A Grateful Salute to
J. Sheldon and Lillian Fisher
Six months before the new Millennium clicked into place and 60 years after they married, J. Sheldon and Lillian Fisher were celebrated for their contributions "in educating the public and preserving the past." Once more they were, in a sense, coming full circle, because they had first met at a Rochester Historical Society program in 1938. While Sheldon had a decade and a half of historical and archaeological work behind him by that time, Lillian brought her own historical interests, organizational talents, and dedication to their six decades of historical preservation and education work as a couple, even as they raised a family of three sons and a daughter.
Sheldon was born in 1907 in the 1811 Fisher homestead in Fishers, the town named for the pioneer family. Inevitably the family home and its stories reflected their history, but it was young Sheldon who rescued and squirreled away artifacts that made those memories palpable. He muses that looking out from his boyhood bedroom through window glass that had been installed by Brigham Young could have been a precipitating factor. But if one eye was on the past, the other engaged the immediate community. As an eleven year old he signed on as a junior member of the New York Home Defense Reserve, Fishers Company F, and three years later as a charter member of the Fishers Fire Department.
When he came of age he was fortunate enough to work with William A. Ritchie, later N.Y.S. Archaeologist, and Arthur C. Parker, revered archaeologist and creative museologist. Parker, a Seneca, was an expert on New York State sites and as curator of the Rochester Museum launched that modest institution toward its present sophistication as the Rochester Museum and Science Center. Sheldon worked at the evolving municipal museum from 1924 - 37, during which tenure, among other duties, he researched and wrote nearly three dozen New York State Historical Markers. In 1937 he became curator at the Rochester Historical Society which was also changing, after its first three-quarters century of collection, research, and publication activity. The following year found him working to preserve the 1845 Fishers Cobblestone Pump House and as a founder of the Rochester Genealogical Society and the Descendants of Plymouth Pilgrims.
That year he met Lillian, who was from a Virginia family transplanted to Missouri. She was also an historical aficiaonado, enough so that they spent their 1939 honeymoon poking around New England graveyards and searching out family records. In 1940 they purchased Valentown Hall, which had been envisioned decades before as a major commercial complex of shops when a projected railroad was to bring the world to its porches. When the railroad project stalled, the building accommodated more localized uses, then went into decline. Now the young couple made it the center of their professional and family lives.
In 1944 the Fishers Family Collection was tranferred to Valentown and two years later the rudiments of the Valentown Museum were established, beginning to make room for the historical collection that was the fruit of the family's constant alertness to artifacts and documents that were often in peril. School children and others began to visit on guided tours and the Valentown historical mission became known more widely, gradually leading to important historical items being brought to their attention.
Along the way they were instrumental in founding the Victor Historical Society and the Perinton Historical Society, as well as several others in the area. Sheldon was active in Victor town affairs during the 1960s and was the first Ontario County Historian, 1960 - 66. In 1964 the important Seneca village site on Boughton Hill in Victor was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior, the first fruit of a campaign for its preservation and development begun by the Fishers in 1946. The grateful Seneca Nation adopted Sheldon into the Heron Clan in August 1964, and the State of New York began purchases that led to the important historical site now at Ganondagan. Its public opening took place three centuries after the original site's destruction by the Marquis de Denonville.
All these years the Sheldon and Lillian Fisher family, like shopkeepers of history, were living literally above and among their historical artifacts, until they acquired the 1830s Ichabod Town homestead nearby. During the 1970s they added to that yellow house, red and blue houses on the Valentown site. In 1982 their Victor neighbors honored Sheldon and Lillian as the town's Outstanding Citizens of the Year.
An annual Antique Peddler's Market at Valentown and Lillian's employment as an office manager nearby were sources of income, but new items kept turning up and were not always donated, so for decades the Fisher family budget was strained, finally forcing bankruptcy in 1997. Those sacrifices however had never stopped their dedication to preserving and displaying materials vital to our regional memory. The work of decades was tranferred to the Victor Historical Society. In 1998 Friends of Ganondagan purchased the Native American collection that the Fishers had gathered and preserved in Valentown. Earlier, in 1990 the Smithsonian Institution purchased a scientific exhibition fashioned by Dr. Came of Pittsford that the Fishers had acquired in 1946.
Off-premise activities included involvement in acquisition of the Hubbell law office now at the Granger Homestead in Canandaigua and in the preservation and transfer of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton house in Seneca Falls to the National Park Service. The 1970s also found them excavating the Mendon site of Brigham Young's home and mill. The Mormon Collection at Valentown was purchased by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1985.
The Mormon Church, grateful for the assiduous efforts of the Fishers in preserving important artifacts and documents relating to its history in western New York, organized a community reception to honor Sheldon and Lillian on June 11, 1999, at their church on Kreag Road. In addition to tributes by Representative Louise Slaughter and Assemblyman David Koon, by historians Stuart Bolger and Matson Ewell, and a musical program, President David Cook of the local Mormon Church presented Sheldon and Lillian with roundtrip tickets to visit Salt Lake City, with their son Douglas. Sheldon, celebrating both his historian's sense of the appropriate and his continuing fitness, wore his 1939 wedding suit, and Lillian regaled the audience with the honeymoon agenda mentioned above. Douglas prepared the valuable time line on which this account is based.
No couple deserves more thanks for preserving, through thick and thin, our group memory as western New Yorkers. We gratefully salute you, Sheldon and Lillian Fisher!
© 2000, Robert Koch
Open House, a chapter from Sheldon Fisher's book, The Groaning