Bicentennial Biographies No. 156 – 160

A collection of bicentennial biographies from Chautauqua County, N.Y. featuring Walter Smith (Dunkirk), Sophia Williams (Fredonia), Clara Elizabeth Sackett (Westfield & Jamestown) ,  Grace Galloway (Jamestown) and Jennifer Stuczynski Suhr (Fredonia). Originally broadcast on local radio stations Aug. 15 – Aug. 19, 2011.

No. 156 – Walter Smith

Walter Smith (1800 - 1874)

Walter Smith was born in Wethersfield, Conn. on March 21, 1800. At the age of 15, he moved to Cazenova, N.Y., about ten miles southeast of Syracuse to work as a clerk. Four years later, in 1819, Smith came on horseback to Fredonia to work as a merchant under the name Walter Smith and Co. His partner was his former employer in Cazenova, who provided the capital to start the business.

The same year he opened his mercantile shop in Fredonia, Smith purchased a store and ashery from brothers Ralph Plumb and Joseph Plumb. His business sense was so good that it’s said that his sales exceeded $20,000 during his first year in Fredonia. By his sixth year in business, sales exceeded $75,000 although only 10 percent of that was actual cash, the rest was in trade – mostly pot and pearl ashes.

Smith said that of all the ashes exported from the county during his first six year, nearly 75 percent was handled by his business. Smith also helped to supply food for local settlers by working out deals with early farmers. Among the owners of the early farms he did business with were Hezekiah Barker, Zattu Cushing, and Seth Cole.

By the late 1820s, orders on Smith’s store and due-bills payable in goods over his signature became the currency of the county. In 1826, Smith became associated with Gov. DeWitt Clinton and others in the proprietorship of Dunkirk, where he invested his capital, prestige, talent to the development of that community. Smith was still heavily involved in the growth of Dunkirk when the Depression of 1836 hit the country. Because of the outstanding debts owed to him and failures of his own investments, Smith was left in financial ruin.

A lesser man would have been unable to overcome such a financial loss as what Smith endured following 1836, but he was determined to rebuild his reputation and wealth. In 1843, he moved to Vermillion, Ohio to manage an extensive iron establishment, steering to the business, and himself, into prosperity. In 1852, Smith returned to Dunkirk to help the city prosper with the arrival of the railroad. He remained involved in local and regional commerce until his death on Sept. 21, 1874.

Following his death, it was said that no man was more intimately associated with the early history of Dunkirk than Smith and no other in the early history of the county had been so widely and so favorably known as a business man. It is said that a history of Chautauqua county without mention of Walter Smith would be like the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out.

No. 157 – Sophia Williams

Sophia Morton was a local folk hero who was born in the year of our country’s Independence, September 25, 1776. She came from a distinguished family, her brother – Rev. Salmon Morton – was one of the thirteen individuals who founded what is today known as Colgate University.

Sophia Williams (1776 - 1854)

In November 1794, Sophia married Richard Williams (of East Hartford, Conn.) in Oneida County, N.Y. The couple settled in Fredonia in June, 1807, coming to the area with Richards sister and brother-in-law. Each family had six children.

In 1813 – with the War with Britain underway (War of 1812)- Richard Williams was responsible for carrying the weekly mail between Erie and Buffalo. During one trip in the spring he arrived in Fredonia with the mail from Erie, sick and unable to sit upon his horse. As a result, Sophia, who was pregnant at the time, took the mail and set out on horseback to complete the deliver to Buffalo.

All the streams were swollen due to the winter thaw, and many were beyond their natural limits. Rather than turning back, Sophia plunged her horse into an angry flood at the Cattaraugus Creek, the Eighteen-Mile Creek, and the Buffalo Creek, each time holding the mail above the water. She also passed through the territory of two tribes of Indians suspected of hostility and wild animals, such as wolves and bears, still hovered around the path she traveled. Despite the many obstacles and challenges, Sophia was able to get the mail delivered to Buffalo on time.

If this incident wasn’t enough to illustrate Sophia’s bravery, she was challenged yet again a few years later when one of her daughters – who had moved to Indiana – wrote to Sophia saying she and her family were very sick and that there was no chance for them but death. Richard had already passed, and so Sophia took a span of horses and a lumber wagon and set out on her own to rescue them. Her journey was hundreds of miles through an almost unbroken wilderness. She was able to make it to her daughters home and return the entire family back to Fredonia.

Sophia lived a full life and died April 13, 1854 at the age of 77. She has long been considered one of the greatest heroines to come out of Chautauqua County.

No. 158 – Clara Elizabeth Sackett

Clara Elizabeth Sackett was born on May 13, 1859 in Westfield to Charles D. Sackett and Mary Anna Dickson. Before turning two, her parents moved to Jamestown where Clara received her formal education. After school in Jamestown, she went on to study art at Albany, Boston and New York City. She also studied in Paris for five year.

Following education, Sackett returned to the United States and began working as an artist in the Buffalo area, where she soon made a name for herself as a portrait painter, along with painting landscapes and miniatures. In 1913, Sackett opened the Buffalo Guild of Applied Arts and served as its first president. Meanwhile she also began to have her work featured in galleries not only in Western New York, but also New York City.

