One Park Place
By Douglas H. Shepard, 2005It was a tradition in early pioneering days that a traveler was to be taken in at need, so it is not always easy to distinguish between a charitable homeowner and an inn or tavern keeper. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines “Inn” as, “A house for the lodging and entertainment of travelers. In America, it is often a tavern, where liquors are furnished for travelers and others,” and “Tavern” as, “A house licensed to sell liquors in small quantities, to be drank on the spot. In some of the United States, tavern is synonymous with inn or hotel, and denotes a house for the entertainment of travelers, as well as for the sale of liquors, licensed for that purpose.”
There is an early, perhaps earliest, example of a traveler as a guest in Fredonia in late September 1804 when Zattu Cushing, looking over the land with the intention of settling here, stayed for several days with Thomas McClintock. That was in a small log cabin McClintock had built in 1802 where the Buffalo to Erie trail crossed the Canadaway Creek at a shallow ford on the flats off today’s Water Street. It was at the same cabin where we find our first recorded “paying guests.” Hezekiah Barker had taken over part of McClintock’s land and the cabin along with it in 1806. In March 1807, Elijah Risley, Sr. and his family stopped there for a week. (Young’s History of Chautauqua County, p.470)
In 1808, Barker had the Common cleared of its trees. (His children referred to it as “that pesky black walnut grove.”) Facing the Common he built a larger log cabin intended to serve as his home and as an inn. We know from later deeds that the south east corner of the cabin stood twenty feet from the center of Main Street. According to J. L. Bugbee’s Pioneer Homes, log cabins were usually about 20 x 24 feet and, The Fredonia Censor of 13 April 1864 states, Barker’s tavern had a stone chimney at the Main Street end outside the house. In 1858 an anonymous writer described the scene there at a 4th of July celebration in 1812. “The building [Barker’s inn] was so small that the chimney was turned out of doors as an encumbrance; but placed so near that the fire place could look in at one end of the house.” The first part of the celebration was “a dance in the tavern loft.”
In that same year of 1812, Hezekiah Barker finally paid off his contract with the Holland Land Company and received his deed. The west third of Lot 14 went to his son William and the east third to his son Barzillai, while he retained the central strip. Up to this point he had only rented or leased small parcels such as to Charles Burritt, Elijah Risley, Sr., and others. Now that he owned his land outright, he was able to begin selling lots in what he planned to be the center of the village. On 9 May 1814, land on which both his log inn and grist mill stood (from the edge of the Common west to the creek) was sold to Thomas Abell. However Abell died on 10 October and the property passed to his sons Thomas G. and Mosley W. Abell on 1 November 1814. The Abells soon demolished Barker’s building and replaced it with a larger, two-story framed building. Mosely Abell sold his share in the hotel property to his brother Thomas in 1828.
The Censor of 29 November 1826 reported that natural gas “has recently been brought further into the village [a few buildings near the experimental well were lit earlier], and one shop, two stores, and Abell’s hotel have been added to the former number.” The Censor’s 14 May 1828 announcement that T. G. Abell had resumed occupancy of his hotel “now brilliantly lighted with Natural Gas” suggests that, after taking sole possession of the Inn, T. G. Abell did some extensive renovating. Abell ran the hotel for eight more years, during which time he was able to have John Jones design and build his impressive home at 20 Central Avenue. On 21 January 1836, Abell deeded the hotel property to his brother-in-law, Samuel Johnson. On 19 April 1836, the building was taken down. The 1881 Atlas says it was “moved off.” By 1837, Johnson had a large brick building on the site, the Johnson House. In a speech in 1902, Mrs. E. A. Curtis explained that while the Johnson House was being built, the post office and the tavern, both of which had been in the hotel, were put in the Lester House, the stone building that once stood at 76 West Main Street.
