Visits to Museums
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NSG Visit May 2002
Livingston County Historical Society
Geneseo, New York
It was one of those clear blue-sky days in early May when it was great to be outside and when one was sure that winter was finally over. That's when fifteen members of the New Society of the Genesee arrived at the Livingston County Historical Museum at 30 Center Street in Geneseo, New York. Both Alberta Dunn, the museum's president for the last eight years and Larry Turner, its vice president, greeted us. Alberta, a former librarian, provided the group with a most informative introduction to the six-room museum housed in the former District Number 5 cobblestone school house.
The school, built in 1838, was built on land given by the pioneer Wadsworth brothers "to remain forever a site for …buildings for educational purpose." In 1932 it became the Livingston County Historical Museum. The historical society, founded in 1876, rates as one of the senior organizations of its kind in the state and the society's use of the school building fulfills the original stipulation.
Within the museum's venerable walls are exhibited hundreds of artifacts, keepsakes and mementoes that serve to document the rich heritage of the villages and townships throughout Livingston County.
One special treasure, highly valued for its historical significance, was revealed by Alberta for our group to appreciate. It was the 104th New York Volunteer's regimental "flank" flag proudly taken into battle by the volunteer lads from Geneseo who paraded off to fight in the Civil War. Many of those young men were taken prisoner during their first engagement. That's when Sergeant John Welch stuffed the flag into his shirt as he marched off to Libby Prison. To further protect the sentimental symbol of the regiment, Welch then sewed the flag into the lining of his coat. Upon his safe return to Geneseo, the flag became a valued family treasure. Following its donation to the museum, it was conserved. A ceremony to show the flag after the conservation process was scheduled for the day after our visit. We were privileged to view the honored relic.
Among the numerous other treasures were five paintings of the historic "Big Oak" where early land treaties were made. That enormous burr oak, a seedling before our nation was formed, fell into the Genesee River in 1857, the result of constant erosion. Hauled out by oxen, the trunk, ten feet in diameter and 28 feet around its base, was then cut into three huge sections. One became a fine secretary, now in the museum's possession, one was lost while on display at Letchworth Park, and the third now rests in a specially constructed viewing pavilion behind the museum. It is about 9 feet high and hollow. Farmers had thrown stones into it and when they were removed, some of the stones were recognized to be Indian tools. The museum has many artifacts from the Meadowwood, Owasco and Iroquois cultures.
A facsimile of a Shaker Prayer Stone holds a prominent place in another room. Discovered at the Craig Colony at Sonyea in the 1950s, the original ceremonial stone, six feet high, weighing 510 pounds, was erected by the Shakers on May 18, 1843, with its prayer engraved in New London, Connecticut.
A tour of the museum reveals an impressive Concord coach once owned by the Wadsworth family, complete with leather straps that carried the coach body from curved leaf springs; a ten-foot high Indian-shaped weather vane from a Genesee Valley canal-side distillery; a mastodon tusk; an 1850s wooden, hand-operated fire pumper. An outer building has an 1890 fire hose cart that was used in Geneseo, and county fire equipment. There are displays of the salt industry at Halite and Retsof, agricultural equipment, printing presses and tools of early craftsmen.
The exhibits of ladies fineries and household utensils allow one to better understand the fashions, furnishings and life styles of the pioneer days. There are many cradles - a very necessary item in a settler's cabin to keep an infant comfortable and protected yet close to its mother, busy with household work. There is a high chair to hold a child at table height. It was carefully constructed from small branches. Of special pride are displays of old toys, china, silver and pewter ware.
The six-room collection is so vast and covers such a wide variety of historic memorabilia that only a personal visit to the Livingston County Historical Society's Museum can come near satisfying one's passion for exploring the area's past.
You can have a preview of the museum by visiting the Society's website: www.livingston countyhistoricalsociety.org. The site lists scheduled programs of the Livingston County Historical Society and coming events of local historical groups.
© 2002, Donovan A. Shilling