Bicentennial Biographies No. 151 – 155

A collection of bicentennial biographies from Chautauqua County, N.Y. featuring Enoch Curtis (Busti & Fredonia), Grace Richmond (Fredonia), Erastus Dow Palmer (Dunkirk) , Thomas Lake Harris (Brocton) and Charles Cowden (Chautauqua Lake). Originally broadcast on local radio stations Aug. 8 – Aug. 12, 2011.

No. 151 – Enoch Curtis

The 1891 Fredonia Opera House, designed by Enoch Curtis

Enoch Arnold Curtis spend the majority of his life making a name for himself in Chautauqua County – first while serving in the Civil War, and later as an architect who designed the historic Fredonia Opera House.

Curtis was the eldest child of Isaac and Susan Curtis. He was born in Busti on July 19, 1831 and was educated in the public schools and the Jamestown Academy, finishing his studies at the age of 17. He also spent his youth working at his father’s two farms in Busti and Ashville. After school, he took up trade as a carpenter and began to study architecture. He married Mary Jane Elizabeth Norton in Ashville on Oct. 3, 1855. Together they had two children.

Curtis worked on various building projects until the start of the Civil War. When it appeared the war would be longer than expected, he closed up his business in the spring of 1862 and enlisted for three years service. He recruited a company of volunteers and was elected captain. This was Company D, 112th Regiment New York Volunteer Infantry. In June, 1864 during the battle of Cold Harbor, Curtis received severe wounds that made him unfit for further military service.  He was honorably discharged September 13, 1864, with the brevet rank of major, conferred by Governor Reuben Fenton.

After returning from the war Curtis located in Fredonia where for five years he engaged in the hardware business. He then returned to his profession of architect. Many of the residences, churches and public buildings of Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania were designed by him and erected under his supervision.  One of his most famous buildings still standing today is the Fredonia Opera House, constructed in 1891.

Curtis was also involved in several community projects, including the establishment of the Fredonia water works and sewerage system. He served successive terms on the board of water commissioners, the board of village trustees, and was president of the village corporation. He was also a delegate to the Republican national convention at St. Louis, in 1896 that nominated William McKinley for president.

Curtis’ last days were spent in Fredonia, where he enjoyed the respect and highest esteem of the entire community. He died in Fredonia on Oct. 4, 1907.

Ref: Biographical and portrait cyclopedia of Chautauqua County, New York (1891)

No. 152 – Grace Richmond

Grace Louise Smith was born on March 31, 1866 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the daughter of Rev. Charles Smith, a Baptist clergyman. During her childhood her family moved to Fredonia, where her father found work at the Baptist Church. In 1887 at the age of 21, Grace married Dr. Nelson Richmond.

The book cover for "Red Pepper Burns" - one of several books written by Grace S. Richmond of Fredonia

It’s said that Grace was an imaginative and energetic young woman who – soon after her marriage – turned her hand to the writing of fiction. She soon became Fredonia’s most prolific writer of short stories and novels – many of which received national attention the first three decades of the 20th century.

As early as 1898, Grace’s initial reduced stories were published in assorted women’s magazines together with the Women’s Home Companion, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Everybody’s Magazine. Between 1905 and 1936 she wrote 27 novels. Red Pepper Burns was published in 1910 and was one of her most popular, with several follow-ups, including Mrs. Red PepperRed Pepper’s Patients, and Red of the Redfields.

Other books by Richmond included The Second Violin (1906), On Gay Street (1908), On Christmas Day in the Morning (1908) and Strawberry Acres (1911).

Richmond died at the age of 93 on November 28, 1959. She was buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery, Fredonia.

No. 153 – Erastus Dow Palmer

Erastus Dow Palmer

Erastus Dow Palmer was born April 2, 1817 in Pompey, N.Y. As a youth he moved with his family to Utica where his father, a carpenter, taught him the basics of woodworking. In 1834 at the age of 17, he moved to Dunkirk to start a career in woodcarving and joining. He helped to build many houses in Dunkirk and surrounding area for the next six years.

While in Dunkirk, Palmer met and was married to Malinda Alton. Sadly, he lost his wife and their first child to complications of childbirth. With no further reason to stay in area, he returned to Utica in 1940.

The death of Palmer’s first wife would have a lasting impact on the rest of his life. For if she hadn’t died, he very well may have remained in Dunkirk working his trade as a carpenter. But as fate would have it, Palmer returned to Utica and as a result, his path would take an unexpected turn that presented him with wide and critical acclaim throughout the artistic world.

Shortly after returning to Utica, a neighbor showed Palmer a cameo portrait imported from Europe. Palmer was impressed by the delicacy of the carving and was determined to try his hand at the medium. His first undertaking was a portrait of his second wife. It was shown to local lawyer attorney who was so impressed with it that he hired Palmer to create a cameo with his image on it. Thus the beginning o Palmer’s career as a sculptor.

