A collection of bicentennial biographies from Chautauqua County, N.Y. featuring Lucille Ball (Jamestown), Frank Michael O’Brien (Dunkirk), Joseph Damon (Fredonia) , Jack Cox (Gerry) and John Walton Spencer (Westfield). Originally broadcast on local radio stations Aug. 1 – Aug. 5, 2011.
No. 146 – Lucille Ball
Lucille Desiree Ball was born to Henry and Evelyn “DeeDee” Hunt Ball on Aug. 5, 1911 in Jamestown. Her father died when she was four, and she and her mother and brother were raised at her grandparents home in Celoron. Her grandfather, Fred Hunt, enjoyed the theater and frequently took the family to vaudeville shows and encouraged young Lucy to take part in both her own and school plays.
After high school, Lucy attended the John Murray Anderson School for the Dramatic Arts in New York City, only to return home a few weeks later when drama coaches told her she had no future as a performer. She returned to the big apple in 1929 and landed work as a fashion model. In 1932 Ball briefly worked on Broadway, but a year later she moved to Hollywood and found bit parts in various films. Through the rest of the 30s and 40s, Ball would achieve moderate success in movies and on radio.
In 1940, Ball met Cuban-born bandleader Desi Arnaz while making the film Too Many Girls. By the end of the year the two had eloped. In 1948, Ball was cast as wacky wife Liz Cooper a radio program called My Favorite Husband. The program was successful, and CBS asked her to develop it for television. She agreed and by October 1951 CBS put I Love Lucy on their lineup.
The I Love Lucy show became a star vehicle for Ball. Ball also was involved in several firsts, including being the first woman in television to be head of a production company. Ball and Arnaz also took a pay cut so the networks could film their show, on the condition they retain the rights to the use of the film reels after it they aired. CBS agreed and the Desilu Production Company made many millions of dollars as a result through syndication of the show.
Having the I Love Lucy show on film also allowed for new audiences and generations to see the program through re-runs, introducing Lucy to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world over the past 50 years. I Love Lucy dominated the weekly TV ratings in the United States for most of its run and continued until May 1957. During its time on the air, it won five Emmys and was nominated for many more.
Throughout the remainder of her career, Lucy was involved in various television, movie and theatre projects. Her last public appearance, just one month before her death, was at the 1989 Academy Awards telecast in which she and fellow presenter, Bob Hope, were given a standing ovation.
Lucy died from complications resulting from an aneurysm on April 26, 1989. She was 77 years old. Her ashes were initially interred in Los Angeles, but in 2002 her children moved her remains to the family plot at Lake View Cemetery in Jamestown.
No. 147 – Frank Michael O’Brien
Frank Michael O’Brien was born March 31, 1875 in Dunkirk. His parents were Michael and Ann Cryan O’Brien. He was raised in Dunkirk and educated at St. Joseph’s College on Long Island.
After college, O’Brien found work as a reporter for the Buffalo Courier, staying with the paper for 11 years. From 1895 to 1904, he worked for the Buffalo Express, first as a reporter and then as city editor. He moved to New York city in 1904 after getting a job with the New York Sun.
O’Brien left the newspaper business in 1906 to take a job as secretary for New York Mayor George McClellan, Jr., serving in that capacity until 1910. Also in 1910, O’Brien married Marion Mously and the couple had one son, Frank Michael O’Brien, Jr. In 1912 O’Brien took a post as Special Writer for the New York Press, serving in that capacity until 1915.
In 1916 that O’Brien began writing editorial for newspapers in New York City, first with the New York Sun (1916 to 1918) and then with the New York Herald (1918 – 1924).
It was during his time with the Herald that O’Brien gained critical acclaim for an editorial he wrote in November 1921, reflecting on the burial of America’s “Unknown Solder” in Arlington Cemetery. The editorial – entitled “The Unknown Soldier” – made such an impact that it was reprinted in other papers throughout the country. It was also so moving to the American public that O’Brien was given the Pulitzer Prize for Best Editorial in 1922. To this day, it is considered one of the most well-known newspaper editorials ever written.
In 1924, O’Brien served as chief editorial writer for the New York Sun and in 1926 he was named editor for the New York Evening Sun. I was awarded an Honorary Degree in Journalism from Manhattan College in 1928. O’Brien died in New York September 22, 1943 at the age of 68.
No. 148 – Joseph Damon
The Damon family came to the town of Pomfret in 1816. The group consisted of a mother and father along with four “rough and intemperament” sons – Stephen, Martin, Joseph and North. Martin Damon was the most well-known of the family, serving as a skilled stone cutter and creating fine headstones for local cemeteries in the area, many of which survive in good state to this day. Joseph Damon quarried the stones used by Martin, many of which came from the Damon Quarry in Laona. Joseph was described as a powerfully built man, fully six feet tall and proportioned accordingly.
