Find us on Facebook

local history

Holley native became Johnson & Johnson matriarch

By Matthew Ballard, Orleans County Historian Posted 7 April 2018 at 8:27 am

“Overlooked Orleans” – Vol. 4, No. 14

After a three-year stay in Medina, Frances Folsom became one of the area’s most beloved young women after her marriage to President Grover Cleveland. Yet I was hoping that March would provide me with six Saturdays to write about notable women from Orleans County, but I suppose that I should not feel limited to writing about such subjects to a single month!

Evangeline Brewster Armstrong Johnson Dennis

The only lasting local memory of Evangeline Brewster Armstrong exists within a stained glass window at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Holley. The window reads, “Presented by Mrs. Evangeline A. Johnson A.D. 1894” featuring an image of St. Paul “posed in this window holding a book and pointing upward to heaven as though he were giving a benediction,” as described by C.W. Lattin. Evangeline was born in 1865 at Rochester, New York to Edwin Rutherford Armstrong and Martha Gifford, who were married on August 13, 1857. Edwin Armstrong was raised in Wilson, NY, later teaching school in Rochester and later becoming principal of a school in that area. From 1862 to 1863, he attended medical school at the University of Michigan and graduated from Buffalo University’s medical program in 1865. Three years later, he arrived in Holley where he would become one of the most prominent physicians in the area.

The feature of this story is not Dr. Armstrong, but his daughter Evangeline. According to Martha Armstrong’s obituary, “[Mr.] and Mrs. Armstrong were prominent factors in the social life of the village…” and Martha was a “cultivated musician” and leader in musical matters in Holley. It a general understanding that Dr. Armstrong was also well connected in medical circles throughout the country as presumed by Evangeline’s marriage to Robert Wood Johnson on June 27, 1892. Twenty years her senior, the founder and president of Johnson & Johnson took an immediate liking to the young and strikingly beautiful young woman, just 27 years of age. Some authors suggest that Evangeline’s attraction to the aging and “heavier” Johnson was strictly related to the power and wealth associated with such a relationship.

The couple’s first son was born on April 4, 1893, a little over nine months after the couple married in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains near Mayville, Tennessee. The rural girl immediately transformed into the belle of New Jersey’s urban society. Robert Johnson paid little attention to his children and Evangeline considered herself a member of the upper echelon of society, refusing to interact with those around her and becoming a recluse. At the family home in Gray Terrace, she was provided with a full staff of butlers and maids to assist her in rearing the children. July 14, 1895, the couple welcomed their second son, John Seward Johnson, into the world. The young boy suffered from childhood illnesses, allergies, and asthma, and suffered with dyslexia. Evangeline paid extra attention to her “little angel,” the pet name she gave him because of his constant suffering from illness during his childhood.

On February 7, 1910, Robert Johnson died as a result of complications associated with Bright ’s disease, leaving his 44 year old widow and three children to mourn his passing. Evangeline took her two youngest children to New York City in order to enjoy the high-style social life she always dreamed of. While living in the city, she developed a relationship with John W. Dennis, a member of the British Parliament; the two left New York for London, leaving the children behind. As noted by Jerry Oppenheimer in his book Crazy Rich: Power, Scandal, and Tragedy in Inside the Johnson & Johnson Dynasty, young Seward Johnson was left with a New York City socialite and friend of Evangeline who sexually abused the young man until his brother Robert rescued him.

Evangeline married Dennis, but their life together was short-lived. On September 9, 1919, she died at her country estate in Nocton, Lincolnshire. Two weeks earlier, she tripped on street curbing in London and broke her hip; a blood clot later developed as she recuperated. Lattin writes in Luminaries in the Firmament, “In any day and age no work of art is ever created at small expense. I’m sure back in 1894 this large window depicting a life-size St. Paul was considered as expensive. It is easy to understand, knowing Mrs. Johnson’s background, how she was able to afford it.”

Return to top

Medina’s ‘First Lady’ became an instant celebrity when she married President Cleveland when she was 21

By Matthew Ballard, Orleans County Historian Posted 31 March 2018 at 8:16 am

“Overlooked Orleans” – Vol. 4, No. 13

“I am waiting for my wife to grow up.” – Grover Cleveland

As a young bachelor in Buffalo, Cleveland was said to have muttered these very words to his sisters who frequently asked him about his intentions to marry. His statement, although witty, held a certain degree of truth and it is with that truth that the story of Frances Folsom is told.

In 1996 an historic roadside marker was installed at the corner of Main and Eagle Streets in Medina, denoting the structure that Folsom called home for a brief moment in her life during the 1870s. The marker reads:

“Frances Folsom lived here in the mid-1870s with her grandmother and attended Medina High School. In 1886 at age 21 she wed Pres. Grover Cleveland.”

