A Brief History of the Cattaraugus County Memorial and Historical Building
By Mark H. Dunkelman
The genesis of the Cattaraugus County Memorial and Historical Building dates to the county’s centennial celebration, which was held at Salamanca on August 4-6, 1908. Thousands of people attended. They watched a great parade representing aspects of the county’s history, listened to orations on the subject, and viewed a large collection of historic relics. The widespread interest shown by the attendees made apparent the need for a county historical society and repository. Consequently Colonel Eugene A. Nash, Marc D. Johnson, Alfred Spring, I. R. Leonard, Frederick W. Kruse, C. D. Davies, and James S. Whipple banded together to form the Cattaraugus County Historical Society.
When it was discovered that the Society was considered educational and consequently under the control of the New York State Board of Regents, Colonel Nash suggested the name be changed on the incorporation papers to The Cattaraugus County Memorial and Historical Society. Thus organized, the Society at once commenced making plans for a suitable building, to be known as the Cattaraugus County Memorial and Historical Building, “to be used for historical relics and as a memorial to our soldiers and sailors who enlisted in the Civil War from this county.”
From its inception, it is worth reiterating, the building was conceived to have a dual purpose—as a Civil War memorial and a repository for the county’s historical legacy.
Four hundred dollars that was left over from the centennial celebration was turned over to the Society, forming the basis for a fund for the proposed building. Personal contributions and appropriations by the county Board of Supervisors provided the rest of the money needed to plan and erect the structure. The Little Valley Board of Trade and area school children reportedly contributed as well. Two of the incorporators—Colonel Nash (a veteran of the 44th New York Volunteer Infantry) and Mr. Spring (a former county surrogate)—died before the building was completed.
On October 15, 1909, some sixty members of the Cattaraugus County Veterans Association gathered in Salamanca for their 33rd annual reunion. Among the Civil War veterans representing the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry, Cattaraugus County’s most representative regiment, were Ellicottville residents Alexander Bird, Edson D. Ames, Augustus V. Laing, and John Langhans (the author’s great-grandfather). At the reunion, the veterans endorsed the county’s plan to erect the Memorial and Historical Building.
By April 1911, plans for the building were publicized in the county press. On September 12, 1911, in the presence of a large crowd of Civil War veterans and citizens, the building’s cornerstone was laid at a lot on the corner of Court and present-day Seventh Street in Little Valley, the county seat.
When completed, the building consisted of a two-story structure containing an octagonal main room with two wings over a basement that duplicated the main floor. Its exterior was constructed of bricks and masonry, the interior of plaster. The windows were non-operable wood-sash.
The building was dedicated on September 7, 1914. Fifteen automobiles and the Little Valley Boy Scouts assisted the arriving veterans. At a tent beside the building 217 veterans registered and received badges and dinner checks. They were joined by fifty-seven Sons of Veterans and about a hundred wives and daughters in enjoying a chicken and sweet potato dinner at a dining hall under the grandstand at the county fairgrounds. In the afternoon, accompanied by dignitaries, a band, and the Little Valley fire department, those veterans who were able marched to the Memorial and Historical Building. There they formed a long line in front of the flag and bunting-bedecked structure and posed for a photograph. The band played the Star Spangled Banner, County Superintendent of Highways Alexander Bird (former first lieutenant in the 154th New York Volunteer Infantry) led the veterans in three cheers for the flag, and the Franklinville Sons of Veterans fired a salute. The crowd then adjourned to the county park and was seated. A quartet sang, a minister offered a prayer, and James Whipple was introduced to deliver the main address. One of the incorporators, he was also the son of First Sergeant Henry F. Whipple of the 154th New York, who had been captured at Gettysburg and died as a prisoner of war at Andersonville. Whipple’s address concentrated on the memorial aspect of the building:
“One of the prime objects in erecting this edifice is to prove our appreciation of the importance of the victories won by our forefathers, and to publicly show our love and veneration for that generation of men who sacrificed all, even their lives, to preserve that which was won by their fathers at Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Yorktown . . . We dedicate this structure with our hearts full of loyalty for our country, and wish it ever to stand, signifying the deathless patriotism of American soldiers and sailors and their loyalty to the Stars and Stripes . . . To my mind, the element that gives it greatest value is the memorial feature . . . To us in Cattaraugus County it tells of the early days, of our soldiers living and dead, and represents the thought, the patient work of those who conceived and built it. It will become the shrine of soldiers and sailors living, and the registrary of those who have died . . . It will recall to our minds the great struggle in which the men whose names have honored place therein took honorable part.”