During World War I Sackett expanded from work as a visual artist and put on a reconstruction pageant in Wilmington, N.C. She also work on other plays and pageants with Percy and Hazlel MacKaye. Meanwhile, Sackett continued painting and in 1915 had thirty pastel portraits featured at the San Diego Exposition. Some of her subjects including the wife of John D. Rockefeller and the wife of socialite and congressman Oliver Belmont.

Sackett was put in charge of the art department at the Cambridge Haskell School in 1922. Sackett continued to work in New York city throughout the 20s, while also having an art studio in Nova Scotia. She also occasionally returned to Westfield.

She returned to the area in 1933 and 1934 to start the Guild of Applied Art in Chautauqua County. Sackett was also included in the book entitled “Who’s Who of Leading Women of America” in 1934.

Several of Sackett’s artwork can still be found in galleries throughout the northeast and mid atlantic states, including the Albright-Knox art gallery in Buffalo.

No. 159 – Grace Galloway

It isn’t the life of Grace. L. Galloway that has led to her being added to the Bicentennial Biography list, but rather her death – which has captured the interest and imagination of generations of residents in the Jamestown area.

The memorial honoring Grace Galloway in the Lakeview Cemetery (Photo courtesy of FentonHistoryCenter.org)

Grace Galloway was born in 1872 in Jamestown to John and Sara Galloway. She had two brothers, John and Fred, who lived to be adults. Her father made a fortune in the oil business in Titusville, Bradford, and Oil City, Pennsylvania, during the late 1800s.

Grace graduated from Jamestown High School in 1889 and was a member of the First Baptist Church, where she sang in the choir and was a soloist. It is said she had a beautiful voice and as a result, she sang in many operas during the summer and nearby Chautauqua Institution. Following school, she attended a music conservatory in Boston to further develop her vocal talent. She even was offered an opportunity to perform with the New York City Metropolitan Opera, but her father was against the idea.

In 1897, Grace contracted tuberculosis, while still studying in Boston. Her parents sent her to Sarnec and Asheville, North Carolina, to get well, but on a trip home to Jamestown she died.

To honor their only daughter, the Galloways created a life-size statue memorial for her at her grave in Lakeview Cemetery. It was designed by a Pittsburgh artist and carved in Florence, Italy from Italian marble. She wears a dress that was described as a “lawn outfit.” When signs of decay began to show on the statue, the family encased the statue in glass to protect it.

Since Grace’s death, many people have been attracted to her memorial, and as time passed, stories surfaced that didn’t always reflect who she actually was – including a common urban legend that she was a bride on her wedding day. But now you know the true story of Grace Galloway – more commonly known to those who visit the Lakeview Cemetery as “the Lady in the Glass Case.”

Ref: “19th Century Gravestones of Chautauqua County, New York” by Rebecca Jo Rosen

No. 160 – Jennifer Stuczynski Suhr

Jennifer Stuczynski Suhr at the 2008 Olympics (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images AsiaPac)

Jennifer “Jen” Stuczynski Suhr was born February 5, 1982 to Mark and Sue Stuczynski of Fredonia. Jen got involved in sports at a young age, playing softball and golf before the age of 10. As a student at Fredonia High School, she played softball, basketball, soccer, and track and field, and won the New York State pentathlon title as a senior in 2000.

After high school, Jen attended Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester where she excelled in basketball and track and field, but it wasn’t until 2004 that Jenn was first introduced to pole vaulting. She quickly caught on to the sport and in 2005, she entered the USA Indoor Championships in Boston as an unknown, unseeded competitor and won the U.S. title.

Jenn started the 2006 indoor season with personal bests at nearly every meet and captured her first USA Outdoor title, while also finishing third at the 2006 World Athletics Final. In May 2007, Jenn set a new American outdoor pole vault record and became the top female pole vaulter in the country. The next month, she cleared 16 feet, becoming only the second woman in the world to ever do so.

In July 6, 2008 Jenn cleared 16 ft 2 in, breaking her own American record while also winning the U.S. Olympic trials. The next month at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, she was the focus of international attention as she competed against the top female pole vaulter in the world – Yelena Isenbayeva of Russia. While Jenn was unable to supplant the world’s number one female pole vaulter, she did finish second and brought home a silver medal. She was also named the “American Female Athlete of the Year” by Track and Field news.

In 2009 and 2010, Jenn continued to set the bar for female pole vaulting in the U.S. and won several more American titles at various indoor and outdoor events.  She also took some brief time away from the track in 2010 to marry her coach, Rick Suhr.

This year, Jenn has shown no signs of slowing down. On February 27, 2011, Jenn continued her dominating performance in Pole Vaulting, winning her tenth national title overall with a win at the 2011 USA Indoor Track and Field Championships. She still holds the American record for both indoor and outdoor pole vaulting. With the 2012 olympics still on the horizon, the next chapter of Jenn’s amazing career at pole vaulting remains unwritten.

Bicentennial Biographies is a not-for-profit radio project designed to raise awareness and increase interest in local history. It is brought to you as a public service by the Chautauqua County Historical Society throughout 2011 to celebrate the county’s 200th birthday. To learn more, visit www.McClurgMuseum.org or contact your local historical society.

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