The daughter of Oscar and Emma Harmon Folsom, Frances was born July 21, 1864 at Buffalo, New York where her father practiced law with Grover Cleveland in a firm known as Lanning, Cleveland and Folsom. Folsom and Cleveland became close friends after a failed run for the office of Erie County District Attorney left Cleveland with a sense of defeat. It was said that Cleveland doted on the young girl, purchasing the first baby carriage for Frances.

On July 23, 1875, Oscar Folsom was tragically killed when he was thrown from his carriage in Buffalo’s Black Rock district. Cleveland was made administrator of Folsom’s will, but sources vary on whether Cleveland was, in fact, made the legal guardian of Frances. Oscar’s widow and eleven-year-old daughter relocated to Medina to live with Ruth Harmon, the grandmother of Frances, while Cleveland settled the estate. During the approximately three years that she lived in Medina, “Frankie” as she was later known (a nickname much to her disliking), became a popular pupil among fellow students and teachers at the Medina high school. It was after Cleveland finalized his business partner’s estate that Emma and Frances returned to Buffalo.

Frances continued her studies at Central High School in Buffalo and eventually entered the sophomore class at Wells College where she was attending when Cleveland was inaugurated for his first term. Despite her best efforts to attend the prestigious event, she was not permitted to miss classes.

After her graduation in 1885, Frances was whisked off to Europe by her mother at the urging of Cleveland so that she could experience the culture of the old world. At this time it was suspected by the public that Emma was visiting Europe to purchase her wedding dress under the assumption that Cleveland was courting the elder Folsom. Upon their return to New York on May 27, 1886, an announcement was made the following day noting Cleveland’s engagement to Frances and not Emma as previously thought.

On June 2, 1886 Grover and Frances were wed in the Blue Room, the stately parlor on the first floor of the White House, becoming the only couple to celebrate their wedding in the executive mansion. Frances became an instant celebrity, the press following her every move. As a fashionable young woman, she frequently wore gowns that were edgy for the time.

Photo by Tom Rivers: There is a historic marker for Frances Folsom at the corner of Main and Eagle streets in Medina, near Hartway Motors.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was floored by her frequent wearing of gowns that revealed bare shoulders, claiming it negatively influenced young women. She quickly became a marketing tool for companies that used her likeness to sell goods. Others marketed goods on claims that she either purchased or used the goods herself, suggesting that Mrs. Cleveland was endorsing the products. Harper’s Magazine went as far as to feature her as a frequent cover subject, which undoubtedly assisted the periodical with the sale of issues.

While companies benefited from the marketability of the President’s wife, one Democratic Congressman attempted to pass a bill that would stop the widespread use of any woman’s image for commercial purposes without her written permission. Although the piece of legislation did not specifically address her by name, the bill was clearly aimed at alleviating the external pressures felt by the Clevelands at the hands of the corporate world. Suffering a heart attack at the age of 71, Grover Cleveland passed away on June 24, 1908; his widow 27 years younger than he, remained at Princeton, New Jersey where she would remarry to Thomas Preston nearly five years later. She died in her sleep on October 29, 1947 and was laid to rest next to her first husband in Princeton Cemetery.

Return to top

Blind woman from China was prolific proofreader in American Braille

By Matthew Ballard, Orleans County Historian Posted 24 March 2018 at 11:10 am

“Overlooked Orleans” – Vol. 4, No. 12

While cataloging the Department of History’s collection of rare books, I came across a small booklet entitled From Serfdom to Culture written by “a white-haired Rochester confectioner” named Alfred F. Little in 1939. Interestingly enough, my discovery of this item happened in the same way in which C. W. Lattin, the retired county historian, encountered this story back in 1996.

Jessie D. Gutzlaff once lived in Albion.

Presented with two volumes from a blind Chinese woman named Jessie Gutzlaff, Little felt encouraged to record a few brief memories regarding the life of a remarkable woman. As he wrote nearly 80 years ago, “few persons, if any, now living in Albion, ever heard of Miss Gutzlaff, or knew of her connection with the village…” Those two volumes, authored by Samuel Smiles, were donated to the Swan Library in 1910.

The story of Jessie Gutzlaff dates back to 1842 when, as a young girl, she arrived in New York City with two other Chinese girls named Fanny and Eliza, all three accompanied by Mary Gutzlaff. Mrs. Gutzlaff was the wife of Karl Gutzlaff, a famed missionary of the Netherlands Missionary Society. Upon their arrival to the U.S., the girls were sent to various institutions under the sponsorship of philanthropic individuals; Jessie was sent to the Institution for the Blind at Columbus, Ohio under the support of George Douglas of Long Island. On July 22, 1843, Jessie arrived at the Ohio Institute in good spirits, as the organization’s annual report notes that “these little girls…are intelligent, healthy, and very cheerful.”

