Exploring Dunkirk’s proud past

By SKEETER TOWER

Special to the OBSERVER

The term “urban renewal” brings a shudder to most who recall the obliteration of older buildings in the heart of downtown and waterfront areas of Dunkirk and other cities in the 1970s. It represents destruction, loss of community, empty spaces and poor judgment in city planning. But what if we were to reframe the words “urban renewal,” define them for ourselves in 2013 and focus on those buildings and residential neighborhood assets which remain, cherish them, and bring forward stories and people once associated with them? What if we embrace our history, the virtues of those who built this city and the values they stood for and passed on to their descendants? Let me share one rather miraculous example of how this can evolve.

The house at 438 Swan St. in Dunkirk stood empty and battered in 2006. It retained some qualities of charm, sitting humbled by surrounding larger homes and the five-acre campus of the middle school. My son acquired the house and restored it to a more comfortable dwelling where I currently live. My neighbor, Beth Cahallan at 436 Swan St., shared the information that at some point, our two buildings were once connected and that one of them, she knew not which, had been a photography studio. Curiosity led me to our Dunkirk Historic Museum, original deed in hand, to explore the origins of my house. In the museum I learned about George Anthony Henry Eggers (1850-1938), an immigrant from Bremen, Germany, who was a previous owner of this house. With Horatio Brooks’ first train to Dunkirk in 1851 came the first German settlers, these included familiar names like Ehler, Koch, Dotterwich, Widman and Staph. According to census reports, John Conrad Eggers and his wife, Catharina Moeller Eggers, and their two small sons, John and George, were living in Fredonia in 1855. A third child, Harriet, was born in 1856. By the census of 1870 the entire family was living at 422 Swan St. in Dunkirk. John Eggers and his elder son, John, were in the cigar making business. George was listed as an “artist in crayons.” Doug Shepard, local researcher and history sleuth, explains that crayon photographs were a very popular style in the 1870s – photographs that had the edges of the central image fading off the way crayon portraits of the time were done.

In 1882 George married Josephine Smith of Sheridan.

According to The Dunkirk Herald special edition of Feb. 1, 1905, George A.H. Eggers is described as “The leading artist photographer of Dunkirk who has been established at the present quarters, corner of Swan and Fifth for 15 years.” That would have been 1890.

Shepard and Wendy Straight, local surveyor and history buff, helped with more clues. An account in The Fredonia Censor (Sept. 29, 1909) states that John learned military tactics from this father who had been a Prussian soldier. In 1861 as the Civil War began, the son drilled the local company for the Union, a company of Zouaves, a colorful, specially-trained and skilled unit of young men.

Straight was able to check through old maps to see when the first structure on the lot was built. At the time the deed first originated, 1850, large blocks of land on the west side were in the holdings of Ten Eyck, a Dutch name. Straight speculates that Dutch Hill, a historic reference to this area of the city, stemmed from this early broad ownership, not, as many speculate, that “Dutch” referred to “Deutch,” as describing the German language, or the settlers who followed.

Diane Andrasik, director of the Dunkirk Museum, knew of Eggers and directed me to a now rather fragile scrapbook assembled by Dr. George Blackham, who with the help of his friend Eggers, captured the daily life of Dunkirk in photos at the turn of the century. Google “Eggers of Dunkirk” and up pop two dramatic photos of the Dunkirk Lighthouse captured by Eggers in the last century, and donated to the lighthouse museum by family member, Mary Kayhart.

In my search I discovered that George W. Eggers, first born son of George and Josephine (1883-1958), was an acclaimed artist with a significant collection of his work at the Burchfield Penny Museum in Buffalo. He has an impressive trail of achievements starting at the Chautauqua Institute, the Chicago Art Institute, several other prestigious museums and ending as a valued first director of the Art Department at City College New York (More about this amazing artist is promised in a future story).

During a serendipitous encounter with John Wolfe, director of the McClurg Museum in Westfield, over the holidays, I happened to mention my search for information regarding the Eggers family and the house at 438 Swan St. Lo and behold, he remembered a donation of 57 photos to the McClurg Museum from the descendants of George Eggers, and he graciously copied a disk with these photos for me.

In these photos could be seen the house at 438 Swan St. back in the late 1880s and another, perhaps 10 years later, given the growth of the trees in the interim, was the studio he built next door at 436 Swan. And there was the entire Eggers family: George; his wife, Josephine; and four children, George W.; Josephine; Francis and Dorothea. These are beautiful and clear photos reflecting the closeness of the family, the humor, devotion and talent of the father, and documentation of the development of young artist George W. Eggers, whose talent was noted at an early age. The photos in this article today show photographer George A.H. Eggers, at age 80, with the schooner he spent 10 years building for his grandson, naming it the “Robert J. Randall” in his honor. An article in the OBSERVER from Sept. 18, 1930, describes this 5-foot model on display at the Graf building on Central Avenue as “detailed to scale, equipped with full rigging and designed to sail.” George A.H. Eggers lived at 438 Swan St. until his death Jan. 7, 1938 at age 88.

This is not the end of the story. A letter sent to the Virginia address of Michael Smith, grandson of George W. Eggers, who had donated the photos to the McClurg, was forwarded and within a couple of weeks we were notified by Michael Smith that he had returned to Chautauqua County and is now living in retirement in Lakewood. He was not only willing to be interviewed for this story, but shared many wonderful sketches, lithographs and paintings by the artist, as well as a copy of the pages of the family Bible detailing relationships and movement of the family. And that is not all. He will make these available to the Dunkirk Historic Museum and cooperate in any way he can in our plan to bring the private Eggers’ collection to public display.

The Dunkirk Historic Museum will coordinate these with the Eggers exhibit on loan from the Burchfield Penny Museum in Buffalo. These events will occur during Dunkirk Heritage Days, Sept. 7 and 8, 2013, in conjunction with a tour of five historic Dunkirk homes. We want to celebrate these worthy forefathers of our community, and to remember the contributions they made during their lives and to this city. We want to relish the stories connected to the historic structures still standing and still part of a neighborhood – part of our lives.

If you know of a historic house that should be on this tour or have records or information to contribute to this residential “urban renewal,” call the museum. If you want to volunteer to help with the tour or help organize collections in our Dunkirk Historic Museum, your help is needed. If you can make a legacy donation for a new museum building to highlight the proud history of this city, stop by the museum at 513 Washington Ave., Monday, Wednesday or Friday or call 366-3797.

There are architectural treasures to be saved and restored in Dunkirk, urban pioneers to attract who would love the elegance and unique features of these homes, live in them and help revitalize the city. There are stories of families and ancestors to preserve and honor and model for the sake of the next generations. Let’s strive for this historic preservation and urban renewal, so that this time we get it right.

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