Mark Twain in Fredonia:
“An Exhibition to be Inspected by Anybody Who Feels an Interest in Miraculous Inanimate Objects”
December 3, 2022-August 1, 2023
7 Day St, Fredonia NY
In the Manly Gallery and Parlor within the Darwin R. Barker Historical Museum
This exhibition examines the outsized impact that Mark Twain had on Fredonia in only six recorded visits– little more than a week in total between 1870-1881–using artifacts, images, and archival documents connected to Twain’s, and even more substantially, his family’s time in Fredonia.
Samuel Langhorn Clemens first came to Fredonia in 1870, lecturing at the Fredonia Normal School chapel–today’s One Temple Square–as a guest of the Fredonia Library Association, which had welcomed suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton a week earlier.
Fredonia won over the famous author with its “intelligent, attractive” audience, and its proximity to his new home in Buffalo made the village an ideal place for his widowed mother and sister to live. Twain’s mother, Jane Clemens, sister Pamelia Moffett, and niece Annie Webster moved to Fredonia in 1870, and Annie’s marriage to a flamboyant local surveyor Charles Webster would produce three children who grew up in Fredonia: author Samuel Webster, artist William Webster, and nationally-renowned author Jean Webster. Twain left a lasting legacy in Fredonia despite the brief time he spent here, although his most significant contribution to local culture may have been his choice to urge his mother and sister to move here.
Clemens women, Jane, Pamelia, and Annie quickly became cornerstones in the community through their leading roles in local organizations including the local suffrage movement, the WCA Home, the Shakespeare Club, the Library Association, and in the first female-led mass movement in US history, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
The Darwin R. Barker Library and Museum evolved out of a reading room developed by the Fredonia Library Association and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1874, Jane Clemens, one of the WCTU’s founders, wrote to her son to request books for the new reading room. As reported in the local newspaper, “it is but justice to mention that the first donation to the Library was made by Mark Twain, giving some $75 worth of books including those of which he is author.”
The books have been cleaned, mended and reinforced to stabilize their condition for display. One of these books is The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, whose title became shorthand for the period between 1865 and 1910, when greed, corruption, and hypocrisy among the political and business classes was so rampant that it defined the era, according to Twain and other observers.
Before long, however, Mark Twain’s enchantment with Fredonia turned to disillusionment and open scorn. Several bad investments and personal experiences convinced the satirist and social critic that Fredonia was the epitome of all that Twain hated about Gilded Age America.
Twain’s mastery of satire also extended to his ability to insult, and Fredonia’s residents were a frequent target. Although he had many enemies, Twain told his brother Orion that the man he hated above all others was none other than his publisher–and nephew by marriage–Charles Webster of Fredonia, NY.
Webster attended the Fredonia Normal School and graduated in 1867 to become a surveyor and engineer. Webster was also a collector, and he displayed his historically significant artifacts in a “cabinet of curiosities” in his home at 36 Central Ave, and then at 20 Central. These items included documents signed by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a cabinet made from the timbers the Lawrence, the flagship of commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous 1813 Battle of Lake Erie, a ceremonial uniform and sword awarded to Webster when he was knighted by Pope Leo, and the original manuscript of Ulysses S. Grant’s personal memoirs. Webster was known to walk around Fredonia in his ceremonial uniform granted by the Pope. His career as a surveyor is evident in two extant street names in Dunkirk–Webster St and Moffat St. Charles surveyed the land where these streets now stand, and the land was sold by his mother-in-law, Pamela Moffett. He was the first director of the Charles L. Webster publishing firm, which was established by Mark Twain in 1884. Despite the company’s early success in publishing bestsellers Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, it became unprofitable within a few years and in 1888, Charles was fired from the company which bore his name. In the years afterward, Twain began to place the blame for many of his misfortunes on Charles, including his bankruptcy, the failure of his investments, and even the tragic death of his daughter Susy at age 24 in 1896–years after Charles’ death. Twain referred to Charles as “one of the most assful persons I have ever met–perhaps the most assful.” Webster is buried in Forest Hill cemetery.
Webster was not the only person in Fredonia that Twain despised. In 1898, Twain wrote The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, A scathing short story about corruption in a small village which prides itself on its reputation for integrity. Hadleyburg, a village whose physical description closely aligns with Fredonia’s, has its reputation for integrity ruined when its most prominent residents all claim to be the rightful owner of a large sum of money left by a stranger. This story may have been Twain’s thinly veiled criticism of Fredonia, due to several poor experiences here, including disastrous business partnerships. This story was written during a time of personal financial trouble, and Twain blamed his failed partnerships with the Howard Watch Company, his publisher Charles L. Webster, and his lawyer Daniel Whitford, all of Fredonia.
In his autobiography written near the end of his life, Twain mentioned Fredonia only indirectly–and shrewdly referenced a local rivalry–as “that stud farm at Dunkirk.”
Mark Twain in Fredonia explores the complicated symbiotic relationship that Twain and the Barker Library had–between the Library’s precursor organization inviting him to initiate this story in the first place, to his mother and sister’s participation in creating the library and convincing him to send it an early donation of books.Despite Twain’s eventual hatred of Fredonia, the village remained an important part in the lives of his family members, who lived here between 1870 and 1906 and whose legacy was unambiguously constructive.
The exhibit features a diverse range of artifacts linked to the Clemens family, including a signed Mark Twain letter acknowledging his lifetime membership at the Barker, watches made by the Howard brothers’ watch companies that inspired the Sears & Roebuck model, and items from the personal collection of Charles Webster including his ceremonial uniform complete with a Spanish sword awarded by the Pope, and the cabinet he constructed from the remains of Commodore Perry’s Lake Erie flagship.
The exhibit includes a selection of the books originally donated by Mark Twain that have recently been conserved thanks to a grant from the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation.