Local history

There are some who are the keepers of our history, those who make us aware of our past so we are not doomed to repeat it. They are known as historians.

Cassadaga Village historian John Sipos was a guest speaker at the Chautauqua County Genealogy Society meeting held at the Darwin R. Barker Library in Fredonia recently. He gave a historical presentation on the Phillips family, Revolutionary War graves found in Cassadaga and a small part of his own childhood.

“The Phillips were the pillars of the community,” he said. “They were involved in building Cassadaga.”

Before the Phillips made their way to Cassadaga in 1816, two men from the Fisher family spent one long winter here in 1809. The following spring they brought their family to Cassadaga from Massachusetts, making them the founders of the settlement.

The Phillips Temperance House was built in 1850 in order to keep people limited to one or two drinks. It stood at the four corners, where the Village Park now stands. The house burned down in 1895.

“People tried to save things,” Sipos said. “One woman even threw an upstairs mirror out a window.”

The settlement did not have the funds to fill in the foundation, so they built a fence around the ruins so people didn’t fall in. For 30 years it was just fenced in with a white fence.

Part of the Cassadaga Cemetery holds 36 graves in a circle around a monument, and four gravestones around the monument itself. These graves range from 1842 to 1958 and are all part of the Phillips family.

“The Phillips family purchased the whole corner,” Sipos said. “We found old cemetery books from 1809, which gave a list of all the people buried in the circle. I can’t believe how many people are tied into the Phillips family.”

Philip Phillips’ ancestors came to our shores in 1630 in Massachusetts. Captain John Phillips was one of the first settlers in the wilderness area in 1740.

Philip Phillips Sr. married his second cousin, Mercy Phillips. They moved to Cassadaga in 1816.

“They had a very large family,” Sipos said. “They had 15 children, some of them died really young, and some of them got married.”

Sipos spoke of a significant occurrence in 1852 linked to the Phillips line.

“There was a tragedy in which seven people drowned when a boat tipped over,” he said.

This happened on a little island near Lily Dale, called Fern Island.

“This church group was on their way to the island for a church picnic, and the boat began to leak,” Sipos said. “It collapsed and six women died along with the captain. These girls were wearing heavy pettycoats, which weighed them down. The captain tried to save them and couldn’t. There were 17 people saved on that boat. Philip Phillips was one of them. There are lots of stories about this tragedy, and a poem was written about it.”

There are five generations of Philip Phillips. One of them became known as the famous “singing pilgrim” in 1860. Philip Phillips Jr. was born in 1834.

“He would park his piano on a busy street corner, and play to get people interested in purchasing pianos,” Sipos said. “He played in 4,000 different places, and sold lots of hymn books as well.”

One of those very special songs was sung for President Abraham Lincoln.

“President Lincoln cried over it,” Sipos said about the song called “Your Mission” in the two-hour long concert. “Lincoln wrote on a piece of paper asking him to sing the song again, but not to tell him it was the President asking.”

Philip Phillips Jr. wrote to President Lincoln asking him for the note he secretly wrote on June 30, 1860 about his song.

On Memorial Day, Sipos followed the Cassadaga Legion from cemetery to cemetery.

“I followed them along like I did for many years,” he said. “At Picketts Corner Cemetery I saw a war marker labeled ‘1776’. There were flowers planted there, and I wondered how many Revolutionary War soldiers we had buried here.”

Sipos found a 16-page list documenting the 132 Revolutionary War soldiers buried in Chautauqua County, and three of them are buried in Cassadaga, one of them is buried in Stockton. Caleb Clark (1837), John Cleland (1827), and Amos Atkins are buried at Picketts Corner. He and his wife, Susan, went on a journey to find Elijah Look (1852) buried in Stockton, at Denton Corners Cemetery, but couldn’t find the cemetery. They did find on Coe Road a chain-linked fenced-in area, which is ether the remains of an old church or the cemetery in question.

“My wife and I looked around and couldn’t see it,” he said. “On top of a hill was a chainlinked fence with high grass. I wasn’t going to go in there. We think the fence surrounds an old foundation.”

This list was compiled by the Daughters of the American Revolution, and at the time, Deville White, 96, was the oldest living person in Cassadaga. He was the dispenser of pensions and personally knew some of the soldiers.

Sipos’s uncle worked for the Indiana, Pa., Gazette, and as a result he and his sister were used for various different photo shoots. He showed off pictures of his childhood, from getting a haircut to doing chores around the house.

“It turns out I have been famous for a long time,” he said.

Comments on this story may be sent to jwillis@observertoday.com