MR. J. SHELDON FISHER
J. Sheldon Fisher saved Valentown from demolition in 1940.
Since then he has created an extraordinary museum featuring the history of the Rochester area.
Here is a small biography about J. Sheldon Fisher, taken from his book, The Fish Horn Alarm.
OTHER BOOKS BY MR. FISHER
In 1940 J. Sheldon Fisher and his wife Lillian purchased Valentown Hall and established the Valentown Historical Museum to house his collection which is as diverse as his interests. Iroquoiara, Military, Scientific, Folklore, Genealogical; all attract the curiosity and investigation of the man known as Hiawasees, the name given to him by the Seneca Indians in 1964 at the time of his adoption by the Heron Clan. It means "the eagle who gathers news and history" and it is an appropriate handle for Fisher who has spent most of his life gathering, chronicling and preserving the history of Western New York.
Professionally, he has helped build the renowned archaeological collection of the Rochester Museum and Science Center and became the first county historian in Ontario County. Always active as a volunteer in community organizations, he was the founder of the Rochester Genealogical Society and the Fishers' Fire Department as well as reconstructing a Civil War cavalry regiment, the First New York Dragoons.
Shortly before his 80th birthday, in the summer of 1987, he was honored as the primary influence in the 42-year campaign that led to the dedication of Ganondagan, the first New York State Historic Site devoted to Native American Culture.
We're here this afternoon to celebrate the life of John Sheldon Fisher and to celebrate his ultimate arrival in Fishers. To my father no place on earth was closer to heaven than Fishers. He was born there, never lived many miles away and throughout his long life was happiest when he was collecting or repeating the sagas of that place. So, even though there is no mention of Fishers in the Bible, we can assume with some degree of confidence that Sheldon Fisher is beginning eternity in celestial surroundings that must somehow resemble those of what he once referred to as the enchanted land of Fishers.
Dad was born in the Fisher homestead in Fishers on August 12, 1907, the first member of the third generation of Fishers to be born there. Six brothers and sisters followed, guaranteeing future generations the companionship of dozens of cousins at gatherings and picnics in the old house and on its broad front lawn, a former field which Dad recalled grading with a horse and rig and planting with grass.
Perhaps it was Dad¹s standing as the oldest child that made him especially aware of older generations, of the stories they had to tell and of the artifacts and heirlooms they left behind. He became so sensitive to the subject that by the time he was twelve he had gathered so many objects into his bedroom for safekeeping after his father died that he had to sleep on a side porch.
After graduating from the old Genesee Wesleyan Seminary in Lima, Dad had several jobs in Rochester, including one as an archeologist with the Rochester Museum. He also developed his talents of forming organizations, promoting an interest in history and getting articles in the newspaper, all the time maintaining a close focus on his old hometown. In 1933 he organized Pioneer Days, the first of several celebrations and pageants he put together in Fishers over the next few decades. In what may have been the first effort at historic preservation in the Town of Victor, Dad was instrumental in saving the architecturally distinctive cobblestone railroad pump-house in Fishers.
Such activities helped him land the position of curator of the Rochester Historical Society, the job he held when he met my mother, Lillian Lewis. After their marriage in the previous Asbury Methodist Church building in 1939, she became a lifetime supporter of his historical projects to the extent that she actually allowed him in 1940 to buy and rescue from destruction the derelict Valentown Hall. That purchase framed the course of the rest of his life.
You don't readily think of Sheldon Fisher as a dance hall operator. But that is indeed one of the entrepreneurial occupations on his varied resumé. He restored the third-floor ballroom of Valentown Hall and brought in a band for dances to pay for the place until the advent of World War II, when automobile gasoline rationing cut off the fuel of his clientele.
During the war Dad took a defense industry job with General Railway Signal in Rochester. But he still kept his old interests, and continued his enchantment with history, genealogy and publicity. These came together when I was born in 1941 with an announcement he sent to the local newspaper. His story trumpeted my forebears on both sides for generations back, and got the headline: Victor Welcomes Baby of Notable Lineage.
I cringed when I came across the clipping years later, and Dad sheepishly admitted he¹d gotten some ribbing about it. My brothers Douglas and Warner and my late sister Priscilla were spared such coverage, and I assumed nothing more would come of it.
But fortunately or unfortunately, like most of Dad's work, nothing seems to stay hidden forever. Many of you remember my Victor classmate John Gouldrick, who entered the Catholic priesthood and is now based in Lewiston, Maine. The other day I got a Christmas card from John, with the note: In doing some genealogical searching in the Victor Herald, I came upon your front-page birth announcement. My, was I impressed!
After the war Mom and Dad moved their growing family from Pittsford to the second floor of Valentown Hall. We would call that home for the next nineteen years. Dad opened an antique shop in the old grocery store on the first floor and used the rest of the first floor as a workshop for refinishing antique furniture. With characteristic energy and ingenuity, as rural electrification came to Victor he drove down back roads, picked up kerosene lamps left out as trash, wired them for electricity, put on new shades and sold them at a nice markup.
