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Hidden Heroes - A Lifetime of Friendship

When Harriet Willey, aged 73, and Sally Shorter, aged 100, died within two hours of each other in 1874, their deaths were reported as news in several New York State papers. They had lived as next door neighbors in what was then known as "Pious Hollow" in the village of Cayuga. Today we know Pious Hollow as the area of Genesee St., just east of Route 90. These women had been neighbors for fifty years and members of the same church for 40, thus sharing a deep friendship. Harriet's obituary included the news of Sally's passing and stated "We trust that as they passed from their same earthly they entered their same heavenly home."

Sally, who was affectionately known as "Aunty" to village residents, often made treats for parties held by the ladies of the village. Children would excitedly visit her as she provided them with cookies, candy and doll clothes, but first demanding politeness from each child. "Aunty" was also known for growing the most delicious peaches and plums and freely shared these too with children. She won the hearts and admiration of her friends and neighbors with her fruit and earned their respect by her character.

Harriet, born in Ridgefield CT.,was the daughter of Abijah and Amelia Bulkeley Benedict. The Benedict and Bulkeley families have deep roots in America having emigrated from England to Massachusetts in the early 1600's. Harriet's ancestors included colonial civic leaders, Revolutionary soldiers and even a minister whose private collection of books became the nucleus of the first library at Harvard. Harriet married John Willey, a shoemaker, in Connecticut in 1825. They moved to Cayuga shortly thereafter, first showing on the 1830 census.

Sally first appeared as living in Cayuga in the 1820 census with her husband, Charles, and one son. Charles, a farmer, died in 1851. According to Florence McIntosh's History of the Village of Cayuga written in 1927, Sally was born a slave in the West Indies around 1775. McIntosh further states that Sally was sent to New York by her mistress and freed upon arrival. On the 1850 census, Charles listed his birthplace as Maryland and his age as 80. An African American born in 1770 in Maryland was likely to have been born into slavery. While no records of their family exist, a detailed description of the Shorter home, and its history, appears in Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life. Their home is deemed significant as it was the home of two African American community leaders, manumitted from slavery. Their home is further described as a rare surviving example of a "shanty" built by freed African Americans.

Shorter Home today
Shorter Home before restoration

1859 map of village of Cayuga

The mere fact of its survival lends great importance to its place in the history of the settlement of freed African Americans in Cayuga County in the first half of the 19th century.

Despite their very different backgrounds and experiences, Sally Shorter and Harriet Willey forged an enduring friendship, relevant today as an example to which we can all aspire.


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