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Prendergast Mansion

Brustom, Jean. “The Old Prendergast Mansion in Kiantone,” Jamestown (NY) Post-Journal, 30 November 1985, pp.4T-5T.
The Post-Journal website: http://post-journal.com/

The Old Prendergast Mansion In Kiantone

By Jean Brustom

On the Old Kiantone Road opposite the end of Sturdevant Road and adjacent to the Kiantone Creek is an historic landmark that I never tire of looking at. It is the Prendergast mansion, or, more correctly, what’s left of it – and that’s plenty. The white brick structure is set far back from the highway, and yet it commands attention by its obvious antiquity and mellowed grandeur.

Mr. and Mrs. Courtney Phillips are the present owners and occupants. Both have an avid interest in history, especially in what relates to their home. Mrs. Phillips has spent many hours in the library looking up and reading about the history of the Prendergast homestead. She is the source of the historical information in this article. She in turn acknowledges as her main source of reference two books in the Prendergast Library: History of Chautauqua County, New York, by Andrew W. Young (1875) and History of the Town of Ellicott, by Gilbert Hazeltine (1887).

The story of the Prendergast Mansion begins with the history of James Prendergast, founder of Jamestown, and how he came to settle here.
James’ father, William, was born in Kilkenny, Ireland, Feb. 3,1727. James’ mother was Mehitabel Wing, born March, 20, 1738, in Duchess County, N.Y. Glens Falls, N.Y., was once named Wing Falls after her family.

The Post-Journal has several times told the story of how Mehitabel saved her husband from hanging for treason. William had fought the manor lords and led a rent rebellion, and as a consequence was arrested and imprisoned. Mehitabel rode horseback for many miles to plead with the governor for her husband’s life. William was pardoned and freed, and the couple returned to his farm in Pittstown, near New York City. Through the years Mehitabel gave birth to seven sons and six daughters.

When the family decided to move west, they traveled through Kentucky, Ohio, western Pennsylvania and Chautauqua County looking for a place to settle. There were very few settlers here and provisions were scarce, so they went on and wintered in Canada with relatives.

Not finding Canada to their liking, they returned in the spring of 1806 by way of Batavia and purchased 3,337 acres of land near Chautauqua Institution and settled there.

Their fifth son, James, studied and practiced medicine for a time, was a judge and later became the first post-master in Jamestown, which was named after him.

In 1807, James married Agnes Thompson. In 1809, he bought 1,000 acres which eventually became Jamestown. He accidentally came upon the site one day while searching for some of the family’s horses, which had wandered away. In his quest for the missing animals, he found an Indian encampment at the outlet and was impressed with the area’s pine trees. He traveled through the Conewango and Kiantone valleys looking and it was probably at that time that he envisioned a settlement in the area. The horses were found in a grassy meadow where Kennedy now is.

Also in 1809, on Feb. 3, James’ son, Alexander, was born.

In 1811 William Prendergast, James’ father, died. He is buried near Stedman in the family cemetery.

James built a log cabin in Jamestown in 1811, but it burned down in 1812. His mother, Mehitabel, died the same year, and is also buried at Stedman, along with some of the children.

In 1814 James built a small home on the west side of Main Street in Jamestown, then known as The Rapids.

From 1814 to 1832 James provided quarters for a school and paid the teacher’s wages. He bought cattle from Henry Clay in Kentucky about 1819. He also purchased three slaves, and they drove the cattle up to his estate in Kiantone. There is no exact mention of when the house in Kiantone was built. It must have been around this time or sometime between 1820 and 1830, certainly before the ’30s. The brick house was constructed in one large square section (four rooms up, four rooms down, with a cupola) with a south wing of 12 rooms extending back considerably beyond the main part.

The slaves were freed in 1820, but they had always been treated more like servants then slaves. The Prendergasts were very kind people.

In 1836 James sold his real estate in Jamestown and moved to Ripley in 1837. His wife died two years later at age 68.

In 1841 James Prendergast settled on the extensive and magnificent domain which he had developed in Carroll, now Kiantone. He and his son, Alexander, conducted a model farm. It consisted of more than 1,200 acres and was the originating point for registered cattle in Chautauqua County. James died here Nov. 15, 1846, at the age of 83.

In 1847, Alexander inherited the estate and lived there. He married Mary Morton of Westfield in April 1847.

The large brick house was plainly furnished but Mary’s great love for flowers was responsible for the grounds being transformed into “bowers of beauty and fragrant loveliness.”

On June 18, 1848, a son, James, was born here. He grew up and became a lawyer in the firm of Green, Prendergast and Benedict. He died at 31 from complications of minor surgery in Buffalo. The mausoleum at Lake View Cemetery contains his ashes. The Prendergast Library was built in his memory, paid for by rent from a property at Main and Third streets in Jamestown, with the addition of $30,000 donated by his mother.

