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Mama Bear serves as historic landmark, tour guide for Seneca County’s history

Driving by The Three Bears Complex in Ovid it’s clear things have changed. Over the last two decades The Friends of the Three Bears, now led by Phyllis Motil, change has been slow. Between funding challenges and logistical ones, with elected officials uncertain for many years how to proceed with various aspects of renovating the historic site – getting to this point was never a guarantee.

Recently, The Three Bears became the home of South Seneca County’s tourism office. Two of the buildings, ‘Mama Bear’ and ‘Papa Bear’ have seen major changes in the last 16 months- with much work being done during the pandemic.

While ‘Mama Bear’ is the tourism office- offering guests an opportunity to learn about Seneca County’s most-historically significant site- ‘Papa Bear’ remains a statue in the heart of downtown Ovid. It’s an impressive feat for Mama Bear. Especially given what the structure looked like just a few years ago.

“All along we wanted Mama Bear to serve as a hub for visitors,” Motil recalled. Her late husband Dan formed Friends of the Three Bears, Inc., who served as an overarching organizational structure for the work that took place on-site over those years. “We felt that we were totally neglected in South County. So for 20 years we fought to get this here. Finally, it’s here.”

Mama Bear might feel to some like a museum for the south end of Seneca County, but the history books tell a different story- as Seneca’s early days were dominated by Ovid. The countless historic paintings, documents, and items at The Three Bears Complex shows it.

However, before Mama Bear could morph into its modern use- as the tourism hub for South County- it had to go through an evolution of its own. One that included rehabilitating the very structure under which it exists. “When we got here, our first priority was addressing the structure,” Motil recalled. The building was slowly on its way to collapse, because major support elements of the structure were removed in decades past. It left a building that had outer walls that sagged, slowly nearing a safety hazard.

“They built a box inside,” Motil recalled, speaking to the work that ultimately brought on the structural issues. She was referring to the time when Mama Bear was actively used by Seneca County. While it happened decades ago- the support elements that were removed to build that internal space proved to be essential to its physical demise.

Large exposed steel beams are visible to visitors, which show exactly what was installed to allow Mama Bear to stand tall on the hill at the Complex. The interior has been renovated in such a way that both provides historic context, but also feels modern for visitors.

“So many donations, both physical and financial, brought us here,” Motil added, noting that grant money also played a big role. “There were challenges at times with matching various grants that became available, but we kept going.” Tours of The Three Bears Complex are staffed by volunteers, who greet visitors from near- and far with a smile. “We see people from all over. Sometimes they’re local- often they’re not,” she added.

The walls of Mama Bear are lined with visitor information- to help them navigate South County, as well as all of Seneca. The unique structure even has an open second floor area, where visitors can get a birds-eye view of the building.

“The changes that have taken place here are really remarkable, but this building only tells part of the story,” Motil continued. “There’s so much more work to be done, even though we’ve made some great progress.” She says that Mama Bear will continue to see cosmetic improvements, as well as some changes to bolster the building’s functionality during the late-fall and winter months. “Our next priority for this space, now that it’s serving as a tourism hub, is to work on heating it- that way we can operate later into the fall months.”