After relocating to New York, the story becomes mired in confusion and uncertainty as on January 1, 1852, Jessie appears in the records of the Christ Episcopal Church in Albion as a member of the Middleton family. It is presumed that Jessie became acquainted with Jane Middleton while Middleton was working as a matron at the Institute for the Blind in Columbus. It is known that Ann and Jane Middleton operated an institution of learning at Albion where homeless or orphaned young girls were taken in and used as teachers.

Although much of Jessie’s time with the Middletons is shrouded in mystery, Miss Elizabeth Thompson of Philadelphia wrote in a short letter to William Chapin that “…it is known that Miss Middleton took the child in her home for remunerative object. She would have gathering for the benefit of Jessie, to buy a piano.” Thompson continued to write that although Middleton was “not an easy taskmaster,” no one lodged any complaint of ill treatment. Mr. Chapin, familiar with Gutzlaff during her time in Ohio, became aware of her situation thanks to an unnamed clergyman from her neighborhood.

In 1861, Jessie was “rescued” by Mr. Chapin and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Institution for the Instruction of the Blind before she was admitted to the “Home” in 1869. Sarah Sterling, a librarian at the institution, wrote, “Miss Jessie began to read proof about January, 1893, soon after American Braille was introduced into this school. She read all proof except mathematics and the foreign languages. According to records she has read in American Braille (machine work) 52,679 pages, covering 426 titles…she was always a conscientious worker, and whether it was machine or handwork, she was distressed if anyone found a mistake she had overlooked.”

Fifty years after her enrollment in the Pennsylvania institution, Jessie was in Albion visiting Mary Middleton Smith, an orphan also taken in by Jane Middleton in the 1850s. The two decided to attend the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and it was during this stay in Orleans County that Gutzlaff became acquainted with Alfred Little. He later recalled that he and Jessie regularly corresponded by letter, Miss Jennie writing longhand and only occasionally repeating a word when interrupted.

After her sudden death on October 2, 1920 due to heart failure, Jessie Gutzlaff was buried in the Mt. Moriah Cemetery in the lot reserved for the Chapin Home for the Aged Blind. Her will left $5,000 in Pennsylvania Railroad stock, the majority of which was purchased with the modest wages she earned as a proof-reader. The total amount of her estate was bequeathed to the Episcopal Board of Missions for the purpose of supporting education in China. Of the annual interest, $100 was set aside to support the instruction of a Chinese boy at St. John’s College in Shanghai and the remaining balance was put towards the maintenance of scholarships for educating Chinese women at St. Mary’s Hall in Shanghai.

Return to top

Seminary in Albion showed commitment to higher education for women in 1800s

By Matthew Ballard, Orleans County Historian Posted 16 March 2018 at 10:37 pm

“Overlooked Orleans” – Vol. 4, No. 11

ALBION – Over 200 years ago, Caroline Phipps was born near Rome, New York on March 2, 1812 to Joseph and Mary Eames Phipps. Arad Thomas writes in the Pioneer History of Orleans County that her “early education was superintended by her father with more than ordinary care at home, though she had the advantages of the best private schools and of the district schools in the vicinity.”

After her father relocated the family to Barre, Caroline attended school at Eagle Harbor before starting her career in teaching at the young age of 14 in a one-room schoolhouse at Gaines Basin. It is presumed, based on available information, that Phipps was the school teacher while Charles Anderson Dana was attending the log schoolhouse (Overlooked Orleans: v.1, no.13).

A passionate educator even at a young age, Phipps enrolled in the Gaines Academy at the age of 20 and eventually attended the Nichols Ladies’ School at Whitesboro, New York. It was approximately a year after her enrollment at the Gaines Academy that she proposed the idea of an all-female educational institution by circulating a letter around Albion. The notice stated her intention to build a female seminary and sought support from prominent citizens to assist with the funding of the school. The proposal was met with opposition from the area’s leading residents, many who favored a school for boys and girls.

Photo by Tom Rivers: This historical marker was dedicated more than 100 years ago in May 1913. It is on the County Clerk’s Building. The alumni of the Phipps Union Seminary had the marker put on a sandstone wall next to the front steps of the building.

Caroline Phipps remained committed to the idea of an all-female institution of higher learning, as stated by Arad Thomas, “acting on a favorite theory…that it is better to teach boys and girls in separate schools…” She set forth a plan and sought support in raising the necessary funds to erect an edifice in which to house this new educational endeavor.

