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NSG Visit November 1997

Penn Yan's Oliver House Museum


Donovan A. Shilling

On an unusually balmy Saturday in November 1997, a gathering of sixteen members of the New Society of the Genesee were treated to a tour of Penn Yan's Oliver House Museum. Located at 200 Main Street in Penn Yan, the square brick house with large windows, Italianate eaves, a windowed cupola, and porches to both front and side entrances holds a wide variety of artifacts that chronicle the early history of Penn Yan, Yates County, and of one of early New York's most unusual citizens, the "Publick Universal Friend," Jemima Wilkinson.

Idelle Dillon, the Executive Director for the museum, greeted us, then lead the group to her office where coffee, Christmas cookies and tasty chocolate and blueberry muffins baked by New Society member and Branchport Historian Jane Davis had been set out as a treat to our travelers.

Idelle was our knowledgeable tour leader. She explained that the house had been built in 1852, a fifteen-room wedding present from Dr. Andrew Ferguson Oliver to his son, Dr. William A. Oliver.

Andrew Ferguson Oliver and his twin brother William Morrison Oliver were born October 15, 1792, in Londonderry, New Hampshire, sons of Rev. Andrew Oliver. The two boys first moved to Springfield in Otsego County, New York, and then came to Penn Yan in 1818. Both married Otsego girls. Andrew was licensed as a physician and surgeon by the Otsego County Medical Society January 20, 1813. He was a founder member in 1823 of the Yates County Medical Society. His brother became a lawyer and judge in Penn Yan and had built, around 1825, the temple-style brick house that stands at 158 Main Street.

Andrew's first wife was Margaret Sutphen (1794 - 1829). Their son Peter became a lawyer, and son William W., the medical doctor for whom the wedding-present house was built. Their daughter, Jane, married John L. Lewis Jr. of Penn Yan. Peter married Maria Clark Brown, widow of James Brown Jr. of the Friend's Society. Mrs. Almira Gilbert became Andrew Oliver's second wife in 1831 and they had a daughter, Elizabeth, who married Dr. Samuel Robbins of Missouri. Dr. Andrew Oliver died in 1857.

Dr. William W. Oliver married Harriet N. Jones (1825 - 1903) and they had Jennie (1853 - 1933), William A. (1857 - 1915), and Carrie (1858 - 1942). William A. Oliver followed his father and grandfather and completed nearly 95 years of medical practice by the three generations of Olivers in Penn Yan. He was very briefly married, then lived with his two sisters. When Carrie, the last of the line, died, she willed the house to the Village of Penn Yan to be used as a museum and meeting place. It became the home of the Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society in 1948, just 50 years ago. William Morrison Oliver had been a founder of the County Historical Society in 1860 that became the "Yates County Genealogical and Historical Society, Inc." in 1928.

When Wm. Oliver Sr.'s family lived in the house on the corner, his office was a small building west of the house facing Chapel Street. Son Wm. Oliver Jr.'s office was in the southwest corner of the main house, on the west side of a short hall from the south entrance. This room still has the desk used by all three doctors Oliver, and book cases with medical books and equipment. Across the hallway from the consulting room was the room where patients waited.

The hall from the south entrance leads to the central stair hall which has pilasters with capitals resembling those on the porch columns. Here hangs a portrait of Abraham Wagener. Idelle told us that he is credited as the founder of Penn Yan. He had come with his parents from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, and a group of breakaway Quakers accompanying Rhode Island-born Jemima Wilkinson. Abraham Wagener built the first frame building in Penn Yan.

A mammoth, ornate, and mirrored Victorian-style hat, coat, and cane rack fills the wall space between two doors leading into front and back parlor rooms on the north side of this front entrance hallway. In these rooms are large portraits of the Oliver men. Both parlors have fireplaces. The one in the front room at the time of our visit had long black stockings hanging from the mantel ready to be filled with Santa's gifts. Nearby were positioned a number of antique toys, and a doll's table set with a tiny tea service. A four-foot manikin of a dwarf-like Santa had also been added to the Yuletide scene. Someone inquired about the elf-like size of Santa. Idelle explained that prior to the 1890s Santa was considered to be much smaller. "How else," she asked, "Could Santa make it up and down so many narrow chimneys?"

The second parlor is furnished with several extraordinary pieces of furniture. A huge ark-like bookcase fills the entire end of the room. Behind thirty panes of glass, many vintage books and journals are prominently displayed. To the left against the interior wall is the first piano brought to Yates County. It was shipped from NYC by way of the canal in the 1830s and was owned by the Baker family.

Above the square pianoforte hang two framed, very realistic, photo-quality, charcoal renderings: one of Sarah J. Potter-Wilkinson and the other of Jeptha A. Wilkinson. Jeptha was the grandson of Patience Wilkinson, older sister of Jemima Wilkinson. Some discussion circulated among our visitors as to whether the portraits were very skilled charcoal drawings, or photographs. At any rate an artist named "Cooley" signed the works-would a photographer have done that?

The dining room is at the end of the central hall and is the first room in the rear wing of the house. Windows on the south make the room bright. Surrounding the dining table in the center of the room are Hitchcock chairs. A locally-made cupboard with sliding glass-paned doors stands against the north wall and displays the Oliver's flow-blue china on its shelves.

Hanging above the fireplace opposite the main hall entrance is a painting of four Hamlin youngsters in a rowboat. The oldest boy stands in the boat's prow striking a Washington-Crossing-the-Delaware pose. A seated child holds an early American flag. For some unexplained reason the painting's artist had added a political slogan, "Free Soil," across the flag. The distant landscape appears to be that of the Keuka Lake area.

Another object in the dining room is a wide-edged picture frame holding several stuffed birds perched carefully in life-like positions. Such "bird pictures" were often a part of elegant Victorian decor. Idelle told us that she is required to have a license to exhibit the birds since the taxidermy process involved arsenic.

The next portion of our tour took us to the second floor. The large hallway has cases displaying artifacts once belonging to the Universal Friend. There is her side saddle and saddle bags, a pair of her shoes, a bonnet, some of her personal Staffordshire pottery, and the very mannish broad-brimmed beaver hat that she often chose to wear. An additional case held her lap desk, several letters and her last will and testament. Two silhouettes of the Universal Friend were also exhibited. We were told that she was reluctant to have her picture taken, but she did sit for a painting. The now dark portrait hangs here with a cloth over it, when not being shown. People still respect The Friend's wishes by not photographing her representation. Seneca Indian baskets that had been presented to Jemima Wilkinson as gifts are here, too.

The Society has diaries of members of the Friend's society, and journals of many Penn Yan families. Two rooms on this level are devoted to materials useful in historical and genealogical research. Presently the Yates County Society is looking for means to reprint Dr. Herbert Wisbey's, 1964, Pioneer Prophetess Jemima Wilkinson, the Publick Universal Friend. It is very evident that the Society members and volunteers, and the Oliver House Director, Idelle Dillon, will continue to be most adequate "carekeepers of the past."

© 1997, Donovan A. Shilling
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