Article Contributed by Barb Cessna Veterans Coordinator, Fenton History Center
On Nov 11, 2019, the Vets Finding Vets program at the Fenton History Center will celebrate five years of service in our community. Vets Finding Vets was launched by the Fenton History Center as a way to assist Chautauqua County Veterans allowing free access to the Fenton’s Research Center to enable Veterans to make use of our genealogical and local history resources, computer programs, and staff/volunteer expertise. Interested Veterans have begun or continued their family genealogy, accessed historical photos or information for special projects concerning their Veteran Organization, searched for old service buddies, and helped with several ongoing Veteran projects which document the service of our Veterans, from the Revolutionary War Veterans in our cemeteries to our modern day Soldiers and Veterans. (As part of our initiative to honor modern day Soldiers and Veterans, we launched a memorial website for Veterans of Modern Warfare whose lives have been lost as a result of their service to our country; see www. chqvmwmemorial.org for more details.)
Vets Finding Vets
Caring for our County’s Veterans has felt like a natural responsibility for our staff, but it is also a great fit for our Museum. The Fenton Mansion that the Museum operates out of, originally owned by Governor Reuben Fenton and his family, has been associated with Soldiers and Veterans since it was built in 1863, during the Civil War. Before becoming Governor of New York State, Reuben Fenton was a Representative for this District in Congress, and had made a name for himself in part by strongly advocating for the aging Revolutionary and War of 1812 Veterans. He was successful in passing legislation regarding expanded pensions for both groups of Veterans, and getting Veterans and their families the support they had been promised by the government in return for their service.
The Fenton family was in residence at the Fenton Mansion until 1901, when Mrs. Elizabeth Scudder Fenton, widow of Reuben Fenton, passed away. Afterwards, the Mansion sat empty until 1919, but it wasn’t long before it found another way to support local Veterans. The City of Jamestown purchased the property to be used as a Soldier and Sailor Memorial Park, in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Veterans returning from that conflict were beginning to form associations in town, including Legion and VFW Posts. Many of these patriotic organizations began meeting in the Mansion as early as the the 1920s, which prompted improvements and modifications to be made. After changing the house from a purely residential dwelling to one that could be used more functionally, many of the rooms were used by these organizations and their auxiliaries for meetings and social gatherings. During these early years, the aged Civil War Veterans (known as the Grand Army of the Republic or GAR), the Fenton Guards (early predecessor of the National Guard), the Spanish American War Veterans, the Mexican Border War Veterans, and the WWI Veterans were all meeting in the Mansion at the same time. The Mansion occasionally took a more active role, too. During WWII and the Korean War, young men and women enlisted in the Fenton Mansion Drawing Room, and as they left through the front door, they boarded buses and made their way to Buffalo for training and assignment.
Several of the early Veteran groups left their records here when the Fenton Historical Society was chartered in 1963 and moved in. These groups knew the history of their service would be left in safe hands. These records form a very unique collection of local military records which we are proudly preserving. We consider this special part of our history to be part of our legacy and mission, and our strong desire to continue to be of service to local Veterans of all ages led to the creation of the Vets Finding Vets Program five years ago.
The program has continued to grow and spread throughout the community since its inception. We continue to seek new partners and projects to make the program more encompassing and meaningful for our community and its Veterans. Two years ago, Vets Finding Vets was designated to be a repository and caretaker for the Veterans database that was once housed at Jamestown City Hall. This database was part of an effort to document Chautauqua County Veterans begun in the 1990s by Celoron Historian Evelyn Adams; the information gathered from this effort became an online database called the Chautauqua County Veterans Memorial Commission. This information is still accessible by going to www.ccvmc.com. Once on the Homepage, you can choose various options regarding the site. There are two options to conduct a search to see if a Veteran you’re searching for has been entered into the database – Simple Search and Advanced Search. Be sure to check both. You are offered the chance to click on “edit” to make an edit to an existing record, but please DO NOT utilize that method. Those edit forms, for an unknown reason are forwarded to the Website Administrator as a blank document. We cannot reply to the “editor” and have no option to even know which record was being edited. Your edits are very important to us, as we want every Veteran documented correctly, so please follow these simple alternatives. You may call the Fenton History Center at 716-664-6256, and ask for Barb. Or, you can make a whole new submission, as those are returned to the Administrator perfectly as submitted. Once we see there are two submissions for the same Veteran, we will submit the new information and delete the old info. We very much appreciate any efforts by Veterans or family members to correct and update this information, so please be sure we actually get the info by following one of these two options. This database continues to be a very important resource to document and preserve the service of our local Veterans, and new records are added weekly. We feel honored to be entrusted with this resource by the Chautauqua County Veterans Commission of Jamestown, and will do our utmost to ensure the information contained there is as thorough and accurate as possible.