The formal opening of the Johnson House was on the Fourth of July 1837, and for many years the large hotel sign across the front had the date proudly included. There was a confusing sequence of “landlords” running the Johnson House, not all of whose names may have been mentioned in the newspapers or other sources. The property passed to Charles H. Reed on 24 April 1840 (Deed Liber 28 Page 345). A. H. Armstrong and A. Pierce leased the hotel according to the Censor of 29 April 1840, perhaps for three years. Asa Pierce had run a coffee house in the Village at least as early as 1830 and the Union Hotel on West Main and Water Streets by 1840. The Censor of 10 June 1840 mentioned that Joseph Ferris had a saddlery in a basement room, so the Johnson House included more than just the hotel. Then there is a gap in the record. According to the Censor of 13 April 1847, B. W. Cotton and Chauncy Stevens were taking over as landlords.
The Censor of 10 November 1846 says that the property had been purchased by S. S. Hawkins. However, in April 1848 it was still Charles Reed who leased it to Seneca Wright and Henry B. Ruggles for three years, so the sale to Hawkins may never have gone through. On 10 November 1849, Reed sold the entire property to William Smith of Olean (Liber 51 Page 17). The full description reads, “Bounded South Easterly in front on Main Street, South Westerly on Nassau (Center Street), North Westerly on Barker Street, and North Easterly by land of Dwight Woodruff and land formerly owned by Joseph Plumb now by John Crane “as the fence now stands” and by the South Westerly line of the Public Square or Common. The same land on which stands a brick tavern called the Johnson House and a large stone Barn adjoining including in the rear the yards, garden, orchard and vacant corner lot opposite the District School House. . . . Subject to a lease to Seneca Wright and Henry B. Ruggles for three years from 1 April 1848.”In December 1850, the property was sold to H. Morris of Norwich, Chenango County, and Jacob F. Davison. J. H. Havens, whose hardware store burned early in 1850, temporarily moved his business to a store front in the Johnson House Block, on the corner of West Main and Center Streets. In April 1851, he moved again to the Union Block on the south side of Main Street, and his place was taken by H. J. Miner’s Bank. The Post Office was in the room closer to Barker Common also facing Main Street.
There was an impressive ad announcing another change in The Fredonia Censor of 24 June 1851, “JOHNSON HOUSE, Fredonia. This large and commodious House has been opened by Capt. H. GRAY, the Proprietor of the Lovejoy House in Buffalo. The House [Johnson House] having been thoroughly repaired thro’out and newly and neatly furnished, the accommodations for the traveling public are such as will make their stay pleasant and agreeable. The charges are very moderate, only $1 per day. Meals will be furnished at all hours. Large and comfortable accommodations for Horses will be found here, having good Stabling and an attentive Hostler. OMNIBUSSES run half hourly from this House to Dunkirk, which connect with the N. Y. & Erie Railroad and the Boats. Stages leave daily for Buffalo, Erie, Sinclearville, Jamestown, Warren Pa., and intermediate places, and tri-weekly to Forestville, Lodi, Stockton, Villenova. W.T.J.O. WOODWARD, Supt.”The Fredonia Advertiser of 3 October 1851 reported that the Johnson House had been sold to Mr. J. W. Mason of Buffalo. The deed, dated 1 October 1851 (Liber 55 Page103) is from William Smith to John W. Mason, for $7500. The Fredonia Censor of 10 February 1852 reported that the hotel had been sold to H. Morris and Jacob F. Davison, However, the Fredonia Advertiser of 12 March 1852 explained that the transfer “was not perfected” and J. W. Mason had sold to Mr. I. M. Avery “of this village.” Messrs. Avery and Aaron H. Hart “are to occupy the House.” This was corrected on 19 March to report that Avery “has consented to withdraw from the purchase,” and Messrs. E. A. Lester and R. Greene were the new owners.” The house is at present under the efficient management of Capt. Sam’l Johnson, its original projector and popular landlord.” The Censor of 23 April 1852 noted that it was B. Tubbs who would be running the hotel. (In the 1850 Census, B. Tubbs was running a hotel in Hanover, Chautauqua County.)
There is an interesting anecdote in a piece by Addison Cushing in The Fredonia Censor of 23 March 1864. It is a long, detailed account of the life of the late Dr. Squire White. As an example of his “indulgence to the needy,” Cushing wrote, “One day the writer met the Doctor returning home, bearing two small pigs under his arms. He said he had been settling with the gentleman who formerly kept the Johnson House (whose family physician he had long been, to the writer’s knowledge) and that he had taken the two pigs to balance accounts.” The needy landlord was probably Samuel Johnson.