Also born to Alexander and Mary was a daughter, Catherine, or Kittie, on April 2, 1854. Kittie was exquisitely beautiful, lively, cheerful and apparently healthy. Yet she died young, at 10 years of age, in Marquette, Mich. St. Luke’s Church in Jamestown was built in her memory and her portrait hangs in a room there. Her grandfather, James, was an ardent Episcopalian, but he also helped other churches.

The estate in Kiantone had been the site of one of the granaries of the Six Nations and also the site of an Indian village. Many arrowheads have been found here, and also an iron tomahawk made by the French and given to the Indians to scalp the British with. It was authenticated by Gilbert Hagerty, director of the Rome, N.Y., museum.

At first, the Prendergasts were going to build across the road from where the house now stands. When they started digging, they discovered an Indian burial ground. Not wishing to disturb it, they built the house in a different place.

Alexander also owned a large brick town house at 100 East Fifth St., built in 1875. This is where he died suddenly of a stroke in 1885.

Mary, his wife, sold the estate in 1887 to Dan Griswold and William Townsend, a distant cousin of the Prendergasts.

Mary died in Rochester in 1889.

In 1910 Dan Griswold sold the farm to Harry Griswold. In 1915 Harry Griswold sold it to Homer Preston, who in turn sold it to George Gesaman in 1934. Gesaman sold it to Leon Johnson in 1947. Leon Johnson sold it to Alford Hagberg. He then sold it back to Leon Johnson in 1962 and Leon Johnson sold it to Courtney and Marian Phillips the same year.

Before Mrs. Preston sold the property in 1934, she wanted to give it to …[section missing]…need for a larger school to be built and more teachers hired, with resulting higher taxes and a big expense for the state. Mrs. Preston hired a lawyer, Robert Jackson, but lost. This was a terrible disappointment to Mrs. Preston.

In 1939, the main part of the house was destroyed by fire. Only the shell of the brick wall was left standing. The south wing was water-soaked, but saved. The fire was blamed on defective wiring. The chimneys were located on the opposite side of the structure from the apparent origin of the fire in the cupola. The main fuse box was in the cupola atop the southwest corner and all electrical lines leading to that point. There were fireplaces in the rooms that burned. Fireplaces were the only source of heat in the early days.

Other interesting facts about the house:

  • The bricks used to build the house were handmade on the banks of Kiantone Creek.
  • Bars were put on the basement windows so that the sheep, which did double-duty as lawn mowers, would not break the glass as they grazed.
  • In 1938 a hired hand helped dig for the septic tank and drain, and while doing so found the slave cemetery and had to divert the project in another direction.
  • The walls of the house are three bricks thick, and the foundation is built of hand cut stone. The window sills and the stones over each window and the doors are also hand cut.
  • The original window glass was hand-blown, and there are a few of the old panes left. Most of them have had to be replaced down the years.
  • In a back shed that is now gone was an indoor “outhouse” with accommodations for three.
  • The water system was put in by Homer Preston. He also had an indoor bathroom installed.
  • The old spinning room was just one big room before the Phillipses put in a new kitchen and a downstairs bathroom. The walls were brick and in the walls were huge square nails and hooks for hanging the flax, herbs, etc. The remainder of the spinning room were converted into a utility room. The original floor boards in this utility room are all sorts of widths.
  • The living room, the lovely staircase and the Italian marble fireplace were in the part that burned.
  • The dining room was in the part remaining, and that is the Phillipses’ living room now, with a large fireplace on the north end of the room. Some of the original floor boards have permanent scorch marks made when hot embers flew over the fire. The finishings and wall paper are in keeping with the period of the house.
  • The large pantry was made into two rooms- a bathroom and den. The old kitchen is the present owner’s dining room and also has a large fireplace. The servants of yesteryear cooked in it, and the iron crane that held the cooking pots is still there. The check drafts are plugged up. Marian’s rollout table seats 20 guests. A tea cart is in one corner. This is the room where huge cupboards once hung on the walls.
  • There are four bedrooms and bath upstairs and a long hall, which was connected to the wing that burned. The door that led to this part has been made into a window. The burned section was 30 feet by 30 feet, while the south wing, which remains, is 24 feet wide and 85 feet long.
  • The hand-hewn beams are 9 by 12 inches, and the floor joists are 3 by 10.
  • The Phillips painted the house to preserve the brick. The bricks cannot be sand-blasted because they would pulverize if the glaze should be removed.

When the Phillipses were removing the old wallpaper in the stairwell, they found that Kittie Prendergast had printed her name on the wall, probably as she sat on the stairs. She must have been quite young, as she left out the “der” in Prendergast, making it read “Kittie Prendgast”. Marian says that when she repapered and painted she carelessly painted over the little girl’s writing, so it’s gone forever, much to her regret. A doll belonging to Kittie is in the Fenton Historical Center.

A painting called the Prendergast Homestead made by J.W. Bell in 1876 hangs in the James Prendergast Library as do portraits of all the family and many beautiful paintings once owned by the Prendergasts and bequeathed to the library by them.

The Phillipses have lived in their historic landmark for more than 23 years and love the peace and beauty of their surroundings, as did James Prendergast when he came looking for his runaway horses so many years ago.

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