Top 10 Historical Gems Uncovered or Rediscovered in Chautauqua County, NY

By Mark Stevens

While Jamestown native Lucille Ball and the standing legacy to her highly publicized private life and professional comedic career continue to light the marquee of historical treasures in Chautauqua County, I thought I’d draw your attention to some other historical treasures within our boundaries.

The McClurg Museum

 Located in historic Westfield, NY, the museum home was built by pioneer James McClurg in 1818. The grand and stately manor features three floors of fine art collections, antique furniture and historical collections. One of those collections exhibits the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln and his connection to Chautauqua County. Materials on hand include Civil War diaries and letters, as well as photographs and other period-related artifacts.

In February 1861, Lincoln made a stop in Westfield aboard a train on his way to his inauguration in Washington, DC. It was there he met 11-year-old Grace Bedell. Prior to his trip, Grace sent a letter to Lincoln pointing out how thin she thought his face was and suggested he grow whiskers. When the two met, Lincoln had taken her advice to heart, or to chin, and sported a beard. There are two larger than life bronze statues in the village depicting the historic meeting.  I have visited the area and have seen the life-like representation of the two. It is a certainly a must see Kodak (or iPhone) moment. Interesting to note, President Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Westfield five years later.

The McClurg Museum is open year round, closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  Museum hours run Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 4. It also serves as the home for Chautauqua County Historical Society.

Midway State Park

Whether you’re riding the beautifully refurbished carousel, navigating your way through the bumper cars, or relaxing on the ever popular train, you’re bound to capture the wonderment of Midway State Park, in Maple Springs, NY. Midway State Park is one of the oldest, continually operating amusement parks in the country.

In addition to the several fun-filled kiddie rides, this summertime must also features a museum, a gift shop, an arcade and food concessions. New this year, a miniature golf course designed to put your putt-putt skills to the test. Located on the waters of picturesque Chautauqua Lake, pavilion shelters and picnic tables are available for family reunions and company get-togethers. My wife and I have enjoyed many corporate outings at Midway, and spent countless hours of fun with both our daughters for the past 12 years. It is a clean, quaint, family-friendly experience that creates long-lasting memories for years to come.

The park operates May through September. Days and hours vary.

Fenton History Center

FentonHistoryCeneterLocated in Jamestown, NY, the Fenton Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the county’s center for education as well as preservation of unique local heritage.  This cultural institution was built in 1863 as a family Victorian home for Reuben Fenton, one of Chautauqua County’s most famous citizens, who went on to be elected Governor of New York.

The Victorian-style villa features a number of hometown exhibits and period rooms. They include, the Underground Railroad exhibit, called Intersections, a look the freedom movement through Western New York. The Fenton History Center also offers a brown bag lunch series, Saturday afternoon historic walking tours through Jamestown during the summer, and cemetery tours in October.

The Center plays host to many school groups and history classes, and is open year-round, from 10am to 4pm, Monday through Saturday.

The Athenaeum Hotel (and The White House)

AthenaeumEstablished in 1881, the stately hotel, located on Chautauqua Lake is the centerpiece inside the gates of Chautauqua Institution, a uniquely historic treasure in its own right. It is said to be one of the few vacation hotels of its kind in the nation, and regularly hosts weddings, conferences and important events.

The Athenaeum has also been the backdrop to a number of historical figures, including several Presidents of the United States. Gracing the steps of the hotel include, Ulysses S. Grant, Gerald Ford, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and William Jefferson Clinton. President Clinton enjoyed a week-long stay preparing for his debate with Republican Senator Bob Dole.

While I’ve never had the chance to stay at the Athenaeum, I have attended many functions there. I must say it’s a very classy and impressive looking piece of American architecture. The hotel operates during the summer and guests must have a valid gate pass during the 9 week Chautauqua season. Group rates and room packages are available.

Bestor Plaza (and the late Jim Roselle)

One of the most historic and celebrated gathering places in the county, Bestor Plaza is also centrally located inside the gates of Chautauqua Institution. With a peaceful fountain in the center, Bestor Plaza is book-ended by the Smith Memorial Library and the Colonnade Building. During the summer season, thousands stroll the plaza to stop in the bookstore, shop, or grab something to eat and drink. The large grassy area also allows for people to play Frisbee, or just sit, relax and reflect.

When not at work, I have had the luxury of spending time on the grounds. I’ve been there in shorts on a hot July day, in a heavy winter coat on a January morning with snow-covered trees, and on a crisp afternoon enjoying the spectacular colors of Autumn.