Palmer soon began sculpting in marble and was heavily influenced by neoclassism, which had gained popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. His first full-length sculpture was entitled The Mariner’s Wife. In 1849 Palmer and his new family moved to Albany and he soon opened a studio near the State Capitol building and he flourished as a sculptor.

In the 1870s, Palmer was commissioned by the state of New York to create a full-length statue of statesman Robert R. Livingston. It was cast in bronze twice, with one of the statues located in the U.S. Capital and the other in Albany in the State Court of Appeals. A plaster version of the statue is also located at the Albany Institute of History and Art.

Palmer died in Albany on March 9, 1904 and was buried in Albany.  He was survived by his second wife and five children. Palmer’s marble sculpture White Captive remains a prized exhibit at the New York Museum of Art.

No. 154 – Thomas Lake Harris

Thomas Lake Harris was born in Buckinghamshire, England on May 15, 1823. His parents were Calvinistic Baptists and very poor.  In 1828 the family came to America to start a new life and settled in Utica. Harris received a local education and at the age of 20 he became a Universalist preacher.

Thomas Lake Harris (photographer, date unknown)

About 1850 Harris professed to receive inspirations, and published some long poems. He had the gift of improvisation in a very high degree and was able to compose verse in his head and dictate it in essentially finished form. This talent supported his claim that he was in mental contact with spirit entities and led to the leadership of a small religious cult.

In 1860 Harris founded in 1861 a commune, or utopian religious community at Wassaic, New York – about 20 miles east of Poughkeepsie. There he opened a bank and a mill and had about 60 converts. In 1867 the community –known as The Brotherhood of the New Life – moved across the state to settle in Brocton.

In Brocton, Harris established a winemaking industry. In reply to the objections of his followers who were against the use of alcohol, Harris said that the wine prepared by himself was filled with the divine breath so that all noxious influences were neutralized. Harris also built a tavern and strongly advocated the use of tobacco. He required complete surrender from his disciples, even the surrender of moral judgment.

Harris stayed in Brocton until 1875, when he travelled cross-country to Santa Rosa, California. There he created the Fountain Grove community. In 1891 he announced that his body had been renewed, and that he had discovered the secret of the resuscitation of humanity. He visited England intending to remain there, but was called back to Brocton by a fire, which destroyed large stocks of his wine.

Harris died on March 23, 1906, but his followers believed that he had attained the secret of immortal life on earth and declared that he was only sleeping. It was three months before it was acknowledged publicly that he was really dead.

No. 155 – Charles Cowden

The Bicentennial Biography series has already featured several colorful and eccentric individuals from throughout the county’s history, but none were more colorful than Charles “Left-handed Charley” Cowden – better known as the Hermit of Chautauqua Lake.

A postcard depictng Charles Cowden - "The Hermit of Chautauqua Lake"

Left-handed Charley  was probably born around 1843. For many summers, Charley lived on a small island, a short distance from Prendergast Creek in the Town of Chautauqua. His residence was a makeshift structure of a dilapidated tent over a tripod of poles, sheltered by tree branches and brushes, which also hid it from sight.  Cooking was done outside over a campfire and he would treat his visitors to the delicacy of cooked carp, which he prepared.

Charley usually wore his gray hair hanging down to his shoulders, although he sometimes twisted it into a knot at the back of his head. He always dressed in a highly picturesque fashion. He was an avid fisherman and would often show off his bow and arrow and tomahawk skills. He dressed somewhat like an Indian, although it is not believed that he had any Native American blood.

Charley claimed to be over 150 years old, and iit is said that he had been a cowboy in the West, a sailor, a soldier, and a circus performer with the Dan Rice Circus. He had a left-handed fiddle, which he always carried with him. Many people used to visit him during the summer months and he would entertain them with his songs plus his delightful and colorful stories of his life.

As soon as definite signs of winter arrived, Charley gathered together his belongings, put on his big cowboy hat, and looked for shelter from the cold. It was his habit to “visit” his friends and people whom he knew in the country during the winter. During the long winter evenings he was always willing to play his fiddle, handling the bow with his left hand.  When he decided that his “visit” was outwearing his “welcome” he would tuck his fiddle under his arm and leave to seek another family or find refuge at the County Farm in Dewittville.

In his later years Charley lived for two years at the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Home at Erie, Pa. It is reported that he died on July15, 1908 at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Ida Adams, in Harbor Creek, Pa. He was 65 years old.

Ref: The Hermit of Chautauqua Lake by Loraine C. Smith

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 or contact your local historical society.

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