(Note: This article is presented as “another reference” on which to base research and for reading pleasure. Many statements are the opinion and interpretation of the writer. Although based on fact, information may be available to prove or disprove statements made. The responsibility for the content belongs to the author. Always research further before accepting statements of others as fact.) Transcribed 2006 by Mary Rhodes from History Room at David A. Howe Public Library, Wellsville,NY; Edited by Ron Taylor.
Colorful Personalities of the Past
By Mrs. J. H. Fisher
(Miriam Thornton Fisher 1871 - 1965)
This article was written by Mrs. Fisher for the Woman’s Society of the Congregational Church on the occasion of the 90th Anniversary of the Church in Wellsville.
Madam President, Ladies,
I feel privileged to have a part in your program this year, chiefly because this (my) house (198 North Main Street, Wellsville) is 100 years old. The contractor was L. D. Davis. The architecture Greek Revival. It was built for Seymour Johnson, a son of Nathaniel Johnson.
Seymour Johnson’s elder daughter, Mary or “Mame”, eloped from this house to marry James Macken. Perhaps you all remember the house. It was previously the James Macken house. In the early days, the Macken Bros. had a drug store on the East Fassett Street corner. “Jim” was a colorful figure of the village. He served in the Civil War, and one of his friends here was his superior officer. Jim said he would “be blanked-blank” before he would salute him. As the story goes, they enclosed him in a hollow square and tore his chevrons off twice. Once he was in the guard house.
In the drug store at the corner they had a man doing odd jobs. Did you ever hear of Sedlitz powders, one in a white paper, one in a blue paper? They were usually put together before swallowing and then they foamed. They gave one to the man and then the other. He foamed at the mouth and was awfully scared.
At one time Jim Macken was visiting his brother, Ed, in St. Louis in the spring. When it was time to retire he was really hot. He remarked he was going home in the morning where the thoughts of hell were comforting.
Seymour Johnson was for many years a prominent citizen. In 1850 he came here with his family from Elmira, NY to live. The old plank road to Eleven Mile was owned by a stock company and Seymour Johnson was the largest owner and promoter. He died at the early age of forty nine, leaving a nucleus of a fortune that might have made him the richest man in Allegany County if he had lived.
Nathaniel Johnson built the house now owned and occupied by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. While building this house, he had a log cabin close by and that for many years was the back part of the house now owned and occupied by the “Moose”.
Father and son were engaged extensively in the lumber business. Nathaniel Johnson did many things for the village. Among them, he gave the land for the Johnson Cemetery on West Genesee St. and he gave money to the Masonic Lodge to maintain the fence around it.
When he sold land to the Erie Railroad he made a good contract with them that all passenger trains should stop at this station. Very fortunate for us.
In 1856 Grandfather Daniel Dobbins built a house at Riverside, now the Dexter house. Mother used to tell us that when she walked to the village she was always sure to get home before dark as she was afraid of the wild animals.
1795 – First called Genesee. From a Gazetteer of 1824, I quote “Genesee in the language of the Indians of this region is formed from their name Pleasant Valley, but I know not what was the original name.”.
1845 – Dwight Goodrich, Jute Fisher’s grandfather, built the house at 284 West State Street, now owned by Dr. E. F. Comstock.
1803 – Nathaniel Dyke, the first white settler in these parts, had his home at Elm Valley. Sometimes in the histories spelled Dyke or Dike.
1822 – Job Straite was Wellsville’s real pioneer, a squatter. They lived on the land now Woodlawn Cemetery.
1826 – Wellsville did not exist as a village. Perhaps there were two or three houses on what is now Main Street. Gardner Wells, Harmon Van Buren, Silas Hills and Joseph Crowner came between 1827 and 1832.
The year Gardner Wells came is not known. It was for him the village was named. They and others laid the foundation of which Wellsville so firmly stands. I quote:
“They had not come for rest or leisure
They had not come for ease and pleasure
They came to struggle and to toil
To battle with the giant trees that occupied the soil.”
