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The new “Welcome to Jamestown” exhibit brings Jamestown’s past to life. A timeline with artifacts is mounted on a custom made desk unit that harkens back to Jamestown’s reign as a major hardwood furniture-making city at the turn of the 20th century. The stories of the many “firsts” in Jamestown, to the most recent changes that are revitalizing the downtown area. These stories and more are told through a timeline and artifacts displayed throughout the “Welcome to Jamestown” exhibit.
The Fenton mansion was built in 1863 as a family home, and its interior still conveys an atmosphere of Victorian warmth and stability. The structure’s imposing location, overlooking the city, and its well-defined architecture, mark it as the home of an important person. Its owner, Reuben Eaton Fenton, was one of a class of developers and entrepreneurs, newly affluent in the mid-nineteenth century. After securing his fortune in lumbering and financial investments early in life, Fenton spent most of his adult years in political office. Moving from Town Supervisor to Congressman to Governor of New York, Reuben Fenton became one of the most famous citizens in the history of Chautauqua County.
The mansion was designed by a local architect, Aaron Hall, in Italian-Villa style which is characterized by an asymmetrical plan, a square tower, wide projecting eaves, decorative brackets, and arched windows. Hall embellished the red brick exterior with decoratively tooled local sandstone. Another masonry feature remarkable for its sophistication was the use of sanded paint to imitate the genuine sandstone.
Fenton himself was proud to point out that he had used his lumberman’s skills to select only “…well-seasoned timber, that which had lain for a year …”, to be used in his home’s construction. Architectural preservation specialists have described the exterior as a “…well-preserved artifact, illustrative of an architectural period in American social history.”
Exhibits and period rooms throughout the mansion provide the visitor with visual evidence of life in the nineteenth century.
Much of the development of Jamestown’s transportation, industry, and recreation centered around nearby waterways. A colorful exhibit, “The Golden Age of Chautauqua Lake” depicts a wide variety of lake activities which took place during the nineteenth century. Among the many and diverse artifacts on display are ice harvesting tools, a swan boat, furnishings from lakeside hotels, and mementos of the days of steamboats and trolleys. The presence of Chautauqua Institution, nationally known for its summertime arts, education, and religious programs, is vividly brought to mind by a photographic essay of its fanciful architecture.
A kitchen furnished with the necessities for house keeping in the Homespun Era remains on the site of the mansion’s original kitchen. Bread baking for the Fenton family was done in the oven which is located to the
left of the fireplace. Food prepared here was sent to the first floor by way of a dumb waiter which was later concealed behind the plaster.
A collection of tools for farming and home building and maintenance, and looms and spinning wheels for the creation of household linens and family clothing informs the viewer of the basic mechanical and manual abilities which were needed for survival a century ago. Further, the exhibit, identified as “Implements for Self-Sufficiency”, demonstrates the never-ending round of tasks which occupied the local inhabitants in the last century.
The Renaissance Revival Drawing Room is brilliantly alive with a rainbow of colors characteristic of the Victorian Age. Ornate designs on the ceiling and archway moldings are accented with gold. Elaborate burgundy draperies, highly ornamented, sweep from the ceiling to “puddle” gracefully on the multicolored Brussels carpet. A Renaissance Revival-style chest made by Alexander Roux holds a prominent place in the bay-windowed alcove. It was a special gift to the Governor and has been carefully preserved by his descendants. The decorative pieces on the top of the chest complement the chest’s rich appearance. Pier mirrors at either end of the room allow the viewer to see endless reflections of the elegant salon.
The elaborate decor of this room attests to the public lifestyle of Governor Fenton. National and international notables were entertained here at receptions and political gatherings. This stately room was flower bedecked for the weddings and receptions of two Fenton daughters. The solemn ceremonies of “laying out” as well as the funeral services for both Governor and Mrs. Fenton took place in here also.
A family parlor reflects the home life of Governor Fenton with his wife and their three children. (An older daughter, by the Governor’s first marriage, lived with her maternal grandparents after the death of her mother.) Stereopticon cards, magic lantern slices, collections of personal memorabilia, and a small parlor organ, give the observer a glimpse into a family’s leisure time pursuits in the late 19th century.
“A Child’s Life” is an exhibit which contains artifacts used in the education and daily life of Victorian children. It provides another intimate look at domesticity in an earlier time.
The military exhibit reveals the local and national significance of the Civil War to this mansion. It served as the last National Headquarters of the Grand Army of the Republic, from 1948 to 1957. When the last member of that organization died, in 1957, Cora Gillis, the Secretary, signed and closed the official books in this building. All the records were then sent to the Library of Congress.
A meaningful artifact in the military exhibit is the battle flag carried by the 112th New York Volunteer Regiment made up entirely of men from Chautauqua County. The Regiment was mustered in at Jamestown, and the battle flag was carried in over 30 battles and campaigns of the Civil War.
The large painting of a Civil War scene by noted artist Johannes A. Oertel, 1866, hangs in a prominent spot in the military exhibit. It was given to Governor Fenton by his friends in recognition of his many services to the fighting men, both during and after the war. Such activities gained for him the title, “The Soldiers’ Friend”.
Immigrants with a variety of ethnic backgrounds have made significant contributions to the development of the area. Finely carved and finished wooden pieces exemplify the skills of Swedish newcomers, the largest immigrant group to settle locally. They combined their woodworking skill with business abilities to develop both wood and metal furniture factories which shaped the economy of the area early in the 20thCentury.
Shoemakers’ tools, a wine press, and musical instruments, illustrate the many contributions made by the Italians, who represent the second largest segment of citizens with a foreign heritage in the city. Combining skill and need, this group established itself in jobs which ranged widely from independent shopkeepers and restaurant owners, to city laborers and household employees. They have become an influential voice in the city of Jamestown.
Temporary exhibits and programs recognize local figures who have gained widespread reputations in a variety of pursuits. Among those with national and international fame are: Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, artist/naturalist Roger Tory Peterson; actress/comedienne Lucille Ball; political satirist Mark Russell; cartoonist Brad Anderson; singer Natalie Merchant; and the musical group, 10,000 Maniacs.
Since 1964 The Fenton History Center has occupied the mansion. In addition to carefully defined collecting, providing expert care and storage, and presenting interpretive exhibits, the Center also has developed programs and facilities for education and research, all with an emphasis on the history of Jamestown and Chautauqua County. Both a genealogical library with extensive family records, and a local history reference library, are open to the public. The Archival and Photographic Collections are available to researchers by appointment.
The Fenton Mansion, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a landmark, lending distinction and elegance to the passing scene. In its continuing mission as the center for education and preservation of a unique local heritage, it is a valuable cultural institution of the city of Jamestown, New York.
Kathleen J. Stornes, Elizabeth Serrell Nord, David Anderson