At some point after Tubbs, a “Mr. Shears” was landlord since the Censor of 20 March 1855 announced that H. H. Gifford of Panama was taking over from Mr. Shears. There is an interesting comment in an article in the Censor of 30 January 1918, which states that “H. H. Gifford, afterward of Jamestown, made a fortune as landlord of the Johnson House.” That was Horace H. Gifford who was born in Granville, NY on 19 October 1821. The family came to Chautauqua County in 1823 settling finally in Mayville. Gifford and his wife, Rhoda, tended the hotel from March 1855 until March 1858 when they retired, apparently having made a goodly profit for themselves. Gifford was replaced by Sidney Lake of Westfield.
At the time the Giffords became landlords in 1855, one of their tenants was preparing to move out. That was H. J. Miner. In May 1855, he bought the three-story brick building that D. W. Douglass had built at 37 West Main Street, at the corner of Center Street across from the hotel. The Fredonia Censor of 18 June 1856 reported the renovation was nearly complete. While the bank was being moved to its new quarters, the room it had occupied was being redone to accommodate a clothing store and, the Censor of 3 April 1856 added that the floor was lowered “nearly level with the walk.” In September 1860, The Fredonia Censor announced that “D. O. Sherman” was taking over from “S. S. Lake.” In fact, the 1860 Census records the occupants of the Johnson House on 25 July as the landlord, Sidney S. Lake, his wife and four children, plus twenty others, including D. O. and Sarah Sherman. So, the Shermans were preparing to take over several months before they did. Early in 1862 the lease was taken by Elias Wheeler, who had managed the Union Hotel at West Main and Water Streets, and then a smaller hotel just down Water Street from Main.
In addition to the landlords, the ownership too had changed again. In February 1860, the executors for Roselle Greene deeded their interest in the Johnson House to Dorinda C. Bristol (Liber 92 Page 202) for $4150. In November 1865, Dorinda and Thomas Bristol deeded to Clinton M. Ball of Fredonia (Liber 115 Page 44) for $10,000. The deed was subject to a lease of part of the land premises to “Chas. Harman and right to removal of buildings” as well as the lease of the Bank room to Fredonia Bank, the lease of the Clothing store to David Oppenheimer, and the lease of the hotel itself to the landlord, Charles Shaw. That was Charles B. Shaw, his wife Mary and their 5-year old son Frank. The 1865 Census includes as a hotel resident David Oppenheimer, 28, from Germany, who had the clothing store lease.
On 7 October 1867, Ball sold to Melvin H. and William W. Taylor (Liber 122 Page 49) for $13,000. “Land on which the Johnson House and out buildings stand” subject to a lease of part of the land and premises to Chas. Harmon “and his interest and right to the removal of the buildings thereon,” a lease of the Bank room to the Fredonia National Bank, and the lease of the Clothing Store to David Oppenheimer. The Fredonia Censor of 27 November 1867 announced that the “longed for” opening of this new hotel [the Taylor House] takes place next Monday [2 December 1867]. The article continues with a description of the renovated interior which gives some insight into what the Johnson House had been like at least in the 1860s.
“The old Johnson House had acquired such a reputation that the demise of its name was no loss to the community, and although the building remains, none of the old landmarks are to be seen after entering its doors. On the contrary we found ourselves in an elegant new hotel, having all the appointments of a first class house, just such an institution as has long been needed in Fredonia. No one will wonder at the seeming delay in repairing after viewing the work that has been done during the past six months. The whole house has been replastered and repainted in the most thorough manner, the plastering hard finished and the wood work which is not grained having received four coats of white paint and two of varnish. Then new wall paper has been everywhere substituted for the old and the whole house has been supplied with inside blinds, the latter a great improvement and quite expensive.
