Historical research using old newspapers fascinates but also frustrates me. Had you read the March 5th, 1936 edition of The Cazenovia Republican you would have learned that the historic Gerrit Smith mansion in Peterboro, New York, burned to the ground two days earlier.
This was big news, deserving front page coverage. But the article telling of the great loss is on page eight accompanying an advertisement placed by Turner’s Market that offered boxes of green peas for 23 cents each and fresh ground beef at 18 cents a pound.
Had George Washington’s Mount Vernon home burned on March 3, 1936, it would have been front page news in papers nationwide. Smith (1797-1874) was long dead by the time the mansion burned. Were his house standing now, it would be a place of pilgrimage for all those dedicated to the betterment of humankind.
The Historic House
Built by Peter Smith between 1804 and 1806 and then enlarged by his son Gerrit between 1852 and 1854, the house grew to become a three-story Federal Style mansion with 28 rooms. It was situated on eight acres accompanied by several outbuildings. Gerrit and his family moved into the house when Gerrit began management of Peter’s land business in 1819. Gerrit died in 1874, followed a year later by his wife Ann.
While Gerrit and Ann resided in the mansion it was visited by many prominent 19th century reformers, including John Brown, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Smith’s cousin and women’s rights advocate.
Freedom seekers, as well as the poor in general, found safety and succor at the Smith home. Eyewitnesses tell of how escapees from the slaveholder’s whip and chains were given refuge in the garret-like space of the mansion’s third floor. Harriet Powell, sometimes referred to as “the fair fugitive,” found shelter in the Smith Mansion after escaping in 1839 from the Davenports who posted a $200 reward for her capture.
Gerrit Smith Miller and his wife Susan moved into the mansion house after the deaths of Gerrit and Ann. Miller was a well-known breeder of Holstein cattle. Known as “Gat,” Miller was himself a man with wide interests in the communal good. He attended Harvard and excelled in what was then known as the game of football, though more like the game of soccer today. He was 92 and a widower when the fire consumed the historic house. Susan passed away in 1924, twelve years prior to the fateful day when residents of the Hamlet of Peterboro awoke to the ominous sound of the fire alarm on the schoolhouse ringing.
Marion Newton, Miller’s night nurse, smelled smoke about 7 am on Monday, March 3, 1936. She discovered flames in the floor over the basement furnace and alerted others in the house. Villagers arrived to form a bucket brigade. The fire roared up the air chambers of the mansion’s thick walls. Edith H. White, Miller’s secretary and adopted daughter, called for assistance from the Morrisville, Canastota, and Cazenovia fire departments.
Contemporary accounts vary as to what happened next as black smoke and flames erupted from the historic mansion. Some report that when the fire engines arrived, the pumps on them were of little use, perhaps because of frozen valves. Other reports tell of how the fire companies attempted to use pumpers to draw water from a nearby creek, but the water level was too low. Chemical fire suppressants brought by one fire company proved ineffective.
As the fire raged, efforts were made to save the valuable and historic contents of the house. Most of the contents on the second and third floors were destroyed. Furniture and other items from the first floor were dragged out onto the lawn, which at the time was covered with snow. The fire raged on for two hours or so and left the mansion in ruins. Two tall brick chimneys remained as sentinels to signal to all what had happened.
Gerrit Smith Miller, after being awakened by his night nurse and told of the fire, dressed and went out on the mansion’s veranda. He sat there awaiting an auto to take him to a place of safety. A neighbor rushed up to render assistance. Miller reportedly told the would-be rescuer, “Good morning, Mr. Root. Quite a bad fire, I guess.”
Taken by car to the home of Agnes Miller, his daughter-in-law, Gerrit Smith Miller could do little to alter the course of events of that fateful day. When informed that the historic Mansion that had housed Smiths and Millers for three generations was a total loss, Miller is to have said, “I have always taken things as I found them, and I expect to do the same today.”
With the Mansion gone, Miller needed a place to live. He had a nine-room house, sometimes called the “cottage,” on the grounds of the estate remodeled. Built in 1815, the house still stands. Miller furnished the first floor of this house with antiques rescued from the Mansion. He made plans to buy more. One newspaper account tells of how the six-foot long, four-feet wide stone steps adorned with boot-cleaners from the Mansion were re-purposed as steps leading to the cottage. Miller called his last dwelling “The Little Homestead.”
Gerrit Smith Miller died on March 10, 1937, a year and eight days from the date of the fire. When the contents of his last home were put up for auction, the four-page sale bill detailed nearly 150 items of historic value. Had I been there and had the money, I might have bid on the mahogany senate chair used by President James Madison, the rosewood table used by Gerrit Smith and taken by him when he went to Washington, D.C. to serve in Congress in the 1850s, and a bamboo cane used by Gerrit Smith Miller.
The Hole in the Ground is No More
When I first visited what is now known as the Gerrit Smith Estate in the mid-1980s, there was a large hole in the ground where the Mansion once stood. The wrought iron fence, in rather poor shape, that fronted the former Mansion lawns still stood, but there was little else to inform the public as to the significance of that historic house. Sometime in the 1990s, for safety reasons no doubt, the hole was filled with gravel and eventually covered with grass.
Nearly eight acres of the old Gerrit Smith Estate are now a National Historical Landmark site. The property contains the Land Office and adjacent smokehouse used by Gerrit Smith, a former carriage barn that is said to have sheltered freedom seekers, a laundry building where Harriet Russell, one of the enslaved whom Gerrit Smith rescued, was paid to help with the washing, and other important places marked now by interpretive signage.
For a much richer description of all that the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark has to offer visit their website. While in Peterboro, you can also stop at the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum and the Peterboro Area Museum.
While in Peterboro, reflect on the historic significance of the place, even though the passage of time has stilled the voices of those who lived there when the Smith and Miller families called the Mansion their home. We cannot rebuild the Mansion, but we can heed Gerrit Smith Miller’s words: “I have always taken things as I found them, and I expect to do the same today.”
Illustrations, from above: The Mansion, courtesy of Norm Dann; Gerrit Smith by Matthew Brady, National Portrait Gallery; 1936 Mansion Fire, image courtesy of John Bowen; Mansion Ruins, Syracuse Post-Standard, March 4, 1936; Gerrit Smith Miller at 78, from James D’ Wolf, Old Boston Boys and the Games They Played (Boston: Riverside Press, 1907); Signage at site of former Mansion, Gerrit Smith Estate, photo by Milton Sernett.