History of the Perinton Historical Society
By Bill Keeler, Museum Director and Curator in 2006
The First Leaders of the Society
Ten women founded the Perinton Historical Society on November 1, 1935 at the home of Mrs. Clarence Moore at 23 Pleasant Street. This was a follow up meeting to an October 25 gathering at Mrs. Gardner Bown' s house at 127 South Main Street when the forming of a club for the recording and preservation of Perinton history was first suggested.
The first order of business was the election of officers.
Marjorie Snow Merriman was elected President. Marjorie was born in her great uncle Henry DeLand's house in 1886 at 1 East Church Street. Her father helped found the Village's first department store on South Main Street known as E.C. Snow & Co. Marjorie graduated from Fairport High School in 1904 and after marrying Paul Merriman in 1906, moved to Ithaca, New York. In 1925 the Merriman's moved back to Fairport and built a house on Ayrault Road. Ms. Merriman was to go on to compile thousands of pages of local history for the Society. The range of materials are from biographies of early settlers, land records, newspaper articles to oral histories.
Helen Martin was elected Vice-President. Her husband designed the Fairport Public Library, which is now the Fairport Museum at 18 Perrin Street. Helen went on to copy many of the land records of Perinton along with writing papers on the Carl W. Peter's mural and early settlers of Perinton.
Bertha Bruner Bown became Secretary. Bertha had written a comprehensive history of the Bown family in 1932 and was one of the first local historians to investigate and write about the Underground Railroad in Perinton.
Elizabeth Defendorf Price was elected Treasurer. Elizabeth's father, Fletcher Defendorf, ran a barrel factory and supplied the Deland Company with many barrels to ship their saleratus in the late 19th century. Fletcher was also a Democratic politician, serving as Perinton Town Supervisor for many years and in the Monroe County Assembly. Elizabeth was born in Fairport in 1874, graduated from the Fairport schools and went to the State Library School in Albany N.Y. She married George Price, a local doctor, in 1904. Mrs. Price served on the school board for 10 years and was on the library board when the proposals for a permanent library building were proposed and finally approved in the 1930's.
Charlotte Clapp was elected Custodian. The custodian was responsible for taking care of the documents and artifacts donated to the Society. Charlotte Clapp was the Town Clerk and Historian for over 30 years. Her parents were early settlers in Perinton and she lived all her life at 15 Perrin Street across from the current Fairport Museum.
After the election the very first artifact donated to the society was turned over to Charlotte. It was an old map that Lucille Redhead had acquired from a man in Rochester. The map had been used as building paper in a greenhouse wall on the grounds of the Hiram Sibley house in Rochester, N.Y. The collector was a brick driver who found it while cleaning up the Sibley House after a renovation. He was thinking of selling it until Mrs. Redhead convinced him to donate the map to the newly formed society saying that "...he could see it whenever he chose."
The first officers of the society spent several years in office and then left to head up research committees that dealt with different aspects of Perinton history. Members filled the committees. For the first few years, memberships to the society were by invitation only. In 1936, a year after the society was founded, 13 women were asked to join and 11 accepted.
There were standing committees for the library, publicity, meetings, materials, maps, reminiscences, and genealogy.
From these committees came such projects as the recording of cemetery records and tombstones, school histories, the plotting of the town map, textile exhibits, NYA indexing project, state marker and Erie Canal projects.
Cemetery Records: Mrs. G. H. Miller beginning in 1935 compiled most of the cemetery records. The records were compiled from tombstone inscriptions, records of various cemetery associations, church and family records, and local newspapers. All were checked against vital records from the town clerk's office. The records were then typed on 3 by 5 cards. As the records were completed they were published in the Fairport Herald Mail from 1935 to 1938. Mrs. Miller moved from Fairport just before the last entries were published in the newspaper.
Over the years some tombstones have fallen over or have been lost. These early cemetery records are sometimes the only source of information about people buried in a cemetery. Recently they have been published on the web and can be found at http://www.rootsweb.com/-nymonroe/index.htm.
This committee took many black and white pictures of all 13 district schools in the Town of Perinton. Histories were written about each school and all minutes from the various school boards and local meetings were transcribed and typed. Since decentralization in 1952, this has been an invaluable resource for early Perinton schools.
Genealogy, Map and Land Record Committees
It is not clear who served on these committees over the years because few people signed their work. However, the genealogy committee did record who compiled their records. Every member of the society contributed his or her own family genealogy. Many letters were sent to relatives, friends and residents who once lived in Fairport and Perinton to help fill in the record for hundreds of families who settled in Perinton. There are hundreds of genealogies from members, published sources and family bibles that make up a 5 volume set with indexes.