“Bell wires have been put up from every room to the patent enunciator in the office, the sleeping rooms having new chestnut, mahogany or cherry furniture, marble topped. For bedding we think no hotel in the State excels in quality. Every room is furnished alike in this respect, and although the last traveler may be consigned to the highest regions under the roof he will find the same luxuriant spring bed and thick matrass to sleep on. The office, reception room, ladies parlor and dining room have been entirely refitted and furnished in a style heretofore unknown to the house and the oiled floors, coal stoves, gas fixtures, carpeting and furniture are such as to give everything an air of elegance. The coat room, bar room and wash room are also nicely finished. The china, silver ware and cutlery, neatly marked with the name of the House, have been tastefully selected by Mr. Taylor in New York. We have only space to add that the whole house is now scrupulously clean and will be kept so. The Taylor Brothers are experienced in hotel keeping at Meadville and other places and we hope will be sustained in their efforts to keep a good hotel here. In summer particularly, such an institution will doubtless attract many from abroad to our pleasant village.”
Another significant change in 1867 was the establishment of the Fredonia Normal School. Although it was not apparent at the time, that was to have serious consequences for the survival of the hotel. It all had to do with alcohol. The Village Board of Trustees was empowered to grant liquor licenses to hotels, taverns and drug stores. (In time a separate Excise Board took over the licensing function.) Later comments indicate that concern gradually grew in the community about students at the Normal having access to alcohol. As part of a debate some years later, S. S. Crissey, in a long account, outlined the earlier state of things. “In the ‘sixties’ Fredonia voted regularly each spring for license. In those days . . . it took seven saloons to subserve the ‘business interests’ of a village of less than three thousand souls. And Ely Davis noted in the Censor of 8 February 1893 that one former Fredonia Normal student was heard to say that in the past “he attended the Fredonia Normal School, but graduated at Taylor’s [the Taylor House] saloon.”
It is no coincidence that when the WCTU was finally begun here on 15 December 1873, the first stop on the ladies’ crusade was at the Taylor House. They were not successful, but they persisted along with many others in the Village. In August 1872, the Taylors sold a small parcel at the northeast corner of Church and Center Streets (where today’s Hook & Ladder Deli stands). Then in September and October 1878, in separate deeds (Liber 172 Pages 512 and 554) William W. Taylor sold the Taylor House to his brother, Melvin H. Taylor for $15,300, subject to a mortgage for $6,000. The hotel apparently did quite well, but anti-liquor sentiment continued to grow. The Minutes of the Board of Trustees for 2 April 1874 note that “A delegation of Ladies from the Ladies Temperance Union appeared before the board and presented petitions numerously signed asking that the board withhold Licenses for the sale of intoxicating Liquors for the ensuing year. Petitions were received with assurances that they would receive respectful consideration.”
By 1880, the “Drys” were able to elect a Village Board personally pledged to the No-License cause. That is the background against which to understand some of the subsequent events. The Fredonia Censor of 21 April 1880 reported the sale of the hotel property to “Mr. Fields of Ashtabula, Ohio” and continued, “This does away with one of the liquor licenses which would have lasted through the year, as the present excise board would not grant a new license if the new landlord wanted one, which he don’t. Mr. Fields is said to keep an excellent hotel on the temperance plan. Success to him.” Fields renamed it the Park Hotel “written in Rowe’s best style,” the Censor said. “The old stone steps have been relayed, a new walk built in front and the hotel generally put in shape.” However, by early January 1881, the Park House had been returned to M. H. Taylor’s ownership. The Censor of 5 January 1881 explained that “M. H. Taylor resumes his place as landlord and proprietor after an interim of nine months. Mr. Fields . . . was disappointed in the amount of business and concluded he had better lose what he had paid than complete the payments at the price for which he could have a deed of the property. . . . We understand Mr. Field gave in his verdict before leaving that the hotel cannot be made to pay without a bar. Mr. Taylor has an unexpired license and has opened a bar-room in the rear of the hotel office. This is a great improvement on the old place in the basement, which had nothing more to commend it than any saloon. There are many who favor license to the two bonafide hotels, and also to the drug stores; but when they saw an array of saloons shamelessly licensed as ‘hotels,’ and more saloons built, they felt it was time to call a halt.”And that is where matters stood for just about ten years as the hotel gradually deteriorated. By mid-1891 an effort to raise enough money to build a new hotel was well under way. On 19 December 1891, M. H. Taylor sold to Frank W. Tarbox (Liber 238 Page 474) for $11,900. Although The Fredonia Censor of 7 October 1891 had reported the plans for the rebuilding had been done by local architect M. E. Beebe, the final plans were done by E. A. Curtis. The Censor of 6 January 1892 explained that the new structure, incorporating the refurbished Taylor House, would have a frontage on Main Street with four stores, a barber shop in the basement, and the Express and Telegraph office “in the new part on Church Street.” The principal investors were Tarbox, E. A. Curtis and Dr. M. M. Fenner. With the completion of the hotel another problem arose, one that had appeared before. A new law relating to liquor licensing was passed in Albany that seemed to offer a way for the hotel owners to get around the No-License provision.
