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NSG Visit April 5, 1997

The Ontario County Historical Society Museum

Preserving Our Past


Donovan A. Shilling

Claude Bragdon's Building

The April 5, 1997, destination for the New Society of the Genesee was a handsome three-story building at 55 North Main Street in Canandaigua. The structure, easy to spot with its portico of four Ionic columns, is the home of the Ontario County Historical Society and it houses their museum and the society's extensive archives. The society was started in 1902 by a group of Canandaigua residents including Antoinette Granger and Mary Clark Thompson and today the society's more than 600 members support the museum and its mission to "document, collect, preserve and interpret" Ontario County's past.

Built in 1914, the building designed by noted Rochester architect Claude Bragdon, once also held Wood Library. Some of the interior rooms have high ceilings with balcony areas that overlook the main floor rooms. There is a large fireplace in a basement room and others on levels above.

We were met by Linda M. McIlveen, Director of Research for the Society. She took us first into the largest exhibit room which was filled not with historical artifacts, but with the "Annual Student Art Show," and we paused to admire the drawings and sculpture done by kids in kindergarten through grade twelve. The art works draw students and their families into the museum where they can see other exhibits that may lead them to an interest in the items and events of the past.

Following the student art show will be a new exhibit focused on Mary Clark Thompson, daughter of New York State Governor Myron H. Clark. Mary Clark married Frederick Thompson, A New York banker, and they had built a large mansion with many surrounding gardens. The estate in Canandaigua is now called Sonnenberg Gardens and is open to the public.

Linda took us then into the Ann McKechnie Meeting Room where a series of evening meetings were scheduled with speakers on various facets of Ontario history. On the walls were paintings from the society's collection including several water colors by Charles Crandall and Frank Hamilton Hutchins.

Western New York's First Prison

The Society has recently received a stone tablet that once was on the exterior of the first official jail in western New York. Roman letters were chiseled into the block stating "For the County of ONTARIO this prison is erected A. D. M D C C C X V. " Exhibited with this massive relic recently found in an old brick barn that stood behind the county jail were jail keys, grisly iron restraints, and even the invitations to hangings sent out by sheriffs. Prisoners from both Ontario and Genesee Counties were held here. One of those early inmates was William Morgan, the man who tattled on the Masons, revealing their society's secrets. His fate remains a mystery.

Early Maps and Papers

Leaving this room and following Linda we passed into the high-ceilinged research room where sociery members Bruce Stewart, who responds to genealogy requests, and Gilbert Smith, who is Treasurer, were working. One of their projects is to put on the Internet many of the Society's historical records including the early land transactions and maps of the Phelps and Gorham purchase. Papers of Oliver Phelps, maps of 1788 - 89, and land descriptions and transactions from 1789 to 1809 are in the Museum along with Holland Purchase maps.

Behind this room which still has the library checkout counter are book stacks filled with bound newspapers and other records of the county's history. We went up stairs to the second stack level, then on up a short stairway to the second floor where the Society's offices are on a balcony overlooking the main exhibit room below. Our group then climbed on up to the third floor which had been the children's room when the library had been in the building. Now it is a climate-controlled storage area for the society's collections. Here there are racks of quilts rolled in acid-free paper and covered with clear plastic so that some of each quilt pattern can be seen. Shelves carry a Shaker rocker, deck chairs from lake boats, and a well-worn pine school bench from the original Canandaigua Academy that opened in 1791. There are scores of framed photographs and prints. And there is an iron-bound box that Linda told us held the records of the Black Point Society. The air-conditioned attic is filled with fascinating artifacts.

Horse-drawn Carriages and Cutters

Going to the second floor we saw a yellow gig, a Portland cutter, an Albany cutter and a surrey from the Pittsford Carriage Association that will appear along with the Society's "Coachee" that belonged to Jemima Wilkinson in a Restoration vs. Preservation presentation opening May 16 and continuing through Memorial Day, 1998.

A Talking Blanket

Down on the main floor again, we saw an exhibit of portraits and items from the great historical events of Canandaigua's and Ontario's history including the Pickering or Canandaigua Treaty of 1794.

From here we went down a stairway that opened into a room filled mostly with Iroquois artifacts. Chief Hurry-Up's Ocola-Sioux "talking blanket" that had been a gift to the Seneca chief Red Jacket is there. The blanket spells out in drawings on deer hide, the battle career of Chief Hurry-Up.

Also on view were several wampam belts made of conch shell beads intricately threaded onto deer skin. A "Hiawatha" belt depicting the five Iroquois nations was on display. Linda explained that such belts were presented to the sachem or chief by the tribe's women. If they became displeased by his leadership, they retrieved the belt and bestowed in on another man they hoped would be more worthy.

Also in the basement is a room with a large fireplace surrounded by wrought iron fire tools and cooking vessels representing a pioneer kitchen. Here seventh and eighth grade students participate in hands-on experiences with pioneer cooking practices.

In other rooms of the basement, set ups of a Victorian attic and of a 1920s Victor, New York, garage are in progress. We were impressed with the scope of the holdings, and of the achievements of the Ontario County Historical Society and we thanked Linda for an all-inclusive, informative, and plesant tour.

Edward Varno is director of the Museum and he has been building interest and support for the Society and its museum among business people and residents of Canandaigua and Ontario County.

© 1997, Donovan A. Shilling
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