As proprietor of the Hall, Dad developed skills in plumbing, carpentry, window glazing, mixing cement and roofing. He often recalled that after buying the place he had to repair the roof. He climbed the steps that once led to a cupola, crawled out onto the roof and lay on his back looking up at the sky until his fear of the height went away. In his 60s he single-handedly re-roofed the building. He was always careful to use a thick rope, one end tied to the steps inside and the other end tied around his waist.
In 1950 Dad moved his workshop to the basement and restored his four-room workshop on the first floor as a summertime restaurant. The idea was that the family would soon move to Fishers to a home he would build on the hilltop that is now part of Fishers Park. Unfortunately, after two summers the restaurant was still not profitable. In what must have been a very difficult transition, Dad set a great example for the rest of us when he swallowed his pride and did what had to be done to support his family. He went back to work elsewhere, first at Victor Insulators and then as a machinist at Gleason Works in Rochester.
He now had some usable vacant space on the first floor of Valentown Hall, and it didn't take him long to figure out what to do with it. The summer of 1953 was ahead, and with it the celebration of the 140th anniversary of the incorporation of the Town of Victor. The event was being celebrated with a tour by the Victor Historical Society, which Dad had organized a few years earlier in (where, else) the Fisher Homestead. He and I lined up the old dining tables into rows to display his growing collection of artifacts and memorabilia, and, as a stop on the Victor Historical Society¹s tour, the Valentown Museum was born.
In 1958 Dad discovered that all counties in the state were required to have county historians, but Ontario County did not have one. He convinced the Board of Supervisors to hire him on a part-time basis, and spent the rest of his time on his museum. In 1965 my parents were able to buy the old home across the road of the builder of Valentown Hall. That opened Valentown Hall's second floor for the museum, which he promptly expanded. Attendance soared.
Lines of school buses waited outside as Dad conducted tours for students from schools from throughout the region. He never tired of demonstrating the static electricity apparatus of an 1840s traveling science show that he restored, and which is now in the Smithsonian Institution. He literally made the hair of generations of schoolchildren stand on end. Through this showmanship and his narratives both at the museum and in innumerable speaking engagements he had an immeasurable influence on future careers, including my own.
In the 1960s Dad also launched a campaign that led to what may be his greatest single achievement, the creation of Ganondagan State Historic Site on the site of a significant Seneca Indian village in Victor. The idea of taking good farmland for a park was not a popular one in those days. But Dad was never more stubbornly persistent than when he was on his own out on front lines of his own making. He held to his vision, and support grew.
An astute commentator on the local scene at the time was Larry Keefe, who began one of his columns in the Victor Herald by observing, Being around Sheldon Fisher is as comfortable as having a burdock on your sock. That said, Larry Keefe went on to point out Dad¹s positive attributes and perceptively outlined his value to the Victor community.
In the end, Victor gained an attraction which now draws national recognition, and Dad was adopted by the Seneca Nation in gratitude for his efforts at preserving their heritage. Nor was he ignored by the Town of Victor. Elected to a term as Town Assessor, he was also appointed chairman of the Planning Board and Town Historian. He was made Victor¹s Citizen of the Year in the 1980s and this year was named by the Victor Chamber of Commerce as Victor¹s Citizen of the Century. In 1994 he received a special citation for his life¹s work from the Arts and Cultural Council for Greater Rochester.
Having been born in the twentieth century did not deter Dad from slipping into earlier times. He loved to dress up as his ancestors or as other local notables. He was his great-grandfather Charles Fisher at the Fishers Post Office Centennial he organized in 1951. He was General Israel Chapin in the Pickering Treaty observances he brought to life in Canandaigua. He was The Lightning Man, Dr. Charles Came, the wizard whose traveling science show he'd restored. He paraded as a cavalryman with the Civil War reenactment group he organized, and as a World War I soldier in annual parades in Palmyra even last year, when his need for a triple bypass began slowing him down in body only.
He stopped short of dressing up as a Mayflower Pilgrim when he organized the first meeting at the old Fire Hall in Fishers, of course of a group of Pilgrim descendants that still gathers every Thanksgiving. But he did locate some broad brimmed hats and capes for his four children to wear when the newspaper photographers came.
Dad continued his frenetic pace for decades past the point when most people retire. He wrote two books of local folklore. He maintained his interest in the Fishers Fire Department, which he helped organize in 1921 and to reorganize 25 years later. He went through a financial crisis that fortuitously led to his museum and local collections getting into the hands of Ganondagan and of the Victor Historical Society, to be preserved for future generations. Even after he turned 95 he brimmed with energy and enthusiasm, still ready to give tours of the museum to whomever knocked on the door.
Historian, antiquarian, antiques dealer, preservationist, publicist, plumber, genealogist, archeologist, dance hall operator, roofer, restaurateur, machinist, showman, author, civic booster, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather. The likes of J. Sheldon Fisher will probably not come this way again anytime soon. But we are all the better for having been here when he was.
Lewis Fisher ~ December 28, 2002
Historic Valentown Museum