Remembering Brooklyn Square: The Fenton Women 1

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The Fenton Mansion (Photos courtesy of the Fenton History Center)
The Fenton Mansion (Photos courtesy of the Fenton History Center)

In this, my third article in a series about the Fentons of Jamestown, NY, I’ve chosen to write about the two women who were wife to Reuben Eaton Fenton, before and after he entered politics. Much has been written about Gov. Fenton, a title he was known by even after he had completed his two terms as governor of New York, but much to their credit are the women who graced his life, even for so a short time when an early death took his first wife Jane or when in the forty-one years of their marriage, his second wife Elizabeth gave him three children, among them his only son, Reuben Earle Fenton.

Jane Fenton Knowles, age 80
Jane Fenton Knowles, age 80

We don’t know much about Reuben Eaton Fenton’s first wife, Jane W. Frew. She was the daughter of John and Isabella Armstrong Frew, part of the family that gave its name to Frewsburg, NY. Reuben Fenton married Jane, according to one record, on February 5, 1840. She is said to have died giving birth to a daughter, Jane Frew Fenton, in 1841 or 1842 and is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in Frewsburg. Needing motherly care, young Jane was raised by her maternal grandparents whose home bordered the Fenton’s. She married Civil War veteran John Adams Knowles, moved west, and raised six children with him. Her second husband was James Kirby. Though Jane did not share much in her father’s life when he was a logger selling lumber and later when he entered politics as a congressman, the governor of New York State and a U.S. senator, it is said that she maintained a lifelong relationship with him. Jane died in her late eighties on November 1, 1929 in Belle Plaine, Kansas.

Elizabeth Scudder Fenton
Elizabeth Scudder Fenton

On June 12, 1844 Reuben Fenton married Elizabeth Scudder of Victor, NY, who was born on May 4, 1824 to Joel and Hannah Scudder. “Her father was of Revolutionary ancestry and one of the pioneers of Cattaraugus County.” The Fentons first lived at the Fenton homestead between Frewsburg and Fentonville and later moved to Frewsburg itself. During this time in their marriage, Elizabeth gave birth to two daughters, Josephine (1845-1928) and Jeannette (1849-1924). In 1863-64, the Fentons moved to their new home, a red brick mansion built in the style of an Italian villa with Tuscan tower designed and constructed by Aaron Hall, a well-known Jamestown architect. They named their estate Walnut Grove that sat high on a hill above the newly developing area of the city known as Brooklyn Square. In 1865, sixteen years after the birth of Jeannette and a year after their move to the mansion while Reuben Fenton was serving his first term as governor of New York, he and wife Elizabeth welcomed the birth of their one and only son, Reuben Earle Fenton, to their new home on June 12, 1865.

Mrs. Elizabeth Fenton has been described in The History of Chautauqua County, New York and Its People as a “woman of strong convictions, possessing an artistic nature, coupled with great kindliness of heart and rare, lovable characteristics.” She was greatly admired and had “large views of life and was interested in many philanthropies” being active, as her husband Gov. Fenton was, in work among Civil War soldiers. She was involved in the women’s Temperance Movement and in the Chautauqua County Political Equality Club of which Elnora M. Babcock was president from 1891-1893. It is noteworthy that suffragists expanded their efforts to get the vote in the years after the Civil War, and the rural areas of southwestern New York State developed into strongholds for their cause. Elizabeth Fenton was a passionate suffragist and fought for women’s rights in which cause she was host to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the mansion as they traveled west to promote the right for women to vote.

Elnora M. Babcock, Chautauqua County Political Equality Club president, 1891-1893
Elnora M. Babcock,
Chautauqua County Political Equality Club president, 1891-1893

On a more domestic front, Elizabeth was mistress of a great house, loved gardening, enjoyed entertaining and was hostess in the mansion at the wedding reception of her daughter Josephine’s marriage to Frank Edward Gifford, which was one of THE social events of the city with prominent people of Jamestown attending. Gov. Fenton’s position in politics brought his wife in contact with many educated and cultured people and “as the wife of a public man, she fulfilled her duties with dignity and grace.”

On August 25, 1885 Ex-Governor Reuben E. Fenton, who was then president of the First National Bank, was stricken with a fatal heart attack while at his desk that afternoon. Messengers brought the news to Mrs. Elizabeth Fenton and her daughter and according to an article in the August 26, 1885 issue of The New York Times, “as soon as possible the body was placed in a carriage and supported in the arms of the widow during the drive to Walnut Grove, the family residence.” A condolence from Governor David B. Hill of New York was appended to that article and it shows the affection in which Gov. Reuben E. Fenton was held by his political colleagues: “The people of the state of which Reuben E. Fenton was an honored Governor, an able Senator, and an esteemed citizen deeply sympathize with his family in their bereavement. I desire…to convey to them an expression of my personal condolence.”

After the death of both her husband in 1885 and the death of her son Earle in 1895, Mrs. Fenton continued living at the mansion until her death on May 20, 1901, when the estate became the property of daughters Josephine Fenton Gifford and Jeannette Fenton Gilbert.