For more than 40 summer seasons, Jamestown radio legend and another of the area’s historic treasures, Jim Roselle hosted live broadcasts from Bestor Plaza starting in 1974. Jim passed away on March 23, 2016. He was known for his conversational style, as he interviewed such figures like Bill and Hillary Clinton, comedian Mark Russell, Lucille Ball and journalist Tim Russert.

I too, though certainly not the same caliber of guest as the others by far, had been interviewed by Jim on a number of occasions at various community events. He was gracious, friendly and professional and always genuinely interested in what I had to say. His was a legendary radio voice for 61 years, now silenced at the age of 89.

In 2014, he published a memoir co-written with Walt Pickut, titled, The Best Times of My Life — Sixty Years with a Microphone and a Cup of Happiness at WJTN and Chautauqua Institution. The book was a bestseller at Chautauqua Bookstore, located…where else, on Bestor Plaza.

The plaza, library and bookstore are open year round. Several shops are seasonal.

Lily Dale Assembly

Lily Dale SignsTouted as the world’s largest center for the science, philosophy, and religion of spiritualism, Lily Dale Assembly is set to begin its 2016 season on June 24th.  Located in Lily Dale, New York, off Route 60, the center offers a series of events and experiences that generate hope, enlightenment and peace to the thousands who seek it every year. Lily Dale features daily lectures, demonstrations from mediums who work to contact the spiritual world for visitors, and offer classes and workshops on a wide range of subjects related to man’s potential as a spiritual being. Appointments are highly recommended for those wanting to meet with a medium.

As part of their experience, Lily Dale visitors can dine and shop right on the grounds, as well as walk the Fairy Trail, attend a service at the tranquil Forest Temple, or take a trip back in time at the Lily Dale Museum. All in all, it’s a once in lifetime experience dedicated to God, Spirit and Mankind.

While I have never had the opportunity to visit Lily Dale, or have a reading done, several friends and members of my family have. They are always amazed at the accuracy of the information shared through the spirits and strongly believe that many relatives have “come through” during the readings. Audio tape recordings of the sessions are allowed to give one the opportunity to go back and listen to it over and over and share it as well. While the practice is not without its skeptics, it is my belief that one should try it at least once.

Again, the season runs June through September.

Gerry Rodeo

gerrybullriderNowhere else can you find the longest annual running rodeo east of the Mississippi, than in the small village of Gerry, NY. This August 3rd through the 6th, the Gerry Volunteer Fire Department will lift the shoot on its 72nd annual rodeo located on Route 60, north of Jamestown. The event generates thousands of spectators, and is the only major fundraiser for the fire department. Proceeds from the rodeo help the department operate throughout the year and supply its members with the equipment needed to respond to the hundreds of emergency service calls each year.

It all started in 1945 when a cowboy named Jack Cox moved from the West to Gerry and suggested a rodeo as a way to raise funds for the department. Though not everyone was on board, the dream became a reality and has been entertaining audiences for decades. The Gerry Rodeo welcomes more than 130 professional cowboys and cowgirls from all over the country who compete for tens of thousands of dollars in prize money. The rodeo includes several events like bareback bronc riding, tie down roping and bull riding. There are also a number of kids events, as well as concessions and souvenirs. Bring your appetite as the rodeo offers some authentic Texas barbecue in addition to fun fair-type food favorites.

For almost 15 years, I have sat in the bleachers during several rodeos with my family and have found the event very entertaining. Don’t get me wrong though, the rodeo is serious business, as it takes great skill to master the artistry of the ride. I have also witnessed the volunteer fire department in action rescuing victims from dangerous situations, and know firsthand the importance of this much-anticipated summer fundraising event.

The Chautauqua Belle

Sit back, relax and set sail on one of the most historic steamship vessels to cruise Chautauqua Lake, the Chautauqua Belle. Located at Lake Side Park / Steamboat Village in Mayville, the Chautauqua Belle is set to feature daily cruises to and from Chautauqua Institution both pre-season and during the nine week experience. It also takes Belle goers on a trip back in time with historically-narrated voyages.

In addition, the Belle offers a number of specialty voyages, including lunch, dinner and evening cocktail cruises, as well as fireworks, fall foliage and private charter adventures. According to its website, the cruise schedule runs June through September.

The Dunkirk Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum

It started out as a light on Point Gratiot in 1827 in tandem with a pier-head beacon to guide ships to safety through Dunkirk Harbor. Fast forward to 1875-76 when a 61 foot stone tower was built to replace the original tower threatened by erosion. A Victorian residence was built as well, with bricks used from the original keeper’s house. The Dunkirk Lighthouse has since been placed on the National Register of historic places by the United States Department of the Interior.

Interesting to note, several notable shipwrecks have been spotted off the waters of Lake Erie in Dunkirk. Lake Erie is just as historic, known as the last of the Great Lakes by the Europeans in 1669.

