Before It Was History
The Fenton Mansion, which has served many purposes during its 150 years in existence, has been the home of the Fenton History Center for the last 50 years.
Prior to being used for the Fenton History Center, the mansion was a private residence for Gov. Reuben Fenton and his family, it became the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in 1919 after it was acquired by the city of Jamestown, and the city Health Bureau moved in to the main rooms on the ground floor in 1962. The mansion has long been recognized as a city landmark intimately associated with one of Jamestown’s most prominent citizens, and since 1963 it has served as the home of the Fenton History Center.
The center, originally known as the Fenton Historical Society, was largely inspired by the efforts of E. George Lindstrom, who served as supervisor of the city of Jamestown from 1910 – 1916. In a letter to local newspapers dated Dec. 28, 1916, Lindstrom pointed out that Jamestown was in need of a public park, and that the mansion would be arranged so that “all patriotic societies could hold their meetings within its walls” and “where citizens could meet and examine the records of the veterans and historical objects and souvenirs.”
The Fenton Historical Society was organized as an unincorporated society in late May 1963. In it’s original charter, the purpose of the society was “to promote and aid in the development and preservation of local history, including the family history of Reuben E. Fenton and other pioneers and early settlers of Jamestown and its adjoining areas and communities; to aid, encourage and promote the preservation of the mansion of Reuben Fenton; to acquire and save for public use and exhibition relics, pictures, maps and articles of historic value dealing with or pertaining to the economic, political, patriotic and cultural life of the community; and to cooperate with the Chautauqua County Historical Society and all other organizations having similar aims and purposes.”
Roughly six months after the historical society came into being, the curators of the organization approached the city officials to request permission to use the space that was, at the time, being used by the city Health Bureau. According to the curators, there was an immediate need to be able to provide proper housing for the many valuable and historic items that had been donated to the organization by area residents.
Curators of the museum, including area residents such as Ernest Muzzy, C. Malcolm Nichols and Arthur Wellman, aimed to make the mansion not only a place where children could become acquainted with the past, but also a tourist attraction that could support itself through donations and admission fees.
By 1965, the Fenton Historical Society had become a more formal organization, bringing in Richard McLanathan, a consultant for the New York State Council on the Arts, to conduct a survey regarding the potential of the society. According to the 1964-65 annual report, the results of the survey showed that the society had great potential and had seen excellent attendance since its inception.
Over the next several years, volunteers and members of the society dedicated thousands of hours to helping to compile data, organize the library and help area residents with research. By the end of 1967, the Fenton Historical Society had recorded all marriages and deaths from 1826 – 50; received 45 genealogies from various area families, several historical books, a copy of the the 1800 federal census for Ontario County; and copied the information from the 1850 census for the towns of Chautauqua, Ellicott, Gerry and part of Cherry Creek.
The first years of the Fenton Historical Society were primarily focused on creating an environment that nurtured learning, embraced knowledge of the past and brought Jamestown’s rich history to the attention of the public. By creating a solid foundation for its collections, the Fenton Historical Society became an institution for the city of Jamestown that has continued to flourish and change through the decades, using the past as its drawing power.