing nests of water fowl. He also worked on a game farm for 16 years at Howland’s Island raising pheasants. It was said that when he bundled up and started pushing his sled across the ice, he was like a happy kid sent out in the snow.
“Fot” was named after his uncle, who was known as the “Swamp Hermit” of the Finger Lakes. He really didn’t live alone though, because he shared his home with wildlife common to the area of the Montezuma Marshes. It is known as a prime hunting ground for wildlife, and it was here that Foster Parker operated what was known as the only wood duck farm in America. He was born in Montezuma in 1858 and lived in the area near the old abandoned Cayuga-Seneca Canal bed reachable only by a plank boardwalk elevated over the marshland. Considered one of the best authorities in America on migratory fowl, Foster was frequently visited by ornithologists from all over the country. He spent his days raising wood ducks in captivity to supply to zoos and parks in many states, and mounting rare birds, muskrats and foxes.
This photo shows Foster’s prize possession, his grandfather’s rifle brought to this country from England. These types of guns were used in the 1880’a at the height of hunting of waterfowl for commercial purposes. Market hunters would mount these cannon-like punt or “market” guns onto the bow of a flat-bottomed duck boat, called a punt. They poled the boat quietly, at night, close to a flock of ducks resting on the water and fired a large load of shot and powder that killed many ducks at once. They often used live duck decoys especially raised for this purpose. Hunters would strap the ducks to them that was attached to an anchor. In this way they would swim freely in the water and lure birds to the area of the hunter. They often became so tame, they would jump into the boat. Federal Laws banned punt guns, market hunting and the fashion feather trade by 1920, after much of the wild bird population was decimated from decades of this type of over-hunting.
This family has left a legacy of their appreciation for this happy hunting ground they considered a paradise. Now we too, can find the peace that nature brings us to enjoy a variety birding species common to the Finger Lakes Region, and remember what it’s like to reconnect with nature.