When I saw fire trucks roll down the street the other day I could tell the emergency was somewhere close, but it was a shame to find out what burned. Seeing the this photo in The Buffalo News made me cringe. What caught fire was the John Esser House, an Italianate home built circa 1887.
You can see the intricate jigsaw work on the gable and fenestration. Fire also exposed the original clapboard hidden away by vinyl siding. Below is what it looked like before. If it hasn’t happened already, it is scheduled for an emergency demolition.
The building is/was located in an especially historic part of an historic neighborhood. Just half a block away at Market Square are new plaques commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Burning of Black Rock during the War of 1812. The building to the east is St. John’s United Church of Christ, a congregation founded by German immigrants back in 1847. (Coincidentally, the church sanctuary caught fire in the 1970s.) To the west is the Jacob Smith House and Tavern, dating back to the 1830s. Across the street is what used to be the St. Francis Xavier Church and School, now known as the Buffalo Religious Arts Center. I highly recommend touring their museum. And just two doors away, somewhat ironically, sits the former Engine #15 Firehouse. It was built in 1912 but closed decades ago. Converted into an apartment, for a time the building was the residence of the famous poet Robert Creeley.
Pardon the pun, but John Esser had a banner year in 1887. At the time he built this home he was Erie County Treasurer as well as President of the Black Rock Business Men’s Association. That same year, H. C. Zimmerman sold out to his partners Esser, Frederick Ogden, and Henry Shuttleworth of the Banner Milling Company, who expanded their operations by buying the Erie Mill. A few months later he would create the Black Rock Land Company, the first development company in the area. Esser Ave., Angus St., Roesch Ave., and Ullman St. in Riverside are named after him and his Land Co. investors, with the exception of John Hertel.
Luckily no one was hurt and fire did not spread to any neighbors. I feel bad for the people displaced by the blaze and would rather not post more photos of their misery. When I visited a few hours ago the roof was completely gone, the entire back of the building charred, and the smell of smoke still hanging in the air. But the demolition of this home does seem to erase the deep imprint the Esser name left on Black Rock. The aforementioned St. Xavier’s, closed several years ago, featured an ornately carved, wooden lectern dedicated by the Esser family. (Note: I have not confirmed any direct connection to John Esser himself.) Very recently, the Key Bank at the corner of Amherst and Dearborn moved out. That building can trace its history back to the Black Rock Savings & Loan, founded in 1892 by–you guessed it–the Black Rock Business Men’s Association.
Within four blocks you had the Erie Canal, a mill, a tavern, two churches, a school, a market, and a locally supported bank that funded it all. John Esser had his hand in much of that. Here’s another sad irony: a photo of John Esser as a director of the Erie Fire Insurance Company. He is at the top row, second from right. Click for a larger version.
Tony will be sorely missed. He helped save the Coit House from demolition and formed the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier–now Preservation Buffalo Niagara–back in the 1960s. He used to come by the old office often just to say hello.
Read more about him at The Buffalo News.
His death notice and guestbook can be found here.
In researching this project, the most difficult problem with sources was the lack of quality. Besides an abundance of texts by Methodist ministers and bishops who used documents as soap boxes for a particular side, or bureaucratically heavy official minutes, almost nothing existed. Matters worsened when discussing regional topics, such as the excommunication of Benjamin Titus Roberts, and small sects, such as the Wesleyan Connection. As far as I know, there exists today not one history devoted to the following events concerning Methodism in Upstate New York that a church body did not commission or write itself. Historiographically, the goal of this paper is to present, for the first time, a discussion of Methodist slavery politics as it pertained to a particular area of the United States, free of denominational rhetoric or proselytizing.
Still used today, the first works on the subject of difficulties in the Genesee region were yoked to the Church. Written by a former Genesee Conference Secretary, F. W. Conable’s History of the Genesee Annual Conference remains the best official account of the events surrounding the General Conference of 1860. As an official history, however, it is the infertile seed of a disappointing family tree. Edited by Bishop Matthew Simpson, 1878’s Cyclopedia of Methodism drew greatly from the details of Conable’s work. Simpson failed to acknowledge the value of Free Methodist reformers, describing the creation of the organization as if it were a sect of fundamentalist outsiders whose leaders “encouraged a spirit of wild fanaticism.” In the one-page article “Free Methodism,” the massive Cyclopedia devoted about one-third of its one hundred line text to the reasons behind the Churches’ split.