In Landmarks of Orleans County, Isaac Signor published a list of those who generously gave in support of the institution, the largest donors including Roswell S. Burrows, Alexis Ward, and Freeman Clarke, each committing $200 to the cause. Other donors included Elizur Hart, Orson Nichoson, and Norman Bedell, the father of Grace Bedell.

Totaling nearly $4,500, the amount was put towards the construction of a four-story brick building approximately 40 feet by 60 feet and costing a total of $14,000. The institution opened in January of 1837 with 100 boarders and 100 day scholars, according to Signor. Young women from across the country traveled to Albion to attend Phipps’ Female Union Seminary, the second institution of its kind in the United States (after the Willard Seminary in Troy, NY). In 1839, Caroline married Henry L. Achilles of Rochester (Overlooked Orleans: v.2, no.20) and the responsibility of leading the institution was passed to her younger sister, Sophronia, who remained as principal until her marriage in 1847 to Dr. J. L. Hodge of Brooklyn, New York.

The following year the seminary was sold to Rev. Frederick James, who remained the head of the institution for a very brief period. Almost immediately after the sale was finalized, the seminary’s enrollment dropped from 100 students to less than 40. The board of directors, frustrated and dismayed, pleaded for Henry and Caroline to return to Albion from Boston to retake control of the operation. With reluctance the couple agreed to take the reins of the institution and Caroline made quick work of rebuilding the seminary’s reputation. The following year was marked by a spike in enrollment, which led to the construction of a wood-frame addition on the north end of the building in 1851.

A small booklet entitled Sketches of the Village of Albion reads, “standing on the highest land in the village, the Seminary buildings, and the numerous trees around them, are among the first objects noted by the traveler on entering Albion in any direction…The course of instruction in this school comprises all branches of useful and ornamental education usually taught in the best Female Seminaries in this country. An average number of ten teachers are employed, besides the services of Mr. and Mrs. Achilles.”

Their oversight of the seminary was only temporary, as Thomas writes, “Tired and worn down by the harassing cares, anxieties and labor of superintending so large an establishment and school, so many years, in 1866 Mrs. Achilles reluctantly consented to transfer her dearly cherished Seminary again to strangers.” Rev. George A. Starkweather assumed control of the institution after purchasing it at a price of $20,000 (approx. $325,000 today).

Once again, the school suffered a similar fate as the first sale and the reputation of the institution was ruined by its new owner. The board pleaded for Henry and Caroline to retake control of the Seminary, to which Henry was fervently opposed. It was thanks to the encouragement of his wife that the seminary was yet again brought under the control of the Achilles family and provided with the opportunity to thrive. The vibrant and renowned school remained in operation until a series of fires occurred in the autumn of 1874 and the spring of 1875, which forced the Seminary to cease operation. The parcel of land was eventually purchased by the county, the original lot now occupied by the County Clerk’s Office.

Henry died on January 16, 1881 from an abscess and was interred with his first two wives at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester; Caroline was buried with her family at Mt. Albion after her death ten days later on January 26, 1881.

Return to top

Contributions of pioneer women have largely been omitted in historical record

By Matthew Ballard, Orleans County Historian Posted 10 March 2018 at 8:21 am

The Pioneer Homestead – Historical Album of Orleans County, New York

“Overlooked Orleans” – Vol. 4, No. 10

A question recently surfaced following my last article about Elizabeth Denio, one pertaining to the life of the pioneer settler Elizabeth Gilbert of Gaines. The question made me think about how women have appeared in the earliest recollections of our area’s history, if they make an appearance at all.

I was reading through Carol Kammen’s On Doing Local History and focused in on a common pitfall of local historians; trusting the published local historical narrative. What Kammen means by this is that we often fail to revise “what is held as truth.”

Much of our understanding of local history in Orleans County comes from the pages of Arad Thomas’ Pioneer History of Orleans County and Isaac Signor’s Landmarks of Orleans County, the second publication drawing from the chapters of Thomas’ publication. In these pages, the pioneer woman rarely makes an appearance and when she does her name is obscured by the significance of her husband. Elizabeth Gilbert is perhaps one of the exceptions.

On March 3, 1807, Elizabeth Gilbert purchased 123.5 acres of land approximately one mile east of Fairhaven in Gaines. It is Signor who references this land transaction, completely overlooked by Thomas over twenty years earlier which demonstrates the significance of Gilbert’s purchase of land at a time when men were more likely to conduct such business. As the story is told, Mr. Gilbert was known to suffer from fits of epilepsy and was discovered dead in “the road” in the middle of winter (the road presumed to be Ridge Road). With her niece, Amy Scott, Elizabeth cared for a yoke of oxen, cows, and young cattle over the winter before relocating to Canandaigua around 1811 or 1812.

