Geneseo Genealogy: Historical society houses local treasures

The Livingston County Historical Society and Museum on Center Street houses an expansive, multifaceted collection of artifacts representing the communal history of all 17 towns in Livingston County inside of a building that’s historic in itself.

Geneseo’s founders, James and William Wadsworth, donated the land in 1820 on which the museum is built which was “forever to be used for educational purposes,” according to Museum Administrator Anna Kowalchuk.

The building that currently stands on the property, originally a cross-shaped cobblestone schoolhouse called the District #5 Union School, was built in 1838. In 1932, the District #5 School closed and students were transferred to the Holcomb School, which went on to become Welles Hall.

Kowalchuk said the Geneseo Historical Society has been in existence since 1876, functioning with a board of directors and a collection of Geneseo’s artifacts. The historical society ran a smaller museum in the circa 1895 log cabin in Village Park on Main St. until 1932. When the District #5 School closed, the Historical Society relocated its collection to the school building. It has housed the Livingston County Historical Society and Museum since.

The historical society still manages the museum with an executive board, 12 trustees and 385 members.

The museum’s collection includes thousands of objects connected with Livingston County’s history. Among them are the original school house bell, Native American land sale posters, various war memorabilia, a stagecoach originally owned by the Wadsworth family, a piece of the famous “big tree” and a copy of the Treaty of Big Tree which signed 3.5 million acres of land from local Native Americans over to Geneseo’s European settlers.

To accompany its collection the museum hosts educational programs roughly once a month. These programs, which are free to the public, include lectures, musical performances and receptions. According to Kowalchuk, this month’s program, a lecture titled, “Native Americans in Genesee Valley” by professor of history Michael Oberg, will be held in the museum on Wednesday March 13 at 6:30 p.m.

The museum also takes student interns each semester and is currently hosting five students. Kowalchuk said these interns are working to organize and digitally catalog the museum’s toys and dolls and china and porcelain collections. In the past, interns have also worked training docents and giving tours to school groups.

According to Kowalchuk, the historical society is looking toward expansion in the next five years. She said its master plan includes a proper storage room for the artifacts and a structure that will provide a better flow for exhibits. Kowalchuk added that the historical society might meet these needs by moving the museum to another building.

“These are pretty big, powerful changes but we are charged with taking care of this history,” she said. “We need proper storage to be able to preserve the objects that can tell the stories we want to tell.”

Kowalchuk, who originally worked as a kindergarten teacher, has held the first paid position in the museum’s 118-year history since 2008. She said her two careers share the common ground of “creating meaning” for people.

“For me as a nonhistorian, the more I learn about this area and its stories, the more connected I feel to the place I live and the stories we’re creating now,” she said.

The museum is open May through October on Thursdays and Sundays from 2-5 p.m. Tours are conducted by appointment year round.