It was 1863.
Reuben Fenton's newly built Italianate villa mansion sat on a 4-acre land parcel he named Walnut Grove. It was carefully landscaped with tiered lawns, gardens and multiple driveways. There were outbuildings, including a carriage house, greenhouse and servant dwelling.
Today, the gardens and outbuildings are gone, and much of the front lawn was removed by highway construction, leaving about 2 acres of Fenton property.
The Fenton Mansion is pictured in the winter of 1901.
The Fenton History Center board of trustees recently launched a long-term, three-phase project meant to document the landscape and learn how the Fentons interacted with it.
Phase one is a historic landscape report. Phase two is an archaeological study of the property. Phase three is the development of the definitive biography of Reuben Eaton Fenton.
Known for his time as New York governor from 1865-69, Fenton also served in the U.S. Congress and Senate. He was among the founders of the Republican Party.
According to Joni Blackman, Fenton History Center director, much is known about Gov. Fenton's political career. Facts about his personal life, however, remain relatively unclear.
"The main point for doing this (three-phase project) is to write his biography and legacy," Blackman said. "This project will help determine what happened here at his house. We know what his accomplishments were in the political arena. We don't know what his personal accomplishments were because we don't have letters. We don't have diaries. We don't have anything about his home life. It's that link between his professional self and private self that we don't know much about."
The three-phase project began last year after Thomas L. Greer, M.D., became a Fenton trustee. He developed an interest in the Fenton building and researched its plans, learning of a 40-by-60 carriage house, a two-story attendants' structure, a gazebo and a greenhouse, which was home to the Fentons' wholesale flower business.
"We want to locate where these buildings were and decide what we want to do as far as possibly recreating them," Greer said.
The three-phase project began with the ongoing landscape report. Upon its completion, the report will document the evolution of the grounds from the 1860s to today.
The archaeological study started next and took place throughout the summer. The findings will be used to document what remains on the property in hopes of supporting a grant application for more extensive excavation of outbuildings and landscape features.
"Since archaeology is my hobby, I knew some people at SUNY Buffalo in the anthropology department," Greer said. "I started talking to them about it and developed this plan to do this archaeologic survey."
Employees of the Buffalo Archaeological Survey came first. Then, field-school students arrived. They made nine visits to the Fenton over the summer.
"We're sitting back and looking at what has come out of the ground and conducting an analysis on what's here," Greer said. "We've seen a lot of construction material: bricks, glass, nails. There was a ceramic doll head up by the house. There was a piece of recognizable, known Fenton china. We found a pipe stem, a medicine bottle and a marble, which doesn't seem like a lot, but when it's 2 feet in the ground, it has obviously been there for a while. We've found some animal bones, so it gives you an idea of what kind of food they were eating, what kind of utensils they were using."
The Fenton family owned the mansion for 56 years. No other family ever lived in the mansion.
Greer said he hoped excavators would find a difference in items found near where the servant dwelling was believed to be located and near the mansion itself. That way, they could learn how the servants lived. The stable attendants could've lived in the barn, and that could be discovered.
Ryan Austin, Ph.D., project director of historical sites for University at Buffalo Archaeological Survey, has led the second phase.
"We're trying to straddle or at least find a wall of the structures that used to be here," Austin said, while standing in the Fenton lawn at 67 Washington St., Jamestown. "I think we've actually found where the greenhouse was. There are bricks and piled, cut stones in the north end of this hole. Those stones, I think, are representative of either a support wall or an exterior wall of the greenhouse. We're trying to see how the building was built and learn how it was used based on the type of artifacts around it. Ultimately, we'd like to find out how it met its demise and became what it is now, which is an open, grassy lawn."
Before Austin and his crew returned to Buffalo, they found a series of stone walls in two areas, and evidence of a carriage house out back.
They'll now go to a lab, analyze artifacts and begin working on a report.
"We won't know the totality of what we have until we get into the lab and combine all of the pieces," Austin said.
With the project's second phase netting some findings, Blackman believes a larger-scale dig is warranted. The team uncovered individual portions of foundations, but those involved would like to find more.
"We feel we have enough now to concentrate our efforts on applying for a National Endowment for the Humanities grant," she said. "Now we have enough questions, enough artifacts and enough evidence of those other buildings. What do they mean for who lived here? With the right humanities programming, we can add to that."