In The Beginning

The Fenton History Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013. It was organized in 1963. One of the first donations received by the center was a collection of textiles and clothing which belonged to the Prendergast family, and which was donated by the James Prendergast Free Library. Included in the collection are pieces from all three of the generations of Prendergasts, from the founder down.

James Prendergast was born in Pawling, N.Y., in 1764. The Prendergast family (there were 11 siblings) purchased 3337 acres on the west side of Chautauqua Lake, near Mayville and extending to the Chautauqua Assembly grounds, shortly after 1805.

While searching for horses who had wandered away from the family’s property, he came upon the outlet of the lake, at the Chadakoin. Seeing the potential at that spot, his brother deeded 1,000 acres to him, and James purchased more land, and developed the village of Jamestown, with mills and other businesses.

He married Agnes Thompson in 1807 and they had one son, Alexander, who was born in Patterson, N.Y., or Pittstown, N.Y., on Feb. 3, 1809. Agnes died in 1840, and the founder James, died in 1846, at age 82.

During his lifetime, James was the first supervisor of the town of Ellicott, first postmaster of the village and a judge in the Court of Common Pleas.

In the collection are two items which belonged to James the elder – a handkerchief with the embroidered initials “J P” and a small infant bonnet, beautifully embroidered with white on white thread in a style called Ayrshire work.

Alexander Thompson Prendergast, the son of James, the founder, was born Feb. 3, 1809. On April 6, 1847, he married Mary Norton. She was born in Westfield on Jan. 21, 1821. They had two children – Catherine and James, the younger.

In the collection received from the library are a number of pieces of Alexander’s baby clothing. There are four baby dresses, all made of fine linen, and decorated with white embroidery. There are three undershirts and a sacque of linen cambric with long sleeves and decorated with braid, and the bodice portion of another baby dress – heavily embroidered.

The photograph shows one of the jewels of that collection, the bonnet Mary Norton wore when she married Alexander Prendergast, the son of the founder, James, and his wife Agnes Thompson Prendergast. It is made of silk, which is covering a buckram form, made to hold the bonnet’s shape. They were married April 6, 1847. Alexander died Aug. 1, 1885, in Kiantone, outliving both of his children.

They had two children. James (the younger) was born on June 18, 1848, and his sister, Catherine Merritt Prendergast, was born in 1854. Catherine died on Aug. 2, 1864, at age 10. In the collection of textiles, we have a small plaid sunbonnet in green, blue and tan, which most likely belonged to Catherine. It has a trapunto corded decoration, with a “skirt” to cover the back of the neck. Mary Prendergast also left money for the erection of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church as a memorial to her daughter Catherine.

James Prendergast (the younger) attended Yale University and graduated from Columbia University Law School. He then returned to Jamestown and became a partner in the law firm of Green, Prendergast and Benedict. He was prominent in the business, social and educational life of Jamestown. According to Eleazer Green, one of his law partners, in a “Historical Sketch” which was delivered at the Prendergast Library on June 22, 1927.” He was strikingly handsome, of more than medium height, well proportioned, graceful and dignified, and always well dressed. Though reserved, his culture, mental and physical vigor were so apparent that he would command admiration and respect in any gathering. And through it all there was revealed the kindly heart. He possessed both an intellect and a soul.”

James, the younger, died on Dec. 21, 1879. Both his parents outlived him. He died without a will; however he left instructions about building a library to be named the James Prendergast Free Library, after his grandfather. The rents from the Prendergast building at the corner of Main and Third were to be accumulated until enough was saved to construct the library. His parents carried out his wishes, and thus the library came into being in 1880. The only artifact from James, the younger, is a possible uniform helmet from a military school.

Having artifacts from the founder of Jamestown is a wonderful way to begin a historical society collection. They haven’t been often on display, because of their fragility, but they are being cared for so they will still be available to scholars