On April 24, 1834, Joseph, who was 33 at the time, murdered his wife with a fireplace poker, because, it is said, she read the bible. He was tried for murder in Mayville in September of that same year and was defended by attorney James Mullett and Jacob Houghton of Fredonia. Samuel A. Brown of Jamestown was prosecuting attorney. Joseph was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by public hanging.
The date of the execution was set for May 15, 1835 in Mayville. It was declared a local holiday and an estimated 10,000 men, women and children came from all over the county to witness the hanging. When the drop fell, the fastening of the rope broke and Damon fell to the ground. At that point he pleaded to the Sheriff to postpone the execution, but it was declined and he was again led up the gallows again, this time proving successful.
Following the execution, a general outcry against public hangings arose across the state. The death of Joseph Damon would be the first and only public execution in Chautauqua County’s history.
No. 149 – Jack Cox & The Gerry Rodeo
Jack Cox was retired cowboy who moved to Gerry in the early 1940s. In 1945, he had become well known in the community, and when it came time to brainstorm for an idea to raise money for the Gerry Volunteer Fire Department, Cox suggested a rodeo.
There were more than a few people in the community who had their doubts that such a project would work, but Cox wasn’t someone to back out of a project. In just over two months he – along with members of the department and other volunteers – turned four acres of swamp into an arena and parking lot – just in time for the arrival of Colonel Jim Eskew and his livestock. Bleachers were borrowed from area schools and portable lights were rented.
In those early days the stock arrived by train, via the old Dunkirk, Allegheny Valley and Pittsburgh Railroad. They were then unloaded in the middle of the hamlet and the animals were herded down the middle of Route 60 to the rodeo grounds. From the beginning,
Cox and other members of the Gerry fire department also felt from the beginning that their rodeo should be “top-notch” so they contracted for a rodeo sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys’ Association. Participants would pay an entry fee and points earned in Gerry count toward qualification to the annual National Finals Rodeo. This practice continues today.
Over the years constant improvements were made to the rodeo facilities. Additional land has been acquired, a large midway was created and permanent bleachers have been installed, allowing for the seating of 3600 people. Over a thousand pounds of beef is also cooked daily for the famous Gerry Rodeo barbecue beef dinners.
The money raised from the rodeo over the years has enabled the fire department to purchase modern fire and rescue equipment for the protection of the residents of the town. And to think it all started with Jack Cox and his vision of introducing a part of the wild west to Chautauqua County.
No. 150 – John Walton Spencer
John Walter Spencer was born on June 12, 1843 in Cherry Valley, N.Y., but soon afterward his parents moved to Westfield. Spencer grew up on the family farm and attended the local school. During his youth, he would get involved in various enterprises to help make additional money for his family – including raising and selling ducks.
After a year at the Westfield Academy, Spencer set off to see the world. He went west and saw San Francisco, then sailed the Pacific Ocean to the Sandwhich Islands, today kown as Hawaii. Eventually he returned to Westfield to once again work on the family farm.
As is the case even today, there was simply too much work to do on a farm for a family member to leave in order to receive a proper education in agriculture. As a result, the New York State Agriculture College at Cornell University established its “extension department.” Spencer felt that he could provide assistance to the new department, and became a member of the staff in 1896.
Soon after joining the college, Spencer began the publication of the “Farmers’ Reading-Course Bulletins,” and the “Nature-Study Leaflets” for the public schools. Both were carried on by correspondence plan and it was found to be of genuine, practical value for both young students and farmers alike. Soon the farmers receiving the reading course and returning discussion papers were numbered by the thousands, and more than 25,000 children had signed up to become “Junior Naturalists.”
The lessons prepared for the pupils in the schools strove to help the children better understand agriculture. They were encouraged to write to “Uncle John” – as Spencer had come to be known – about what they saw, and to ask questions concerning things they wished to know of the living, growing world about them. For several years the number of letters received from his “nieces and nephews” was more than 30,000.
Uncle John not only wrote to the children, he visited and talked to them in their schools, generally at their urgent invitation. Once each year, when the children of the home county were invited to Cornell for a day, it was not the picnic on the Campus nor the various things to be seen in the buildings which held the foremost place in their thoughts, but the meeting with Uncle John.
At the age of 65, Spencer retired from his work at Cornell. He died four years later on Oct. 24, 1912 in Ithaca.
“John Walton Spender: ‘Uncle John'” by Anna Botsford Comstock
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.