I’m back for a day in the Southern Tier of Western New York, where my mom grew up. I’ve visited every so often since I was a kid, and more often since I moved to Toronto. It’s lovely lush rolling hilly country with no straight roads, and the Southern Tier Expressway (New York Route 17, now also Interstate 86) snaking through it like a dead anaconda dried into pitted concrete. For me, it is a land of family mythos and childhood memories, of the smells and sights I associated with visits to my grandmother and great-grandparents. And it is a land of towns and counties with names quite unlike any I knew in Alberta.
The Southern Tier is Chautauqua /ʃəˈtɑkwə/ (“sha-tok-wa”), Cattaraugus /ˌkætəˈrɑgəs/ (cat-a-raw-gus”), and Allegany /ˈæləˌgeni/ (“al-a-gay-nee”) counties. Towns that we passed through or heard of on the way to West Clarksville, where my great-grandparents lived and they and my grandmother are now buried, included Houghton /hotən/ [ˈhoʷʔn̩] (that business there with the International Phonetic Alphabet means // is what people think of the sounds as being but  is how those sounds are realized – Berlitz-style would be “hoe-ton”), where my parents met in College; East Randolph; Salamanca /ˌsæləˈmæŋkə/ (“sal-a-mang-ka”) – stretched like a leisurely salamander next to the expressway in a scenic notch; Cuba (said as you’d expect), which I knew as a town before I’d ever heard of it as a country (and which is a good place for cheese); Bolivar (/ˈbɑləvɚ/, like “Oliver” with a B); Friendship; and the one we’re closest to right now, Olean, another set of newish large stores and oldish houses and no-longer-fresh businesses on the main drag, sitting by the expressway, a lump of human manufacture in this wiggling valley of trees.
Before I give a pronunciation guide, how do you think Olean pronounced?
Does it look sort of like Orleans?
Nope. Think more in the direction of linoleum. And petroleum. And oleander. It’s pronounced /ˈoliæn/, “oh Leanne.” And it has the same ol as in those other three words: related to oil and, originally, olives – oleander is so named because it looks sort of like an olive tree but is not; in fact, it’s poisonous.
Olean’s connection to oleander stops at the name and the basis of the etymology. It connects a bit more to the other two.
Olean is actually near the first place in North American that petroleum was sighted; there was an oil spring a bit east, near Cuba, originally discovered in the 1600s. When Europeans settled in the area in the 1700s, they first called it by a name given by the local Iroquois peoples, Ischua. But that name had multiple spellings and seemed odd to Anglophones, so a major who bought land in the area decided it should be renamed with the Latin-derived invention Olean in honour of the oil spring. That oil spring turned out to be quite a boon for the town. Once oil became a big thing, starting in the mid-1800s, Olean became a local depot and distribution point. Oil was a major part of the local economy until 1954. Between then and now, the city has lost nearly half its population – it’s a bit over 14,000 now.
They don’t make linoleum in Olean; linoleum is a kind of tile originally made with an extract of linseed oil (lin for linseed oleum is the Latin for ‘oil’, related by way of Greek to olive), and the tiles that were made in Olean for a century were ceramic. Have you heard of American Olean? You can still buy it. It’s a very popular widely used brand of ceramic tile. (Speaking of ceramics, 95 miles further east is Corning; you have their casseroles, perhaps – but at least as likely you have their glass on your mobile phone.) The Olean Tile Company was founded in 1913 in Olean. After they were bought by another company, the products became American Olean. They continued to be made in Olean until 2013; now they’re made in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Which just happens to connect to why we’re here. My mom wanted to come to a reunion of descendants of the 154th New York Regiment from the Civil War. They came from around here but fought (along with many others) at Gettysburg, among other places.
Actually, I’ve never been to Gettysburg. I grew up in western Canada, and we learned very little about the American Civil War in school. But I did visit the Southern Tier a few times. And now I’m back here again and learning more about that war at least one of my ancestors fought in… and about these places with names that had been familiar as road signs passed by and as words on my nearer ancestors’ lips.