Article Contributed by
Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist
Before the Fenton mansion became the Fenton Museum and History Center and before its address was changed from 68 S. Main Street to 67 Washington Street, the dwelling and its grounds, originally named Walnut Grove, were known by the residents of the Lost Neighborhood and the adjoining area of old Brooklyn Square quite simply as Fenton Park. It was the summer and winter playground of kids in the Lost Neighborhood, and for those of us who grew up on Derby Street, which was directly across S.Main Street from the terraced, rolling hills of the Fenton estate, we looked upon the grand house and the statue of Gov. Reuben E. Fenton every day.
During the summer many of the young boys who lived near the Park made it a daily trip, often being in the Park all day long. One of the attractions was the Civil War and WW I cannons that kids used to climb on, and one of these large guns became the backdrop of a photograph my father took of the Derby Street boys, left to right, Andy Hennas, John Cusimano (my brother), George Hennas, and Sandy Galati. Tony Tripi, on old Victoria Avenue neighbor, recalled the kind caretaker of the mansion in the 1940s, Mr. Ernest Colander, who built two horseshoe pits for the boys, taught them how to pitch, and even competed with them.
Fall was hickory nut season in the Park, and once we kids had gathered enough to fill a small paper bag, we brought them home and proceeded to stamp and crack them under leather heels on cement sidewalks. Once we heard that satisfying “crunch,” we worked awfully hard to extract the sweet, crisp nutmeat from those tightly packed shells. But if a hickory nut was unyielding, we resorted to using a hammer, usually surreptitiously “borrowed’ from one of our father’s tool boxes!
Spring-time yielded another natural “crop” in the Park that our Italian fathers would gather into large paper bags—dandelion greens that sprang up all over the Park in abundance and that were either cooked by our mothers or eaten raw in a salad topped with a tasty agrodolce (sweet and sour) salad dressing!
Winter brought a whole new scene to the Park. With deep snow sparkling on the terraced hill in front of the mansion, the sledding was spectacular, especially when you got a little air between your sled and the next slope! It was akin to a downhill roller coaster ride that ended, in those days, at the foot of the hill that opened onto a sidewalk and the brick surface of S. Main Street.
In its long history, the Park also served as a reminder of WW II. In the early 1940s, a Soldiers Honor Roll was erected at the northwestern corner of the Park that listed the names of those Jamestonians who were serving in WW II. The wooden structure was devastated during the June 10, 1945, tornado that damaged so much of Brooklyn Square and the adjacent residential, business, and industrial areas of the city. Some pieces of it were found miles away on Allen, English, and Willow Streets, and sections were also found on the badly damaged top floor of the Maddox Table Company on Harrison St. The Park itself sustained much damage with many old, large trees either felled by the tornadic winds or whose branches were hanging dangerously close to the ground or telephone wires. A contingent of German POWS from the Dunkirk, NY, camp volunteered to aid in the clean up of the debris in the Park under the direction of an armed and mounted U.S. Army sergeant. With a group of curious school boys from the surrounding neighborhoods as an awe-struck audience, the POWS sawed fallen trees and took down damaged trees with a pick-up truck and a power winch, all the while being as curious about Americans as the boys were of Germans.
The beautiful Park will forever be in the memories of those of us who grew up in its shadow within sight of the stately mansion, high on a hill, that is now one of only two remaining original structures of old Brooklyn Square. (For a more comprehensive account of the 1945 tornado, I refer readers to the articles “June 10, 1945” and “Harrison Street Tornado Damage” that can be found in my second book, Brooklyn Square, The Lost Neighborhood, and Beyond).