Arad Thomas refers to Gilbert almost exclusively as “Widow Gilbert,” a woman defined by her marriage to her unnamed husband. In his description, she was a “hardy pioneer” who “cut down trees to furnish browse for a yoke of oxen and some other cattle…” When Noah Burgess and his family arrived at Stillwater in Carlton, he was unable to complete the trip across land to Gaines due to illness. It was “Widow Gilbert” who used her oxen to bring the family and their personal property to their new land along the Ridge Road. Mary “Polly” Crippen Burgess, Noah’s wife, who was described as a “strong, athletic woman,” proceeded to “chop down trees and cut logs for a log house” while “Mrs. Gilbert drew them to the spot with her oxen.” Men passing through assisted the women in raising the cabin walls.

Another notable story involves the wife of William McAllister, the first settler of what became the Village of Albion. Purchasing approximately 100 acres in 1810, McAllister constructed a log cabin in 1812 on a parcel of land where the County Clerk’s building now stands. Mrs. McAllister’s tenure in Orleans County was short as she died the same year the cabin was constructed. With no cut lumber for building a coffin and no clergyman to conduct a religious service, McAllister and other men constructed a makeshift box from roughhewn planks and wood spikes to bury the woman. To this day, Mrs. McAllister’s true identity remains a mystery.

While exploring these stories, I was drawn to one other mention of a very accomplished woman highlighted by Isaac Signor. He writes that Mr. Calvin G. Beach, the editor of the Orleans Republican, conducted his business with the assistance of his wife who, according to Signor, was “a woman of rare literary attainments, who was a contributor to many of the papers and magazines of that day.” Apparently her attainments were far from significant enough to mention her by name. Mrs. Juliette Hayward Beach was a noted poet and writer and was asked by Henry Clapp to review Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass manuscript. Literary critics have suggested that Walt Whitman wrote “Out of the Rolling Ocean, The Crowd” for Juliette, whose jealous husband prohibited her to write the poet.

As we delve deeper into the pages of local history, we must recognize that there are many more subjects and points of interest that remain untouched by the prying eyes of local historians. Sometimes, that research forces us to reconsider what we have come to hold true for so many years.

Return to top

Albion woman became University of Rochester’s first female faculty member

By Matthew Ballard, Orleans County Historian Posted 3 March 2018 at 8:52 am

Dr. Elizabeth Denio

“Overlooked Orleans” – Vol. 4, No. 9

The month of March is Women’s History Month, a designation dating back to 1987. The question of why this particular designation is needed surfaces frequently and the simplest explanation is that the presence of women in the national historical narrative went unnoted in schools for centuries.

Today, historians focus attention on previously marginalized groups in history to provide a more thorough and balanced image of the past. The narratives of local history are often filled with the stories of white men who made their mark on early settlements and only infrequently do we hear the stories of women such as Elizabeth Gilbert and Polly Burgess who braved the virgin forests of Western New York.

Elizabeth Harriet Denio was born to John and Celinda Weatherwax Denio on August 3, 1842 at the family’s farm in Albion, now part of the Correctional Facility. A printer by trade, John Denio became a respected citizen of Albion due in part to his time as publisher of the Orleans American.

As a young girl, Elizabeth attended the local schools but as the daughter of a prominent family, she was afforded the opportunity to attend the Phipps Union Seminary. Upon the completion of her education there, she later attended and graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1866, followed by a very brief term as an instructor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY.

In 1876 she became a professor of German and Art History at Wellesley College until taking a leave of absence in 1883 to travel abroad. While in Germany, she commenced study at Leipzig, Berlin, and Heidelberg, focusing on German philology (language) and art history. In 1896 she was fired from Wellesley College due to her antiquated teaching style after the arrival of the institution’s new president. It was nearly two years later in 1898 that she received her Doctor of Philosophy from Heidelberg, writing her thesis entitled “The Life and Works of Nicolas Poussin.” This defining piece on the French Baroque artist was printed in 1899 by Charles Scribner and Sons of New York.

Upon her return to the United States, she was appointed to a position as a lecturer of art history at the University of Rochester in 1902. This appointment marked a significant milestone in the University’s history as Denio became the first female member of the institution’s faculty. In his 1910 report, University President Benjamin Rush Rhees noted that “Dr. Denio’s work has been elected increasingly by our students…there are few persons in the country so well equipped to do this work, and it is work which it is very advantageous for our women to take;” this also came with a promotion to the title of “Instructor in the History of Art.” In the earliest years of her tenure at the University, a lack of funding required for a permanent position forced the institution to hire her on an annual appointment by special action. Emily Sibley Watson, the daughter of Western Union founder Hiram Sibley, was largely responsible for funding Denio’s remuneration in those early years. After her retirement in 1917, she was made an Emeritus Professor.