Other services that we have been able to add to the Vets Finding Vets program in the five years of its existence include: Veteran lectures, which are often shared with students; bus trips to military-focused museums and reenactments; facilitating the application process for Buffalo/Niagara Honor Flights; hosting the Fenton Canteen, a once-a-month social gathering for Veterans at the Fenton Museum; and holding Honor Flight Veteran Reunions. As of the recent Honor Flight of Oct 13, we have helped 35 regional Veterans take these flights, which allow Veterans to fly to Washington, D.C. for free to visit the memorial site that honors the conflict they served in. Veterans who go on these Honor Flights often look forward to getting together afterwards, and meeting the Veterans from the most recent flight, to talk about the impactful experiences they got to share on the trip.
Beyond Honor Flights, we are always looking for other ways to bring area Veterans together and honor their experiences. On Monday, Oct. 21st, we brought in nearly 300 participants, many of them Veterans, Soldiers, or their families, for our latest Veteran talk. We were surprised and excited by the opportunity to host a Vietnam Veteran, Colonel Ken Cordier, who became a Prisoner of War in North Vietnam in 1966. He was held in captivity for 6 years, 3 months, and 2 days, and was released on Mar. 4, 1973 as part of Operation Homecoming. Although Colonel Cordier doesn’t have a direct link with Chautauqua County, his story was impactful to the large population of Vietnam and Vietnam Era Veterans that reside in this area. We held the event at the wonderful Chautauqua Harbor Hotel and were overjoyed to share the powerful and inspirational evening with such a large crowd of interested people of all ages.
As we were preparing for the event, we received a fascinating call from someone who would be a participant in our program that evening. This woman who called was excited enough about the idea of Colonel Cordier speaking that she travelled to Celoron from Virginia with her mother to meet Col. Cordier in person. Her reason? When she was 12 years old, she ordered a POW bracelet; when it was sent to her, the name on the bracelet was Major Ken Cordier. She wore the bracelet constantly until Colonel Cordier returned home, at which point she received a letter from him thanking her for her support. She wore the bracelet again when she met Col. Cordier, and had it on later for the event, where she read a portion of the letter that he had written all those years ago. A video was made for the Fenton that evening by Memorial Photography, and can be purchased at the Fenton Gift Shop for $10. On the evening of the event, Colonel Cordier also signed copies of his book, Guardian Eagle, for many for many people. He was happy to leave more copies that can also be purchased at the Fenton Gift Shop for $20. All of the proceeds from the book sales will go to support Colonel Cordier’s four favorite national Veteran charities. Either (or both) of these items would make wonderful and inspirational gifts!
As Project Coordinator for Vets Finding Vets for these five years, I have had the opportunity to meet and hear stories from so many wonderful Veterans, and I want to thank each and every Veteran for his or her service to our country. It has been such an honor to meet and become friends with so many to whom we owe so much. I am indebted to the many Veterans and Veteran organizations who patiently listen to our latest “mission” and offer help and guidance from their own experiences. This is most especially true of the recent event featuring Colonel Cordier, as without this help and guidance, this magical event would not have been so successful.
Finally, I want to give a special thanks to the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation for believing that a Veteran’s program like ours is worthwhile, and for funding so many of our very important moments.