Using these genealogical studies, cemetery records, oral histories and other sources, 3 volumes of biographies were written on Early Settlers in Perinton from 1790 to 1830. The town lot committee divided the town into 66 equal lots. They then created a file for each lot and copied all the land transactions from the Phelps and Gorham Purchase to 1850. They then added biographies of people who inhabited a particular lot and created map studies so that a researcher could follow the change of owners and houses from 1855 to 1902.
The final piece that ties together all these committees was the 1852 Early Perinton Map. This folk map was drawn by Adelaide Clark in 1959 and depicts the houses, roads, railroads and the Erie Canal in Perinton in the late 1800's. On the map were added historical notes gleaned from the research committees by Marjorie Snow Merriman. The map was then grid into the 66 lots and indexed to the lot file.
In a little less than 25 years the Society members had collected and organized mountains of data concerning Fairport and Perinton into a comprehensive system that any researcher from outside the region could readily grasp. This is an outstanding and highly focused achievement for any organization over such a long period of time especially by a group of volunteers with no formal training.
The records show that Marjorie Snow Merriman had the most influence on these committees. In 1959, Ms. Merriman donated all of her notes and reference materials to the Perinton Historical Society. There were maps, charts, and mounted newspaper articles, pages of type written text, indexes, and hand written oral histories. They came to the Society in 17 brightly colored covered bond paper boxes. In all the collection contains nearly 6,500 sheets and 4,000 index cards. The culmination of Marjorie's lifetime of work recording the history of Perinton came together in 1964 and 1965 when The History of Perinton was published in the Fairport Herald. Marjorie Snow Merriman died in 1966 at the age of 80.
The Middle Years: Finding a Home
The first meetings of the Perinton Historical Society were at members' homes. As more committees were established and more interest in local history grew in the community, meetings were held in the public library and the Potter Community Center.
After the first meeting, members and people from the community began to donate historical items to the Society. The library offered a loft room for storage and some of the larger items were stored in A.B. Hupp's barn. The library also offered space in the basement for short-term exhibits. In 1938 there was a costume exhibit, 1939 shawls and fans, 1945 an exhibit of Carman Peck's paintings and in 1946 paintings by Carl W. Peters were exhibited.
In 1951, the Town of Perinton offered the Society the old Bushnell's Basin School #1 for a headquarters and museum. The building was available because of the decentralization of the Fairport school system. The Society Board was reluctant to take ownership of the building because of its remoteness in the far southwest corner of Perinton away from the population center in the Village. The town offered this same building to the Society in 1977 and the Board turned them down again for the same reason. It turned out to be a smart move by the Board because the following winter heavy snows caused the roof to collapse.
By 1964 the public library had expanded and was in need of all its storage space. Between 1964 and 1965 the Society began transferring its documents and artifacts to the Community Center at 42 East Ave. in Fairport. The building had been the former Northside School, was bought by the Crosman Arms Co. and transferred to the Village of Fairport to be used as a community center. The Perinton Historical Society was given a single room to display all of its collections. It was apparent from the very beginning that the Society and the new museum needed a bigger space. School groups who came to visit had to walk single file past the display cases because of the lack of space in the room.
In the late 1970's urban renewal was being discussed in Fairport. It was clear that this new project would make it possible for the Fairport Public Library to expand into a new building. A proposal and capability study was submitted by the Society in October of 1978 suggesting that the old library building be used as a community historical museum. The original proposal called for the donation of the building to the Village and Town by the Fairport School District. The village and town would agree to share the operating costs and both the town and Village Historians would have their offices in the building.
A three year lease agreement was struck between the school and the village, with the society owing the village $3,000 after the term of the lease. In June of 1982 the public passed amendment #4 that transferred the title of the building to the Village of Fairport. As it turned out, the Village of Fairport is now responsible for the outside of the building and the Perinton Historical Society keeps its collections in the building and is responsible for the upkeep of the inside of the building and utilities.
In June of 1979 the Fairport Historical Museum was officially opened in the former Fairport Public Library building at 18 Perrin Street. Attending the opening ceremony and ribbon cutting were Tony Teresa, Superintendent of Schools, Linda Bailey, School Board member, Elizabeth Webb, School Board President, Matson Ewell, Perinton Historical Society president, Peter McDonough, Fairport Mayor, Bernadette McDonough, Village Historian and Society board member, Town Supervisor Lake Edwards, Town Historian Helen Butler, Sheldon Fisher, Valentown Hall Curator, Trustees David Glossner and Pat Knapp, County Legislator Sue Faust and Congressman Frank Horton.