The Rev. Morton Fitch Trippe of Salamanca replied to Whipple’s address on behalf of the old soldiers. Trippe was a veteran of the 9th New York Heavy Artillery, chaplain of Salamanca’s Grand Army of the Republic Post, and a missionary to Western New York Indian reservations. “No more appropriate memorial to patriotic devotion can be conceived than this building,” Trippe declared. “On behalf of the soldiers gathered here and of those who, perforce, because of infirmities cannot be here, we desire to record a soldier’s appreciation, an appreciation that will intensify as the years go by, for the living heart-love of country and its heroes and heroines as expressed in the conception and erection of this memorial . . . Surely here our children and our children’s children can come and with reverent vision read the story of the Great Conflict.”
James Whipple described the structure as “a modest building in a quiet, modest place.” But with its pillars and pediment and an impressive glass dome it had a stately and classical dignity befitting its intended function as a county wide Civil War memorial and history museum. It was a handsome monument occupying a prominent site in the county’s civic center. The building’s purpose was stated in a plaque above the entrance: “To the memory of its soldiers and sailors in the War of the Rebellion, this building is erected by Cattaraugus County.”
After its dedication the Memorial and Historical Building was managed by the Cattaraugus County Historical Society, which ceased to function in the early 1920s. After World War I, according to former museum board member Stanley M. Waite, the memorial “was forgotten for a long time.” The domed roof began to leak and moisture penetrated the basement, with some resulting damage to artifacts. A village library was formed in Little Valley in 1923. Within a few years it moved into a room of the Memorial and Historical Building and remained housed there, sharing the space with the county museum, until 1962.
Miss Julia G. Pierce of Allegany was appointed Cattaraugus County Historian in 1953 and performed her duties in the Memorial and Historical Building. Even before her official appointment, Stanley Waite wrote, Miss Pierce was so eager to begin that she cleaned the rooms and got members of the community to donate display cases to hold artifacts. Repairs made to the building in the mid-1950s almost caused the Little Valley Library to vacate the premises. In 1956 the pediment and central domed roof were removed. Although it gave the memorial architectural distinction, the glass dome leaked and let too much light into the front room, damaging artifacts. After the cleanup and renovations, the museum reopened to the public.
A large collection of Native American artifacts was purchased in 1957 for $1,000. Stanley Waite described it as “the single largest collection in New York State.” In the early 1960s, rumors swirled that a new County Center would be constructed on Erie Street, to which the museum would be moved. “Miss Pierce at that time put up a fight to keep the museum,” Stanley Waite wrote. “Many petitions came from individuals and organizations to the Board of Supervisors to save this historical building.” But the building site for the County Center was changed to its present location on Court Street opposite the Memorial and Historical Building, and the museum remained in place.
Miss Pierce died in April 1964 and that June Mrs. Ethel Carnes of Great Valley—a museum volunteer—was appointed county historian. More artifacts were donated and Mrs. Carnes added display cases to house them. Space became an issue and some artifacts were moved to the basement, where they were exposed to dampness. A 1974 newspaper article described Mrs. Carnes’ work at the museum, noting she answered requests for information from all over the United States and other countries as well. True to its mission, the museum’s front room held a large collection of Civil war artifacts. Visiting schoolchildren especially liked a room full of Indian relics and the large wooden statues of the Mound Builders. The reporter found the museum’s basement full of records and relics, which sat “silently waiting for restoration, as does much of the museum’s collection.”
On the death of Mrs. Carnes in 1984, Kenneth Kysor of New Albion was appointed County Historian. On his resignation around the turn of the century, Mrs. Evelyn Penman of Olean became County Historian. Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, Mrs. Lorna J. Spencer of Delevan was appointed Museum Curator; she served until her retirement in April 2004. Most of Mrs. Spencer’s time was spent assisting patrons with research, leaving little time to attend to her curatorial duties.
Over the years the Memorial and Historical Building suffered from insufficient maintenance. The removal of the pediment and central dome altered its appearance considerably. But a 1998 report by the county stated, “With the exception of minor repairs and renovations, little change has been made on the interior of the museum building since its construction.”
In August 1968 the Cattaraugus County Planning Board prepared a “Museum-Park Proposal,” which was submitted to the Board of Supervisors. It suggested a three-phase project: Demolition of the old Clerk’s Building; blacktopping and landscaping the parking lot; and making improvements to the park, including walkways, benches, flowerbeds, and a monumental centerpiece. This last phase was never undertaken.
The firm of Pratt, Edwards & Moncreiff forwarded a letter to the Chairman of the Building Committee, Stanley Waite, in May 1969 regarding the preparation of plans and specifications for the remodeling of the County Museum and the License Bureau Building. They suggested a simple topographic survey would be necessary, after which plans for development would be prepared.
In August 1969 bids were received for development of the block bounded by Court, Erie, Seventh, and Eighth Streets into a historical park with an adjacent parking area.