The first shot of the War of 1812 was fired near the west bank of the Lighthouse, the first soldier killed in the Civil War was from Dunkirk, and in World War II, twelve active Coast Guard personnel were stationed at the lighthouse, along with the lighthouse keeper. Speaking of the keeper, the Dunkirk Lighthouse features an extensive collection of military artifacts displayed in the keeper’s home and includes a gift shop. The stately navigational beacon also provides the perfect backdrop for tour groups and weddings.

I took my first tour of the lighthouse and museum back in in the early 2000’s and I am due for a return trip. It is an impressive sight full of such historic character and grandeur. Let the Dunkirk Lighthouse be your beacon to fun and excitement this summer. The attraction is open 7 days a week, from May to October, times vary.

The Robert H. Jackson Center

Rbt Jackson CtrThis timely treasure comes to light following the recent death of long-time U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who occupied the same seat once held by Robert H. Jackson.  The Robert H. Jackson Center, located in Jamestown, NY, is dedicated to celebrating the life and legacy of Robert H. Jackson. Established in 2001, the Center was dedicated in 2003 with the help of the late Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Rehnquist. Other notable High Court visits to the Center include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor and current Chief Justice John Roberts.

Robert H. Jackson was born and raised near Jamestown and served as a writer, lawyer and judge. He served as a Supreme Court Justice from 1941 to 1954. Prior to that, he served as Chief U.S. Prosecutor at Nuremberg. The Center plays host to a number of programs throughout the year and takes part in several historical annual events including the International Humanitarian Law Dialogs at Chautauqua Institution.

Walking into the Jackson Center is like taking a trip back in time. Part of the classic interior fashions a timeline of Jackson’s life and career. The Center also features a knowledgeable and friendly staff, as well as a section dedicated to the U.S. Supreme Court. I find the concept very fascinating as well as the various exhibits and artifacts eye-opening and inspirational. What a local treasure Jamestown has to be able to showcase and celebrate a man so steeped in history and prestige as Robert H. Jackson. It is open year round, Monday through Friday, 10am-4pm and Saturday by appointment.

There are many more historical sites in Chautauqua County, including the Lawson Center dedicated to the history of boating on Chautauqua Lake and a soon to be created bronze statue memorializing Brad Anderson, creator of the comic strip Marmaduke, who was born in Brocton. For more information on these and other historic treasures in Chautauqua County visit the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau.

Originally from New England, Mark Stevens is a writer and journalist who lives in Jamestown, NY with his wife and three children. He enjoys travelling and spending time with family and friends.

Posted in Chautauqua Institution, Events and Festivals, Family Activities, Press Room, Vacation Learning Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,
8 comments on “Top 10 Historical Gems Uncovered or Rediscovered in Chautauqua County, NY
  1. Sandra Kleinfeld says:

    Thanks for such a nice article ! I live in Jamestown NY which is a part of Chautauqua CO. It sure is beautiful especially as I was reading the article and realizing how fortunate I am ! Thanks again and God Bless you. SK

  2. Mike Civiletto says:

    The first soldier killed at Gettysburg was from Dunkirk, NOT the first person killed in the Civil War.
    Mike Civiletto
    Board member of the Dunkirk Lighthouse and past president of the Historical Society of Dunkirk New York

  3. Mike Civiletto says:

    The new tower was built from bricks from the old tower when the tower was moved. The house was brand new. The old tower was round and the square facade was built around the tower to make it more aesthetically pleasing while connected to a square Victorian lightkeeper’s house.

  4. Mary Lou Campbell says:

    When I was a child my mother took me to Allen park go concerts, I would like to know if they still happen.

  5. The City of Jamestown’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department hosts concerts in the bandshell at Allen Park each summer. Look for a schedule at http://www.jamestownny.net/index.php/parks-and-recreation/programs-and-events.

  6. James Roselle says:

    I wanted to thank you for including My father on this list and your wonderful words mean a lot to our family . My late father was very proud of chautauqua county and was honored to be able to do his show from Bestor plaza For over 40 years .

  7. Brendon says:

    I remember Midway State Park when there was a big clown at the entrance. The clown was designed and made by my father who at that time owned a company named Tri State Displays. Was so proud of him and his art work.

  8. Ann says:

    Mark Stevens do yourself and your family a favour-go visit Lily Dale.While it’s fun during the summer with all the people and crowded shops it is also an experience to go in the off season.Get out of the car and stroll the grounds, walk the crowded streets, and check out the views across Cassadaga Lake. A must see is the small but significant museum, where an exhibit of women’s suffrage, considered one of the country’s best, is on display.For being so small Lily Dale has had a sizable involvement with women’s rights.

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