On December 23, 1922, Dr. Denio prepared to cross from the south curb of East Avenue at Meigs Street Rochester when she was struck by a car driven by Theodore Drescher. In an effort to avoid the elderly woman, Drescher slammed on his brakes forcing the car to spin out of control and striking Denio with the rear of the vehicle. After she was knocked to the ground, a vehicle driven by Charles Flint passed over Denio’s body. She was quickly rushed to the Homeopathic Hospital where she later succumbed to her injuries.

As noted by Bill Lattin (Bethinking of Old Orleans v. 16, no. 10), “Dr. Denio was known to be a stimulating conversationalist who had a broad spectrum of friends. Local lore conjectures that she became accustomed to men’s clothing while studying in Germany, for upon her return to this country, she was seen to appear in pants and supposedly enjoyed cigars. Denio’s lasting legacy remains in the form of the Memorial Art Gallery, an institution that she was influential in developing in 1913.”

Return to top

‘Inmate’ was term used to describe Poor House residents

Photograph of Poor House inmates, c. 1900

By Matthew Ballard, Orleans County Historian Posted 24 February 2018 at 8:08 am

Former Poor House took in elderly, destitute and other residents with physically and mentally debilitating conditions

“Overlooked Orleans” – Vol. 4, No. 8

ALBION – As I perused the pages of a death ledger from the Orleans County Home, covering the years 1873 to 1902, the phrase “inmate” appears quite regularly. Today we associate that term with people who are involuntarily held at a jail, prison, or psychiatric facility; a rather focused description which has evolved over the last few centuries.

In its earliest meaning, dating back to the 1500s, inmate was used to describe someone who shared a residence such as a visitor at a hotel, a boarding house, or a college student living on or around campus.

The Poor House was a common place for “inmates” to gather, not because they were confined to a cell as we have come to accept the word, but because they shared a common residence. In many cases, the confinement of one to a county poor house was, in fact, involuntary. A wife whose husband skipped town may not be capable of financially supporting herself or her children. An elderly man may be physically disabled with no family and no means to support himself. In other cases, individuals suffered long-term, physically or mentally debilitating conditions that made self-sufficiency nearly impossible.

The records of the County Poor House are filled with antiquated terminology that is reflective of the infancy of medicine and of the mentalities of the past. Phrases such as “idiot,” “lunatic,” and “dumb” were commonplace. As an example, the phrase dumb was a derivative of “dum” in Dutch or “dumm” in German meaning “stupid,” as if a person’s ability or inability to speak was based solely on mental capacity. Although offensive by today’s standards, they provide a window into how medical conditions were approached over 100 years ago. By understanding the context in which the phrases were used, we can learn far more about the past than using a current lens.

In 1880, the federal government instituted the “Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent” schedules for the U.S. Census. Surfacing in the earlier years of “new immigration,” the government sought new ways to restrict immigration, focusing on physical disability as a common factor for evaluation. The schedule sought to pinpoint those who were blind, deaf, dumb, “idiotic,” insane, “maimed, crippled, or bedridden,” and those in prison, in orphanages, or in poor houses. Perhaps one of the more iconic cartoons appearing in Harper’s Weekly in the early 1880s was that of the “Poor House from Galway,” depicting a ship with Irish passengers aboard; those destined to become charges of the public and residents of the local poor houses.

Although a great deal could be written about the Orleans County Poor House and the development of the physical institution locally, more should be said about the lives of those forced to live the remainder of their lives at the institution due to situations beyond their control. The County Home, as it was often called, was supplemented financially by the 155 acre farm that raised livestock and grew crops. Those who passed away while living in the home were occasionally interred at local cemeteries by family and loved ones. Others, who had no financial means or families to support such a burial, were laid to rest under sandstone markers with numbers in the County Home burial ground now located off of West County House Road.

In paging through the ledger of deaths, I thought it might be worthwhile to share a few bits of information on local inmates and residents who appeared both in the ledger and in the 1880 schedule with the U.S. Census:

Lorenzo A. Smith of Medina suffered from deafness as the result of exposure during the Civil War. He was treated at Fort Monroe for approximately four months before he was discharged.

Rebecca Sherwood of Ridgeway developed melancholia and was kept under lock and key for her own safety. Today we might recognize the condition as depression.

Jeanette Clark of Gaines developed dementia at the age of 32 and suffered with the illness for 26 years when the 1880 census was taken.

Solomon Pierson of Albion was listed as an “idiot” from birth. The census schedule noted that he had a “large skull” and was an inmate of the County Home. It was known locally that Pierson had a penchant for demolishing buildings and in a “fit of mania” in 1906; he escaped from the County Home and proceeded to tear apart an old barn. He continued this work until the walls gave way, collapsing on top of him and killing him instantly; he was a step-brother of Alice Wilson who was murdered by her husband in 1887.