The arguments raged back and forth in the columns of the Censor and the Advertiser. In the course of that public debate, some insight into the state of the Johnson House in its latter days was provided. Dr. Fenner was answering some No-License arguments in the Censor of 1 February 1893 and reminded his readers that “The old ‘Johnson House,’ a royal hostlery in its day, had long since fallen into decay, and was unfit longer to offer the traveller a home or even a temporary lodging. . . . Its hoary walls and sunken roof still continued like a specter, to deface our beautiful parks. The dread of an evening entertainment in our beautiful new Opera House, to those who were so compelled, was the passing of this hideous empty castle. The very specter of its dingy walls and empty echoing halls and apartments, frequented only by swarms of rats, bats and vermin, cried out for action.” Even allowing for the exaggeration of a partisan explaining why the Hotel Columbia should be given its due, the picture of the old Johnson House in its last days is vivid enough.
Fenner and Curtis, the two active owners, continued their efforts, to no avail. They had made clear they were not hotel people and had no intention of trying to run it themselves. They then turned their attention to recruiting a landlord, a temperance landlord. That proved extremely difficult because, at the price of the lease the hotel owners were offering, most felt they could not make a profit without the revenue from a barroom. At one point, with the building still standing empty, consideration was given to making it a Catholic School. The Censor of 1 March 1893 reported, “Two priests, one from Buffalo and one from Dunkirk, came here Monday with Frank May of Dunkirk, to look at the Hotel Columbia with a view of purchasing it for a Roman Catholic school. They made a thorough inspection of the building and seemed to be pleased with it. . . . We should be very sorry to see the finest hotel site in town occupied for any other purpose, but after the jeers the hotel company have received over their investment they cannot be blamed for getting their money out if possible.”
While everyone waited for some resolution of the issue, Fenner arranged to have some steam from his street car power house on Center Street piped into the Hotel. The search went on and there was even an effort, that came to naught, for the No-License people to raise enough money to offer a temperance landlord $1000 per year as a subsidy to make up for his lower revenue. That got as far as $400 and then stalled. Finally a landlord team was found. The Boardmans, C. L. Boardman & Son. By November they were getting ready to open the hotel. The Censor of 22 November 1893 reported that W. B. Archibald was circulating a subscription list for those who wished to attend the opening banquet on 8 December at $5.00 per plate. “The proceeds are for the benefit of the landlords, C. L. Boardman & Son, who are furnishing the house in good style and deserve and need all the encouragement that can be given them.”
The Censor of 13 December 1893 presented a full account of the very successful event with close to 200 in attendance to dine and hear the eloquent toasts and responses that went on well into the following morning. Despite the attempts to make it a success, it wasn’t. Toward the end of August 1895 the Boardmans announced they were closing down. The Censor of 28 August 1895 summarized it. “They claim that after fair trial they have demonstrated to their own satisfaction that a temperance hotel in Fredonia will barely pay running expenses, without paying any rent. They are also satisfied that the community will not allow the hotel to have a bar.” Once again, the search was on. In the 9 October 1895 issue the announcement came: George F. Hurlbert had leased the hotel and would open it by 1 November. He had been proprietor of the Hurlbert House in Dunkirk for some ten years, then the Continental in Buffalo, and most recently the Tower House in Niagara Falls. He opened the hotel after spending $500 “decorating the walls and putting the hotel in good condition” said the Censor of 6 November 1895. He installed new carpets, new table ware, and elegant new beds with 40lb hair mattresses. “The whole house is warmed with steam heat and lighted by electricity.” Mr. Hurlbert survived into 1901 and then gave up his position. The Censor of 27 February 1901 reported he was leaving but that Mr. John Fitzgerald, who had been the on-site manager, would stay on temporarily. Luckily, the same issue reported, Harry S. Clothier who had a dry goods store, the Corner Store, at 2 West Main Street, had agreed to take over the lease. He took the hotel “for a year with the option of four more.” “The first order of business will be a thorough house cleaning and re-decorating. The regular ‘opening’ will take place shortly after Lent. John Fitzgerald the capable manager, and his assistants, have offered to stay for a time.” However, the Censor added, “Mr. Clothier will not give up his dry goods store, which he has filled with clean new stock.”
