Research is always a road of discovery, and I have found this to be true about the family of Gov. Reuben E. Fenton, one of Jamestown’s most illustrious citizens, whose life and political career I explored in my previous article. The future of the Fenton family, however, lay with his youngest child and only son, Reuben Earle Fenton, known as Earle to distinguish him from the governor. Although his life was short, it was rich.
Earle Fenton was born in Jamestown on June 12, 1865, during his father’s term of governor of New York, at the Fenton mansion on the grounds of the estate known as Walnut Grove. He attended the public schools of Jamestown, studied under a tutor at home and when he traveled with his mother to California, attended St. John’s Military School at Manlius, New York, and then in the spring of 1884, entered Brown University. The unexpected death of his father from heart disease on August 25, 1885, however, put an abrupt end to the young Fenton’s academic career, and he returned to the family home to manage the estate and live with his mother Elizabeth Scudder Fenton.
In 1887, at age 22, Earle Fenton, a young entrepreneur, and a group of Jamestown business men organized the Fenton Metallic Company that manufactured vaults, metal office furniture, and the metallic Fenton bicycle. Fenton was the president of the company, and his business acumen ensured what might have become a long career of great success. His company was to become the Art Metal Manufacturing Company that remained a mainstay of industry in the city well into the 1970s.
In keeping with his talents for leadership, he rose to the rank of captain at his military school and later, showing a marked military ability, he was elected captain of the Fenton guards (so named in honor of his father) in May of 1887 and in November of that year, he was elected First Lieutenant, an office he later resigned. Nevertheless, he always kept a keen interest in the Guards. Other organizations of which this civic-minded young man was a member were the Jamestown Club, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Ellicott Hook and Ladder Company, and the Calumet Club of New York City.
While passing the winter season at his orange grove in St. Augustine, Florida in 1890, Earle Fenton met Lillian Mai Hayden, the daughter of Charles H. Hayden of Columbus, Ohio. After a brief courtship, they were married October 2, 1890 in Trinity Church in Columbus, Ohio. Love of travel was a great part of Earle Fenton’s life. It broadened him intellectually and culturally, and even though he had seen much of the world that other young men had not, he was bent on showing his wife Lillian in the five years of their marriage both the old world and the new. Their travels took them far and wide. After a winter spent in Egypt in 1894-1895, the couple arrived in Naples, Italy where Earle fell ill with typhoid fever and succumbed to what was to be a final illness at age 29 on March 25, 1895.
There could be no more eloquent manner in which to describe the final voyage of Earle Fenton than what I found in the In memoriam, Reuben Earle Fenton: “From the blue skies and sunny shores of Italy, in a strangely beautiful foreign casket, his body was borne by the ship Werra to America, and upon Good Friday entered for the last time the stately home he loved so well, where the aged mother had hoped to see her son live and rear a family of his own, and upon an April day while the world was still singing of the resurrection morn, was laid in the Fenton mausoleum, the tomb of his father.” Prior to embarking, a service was held in the English Chapel at Naples.
In a tribute written on the life of Earle Fenton, he was described as attractive and distinguished, possessed of self-poise and courage with a charm and repose of manner born of culture and travel. He was a young man of high spirit and ardent temperament, chivalrous and tender, truthful and generous, with a broad horizon in which he held “progress” to be the watchword of the 19 th century. “The world was his book,” and he was proud of being an American. To wit, in a letter to his mother that was reprinted in the April 2, 1895 edition of the Buffalo Express, one of several local and national newspapers that ran accounts of Earle Fenton’s life and death, he wrote from Alexandria, Egypt on March 3, 1895: “While near the harbor this morning, we saw the United States man-of-war San Francisco at anchor, and I can assure you it did me good to see the Stars and Stripes floating from such a splendid vessel.”
According to the Jamestown Evening Journal, there was never a funeral so largely attended in Jamestown as that of Earle Fenton’s, with the exception of his distinguished father’s. “The house and grounds of Walnut Grove were thronged with relatives, friends, and admirers.” This so brings to mind the photograph taken on June 12, 1870 when young Earle Fenton celebrated his fifth birthday on the side lawn of the Fenton mansion with a crowd of family, friends, and well wishers. Yet what a sad occasion only 24 years later.
Rev. Sidney Dealey, rector of St. Luke’s church, performed the solemn rite of the Episcopal Church, and an oration was given by the Rev. C. Albertson of the First M.E. Church. The cortege was escorted by the Thirteenth Separate Company, the Fenton Guards, commanded by Capt. Post, that marched to the beat of muffled drums and bugles to Lakeview Cemetery. Carriages carried the bier, clergy, and family and friends. And last came the Fenton Metallic men, between 100 and 200 employees, in double file wearing badges of mourning. Because Mrs. Lillian Hayden Fenton was detained in Italy due to illness and did not travel with the body of her husband, the final committal service was not performed until her return to Jamestown. The couple regrettably had no children to carry on the Fenton name.