1835 –The first frame house in the village was built by Gardner Wells. Judging from the standards of today, times were mighty hard. There is an old account book kept by Silas Hills that has these items:
May 17, 1832 – Thomas Straight, Dr. to ½ lb of tobacco $.13
¼ lb of tea $.31
Credit by 1 ½ bu of potatoes $.38
Credit another item $.20 for 2 lbs of butter
Credit to cash paid for whiskey to raise grist mill $.75
Common labor $.50 a day
Skilled carpenter work $1.00 a day.
2 Glasses of whiskey $.03 a piece.
1831 – Harmon Van Buren built a log house where the kitchen of the Fassett House now stands. In 1832 he opened his house as a tavern. Across the end of the barroom was a huge dutch fire place with a capacious chimney through which the guests could see the tops of the pine trees outside against the sky. He had the first omnibus.
1831 – First business place started was that of Silas Hills who exposed some goods for sale in the home of Harmon Van Buren.
1832 – The first annual town meeting. The inhabitants along the river resolved themselves into a “raising bee” and rolled up a log school house which was the first in the village, on the corner of North Main and East State St. One who was familiar with village schools at that time says: “the scholars commenced in their A B C’s in either Webster’s or Cobb’s Speller, crept gradually through the A B C’s into baker, then with words of three syllables and so on through the book, learning everything thoroughly as they passed along.”
The “Old English Reader” was next brought into requisition and writing and arithmetic with a limited quantity of geography and grammar completed the course.” He adds, “The old practice of teaching and enforcing good manner was regarded as important.” - From the History 1806 – 1979
1831 – Zenas H. Jones drove the first team over the road opened in 1831 south side of Dykes’ Creek. He was obliged to wait for the logs to be rolled out of the road before he could pass through.
1832 – At this time the village was covered with a dense pine forest. He (Jones) first came to Wellsville from Scio, a part of Wellsville. In 1833 he married and moved to Willing. He came back to Wellsville in 1840.
1834 – The first temperance society was formed in the town. Mr. and Mrs. Zenas Jones were the first to sign the pledge. His home, 30 South Main Street, now standing (1956) is the oldest frame house. He was a lawyer, supervisor for 1 year, Justice of the Peace 32 years, senior member of the bar in Allegany County. He was the son of Benjamin Jones, who was the only Revolutionary soldier buried in this locality. (NOTE: Nathan Sayers is Buried in Woodlawn, another Revolutionary War Veteran)
1806 – General Jones as a member of the Legislature. The monument to his memory is on the Yale Randolph farm east of the Regan Farm on the River Road. It has this inscription:
Gen Benjamin Jones
Died Oct 19, 1840
in the 84 Year of his age
When Britain first her hostile banners raised,
And on our shores the foreman’s war torch blaz’d
Then he the young espous’d Columbia’s cause
Fought for our Freedom, Liberty and laws.
(Editors NOTE: Mrs. Fisher perhaps promoted Benjamin Jones from “SGT” to “GEN”, as evidenced by his headstone. I will leave it to the research of the reader to prove which is correct. Also, the inscription verse is not visible on the stone as viewed by our researcher. It is a nice addition and has been left in place by us as it is part of her original writing. Perhaps removed by “sands of time”…)
1829 – Bartholomew Coats came from Independence guided by only a blazed trail through the woods. An ox-team hitched to a wood sled (like a stone boat) brought along a few possessions. At first he had a log house at Riverside but later built the house now owned and occupied by Dr. Benedict. His son, Ambrose Coats, built the house that is now the Country Club.
Undoubtedly the most colorful person that came to Wellsville in 1865 was Charley Simmons. Today we would call him a promoter. He bought most of the land at Riverside for himself but later was owned by A. B. Robertson, once the Evergreens, then later owned by the American Legion when it burned to the ground in 1951.
He built the Riverside Collegiate Institute and endowed it. It was conducted many years. Later it became the Riverside Seminary under Prof. Cummings. He also built the Pioneer Block in North Main St., also Simmons Opera House, corner of North Main now occupied by a Sinclair Filling Station. In his short ten years he was here, he did a great deal for Wellsville. He died in 1875.
