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NSG Visit April 22, 2000

Bath's Museum Gems

The Magee House and

V. A. Medical Center Museum


Donovan A. Shilling

April showers were raining on twenty plus members of the New Society of the Genesee as they entered the Steuben County Historical Society's new home in Bath, New York, on Saturday, April 22, 2000. They were greeted by Joseph Paddock, Catherine and Richard Pierce, Richard Sherer, James and Marion Hope, Isabel Geibel and Norma Haskins, Roland Bentley, Ron Wyatt, and by "John Magee" (Gary Waldo, president of the SCHS) who welcomed all to the house he built in 1831 for his new wife Arabella.

Magee had just served two terms as a U. S. Congressman. Now he went into the railroad and later the coal business. In 1864 the Magees moved to Watkins and the house was sold to Ambrose Howell, a Bath merchant. Ira Davenport, Jr. bought the house in 1893 and in 1904 gave the house along with the Elm Cottage house, a Liberty Street business property, and $40,000 to the library association. Mrs. Davenport gave a large fountain carved of one piece of marble. It stands at the beginning of the walk that leads to the front doorway.

The Ira Davenport Library served Bath readers for 95 years. In 1999 the Alice and Henry Dormann Library opened just sixty feet from the mansion. A conga-line column of volunteers passed the hundreds of books from the old library to their fine new home.

The old library building became again the Magee House and now contains the collections of both the Historical Society and the County Historian. The historian's office is on the main floor in the large room on the right of the central hall. The society has a meeting room and a research room on the south side of this floor, exhibit rooms in the basement, and display, work, and storage rooms on the second floor.

The day of the visit knowledgeable volunteers pointed out portraits of Baron von Steuben, Washington' military advisor and the county's namesake; Charles Williamson, land agent for William Pulteney; and one of the Magee children. The last Magee descendant known by the library was Duncan Edwards who got the painting for the library some years ago. He is no longer living.

We were shown letters written by Robert Morris and Aaron Burr to Charles Williamson. Of particular note is the William Frey scrapbook collection. Over a 21-year period from July 1873, until his passing in 1894, Mr. Frey faithfully pasted newspaper clippings of interest into some 109 books, all neatly bound in maroon volumes trimmed with gold. Richard Sherer, Steuben County Historian, pointed out the Pulteney maps and other items in the county's collections.

Next we began a tour of the museum's basement exhibits. Among the area's early artifacts were wonderful albums bearing photos of young children living in the Davenport Home for Orphan Girls. Established in 1864 for Civil War orphans, the orphanage served a wide region around Bath until closing in 1957. Perhaps the most unique artifact we encountered was an original steering sweep from a river ark. The remarkable link to the area's past had been converted into an ironing board.

The second floor held a weighty archive collection of Bath newspapers beginning in 1831 and continuing into the year 2000. Nearby, the Military Room could be termed, according to its guide, a "nirvana for Civil War buffs." In 128 volumes, published over a twenty-year period, were the "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies." The books contain every dispatch sent by both sides, and regimental histories.

Filled with history, but empty of stomach, Society members enjoyed lunch at the Tally Ho Restaurant in nearby Kanona.

The historical museum at Bath's V. A. Medical Center was next on the agenda. Norma Haskins, now retired chief librarian for the VA Center, provided a detailed tour of the small two-story facility. Within its walls are sentimental mementos provided by veterans who spent years at the hospital.

The unit was established in 1872. Its local site was selected due to the generosity of the citizens of Bath who raised $23,000 for building a New York State Soldiers and Sailors Home. The 128-year-old facility is a combination of more than three dozen original and newer buildings. Today, under the Department of Veterans Affairs, medical treatment but not permanent residency is provided for veterans.

Building #42 houses mementos ranging from medical instruments, books, and medications associated with the home from 1877 through 1930. Noteworthy among the mementos was an American flag sewed together in April 1809. Its tattered remains were held in place with a fine netting and the whole protected with a pane of glass bound with a thick copper frame. Among the other objects displayed on the first floor was a lithograph of the original facility.

The second floor was crammed with sailors', soldiers' and nurses' uniforms associated with every American war from the Revolution to Desert Storm. Military helmets held names and autographs of the servicemen who once wore them. Models of ships and planes constructed by resident veterans once a part of the Center were displayed. The effect of the displays could only lead one to ponder the sacrifices so many young men made for their country.

© 2000, Donovan A. Shilling
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