Twain Left His Mark On Fredonia

Barker Museum curator Max Walters poses next to the Mark Twain exhibit currently on display. Photos by M.J. Stafford

For a guy who visited Fredonia only six times and wound up hating the place, Mark Twain left his mark.

Plenty of family members lived in the village he scornfully referred to as “that stud farm at Dunkirk” in his autobiography. Their stories — and some of the items the legendary author and his family left behind — are the focus of an ongoing exhibit at Fredonia’s Darwin Barker Museum.

Max Walters, museum curator, said Twain apparently liked Fredonia when he first travelled there in 1870. “After he gave his first lecture in 1870… it must have left a good impression on him because he thought, this is the perfect place to bring my widowed mother (Jane Clemens) and widowed sister (Pamela)’, and her children as well.”

He got them to live in Fredonia, but the busy author only visited six times, in the 1870s and 1880s. Twain lived in Buffalo in the early 1870s.

“He did a little bit of sightseeing around here, got into some disagreements with people, and although he liked Fredonia at first and left a big impact, he really came to dislike it and really kind of see it as a symbol of everything that was wrong with his contemporary era,” Walters said. Twain referred to the time as “The Gilded Age,” a name that stuck.

This 19th-century military uniform of the Papal Knights was gifted to a relative of Mark Twain by Pope Leo XIII.

“This exhibit is all about Twain, but also his family because they did live here for several decades and had a big impact on the culture of this area,” Walters said. “They fit in really well here. They used to attend the Presbyterian Church, which is no longer there, but it used to be where the Fredonia Opera House (and Village Hall) parking lot is now.”

The exhibit notes the addresses Twain’s family lived at between 1870 and 1906: 29 Day St., 20 Central Ave., 36 Central Ave., 65 Temple St., and 186 Temple St.

Twain had a personal connection to the Barker Library, Walters said: “He was a lifetime member. We have a handwritten letter from him there, to Darwin R. Barker (the library’s founder), thanking him for the lifetime membership.”

Walters pointed out restored books donated by Twain to the library. The old due dates are still visible on the inside covers. Twain donated about a dozen books when the library opened, doing so at the request of his mother. She was instrumental in founding the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which backed the library as a way to keep people away from alcohol.

The exhibit also features a real oddity: a sword and uniform presented by Pope Leo XIII to Charles Webster, husband of Twain’s niece and his partner in a publishing business.

See TWAIN, page A6

Webster “ended up publishing a biography of the pope, and so when he went to Rome to meet him, I guess he made a good impression — because shortly thereafter he heard from an archbishop that he was going to be knighted,” Walters said.

That section of the exhibit flashes some of Twain’s notorious cantankerousness. He referred to Webster as “One of the most assful persons I have ever met, perhaps the most assful.”

“He had a hard time taking criticism,” said the Barker Musuem’s archivist, Catherine Oag-Miller. “When he was doing his lecture circuit, his mood would fluctuate drastically depending on the reviews he got from a lecture he gave. If he didn’t get too great reviews, he’d be like, ‘I’m in a foul mood, I don’t feel good, I hate traveling.’ If he got good reviews, he was like, ‘I still hate traveling, but this has been a fantastic experience and I love the city and the people.'”

That may have had something to do with Twain’s fluctuating opinion of Fredonia: His first lecture there in 1870 was well-received, but future ones were not as popular. By the 1890s, Twain had authored a story called “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg,” which is believed to be a veiled putdown of Fredonia.

“He had some bad experiences, he had an argument with a banker,” Walters noted. His publishing company with Webster also failed.

The Barker Museum exhibit also features watches made by the Howard Watch Company of Fredonia, which Twain invested in. The company actually did a line of “Mark Twain” watches. One of his visits to Fredonia was mainly to tour their plant.

The exhibit will be on open through the end of July.

Oag-Miller and Walters asked the OBSERVER to relay that the museum is looking for volunteer docents. The docents show people around the museum gallery, give tours, answer questions and help library staff with research requests, according to Oag-Miller.


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