They say there was a time in Lyons when you could smell peppermint wherever you went in town, and in the surrounding fields.
That was in the late 19th century when the Erie Canal town prided itself as being the Peppermint Capital of the World.
Peppermint oil back then was said to cure everything from headaches (rub it in on your forehead) to stomachaches (a drop on the tongue).
Today the aroma is long gone and the myths of peppermint’s powers have evaporated, but Lyons has a museum devoted to the production of one of the world’s great flavors.
It’s the H.G. Hotchkiss Essential Oil Museum, located in the 130-year-old building that once housed the world’s largest producer of peppermint oils.
Hiram Gilbert Hotchkiss, founder of the company, sat behind a desk in a back room to supervise his company’s activities. The desk is still there, as is a 2-ton safe that once, during a flood, crashed through the floor and ended up in the basement.
In the first-floor bottling room, you can see where employees bottled the oil that was processed in laboratories on the second floor.
That second-floor lab, is not yet open to the public, according to Richard Kelley, a trustee of the Lyons Heritage Society, which owns the museum. It is being refurbished to resemble something like its original state, so visitors will be able to see how the oil was made.
Once hundreds and hundreds of acres of surrounding farmland was devoted to growing peppermint plants. Hotchkiss himself owned up to 300 acres devoted to growing peppermint and other mint plants. He won awards for the peppermint oil in competitions in Europe, and that helped propel his success.
Today most commercial American peppermint plants are grown in Washington and Oregon, and mostly the oil is used as a flavoring for candy, gum, ice cream, toothpaste, mouthwash and other consumer products.
One recent study in Italy, however, suggests that peppermint oil does have at least one medicinal use: It tends, the study’s authors said, to lessen the effects of irritable bowel syndrome.
Today the United States leads the world in the production of peppermint oil. Before Hotchkiss came along, however, American peppermint oil was considered decidedly inferior to European oils. Hotchkiss, in effect, not only built himself a successful company, but in the process made the United States the world leader in the industry.
In the gift shop at the Peppermint Museum, you can buy a pig made of hard candy with peppermint flavoring. It comes with a little cloth bag and a tiny hammer, so you can put the pig inside, bang it, and eat the little broken pieces. That’s $15. A smaller pig, without the bag and hammer, costs $7.
There are also T-shirts, postcards and a four-DVD set on the history of peppermint growing and peppermint oil manufacturing in the U.S.
And there’s a book written for young people titled “Peppermint Summer” by Pat Gorthy, a retired high school teacher. The book is about a young girl who visits a peppermint farm owned by her grandparents in Lyons during the 1860s. The back of the book contains appendices on Hiram Hotchkiss and the production of peppermint oil.
The museum isn’t very big. Even if you pay attention to every exhibit, you should expect to spend a half hour to 45 minutes inside.
While in Lyons you might want to visit the 1854 courthouse, now used for Wayne County offices, that was the setting for much of the 1988 horror film classic, “The Lady in White.” Its large silver dome is visible from almost anywhere in town, and it’s about a five-minute walk from the museum.
You might also visit the Old Jail Museum, built in 1854, at 21 Butternut St., the Grace Episcopal church complex, dating to the early 1840s, at 7 Phelps St., and just generally walk around the downtown area, which includes many old buildings, although facades hide much of the original designs.
The museum is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays. Group tours can be arranged by calling (315) 946-4596 or (315) 946-6316. Admission is free. Donations from visitors help fund the museum’s operation.
If you go
Take I-90 east to Exit 42. Take Route 14 north to Lyons, cross the Erie Canal, turn left on Water Street. The Hotchkiss Building, which houses the Peppermint Museum, will be on your left. There’s a small, free parking lot in front of the museum. There’s plenty of free parking around the village if you’re willing to walk five to 10 minutes. If you’re using a GPS system, the street address of the museum is 95 Water St., Lyons.