I want to tell you a story. When the James McEwens were living in New York City, Mrs. McEwen went to church and stayed to Sunday School and the teacher, Mr. Holt, when he found out that Mrs. McEwen had lived in Wellsville, told her that he once taught in the Riverside Collegiate Institute! His brother was the author of the book “Feeding and Care of Infants”. Many children fifty years ago were brought up on it.
Our first sanitarium was located at Riverside about where Russell Tremain’s house now stands. It was conducted successfully by Dr. Dargiz for many years.
Wellsville was at one time called Tanbark City because of the number of tanneries – five. I remember Early Street had the Howard Tannery and there were large vats, and boys playing around them would fall in and get terribly burned. Instead of trucks going by filled with gasoline, large wagon loads of tanned leather were being drawn. They squeaked so some horses refused to pass them.
Nov 19, 1856 – At the Baptist Church a meeting was held and organized a “Library & Literary Association & Lectures”. The lectures that were given were:
“The Importance of Mental Cultivation”
“the Importance of a Sense of Individual Importance”
“the Greatness of Trifles”
“My Bible, My Country”
“The Position and Responsibility of Women”
The machine shop on Furnace Street, now Jefferson Street, of Sweet, Whittaker and Company came after the construction of the Erie Railroad. In 1854 Mr. Sweet moved to Dansville and remained until 1860. On his return, he found little business had been done in his absence. He purchased the shop and did a large business in the manufacture of boilers, engines, mill machinery until 1873 when he made a specialty of the “Iron Slave” engine.
1876 – He dropped this branch and turned his attention to the making of the “Royce Reaper”. One of these Royce Reapers in on exhibition at Henry ford’s Museum at Dearborn, Michigan.
Lebbeus Sweet was born Oct 9, 1824 and died Sept 26, 1900. He was the Grandfather of Mrs. John Dickson.
Duncan McEwan, who had been in the employ of Smith & Williams, General Machinist, as foreman since 1854, began business for himself in Coats Cabinet Shop on a small scale, a lathe and a drilling machine. By 1861 business had increased, so he erected a building for his sole use in which he put the first wool carding mill ever set up in Wellsville. After his death in 1864, the business was conducted by his widow until 1868, when their sons, John and William R. McEwen, formed a partnership under the name of McEwen Bros.
Coats Bros. was established early in the manufacturing business of the village by Welcome H. Coats. It dealt in the making of fine furniture extensively.
1859 or 1860 – The largest of the large tanneries was known as the Wellsville Tannery. It had the capacity of 200 vats, later increased to 500.
L. D. Davis, who was our first street commissioner and also postmaster, owned the corner lot of North Main and Elm Street, now owned by Walter Embser. On this corner he had a planning mill and called himself contractor as he built houses.
The street was called Tram Road, now Elm Street. Mr. Davis stored lumber at the foot of the street near the Erie tracks. He owned the land and the house he lived in and built, now owned by Mrs. Jennie A. Taylor Riggs, 264 North Main Street. He also built the house now owned and occupied by Mr. W. R. Chenault, 363 N. Main and as I have said, my house.
My Father, James Thornton, of Angelica, New York came here in 1866 after his Civil War service. Alfred S. Brown came at the same time.
Father had a harness shop and all harnesses were made by hand. He employed ten or more men. He made many patents in Saddlery Hardware and patented “Thorntons Trace Buckle” and “Improved Whip Socket”, hundreds of thousands of which were in daily use. He had business relations with a firm in Buffalo, Pratt & Letchworth, and Mr. Letchworth was his business and personal friend. He gave us Letchworth Park. Father and Mother were often asked to visit Mr. Letchworth and his sister. Father had a bronze medal given to him through Pratt & Letchworth by “The International Exposition” for a collar buckle and halter trimming. Mother received the royalties from these patents for her pin money, so Pratt & Letchworth was often spoken of. One day someone asked my brother Law, “who made God” and he said “Pratt & Letchworth”.
