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By Bob Kostoff

The Niagara County Bicentennial Book jams 200 years of county history into a slick format providing thumbnail sketches of each location and subdivision of the entire county.

The ambitious undertaking of the Niagara County Bicentennial Committee is also filled with interesting old-time photos gleaned from various sources, including those treasure troves of local history, the Niagara County Historian's office and the Local History Department of the Niagara Falls Public Library.

There are also interesting vignettes, along with the basics of the county's formation and growth.

One of the subheads in the book even tells you point-blank that upcoming is "An Interesting Little Story." It is about "The Beginning of the Wendt Brothers Gas Company."

Wendt Brothers, located in Sanborn now, provides propane gas, not only for outdoor barbecue grills, but also for all home uses, including heating.

But the gas story begins about 1915, when two men from Germany, Albert and Arthur Gilka, made an agreement with William F. Wendt to do some drilling on his land south of Saunders Settlement Road.

They drilled one hole, then left after a few months without explanation. Wendt filled the hole with cement after leaking natural gas caused an explosion. Later, another man drilled a dozen holes to obtain natural gas for distribution.

In 1954, the Iroquois Gas Company bought the franchise, while the Wendts switched to the propane business.

The book notes that one existing well still provides gas for supplemental heating of one home.

The book starts, naturally enough, with the important geological development that resulted in the escarpment, Niagara Falls and the various strata of rock formations, including formation of the Great Lakes and various tributaries.

The county was formed from Genesee County on March 11, 1808, thus the 200th anniversary has recently passed, but celebrations continue throughout the year. Later, Niagara County was split into the counties of Erie and Willink to the south.

Lewiston was the first county seat, but later Lockport was chosen, and prominent citizen Col. William M. Bond donated a two-acre site for county buildings.

The first courthouse was completed in January 1825. The stream of information continues in the book, right up to 1980, when the handicapped ramp was added at the courthouse.

There is a section on the Port of Niagara, a federal designation for keeping track of goods shipped through the area and, of course, collecting customs fees.

In 1913, the Port of Niagara was consolidated with the Port of Buffalo, but more entries were made at Niagara than at Buffalo. The value of annual exports and imports at Niagara exceeded $50 million.

There is a section on the Tuscaroras from the time they returned from North Carolina and rejoined the Iroquois Confederacy up to the time that the State Power Authority confiscated a large chunk of their reservation for the reservoir.

There is the inspiring story of Chief Clinton Rickard, who started the Indian Defense League, still in existence as a standard-bearer of Native American rights.

Chief Rickard started the annual border-crossing ceremony to certify rights of Indians to cross the border free from fees or obstruction from either Canadian or American governments.

Fort Niagara, of course, is included, stretching all the way back to explorer LaSalle building a wooden structure in 1679 at the site of the future Fort Niagara.

The story proceeds up to modern times, when the fort was used by the Army as a POW camp for German prisoners during World War II, and then became a top tourist attraction.

A cadre of caring individuals "have lovingly preserved Fort Niagara so that present and future generations can experience and learn about our past," the book says.

Each village, hamlet, town and city comes in for mention, a history that could fill volumes, but is neatly compacted into this souvenir bicentennial book. It would be a nice addition to a coffee-table collection.

The Bicentennial Book Committee included Craig Bacon, Christine Derby-Cuadrado, Melissa Dunlap, Catherine Emerson, Douglas Farley, Charles Horton and Marcia Rivers.

Bob Kostoff has been reporting on the Niagara Frontier for four decades. He is a recognized authority on local history and is the author of several books. E-mail him at RKost1@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com July 22 2008