NIAGARA DISCOVERIES:

This c. 1957 photo, taken 10 years after the re-establishment of the Niagara County Historical Society, shows a few of the early members who were influential in the operation of the organization. From left are: Charles Boyer, first museum curator; Raymond Yates, board president; Robert H. Long, board member; and Clarence O. Lewis, Niagara County Historian. They are standing in the newly restored Washington Hunt Law Office.

As the History Center of Niagara celebrates its 100th anniversary, we continue to take a look back at the formation and growth of the organization. A few months ago, Niagara Discoveries recounted the founding of the Lockport Historical Society in 1921, how it grew and expanded in the 1920s, faltered during the Great Depression and World War II, and was later revived when prosperity and patriotism were on the rise during the latter part of the war.

In May 1944, less than a year before the war ended, a group of “hold-over” directors from the inactive Lockport Historical Society called a meeting at Lockport Public Library. These directors were Edward Boynton, Ralph Dox, Clarence Lewis, Cleland Ward, Mortimer Wilcox and Rev. James Bray. A month later, on June 1st, the Lockport Historical Society was reorganized with a new slate of officers. Richard McCarthy was elected president, Alexis Muller secretary, and Clarence Lewis treasurer. New directors included Raymond Yates, Louis Merritt, Horace Stahler, Philip Rogers, Charles Upson and Albert Lacy. A membership drive was also started to reconnect with original members and attract new ones.

The first task of the reestablished Lockport Historical Society was to remove valuable papers and artifacts from the derelict Union School on Chestnut Street and rehouse them on the third floor of the Fire Headquarters building at Richmond and Cottage Streets at the Big Bridge (they had been briefly kept there in the 1920s). To get residents interested in the historical society, the directors held monthly meetings in the Lockport library and began a series of publications by local authors on the history of Lockport and Niagara County. The most pertinent issue facing the directors was to find a secure, permanent home for the collection.

Almost three years to the day after “reviving” the Lockport Historical Society, the directors voted to change the name of the organization to the Niagara County Historical Society, Inc. (hereafter NCHS). A certificate of incorporation was filed with the Niagara County Clerk’s Office, and later with New York State, in September 1947. (In 2010, NCHS would be rechartered under the New York State Department of Education). The directors believed that the name change better reflected its mission “to discover, procure and preserve whatever may relate to the history of Western New York and particularly Niagara County.”

Other objectives included gathering information on various aspects of the county history; creating publications of historical value; conducting lecture courses and engaging speakers for public programs; buying or leasing property and/or constructing buildings to conserve the collection and hold meetings; and “to do any and all things which may be proper to preserve and maintain for public use, the historical annals and relics of Western New York and particularly Niagara County, and to educate the people of the history of their community.”

Another consideration for expanding the mission to include the entire county was to request funding from the county Board of Supervisors, which was comprised of the supervisors of the 12 towns in the county. It was also recommended that a representative from each town be appointed to the board of directors.

In 1948, NCHS requested the Lockport Common Council to lease the old Active Hose Company building on Walnut Street for use as a meeting and storage place until a permanent home could be found. It appears that the request was denied as there is no indication that the old fire house was ever used by the historical society (it was later used by the old Lockport High School on East Avenue for their Music Department).

Meetings, programs and temporary exhibits took place in the Lockport library. Membership continued to increase each year and by the end of 1949, more than 200 people had joined. Dues were $2 per year and members received a copy of the NCHS publication printed that year (in 1949 it was Mrs. Charles Kaiser’s “Streets of Lockport” booklet). Families from all over the county offered donations of artifacts, photographs and other materials but were asked to defer their gifts “until the Society is in a position to give them proper display.”

By the early 1950s, the Niagara County Historical Society was recognized by the New York State Historian, Dr. Albert Cory, as being “one of the most progressive in the state.” Eight booklets on various aspects of Niagara County history had been published by 1953 when NCHS embarked on its next major step forward: the acquisition of a permanent site to house their growing collection.

To be continued in a future article.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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