I have read Arch Merrill’s book on Letchworth Park and never read any mention of the Civil War Monument in the Park to the First New York Dragoons. Its colonel was Rufus F. Scott of Wellsville and father was a member of it. It was in more active engagements than any other company mustered out of the Western New York Area.
A.N. Cole was a natural politician. He was a man of mark among the journalists of the state. He was an intimate friend of Horace Greeley over a 25 year period. He called the first Republican convention and was often called “Father of the Republican Party.” When Mr. Cole came to Wellsville between 1863 and 1864 he removed the office of the “Free Press” here. He was a lawyer but never practiced. Mr. Cole did not build, but lived and owned the house called “The House on the Hillside”, now standing on upper Highland Ave, the second house east of Elmer D. Spicer’s. He wrote a book – “The New Agriculture: The Waters Led Captive” on irrigation systems. He grew some luscious large strawberries.
E. B. Hall was well known for his fine collection of fossils and of ferns of which he had 200 specimens. At one time he had a specimen of nearly every tree and shrub that was found in these parts.
Dr. J. C. Wilson was a dentist. He was the discoverer of the local anesthetic for the painless extraction of teeth. Associated with him in its manufacture as “The Chemical Company” was Herbert Smith. It was sold abroad. Later it was owned by Dr. Waite of Springville, New York. Still in use by dentists. There is a formula of this anesthetic in the Dental Department of the University of Rochester.
1856 – The first musical instrument used in any choir was a base viol played by Dr. H. H. Shearar in Metropolitan Hall where the Congregational Church first had their meetings.
Also in 1856, the first kerosene lamp was brought into the village by J. N. Stoddard. The oil was so black and offensive while burning that few could take it.
E. B. Hall was well known for his more than 80 discoveries in geology and science, and his fine collection of fossil sponges. Most of this collection is at the museum at Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania. He had nearly 200 specimens of ferns.
1887 - Coal was introduced as a fuel by Hoyt & Lewis in their dry goods store.
1868 – Hiram York built the first brick business block and it is now Ahrens’ Market. It was the home of York & Chamberlain Bank which failed in 1877
N. D. Spicer was Wellsville’s first fiddler and wire walker and play actor.
1882 – Gas came into general use. E. C. Bradley and family came here from Oil City, Pennsylvania, and it was through his and J. B. Bradley of Bolivar, New York efforts that the Empire Gas Company was organized.
The gas was not metered. A man came to the house from the gas company, asked what room you were going to heat and included the kitchen range. Looked at all the rooms and said it would be a flat rate a year. When our rooms were too warm, we did not turn down the gas, just opened the windows or doors to cool off.
1856 – 1928 – Carpenter’s Store in this part of the village existed for 70 years, without succumbing to the changing times. They used an old wood stove, no coal or gas. The kerosene lamps with their always clean and shining chimneys and bright light. No gas or electricity. Always the old general store selling dry goods and groceries. One thing they did do was to discontinue putting up the wooden shutters on the windows every Saturday night. They also bought and sold wool. They had platform scales which weighed loads of potatoes, apples, cattle, etc. It was a meeting place of a group of men who discussed all the questions of the day sitting around the old wood stove where cuspidors were provided them. The floor around the stove showed the wear and tear of many feet. It was run by two brothers, Whitford or “Whit” and George Carpenter.
The Carpenters sold the best coffee in town. Real java. Jute Fisher (my husband) told this story. At one time he went to the store before he had had breakfast. His mother asked him to stop at Carpenters and get some butter. The money drawer had not been unlocked and “Whit” had to reach down in the sugar barrel to get the key!
Carpenters Store was torn down to erect a filling station at the corner of North Main and West Genesee Streets.
Our Aunt Maggie bought the last calico in the store and made it into table clothes. She gave them to the Library for keeping until we have a historical museum.
Miriam Thornton Fisher
(Mrs. J. H. Fisher)
(Credits: David A. Howe Public Library, Historical Archives; Pictures from Wellsville Pennysaver Clippings & Wellsville Daily Reporter. Tombstone Picture by Mary Rhodes.)