Of those names that appear in the pages of the ledger, their entries are preceded by a number indicating the headstone marking their grave. One entry is simply marked “No. 18 is Unknown.”

Return to top

Historian says many residents work to preserve local heritage

By Matthew Ballard, Orleans County Historian Posted 17 February 2018 at 7:58 am

Provided photo: Orleans County Historian Matthew Ballard presents to a class of seventh grade students at Albion Middle School this week. Ballard spent two days with Tim Archer’s Service Learning classes. The historian showed old photos of canal construction, early schools, sandstone quarries, and numerous downtown sites. Ballard will be helping the students put together a 3- by 5-foot interpretive panel on how the Erie Canal developed growth and prosperity in the region. The panel is slated to be located along the canal near the fire station.

“Overlooked Orleans” – Vol. 4, No. 7

While reflecting on a topic for this weekend’s column, I started to think about some of the amazing opportunities that I have as an historian in New York. We should be thankful that the State requires the appointment of these valuable collectors and interpreters of history for any village or township with over 400 inhabitants.

The New York State Historian recently conducted a survey of county and borough historians, asking pertinent questions about how his office could better support the work of individuals like me. Responses were across the board, but made me realize that much more could and should be undertaken by the Department of History in supporting the work of our local historians.

I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of local historians this week, spending time discussing significant projects, new ideas, and upcoming celebrations. It was a chance to reflect on the hard work and dedication that each brings to the profession. We have a very dedicated group of historians who spend much of their time working behind the scenes, bringing attention to significant people and events in local history, preserving important resources for future generations, and responding to inquiries from people located throughout the world. On a side note, this past summer I had the chance to assist a gentleman from the Lorraine region of France who was researching the nasal flute, patented by William Carter of Albion.

Shelby and Barre are preparing for the passing of significant milestones as they plan for their bicentennial celebrations in the spring and summer of 2018. It is quite admirable that so much can be accomplished with the help of these dedicated individuals. More importantly, so many others in our communities stand up and join in on these endeavors as leaders and volunteers.

I spent two days at Albion Middle School speaking to around 150 seventh-grade students, sharing local photographs and talking about the impact of the Erie Canal on the development of Albion and other villages in New York. After the class, Tim Archer thanked me for taking the time to stop in and share the images and stories. I thanked him in return; no “you’re welcome” needed. I realized that opportunities to engage the youth in our community in a discussion of how local events and people shaped the world around us continue to disappear; seize those opportunities with gusto! Mr. Archer’s service learning class provides students with an ability to become active in their community from an early age, something that many will carry with them into adulthood.

I realized that it was the influence of local historians that spurred my interest in the community and therefore made the decision to remain in Orleans County after college an easy one. I know that other schools engage their students in similar ways; much more can and should be done to tap into the passionate and knowledgeable pool of historians in Orleans County.

That’s what pushed me to write on this subject this weekend; why public history? Our history teachers work diligently to inspire our children to appreciate the role that people and events have played in the development of the United States and New York. It is the realm of public history that engages us locally; the archivist, the librarian, the historian, the art curator, the museum director, all seek out ways to connect those ideas introduced in school on a more local level.

Before Christmas, I had an engaging conversation with a local resident on the role of historical study. We should consider life to be linear in which three points are required to make a straight line; the past, the present, and the future. Although we may fully understand our current point, one cannot set themselves on a straight path into the future without a thorough and complete understanding of the past. Our local historians work tirelessly to assemble an image of bygone days, sharing that with the community, and challenging the traditional narratives of history. They thoroughly scrutinize their sources, seek to produce a truthful and accurate representation of our history, and work meticulously to correct inaccuracies and false information.

As I near the conclusion of my third year as County Historian, I want to thank our village and town historians for their continued hard work and dedication to the field of history. Your commitment to writing, research, education, preservation, and advocacy is inspiring to me and your community.

Return to top

African American soldier from Medina was member of famed unit in Civil War

By Matthew Ballard, Orleans County Historian Posted 10 February 2018 at 8:32 am

The Battle of Olustee, Chromolithograph by Kurz & Allison

“Overlooked Orleans” – Vol. 4, No. 6

Last week’s article featured the story of Henry A. Spencer, born to ex-slave parents who arrived at Western New York following the Civil War. As the first African American student at the University of Rochester, his story is an important one not only for that institution but also for Orleans County. Another African American from Orleans County, Isaac Hawkins, represents another significant tale in the progression of the involvement of black soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War.