We have come a long way since 1979. We have increased our membership from 115 in 1979 to over 400 today. The Fairport fourth grades use the building for their education program every spring and we have meetings and speakers in the Merriman-Clark room once a month from September to April. The museum collections have expanded and we have begun to professionally catalog and conserve our artifacts. The future looks bright as we continue to increase our membership base and bring in new people with new ideas to lead us into the 21st century.
The Last 30 Years
If you were to make a short list of four of the most influential members of the Perinton Historical Society in the last 30 years they would be Bernadette McDonough, Matson Ewell, Ruth Ewell, and William Matthews. All of them have used their special talents and dedication to lead the Perinton Historical Society into the 21st century.
Raised in Manhattan, Bernadette and her husband Peter, moved to Fairport in 1969. This was a transition period for the Society. The founders of the Perinton Historical Society were gone and the leaders at the time were moving on. Leaders such as Bill Carr, Jim Welch, Helen Martin, Marjorie Merriman, Adelaide Clark, Clayton Bridges, Helen King and Electa Barber had all worked many years to keep the Society in the public eye. They were now looking to pass the torch on to a new generation of leaders.
Bernadette came to her first covered supper sponsored by the Society shortly after moving to Fairport. She was immediately recruited and asked to be Treasurer, a position she held for 4 or 5 years. Bernadette was in the vanguard of this new leadership team serving as president from 1974 to 1976, Board of Trustees from 1978 to 1991 and as Second Vice-President from 1992 to the present. She will have served the Society for a total of 36 years this year! During her term as president and board member, Bernadette and her husband Peter, who was the Mayor of the Village at the time, pushed for a community museum in the former library building. She also served as Village Historian and liaison between the Society, the Village and the School District. Today she is an important link with the past history of the Society and finds speakers for our monthly meetings. Bernadette’s guidance and council has made our work on the Board much better as we face new challenges.
A native to Rochester, Matson Ewell joined the Society in 1975 at a crucial time. Urban renewal was being discussed and the debate was beginning about the fate of the Fairport Public Library. Matson, along with other Society members, were instrumental in the negotiations to move the Society from the Crosman Center to the former Fairport Public Library on Perrin Street.
Matson’s love and care of this building was to continue for the next 27 years. Matson served as President of the Society from 1977 to 1979 and was on the Board of Trustees from 1980 to 1989. Even after his term expired, Matson continued to attend Board meetings as Director of the Museum.
Matson also filled in for jobs around the museum and coordinated volunteers. His ability as speaker and teacher influenced many people in the community. Both Matson and Ruth were honored for their work in the Society by being elected Citizens of the Year in 1999.
Ruth was the Headmaster’s Secretary at the Harley School and joined the Society in 1975. She was corresponding secretary on the Executive Committee from 1977 to 1983 and again from 1991 to 1994.
But Ruth’s real talent was as Editor of the Historigram. Her articles and columns chronicled the history of the Society for 20 years from 1982 to 2002. Ruth attended every monthly meeting and wrote about what was said by the speaker that night. In her articles, Ruth had the ability to transport the reader back to the meeting even though they may not have attended that evening.
Ruth also contributed essays on local topics, which she added to our files. Ruth Ewell’s contribution to our understanding of local history and the history of the Perinton Historical Society is immeasurable
Bill’s interest in local history began with a bus tour that followed the route of the old RS&E trolley. Affectionately known as “Trolley Bill” Matthews started out on the Executive Committee as Corresponding Secretary in 1995, Treasurer in 1996 and president from 1997 to 2003.
He enjoyed renovation projects in the Museum and was responsible for the moving of the brick outhouse to the Potter grounds, the trolley waiting station now overlooking the Erie Canal and a wooden voting booth now located on the Ewell property. However, Bill’s real talent was in finance.
Through his leadership, he encouraged the Board of Trustees to make more astute financial decisions and diversify our portfolio. The endowment fund doubled in a few short years and the Society is in a much more sound financial position then it has been at any time in our history.
Bill’s last project was heading a committee to rewrite our by-laws. The finished document was passed last year by our membership and will influence how the Society is run for many years to come.
As we enter the 21st century with a new set of trustees, the future looks bright. We have some talented and diverse people on the Board. Perhaps we’ll look back in 2035 when we will be celebrating our 100th anniversary and praise some of these very people for their dedication and work for the Society.