That was a sensible decision. By 1903 the Columbia had been taken by Seldon E. Stone who remained proprietor at least through 1915. It must have pleased the local temperance people that in 1916 the former bar room was the office of the Consumers’ Ice Company. By 1917 the landlord was Emanuel Bondeson, Mrs. M. M. Fenner’s younger brother, who had the dubious distinction of presiding over the final days of the Columbia Hotel. On 26 January 1918 the Columbia caught fire and burned to the ground. At the time the night clerk was Fred Pettit. He, Raymond Bolling, the bell boy, and Bondeson made sure the “16 or more persons slumbering in various parts of the building” were safely out of the building. At the time of the fire, according to the report in the Censor of 30 January 1918, Mr. and Mrs. C. J. Yonk, proprietors of the Lake Shore Restaurant, “had rooms [in the Columbia] on Main street, over the news room where the fire started, and they barely escaped with their two young daughters. . . . Miss Harriet Bannister, whose rooms were near the elevator, had the same experience. . . . The building included three prosperous business places on Main street, namely, J. D. McLaren’s double dry goods store [27 West Main Street], next to the Center street corner, Charles S. Austin’s news stand and pool room [25 West Main Street], and DeForest Straight’s clothing store in the corner by the park [21 West Main Street]. Raymond Taster also had billiard tables in the basement. . . . Mr. Bondeson saved one packed trunk and one belonging to Miss Sarah Pettit who was recently here from Missouri where she has an important State position.”
When the ashes had cooled and the site had been cleared of the debris, there was time to consider what was to be done. In September there was an offer from Messrs. French and Card to rebuild but at a price the owners couldn’t agree on. At a meeting of the Board of Trustees on 14 April 1919, W. J. Hall was given permission to locate a lunch wagon temporarily on the Hotel Columbia site. It is not clear whether that was actually done or how long it stood there. Finally, in June 1920 the heirs of the original Curtis and Fenner owners sold the property (Liber 468 Page 587) to A. William (“Bill”) Russo, a local businessman. In the meantime, Murray H. Bartley purchased the Devillo A.White home in 1919 and in 1920 added a front portion to create the White Inn, a traveler’s hotel and restaurant.
Several years went by before the Observer of 1 December 1923 was able to report that the steel frame of the new Russo Building was going up, and The Fredonia Censor of 13 May 1925 finally reported on the new building’s Open House to be held on the following weekend. Although the building stood on the site of the Hotel, it was designed as a multi-purpose structure with stores on the West Main and Park Streets sides of the ground floor, professional offices on the second, and rental apartments on the third. There was a report in the Censor of 14 November 1929 that George Kopp, who had a restaurant on Water Street, was going to open a new hotel and restaurant in the Russo Building., but that does not seem to have happened. Over the years small restaurants have come and gone along with a multitude of other businesses in those ground floor units, including, as the Censor of 20 May 1925 reported a “delicatessen and baked goods business” run by Miss Jessie Tarr of Buffalo. Then, in the 1930s, the Dairy Dale Restaurant and Confectioners at 29 West Main Street and the Home Dairy Restaurant at 8 Park Place. By 1940, the latter had become the Parkside Restaurant, by 1946 the J &J Restaurant, and in 1949 the Coney Island Restaurant. In 1972, Edward T. Wragge bought the building from Russo’s heirs and it was later renamed “1 Park Place.” In the 200 years since Hezekiah Barker made the Common the center of the Village and built his modest log cabin/inn next to it, the sequence of buildings and the people who inhabited them have mirrored the changing face of Fredonia. The imposing structure now 1 Park Place is a solid reminder of that important history.