Published in Trumansburg Free Press  August 4, 2004

Land & People
Joe and Bill's Excellent Adventure

by Bill Chaisson

On the south side of West Main Street in the Lower Village a tan brick building with broad Romanesque arched windows stands out from the others.  The ground floor houses a laundrymat and the GEMM store.  If you walk into to the laundrymat you will see a framed calendar hanging on the opposite wall.  The paper is stained and a little tattered around the edges, but you can plainly see an image of the building in which you stand, its windows on all floors are filled with merchandise, including an automobile on the second floor.  The heading reads 'The Biggs Company'.

Joseph Biggs was born in Lodi in 1827 and received his education in a succession of schools, mostly during the winters.  He worked on his father’s farm during the summers.  In 1845, at the age of 18, he was hired as a clerk in a dry goods store in Vienna (Ontario County), where he worked for a year and half for $12.50 a month, including board.

In October of 1847, exactly a century before Jack Kerouac and Neal Casady, Joseph Biggs and William McLallen of Trumansburg went 'on the road'.  One of the main issues of the 1844 presidential campaign had been westward expansion.  James K. Polk, a Democratic candidate, came out in favor of 'reannexing' Texas and 'reoccupying' Oregon.  He was elected.  In 1846 the Mexican War broke out.  A month before Biggs and McLallen’s departure to the Midwest, General Winfield Scott entered the Mexican capital, his soldiers hacking through the walls of the city with crowbars and picks.

Biggs and McLallen went first to Michigan, where they spent two or three weeks.  They probably traveled by stagecoach, as no railway traversed the Appalachians to the Ohio Valley until 1853.  It was, however, also possible to get to Michigan by boat, via the Erie Canal and Lake Erie.

From Michigan Biggs and McLallen moved on to Chicago.  A military trail called the Chicago Road 

had been completed in 1832, and it had allowed the settlement of southern Michigan and northern Indiana.  There was no public transportation between Chicago and Aurora, Illinois, and the two New Yorkers hired a farmer to convey them in his empty cart.  Aurora is 40 miles west of Chicago, now accessible via Interstates 290 and 88.  Their host at the western terminus of their journey was Joseph Biggs' brother-in-law, J.H. Montgomery, who owned a grocery store in Aurora.  Today there is a town 9 miles west of Aurora called Montgomery.

Biggs and McLallen stayed only a few days in Aurora and then returned to Chicago, where they bought a pair of horses and a wagon.  By this means they drove home via Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier.  They arrived in Lodi on December 15, 1847.  William McLallen returned to Trumansburg, where in 1848 he built an adobe house on a portion of his family's farm.

Over the next three years Biggs clerked in Townsendville and Rochester, returning to Lodi in January of 1851.  Shortly thereafter he and William McLallen opened a business in Trumansburg.  At first they sold books on consignment, but in May 1851 they added dry goods to the inventory.  In 1854 the business expanded into hardware when they bought out two-thirds of the inventory of M. G. Godley.

Joseph Biggs left a farm in Lodi after a disjointed education and embarked on a series of clerking positions that stretched out over seven years of his life.  Like so many young single American men in the 19th century, he went west.  But he did not join the American expansion into frontier.  His and McLallen’s journey seems in hindsight to have been part market research and part lark.

At 25 Biggs was a successful businessman and was able to marry Melissa Pratt of Covert.  In January 1855 they moved into an Italianate Victorian house on the corner where Bradley, McLallen and (Old) Main Streets came together at the top of a bluff overlooking the village.  His traveling companion and business partner William McLallen lived less than 50 yards away.

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Last revised:  May 9, 2005