In May 1970 Pratt, Edwards & Moncreiff forwarded construction specifications to the Planning Board for the parking lot. That June a contract was awarded to Haley Construction for the work, which included constructing and blacktopping a fifty-car parking lot, relocating its entrance, and installing concrete curbs and sidewalks.
Also in June 1970, Jamestown Roofing, Inc., installed a three-ply smooth top built up roof over the existing roof of the Memorial and Historical Building. They straightened the existing copper edge where necessary and installed three breather vents in the roof. They guaranteed their work for four years.
That month also saw the installation of ten panes of glass in the windows of the old Motor Vehicle Building.
In 1970 and 1971, participating in the federal “Green Thumb” program, the county hired a crew of seven elderly men to work part time on the Memorial and Historical Building and the old Motor Vehicle Building.
On February 24, 1972, the county legislature passed Act No. 83, authorizing the application for technical advice on updating the County Museum’s displays. A museum expert from the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse was to provide advice and suggestions to the county at no expense for three days. Funding not to exceed $300.00 was allocated for the project.
On March 8, 1972, authorization was given to apply to the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) for financial assistance for 1972-1973. In October, the legislature received a letter from NYSCA denying their request for funding owing to the county’s inability to establish a priority position within the guidelines and criteria in that year.
In May 1978 a septic system was installed. In May 1982 the septic system was deactivated and a sewer line was installed for municipal hook up.
In 1976 the Cattaraugus County Planning Board applied to the Cattaraugus County Bicentennial Commissioner for additional exhibits, microfilming, and the hiring of qualified summer and part time personnel. The 1998 report states, “The Museum Panel felt that greater local support, both financial as well as volunteer involvement be developed before Council funding could be approved. They did, however, offer to provide the County with technical assistance to develop these aspects.”
Contractor Gerald Gassman replaced the roof and removed the skylight in 1988, guaranteeing the roof for a fifteen-year period in a watertight condition free from all leaks.
Also in 1988, Habiterra Associates completed a space study indicating the museum and historian occupied 2,900 square feet, with an estimated 3,100 square feet actually being required. It was estimated that by 2007, the museum would require approximately 4,000 square feet.
In June 1994 the firm of Clough, Harbour & Associates forwarded a draft proposal to the county for services including the demolition of the Board of Elections building and construction of a new building, possibly to be linked to the Memorial and Historical Building by a “mechanical tunnel.” Nothing ever came of this plan.
The county received a proposal in 1997 from Deneen Painting to seal the exterior walls, but a contract was not awarded.
The 1998 report on the Memorial and Historical Building concluded:
In conclusion, for the Museum to be successful, the museum must be attractive. Its displays must be educational and presentations should be based on historic research. Models, dioramas and other devices should be used. Adequate space needs are necessary to successfully display exhibits and artifacts. The existing facility lacks the space and mechanical systems to preserve these historic items. There are currently no means of modern technology such as computers to properly log displays and to access the Internet and provide for public use.
Not only does this building not comply with ADA Requirements (handicap accessible, narrow isles, bathroom facilities, etc.), but very little maintenance has been completed over the years to the interior and exterior of this building. There is moisture coming through the walls ruining the interior throughout the building. The plaster is falling off the interior walls, which is not appealing to outside visitors. There is water intrusion in the masonry walls of the building with no vapor barrier. There is also no air conditioning or humidity control in this building to preserve historic items.
The building is functionally obsolete for a modern museum. The retrofit of the existing facility probably would not provide a long-term solution to the needs of a modern museum and additional space is required.
Use of this facility has doubled in the last 10 years, and with an upgrade facility, one could easily conclude that use could possibly more than double again. This is the type of facility when properly upgraded, would provide a showcase for the local community, the County government and taxpayers of the County.
While the Memorial and Historical Building deteriorated, the county rescued the endangered Stone House in Machias, the former Cattaraugus County Alms-House and Insane Asylum, and poured more than $1 million into restoring it. Early in 2004, the county announced plans to move the museum to the Stone House. This move put the future of the Memorial and Historical Building in jeopardy. At the Stone House the museum was to share space with several other county departments, literally downsizing from the amount of space it occupied in Little Valley. Consequently, portions of the museum’s collections were “deaccessioned,” sold at auction. When the museum moved to Machias and opened in the Stone House in November 2004, the Memorial and Historical Building was left vacant, its fate uncertain.
For almost a decade the Cattaraugus County Memorial and Historical Building has remained empty. On October 23, 2013, the county legislature voted unanimously to use $125,000 in casino funding, plus $50,000 the county has on hand, to demolish the memorial and the attached former Board of Elections building.
Today, Cattaraugus County faces a choice: To demolish its most significant and impressive Civil War memorial, or to preserve a meaningful building at the heart of the county seat and restore it to its former glory. Considered as a prime candidate for historic preservation, the Memorial and Historical Building holds the potential to once more become a valued resource and revered treasure in Cattaraugus County.