This year, 2021, marks 100 years since the formal organization of an association in Lockport whose mission was to collect and preserve the history of this city and its earliest inhabitants. In 1921, Lockport itself was just about 100 years old so it seemed appropriate that historically-minded people should come together to create the “Lockport Historical Society” (the organization was reincorporated in 1947 as the Niagara County Historical Society).
A few years earlier, in 1917, the city had lost its first unofficial historian when Joshua Wilbur passed away at the age of 93. His role as Lockport’s first chronicler began when he was barely out of his teens. By 1845 he was interviewing the early pioneers of the village and taking copious notes about what they remembered. He also recorded what was in the newspapers of the day.
Wilbur believed it was important to keep a record of what went on in Lockport and was diligent about keeping that record. In 1896 he attempted to start a county historical society and advocated for a historian in every town in the county. Fifty years would pass before his dream became a reality. After his death, Wilbur’s widow sold his papers to the newly formed Lockport Historical Society, making it their first archival collection. This is now at the Niagara County Historian’s Office.
In an article on Oct. 8, 1921, the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal wrote, “The Lockport Historical Society has been organized in a preliminary way with the idea of affording persons interested in the preservation of the historical records, etc. of the county means to arrange for such work. The subject is one that has long been neglected.”
After several exploratory meetings, an election was held to install a board of directors. Judge Cuthbert W. Pound was elected president; Hiram D. McNeil, vice president; Austin C. Dwyer, secretary; Cleland A. Ward, treasurer; George S. Gooding, corresponding secretary; and George C. Lewis, Richard D. Ashford, Irving Atwater and Arthur Sellick, directors.
Two months later, the Lockport Historical Society was incorporated by the New York Secretary of State and the Niagara County Clerk. The incorporation allowed the society to fully function as well as publish booklets, hold entertainments and present lectures. Membership was set at $2 per year and was open to anyone who wished to join but the directors hoped “all the old families [would] enroll” in the society. By the end of 1922 the membership had reached 172.
Once the Lockport Historical Society was officially established, the directors began soliciting for items to start a permanent collection. As mentioned above, the society had acquired the Joshua Wilbur papers very early on. As documents and artifacts came in, it was necessary to find a place to store them as well as somewhere for the society to meet on a regular basis.
Several locations are mentioned by different sources. It was originally housed in the Junior Order Hall at 91 Main Street. In early 1924, it was moved to the third floor of the Fire Department headquarters on Richmond Avenue at the Big Bridge. The directors planned to establish a small museum there that would be open to the public. However, a year later, in 1925, the collection was transferred to the Postal Telegraph office, 97 Main Street just west of Market Street.
Public meetings were held in the auditorium of the old Union School on Chestnut Street. Another source indicates that in 1931, the collection was stored in the Korff Building at 63-67 Market Street. At some point in the early 1930s, the collection was moved to its longest held destination, the Union School on Chestnut Street. This building ceased being used as a school in 1930 and had rooms for storage. At the time of this relocation, membership in the Lockport Historical Society numbered over 200.
By 1937, the Lockport Historical Society was faltering. The Great Depression affected many people’s budgets and priorities and the society was one of its casualties. Also, some of the officers and directors had passed away, leaving gaps in the leadership. A few years later, World War II diverted the public’s attention as well.
It wasn’t until the war ended that two things brought renewed interest to the historical society: A wave of patriotism and prosperity that led the community to want to know more about its past, and the more immediate problem of the deterioration, and eventual demolition, of the Union School where the collection was still being stored. During the intervening years, the elements and vandals had entered the building and it was feared the collection would be further damaged if kept in that building. It was at this time that the historical society entered its second stage of existence.
To be continued in a future installment of Niagara Discoveries.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.