The son of Richard and Caroline Hawkins, Isaac was born at Medina in 1843. As indicated by early census records, Richard was a grocer who was enumerated immediately before John Ryan, the pioneer stone mason who opened the first commercial sandstone quarry in Medina. An 1842 deed shows that Hawkins purchased a parcel of land from David Evans for the sum of $200 at the point where West Street crossed over the Erie Canal (lot 41). This lot would have sat near the current intersection of Glenwood and Ryan streets.

It is likely that Isaac was born on this site, working for his father as a young man before the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1863, the twenty-year-old Hawkins enlisted at Medina and was placed with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the unit once under the command of Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw was killed at Ft. Wagner on July 18, 1863, months before Hawkins enlisted with the Union Army. However, Isaac was with the regiment for approximately two months when the unit engaged Confederate troops in Baker County, Florida at the Battle of Olustee on February 20, 1864 (the only major battle fought in Florida).

Isaac survived the battle, which claimed the lives of over 200 Union troops, but was captured and sent to Andersonville as a prisoner. The camp became infamous for its poor and inhumane treatment of white prisoners, who were given bread made from ground corn cobs, maggot-filled meat, and rotten vegetables. Blankets were scarce, tents were often non-existent, and men were forced to defecate in areas that contaminated drinking water.

One can imagine that the treatment of African American prisoners was far worse. In his pension documents, Hawkins noted that he received 250 lashes for forging a pass; he was stripped naked, forced to lie across a log, and whipped from head to foot. He was shackled and returned to work in the graveyard, where he was threatened with similar treatment if he stopped working for even a few moments. Following the war, this particular event was referenced by two witnesses in the trial of Henry Wirz. This testimony and the testimony of other prisoners resulted in Wirz’s sentence to death by hanging.

In addition to the whipping he received while at Andersonville, it was recorded that he had suffered a sabre wound to his arm and a gunshot wound to his arm and foot; the latter injury mangled his foot and required the use of a cane for the remainder of his life. His brother, Charles R. Hawkins, also enlisted in the Union Army in November of 1864 at the age of sixteen and removed to New Jersey following the war where he worked as a barber. His brother Walter relocated to Pennsylvania and worked the same profession. As for Isaac, he later removed to Washington, D.C. where he died on August 25, 1902; he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Return to top

Albion native was University of Rochester’s first African American student

By Matthew Ballard, Orleans County Historian Posted 3 February 2018 at 8:40 am

Photograph courtesy of the University of Rochester

“Overlooked Orleans” – Vol. 4, No. 5

The history of Orleans County’s African American population in the earliest decades of our area is scarce and unknown in many aspects. Some residents may be familiar with the story of Richard Gordineer who, as an infant, was sold by his father to Joseph Grant; Grant eventually settled in the Shelby/Medina area. After New York abolished slavery in 1827, Gordineer became a free man and a well-respected citizen of Medina. Other stories involve families, like those of Henry Spencer and Jacob Carter, who came to Western New York with local Union army officers at the conclusion of the Civil War.

Spencer came to Orleans County with Lt. Hiram Sickels of the 17th New York Light Independent Artillery sometime around 1866. After earning enough money working for George Sickels, he brought his wife and children to this area. One of Spencer’s sons, Henry Austin, spent the majority of his teenage years working for Asa and William Howard as an errand boy until he reached adulthood. While he worked, he made his best efforts to attend the local schools, which he attended for approximately three months out of the year. A biographical sketch of Spencer noted that he kept up with his fellow classmates by “burning the midnight oil.”

He attended Miss Mabel Foster’s boarding school in Philadelphia, becoming the first African American admitted to that institution where he quickly became one of the more popular students. Spencer then attended the Brockport Normal School, where he was one of the few African American students at an institution with several hundred students. The impressive young man graduated in 1880, about 10 years after Fannie Barrier Williams became the first African American student to graduate from the school. During commencement week, Spencer was selected as the Gamma Sigma orator, an honor that earned him a full scholarship to the University of Rochester shortly after. It was not the scholarship that was unprecedented, but Spencer’s acceptance to the University, which marked the first time in the history of the institution that an African American was accepted into the institution.

Upon the conclusion of his schooling, he studied law under the Hon. George H. Smith of Rochester while working to support his family. Spencer was appointed to a position in Albany in the speaker’s room thanks to a former University of Rochester classmate, Hon. James M. E. O’Grady. When S. Fred Nixon assumed the role as speaker of the State Assembly, Spencer was appointed as Nixon’s confidential clerk, a position which he continued to hold through the tenure of the Hon. James Wadsworth, Jr.

Upon his retirement in 1929, he had served in government for over 30 years and worked for a period of time under Governor Alfred E. Smith and other prominent state officials. At the time of his death on September 25, 1935 in Rochester, he was one of the area’s more prominent African American citizens. He was a past grand master of the New York State Colored Masons, an organization which consisted of over 2,000 members across New York.

Return to top