In 1883, a handpicked group of eligible men joined together to organize the Geneva Historical Society. By design, the original members had to be men at least 45 years old, born in and living in Geneva.
Henry Bourn, the Rev. William Hogarth and Edgar Parker were the informal membership committee that recruited citizens to join; 32 (white) men were found. The first meeting was called for May 21, 1883 — and, with 13 of the 32 members attending, Hogarth was elected the first president.
The Historical Society met on a monthly basis for the first year. Committees were formed, someone would give a talk on local history, and a small collection of books and documents was formed. The first annual meeting in May 1884 was followed by only one more meeting in February 1885, after which the Historical Society’s activities lapsed for almost 20 years.
“Dormant” described the Historical Society for the first third of the 20th century. A provisional charter was granted by the New York State Regents on Sept. 8, 1904. Eight members met in November 1905; a handful of meetings took place between 1906 and 1926. Reorganization efforts were mounted in 1926 and the Historical Society was involved in the local observance of the 1929 Sesquicentennial of the Sullivan Campaign. The Historical Society met occasionally through the 1930s, periodically raising the subject of finding a place “for the keeping of valuable papers and relics.”
After years of discussion and committee meetings, the Historical Society voted in 1941 to rent the lower floor of a house at 501 S. Main St. to use as a museum. The museum opened Feb. 23, 1942 with an exhibit of relics from past wars — a recognition of the community’s military history — in the opening months of World War II.
The museum remained at 501 S. Main St. until 1946, when it moved to the old Lewis Street School. The building was still owned by the city school district and the museum was allowed to use two rooms in the front of the school. The Historical Society received an absolute charter from New York state on Jan. 25, 1957. In 1960, Beverly Chew donated his home at 543 S. Main St. to the Historical Society. He asked that it be known as the Prouty-Chew House in honor of his ancestors, the Proutys, who lived there for three generations (1842-1902).
The Historical Society acquired its second property in 1965 when Waldo Hutchins Jr. purchased and donated Rose Hill Mansion. Hutchins’ mother, Agnes Swan Hutchins, was born and raised in the Greek Revival home on the east side of Seneca Lake. In addition to buying the house, Hutchins funded the restoration of the historic mansion and provided an endowment for operating expenses.
In the 1990s, the Historical Society acquired two more historic properties. The John Johnston Farm was historically tied to Rose Hill Mansion; it was the adjacent property in the 1800s, and Johnston’s daughter, Margaret, married Robert Swan, owner of Rose Hill from 1850-90. Johnston also is known as the father of American Drain Tile, first laying tile on his farmland in 1838; this year we celebrate 200 years since his arrival in the United States in 1821. The site also includes the Mike Weaver Drain Tile Museum, which contains the comprehensive collection of drain tile from ancient times to the present.
Bequeathed to the Historical Society by Blanchard Bartlett Walker, Balmanno Cottage at 583 S. Main St. contained the vast majority of Mrs. Walker’s household furniture and furnishings. As part of the bequest, she wanted to establish her husband’s collection of American furniture and decorative arts as a memorial to him. She, however, understood that the Historical Society may not be able to keep the home in perpetuity and asked that her husband’s collection be kept together. In 2014, Balmanno Cottage was sold and the Walker Collection moved to the Geneva History Museum.
In 2019, the Geneva Historical Society made several decisions in hopes of bringing awareness of our mission to the wider Geneva community. This year, the biggest change was the move away from the title of ‘historical society’ towards the more inclusive name of Historic Geneva.
At Historic Geneva, our mission and vision remains the same — telling Geneva’s stories. For more information about our mission, the Geneva History Museum, Rose Hill Mansion, and Johnston House, visit our website at historicgeneva.org.