The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2001

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A Biography of John Magee

Chapter Seven


Gary M. Emerson

Introduction, Chapter One and Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four
Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine

A New Community

With defeat in the recent election bearing upon him, and the coal business prospering due to the war, Magee decided to leave Bath and establish residence in Watkins, location of the main offices of the Fall Brook Coal Company. The charter had expired on the Steuben County Bank, and twice he had suffered political embarrassment in Bath. Although he felt remorse about leaving his home in Steuben County, he said; "I cannot stay there; they have made me a pariah."314

Magee purchased his Watkins mansion from a friend, George Freer, in September, 1863, for $6,885.06.315 Standing at the northwest corner of what is today Fourth and Decatur Streets, the house was built in 1845 by Dr. Samuel Watkins, for whom the town of Watkins was named.316 After Dr. Watkins died in 1851, his widow married George Freer, her cousin and lawyer. When she died in 1853, Freer was left alone with the house. When he moved to another home in Watkins, the mansion stood deserted for a time. Duncan Magee and his wife, Catherine, had already established residence in the house before John and Arabella Magee bought it and moved in with the young couple.317

The mansion was Greek Revival in design, just as the Magee home in Bath had been. The front of the house looked majestic with six huge columns "entwined with a large growth of wisteria." 318 Included with the house was a large vegetable garden about two acres in size. Today, the "vegetable garden" is the entire village block bordered by Fourth Street on the south, Third Street on the north, Decatur Street on the west and Porter Street on the east.319 A gardener, Henry Hendy, was hired by the Magees to look over the mansion grounds and garden.320

The residence in Bath was not sold by Magee until 1866. Ambrose Howell, a Bath merchant, purchased the Magee home for $7,000 in February that year.321 Not included in the sale were the iron fence, iron hitching posts, two iron dogs, and two large chandeliers. The old iron fence that today surrounds the site of the Magee residence in Watkins, is probably the fence that once stood guard around the Magee mansion in Bath.

Magee made himself very active in improving his newly adopted community. Along with George Freer, Magee established a cemetery in Watkins. The land belonged to George Freer, having received it through his marriage to Cynthia Watkins. Dr. Samuel Watkins was buried there in a vault he had built on the site.322

When Magee discovered that Watkins had no cemetery, he proposed to Freer that they establish one. Together they selected twenty-two acres of the Freer land overlooking the village and lake for a cemetery they named Glenwood. Magee paid Freer fifty dollars per acre on the condition that Freer donate the land to the village. On April 14, 1865, Freer deeded the land over to the village trustees.323 The trustees took one thousand dollars already appropriated for a cemetery, plus five hundred dollars raised through taxes, to erect a fence and improve the grounds.324 Freer and Magee were allowed to pick out choice spots for themselves.

Magee knew it would not be long before he would make eternal use of his selection. Certainly the death of his wife, Arabella, made him aware of that. She died at Watkins on May 16, 1864.325 She left several thousand dollars to the Presbyterian Church in Bath designated mainly for mission work by the church board. In her memory, John Magee donated an ornate marble font to Reverend L. Merrill Miller of Bath for his new church in Ogdensburg.326 Shortly before his wife died, Magee had deeded the Watkins home to Duncan and Catherine. The elderly Magees continued to live there until their deaths. Duncan was being groomed to handle the business interests that his father had built. The house was only a small part of what he would inherit.

Magee had always been a devout Presbyterian. Watkins needed a new Presbyterian church, and Magee saw to it that a stately one was built. On July 9, 1864, he bought village lots seventeen and eighteen on Cincinnatus (Sixth) Street for $1600.327 He then donated $50,000 to build the church, which was completed in 1868.328 The congregation raised $6000 to buy carpets, cushions, furniture, and an organ.329 A plaque high on the front of the church reads:

First Presbyterian Church
o f Watkins
Erected 1867
By Liberality of John Magee

There was one condition Magee had placed upon his donation. The church was not to be used for "secular lectures, concerts, or political purposes."330 The mixture of politics and religion was something disconcerting to Magee.

Magee's generosity made a noticeable effect upon Watkins. His coal company certainly had been an economic boost to the town, and he was a benefactor to the spiritual development of the community. He was no longer a pariah, but a respected citizen in a grateful community. This recognition brought a call to perform what would be his last civic duty.

2001, Gary M. Emerson
Introduction, Chapter One and Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four
Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine
Notes to Chapter Seven

314 Irwin Near, History of Steuben County, p. 264.s

315 Watkins Glen, N.Y., Schuyler County Clerk's Office, Book 8 of Deeds, p. 302.

316 Watkins Express, "Historical Picture of the Week," Nov. 4, 1970, p. 3.

317 Watkins Glen, County Clerk's Office, Book 9 of Deeds, p. 403.

318 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee genealogy folder, newspaper clipping, "Correction," by J. B. Sanford.

319 Watkins Glen, Schuyler County Clerk's Office, Book 8, p. 302.

320 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee folder, newspaper clipping dated 1881.

321 Bath, N.Y., Steuben County Clerk's Office, Liber. 110, p. 5.

322-24 History of Schuyler County, 1879, p. 63.

325 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee genealogy folder, Magee genealogy compiled by Barbara Bell.

326 Nora Hull, ed., Centennial Celebration, Bath, NY, "Reminiscences" by Rev. L. Merrill Miller, D.D.

327 Schuyler County Clerk's Office, Book 10 of Deeds, p. 209.

328 W. W. Clayton, History of Steuben County, p. 188.

329 History of Schuyler County, 1879, p. 63.

330 Schuyler County Historical Society, Magee folder, "Glenfield" by Robert Hartman, p. 10, taken from Memorial of John Magee by Rev. F. S. Howe.

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