The Senecas had a major village here called “Kah-ni-sti-oh.” The first settlers arrived around 1788, making Canisteo one of the earliest locations occupied in the county.
Canisteo is rich in Indian lore. It is the site of the largest Living Sign in the world, noted by both Ripleys Believe it or Not and the Registry of Historical Places. It is 60 by 400 feet, and consists of Scotch Pine. The seeds for it were planted in 1934. The village is home of the “world famous living sign” which was once featured in a Ripley’s “Believe it or Not!” book. The sign spells out the name of the village in Scotch Pine trees and has been around for more than fifty years. It is maintained by the local school and is viewable from Greenwood street near the elementary school. The sign, which has almost a perfect North/South axis, is still used by the armed services to orient true north when flying over it. The Canisteo Living Sign was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
The town was formed in 1796 at the time of the creation of the county and is one of its original towns. From parts of Canisteo came, in whole or part, the Towns of West Union, Hartsville, Hornellsville (1920), Greenwood(1827), Troupsburg (1808, 1820) and Jasper (1927).
The population of Canisteo in 1905 was 3,171.
An Indian village on this site, Kanestio Castle, was destroyed in 1765 by Sir William Johnson. Settlers began arriving at the new community around 1789. It was one of the first settlements in what is today Steuben County. The largest growth came after the American Civil War when many factories opened. The village was incorporated in 1873.
The village of Canisteo was originally called Bennettsville, and “consisted of a few houses and the rather large Canisteo House hotel”. The original Canisteo, today a hamlet called Canisteo Center, was south of the present village, along the river. When the Erie Railroad was built about 1870, there was not room for a depot between the tracks and the Canisteo River, so the depot was built upriver, at its present location. Railroad Street (today Depot Street) was built to connect the depot to the Canisteo House hotel. A large community, with businesses and shops, and other hotels, sprang up.
Canisteo got dial telephone service about 1950; the original building, on Fifth St., is still (2015) in use. Numbers were four digits, beginning with 2- or 4-, and the only pay phone in town, in the school, with 8-. However, it was an isolated island until the commercial center of Hornell got dial service in 1963. To call Hornell, one dialed 3- for a Hornell operator. This is probably a reason why Hornell’s exchange, 324, begins with a 3-. The only other dialable location was the hamlet of Cameron, whose exchange was accessed by dialing 5-.
Businesses and industries in the Village of Canisteo
A number of small manufacturing establishments existed along Depot Street in the nineteenth century. These included the Voorhis planing mill, a site later taken over by the Canisteo Sash & Door Company in 1885. These were located at the site of the present Canisteo trailer park (which replaced a waste materials company that occupied the site after the factory’s closure). The Henry Carter and Son foundry, founded in 1873, manufactured steam engines and many other metal products. In 1890, it employed 10 men.
The Tucker button factory was also located on Depot Street. In 1908 the factory was occupied by the Thomas Spring & Gear Company, which manufactured shock absorbers for Ford cars, using an invention patented by Charles L. Thomas of Canisteo.
Other manufacturers included a thread factory, located on a street west of NY 248 and south of NY 36; a small sawmill, on Third St.; and Scott’s Dairy, a milk processor, located on Depot St. near the rail line. Scott’s had a small ice cream shop on the north side of West Main St. The Canisteo Theater, which closed in the 1950s, was a brick building on the west side of Greenwood St., demolished around 2000.
The only significant industry in Canisteo today is the Wells Bros. sign factory, which began operations in 1955 from a leased building, now (2015) abandoned, on Fifth Street; in 1967 it moved to its present (2015) building at 92 Depot St.
The former Erie Railroad began operations in 1851. The line passed to the east of Canisteo, and passenger service was provided, though ending in the 1940s. While it operated, a trolley connected the depot with the center of the village. From 1892 until the 1920s Canisteo was linked to Hornell by trolley. It was replaced by bus service, although there have been gaps when no public transportation was available. From 1896 to 1936, the New York & Pennsylvania Railroad (not to be confused with the Western New York and Pennsylvania Railway) started at the depot and ran south toward Rexville. Around 1900, the Erie Railroad had 10 passenger trains each day, the New York and Pennsylvania had 3, and the trolley had 20.
A US Navy fleet oil frigate (AO-99) once held the name USS Canisteo. It was utilized until the 1990s and even served time as part of the Cuban blockade during the missile crisis of the 1960s. The ship’s official motto was “If freedom were easy we wouldn’t be here”. See USS Canisteo (AO-99).
Canisteo is located at 42°16′12″N 77°36′23″W (42.270178, -77.606616).
According to the United States Census Bureau, the village has a total area of 1.0 square miles (2.5 km²). None of the area is covered with water.
The village is located at the junction of New York State Route 36 and New York State Route 248. County Route 28 joins New York State Route 36 south of the village and County Route 119 passes the north side of Canisteo.
The Canisteo River, flowing southeasterly, passes the north side of the village, where it is joined by Bennetts Creek.