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81 State Street

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81 State Street
Brockport, N.Y. 

History written by Carol L. Hannan, March 2014 
Photo Credit and Produced by Pamela Ketchum
© Copyright by Carol L. Hannan – March 2014. All rights reserved.

Thomas B. (?) and Mary Gillespie 
Owners/builders (?): 1840s to about 1902 

Our first village map, in 1852, showed four homes on this side/section of State Street. 81 State Street was one of those properties. The Gillespie family was associated with this home for two generations and approximately six decades. Living next to Calvin Walker in 1840, according to the Federal Census, was Thomas B. Gillespie, the head of this family. Thank goodness for that middle initial and the known location of Calvin Walker’s home, which proved a key to uncovering information that follows. 

In 1830 census information, one Thomas B. Gillespie was living in Whitestown, Oneida County. His name, with that identifying middle initial, the ages of the adults and other information were a perfect “fit” with the Brockport Gillespie family. For example, the Gillespies of Whitestown recorded a free colored person within the household and the Brockport Thomas B. Gillespie family also initially included a free colored person. In the 1830 census, the Gillespie family of Whitestown included an “alien.” By 1850, Mrs. Mary Gillespie had identified her birthplace as “Halifax.” It wasn’t Thomas B., however, but Mary, who by 1850 was identified as the head of household with three children: Mary A., Helen J. and William C. C. Gillespie living in this State Street home. 

What emerges from a search of existing early records is the conclusion that the Gillespie family, of at least three children and a Canadian born mother, moved from Whitestown, Oneida County, New York, to Brockport between 1830 and 1840. They lived on State Street, neighboring Calvin Walker. They were wealthy enough to afford live-in help. Thomas B., who was identified in the census as working on waterways in some capacity, likely died sometime before 1850. He may also have served as a lieutenant in the War of 1812, in Shoemaker’s Regiment, while living in Whitestown. With that information, all luck in finding out more about the family ended. No published genealogy could be found, unfortunately, and obituaries, gravestones and cemetery records were searched to no avail. 

Mrs. Mary Gillespie had no occupation outside of “housekeeping.” She was living as late as 1861 but her death date and burial location are unknown. Although we know she was born in Halifax about 1798, her maiden name and parentage remains a mystery. Daughter Helen Gillespie studied at the Normal School in 1845 and became a teacher. Afterward, she established and ran a private school in the family home. She reportedly had her students sit on wooden benches, which caused some complaints from parents and in inclement weather, the children played in a barn during their recess and travelled back and forth from house to barn on a wooden walkway, so as not to track mud into their schoolroom. This type of “private” school was not uncommon in early days, as parents years ago, just like today, wanted educational advantages for their children and were willing to pay for that privilege. 

Mary Gillespie married, and was apparently soon widowed by or divorced from a man named Pratt. She and her son, William G. (Gillespie?) Pratt, lived in the family home, where Mary was a “housekeeper.” No record or comments about this marriage or the death of Mr. Pratt could be found. 

William C. C. who at first worked here as a clerk, never married. He moved to Chicago and became a member of that city’s board of trade. His Chicago obituary stated that he would be buried in his former home of “Brockton, New York,” but no evidence of his burial here could be found. By 1872 and until about 1902, according to village maps, ownership of the family home had been transferred to William. What about his mother and sisters? They either died here and were buried in unmarked graves or moved from the area, as the remaining members of the Gillespie family seemed to disappear from Brockport in a quiet, almost mysterious fashion. 

Jewett C. and Avis V. Bonnell Butler 
Owners: about 1902 to after 1940 

The Butler family, very early settlers to this region, made Jewett a third generation area native. His father, David Jewett Butler, and mother, Mary J. Johnson, raised their family on State Street but not in this house. Jewett lived with them while working as a postal clerk. Avis was the daughter of Frank and Sarah Bonnell. Her unusual first name was invariably misspelled in documents. She was living with her parents in a rented home on Clinton Street and working in a job related to books, while in her early twenties. The full title of her occupation was illegible. 

Avis and Jewett had two children: M. (Mary?) Alene and Jewett Bonnell. Both of the children took advantage of higher education opportunities to become teachers and each, in turn, joined the faculty of Brockport High School. They joined their mother, Avis, who had become a teacher and was employed in Brockport. 

Alene Butler continued her education at Albany State Teacher’s College and the University of Rochester. She was a longtime high school social studies teacher and retired from the Brockport Central School system. She was active in the Brockport Alumni Association. It was puzzling not to find the burial location for Alene or M. Alene, who had remained unmarried her entire working life. What happened to Alene? In retirement, Alene married a widower, John D. DeWall. Alene Butler DeWall died in 1979 and was buried in her family’s plot in Lakeview Cemetery, the Town of Sweden. Perhaps she was the child whose duty it was to remain unmarried and at home to care for her parents in their old age; a not uncommon practice in the past. 

As for Jewett Bonnell Butler, his life took a somewhat different course. He graduated from the University of Rochester and attended Harvard University for a year, then earned a Master’s Degree from SUNY Albany. He began teaching at Brockport High School, where he met his wife. After serving in World War II, however, he left the classroom for other job opportunities, and eventually became insurance agent with his own company. 

Jewett C. Butler, the father, after working in the Brockport Post Office, took a job with Kodak and became a “rate checker” and a “traffic manager.” Brockport began sending many of its sons and daughters to factory jobs located in or near Rochester. The village continued its tradition of housing blue collar factory workers, just as it did early in its history, although most of the jobs were eventually located elsewhere. 

Jewett C. Butler continued the family tradition of community service with his membership in the Silsby Hose Company. He held elective offices within the company, one of five which comprised the Brockport Fire Department. Membership in a fire company was highly regarded in many village families and firefighters were considered to be influential forces in social and political circles. 

Epilogue 2014 

The façade of 81 State Street today is not that of a 1840s house. Long shown on maps with a simple “L” shape, the house today has grown to include two and a half stories with a second story bay window facing State Street and a top floor dormer window. The siding of the house is no longer clapboard but a lovely antique wooden door graces the front porch.

This is the first of the State Street homes to back to the Erie Canal. There was once a narrow road and railroad tracks behind the house, used to service industries located on the canal bank. The Gordon Lumber Company owned that land, which was eventually sold back to the individual property owners. 

There was once a large barn located on this lot, toward the back and hugging the western lot line. Perhaps that’s where Helen Gillespie sent her students to play in inclement weather, so many years ago. Her students came from the economic elite of a young village and from parents who wanted only the best for their children. One hundred years later, the children of blue collar owners would graduate from the University of Rochester and Harvard University and teach another generation of native sons and daughters. How ironic that history would repeat itself in one of Brockport’s historic homes.

© Copyright by Carol L. Hannan - March 2014. All rights reserved.