Firstly, Simpson insinuated that the leaders’ actions were unusual and corrupted, with reasons foreign from the author’s beliefs and point of view. The early Free Methodists “professed themselves to be moved by the Holy Spirit, and believed it was their duty to bear open testimony against what they alleged to be the sins of the church” (emphasis added). This description tried to place doubts on the veracity of the Free Methodists’ beliefs. Secondly, Simpson made the blanket statement that these leaders’ complaints were “of the decline of spirituality in the church.” Absolutely no mention of abolition or the slave issue exists in the entire entry, let alone any hint of problems with the episcopacy. The author did mention “various church trials” and that “two of the leaders were expelled,” but failed to mention the names of the leaders. He named B. T. Roberts later, but only as the Church’s first superintendent and founder of The Earnest Christian. Roberts took offense at the Simpson article, so much so that he wrote the Bishop personally. The Free Methodist founder included this correspondence, the Cyclopedia entry, and other commentary in his 1879 book Why Another Sect. In it, he argued fifteen separate complaints he held against the published tenets of “Nazaritism” and ideas of “wild fanaticism” as written by the Bishop.
Though consisting of much one-sided information, many previous religious historians considered the Cyclopedia of Methodism an authoritative account of the Methodist Episcopal Church decades after its compilation. Histories of the entire Methodist organization, such as Dr. James M. Buckley’s History of Methodism in the United States, relied heavily on the Cyclopedia. Histories by Free Methodist members or sympathizers provided better information. The first official Free Methodist account by Rev. Elias Bowen, one of the original Susquehanna Circuit pastors from 1816 to 1817, looked at numerous sources including the Buffalo Christian Advocate and the Northern Independent, Conable’s minutes, and Roberts’ writings for a more balanced and total depiction of the story. In some places the author copied entire newspaper articles and speeches into the main part of the text. This writing style may not be very literary, but at least it possessed specific, concrete facts and acknowledged the differing points of view of Church members. Two other important Free Methodist histories followed using similar sources and historiographical technique: the Free Methodist Church published Bishop Wilson T. Hogue’s History of the Free Methodist Church of North America and Bishop Leslie Ray Marston’s From Age to Age: A Living Witness during its golden and centennial anniversaries, respectively. Hogue devoted fully half of his two volume History to the denomination’s formation in much the same style as Bowen. As expected he found Roberts’ works most accurate, forming most of his perspective. Hogue’s criticism of Conable and his followers was harsh and defensive of the Free Methodist sect:
It is equally difficult to conceive of how such honored men as the two last named authors [Simpson and Buckley] could have been betrayed into giving general currency to such unauthorized, inaccurate and harmful statements. . . . The most charitable view that can be taken of their action in this matter is to attribute it to prejudice on their part. But even this is a reflection upon their credibility as historians.
he Western New York Heritage article is a careful synthesis of these and other unstable sources. Though most of the information used showed bias, misinterpretation of facts, quotes, or opinions are entirely mine. It is the author’s hope to enlighten the casual reader as well as those with a working knowledge of the topic.
This is the first of two posts enhancing my upcoming article in Western New York Heritage magazine, to be published in the Summer 2013 issue. Original research took place beginning in 2001 and was updated in 2012. Though the article lists only my name as an author to this project, if not for the efforts of a score of others—including Matthew Biddle, who edited the most recent version—there would be no completed product.
At Canisius College, thesis advisor Dr. Bruce Dierenfield contributed the greatest amount of input, as well as the most important. Dr. Larry Jones and Dr. Robert Butler, of the History Honors and All-College Honors programs respectively, were also an influential source of guidance.
The aid of a number of United Methodist and Free Methodist Church members helped as well, especially in the earliest stages of research. Thanks must go to archivist Kate McGinn at the Free Methodist Church’s Marston Historical Center in Indianapolis, as well as Marston assistant archivist Dr. R. D. Simpson and Howard Snyder of Asbury Theological Seminary, who offered their expertise. Charles H. Canon III of Roberts Wesleyan College also helped provide access to Free Methodist rare book rooms and special collections. The research assistants at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society and the Special Collections Department of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library deserve a nod of gratitude as well.
Reverends Jacob Denny and Matt Stengel at the Historical Archives of the United Methodist Church’s former Western New York Conference went to great lengths to find and deliver the rarest of the documents used in this paper. Reverend Rick Rouse of the Akron Free Methodist Church allowed temporary use of his own materials, as did Margaret Schrock and the late Catherine and Charles Taylor. Special thanks must be given to Jerry Schrock for phone numbers, fact verification and special arrangements, and Jeffery Gross for his assistance in editing the final draft.
It is ironic that I must thank an unknown person at the Akron Free Methodist Church who, about twenty years ago, gathered the oldest and rarest texts in that church’s library and left them in boxes on the curb. If not for this author’s fascination for history at a young age and his parents’ acceptance of their son’s pack rat behavior, those books and their history would now lie, wasted, in a landfill.
The last shall be first. Most importantly, I wrote this thesis with the late Rev. Thurber Thayer in mind. Though he passed away several years ago, he possessed a gracious soul and possessed a wealth of knowledge about Genesee Methodism; the texts rescued from the trash were originally donated from his personal library. Rev. Thayer’s devotion to his Church and his God will not be forgotten by those who met him. While an amateur attempt, this project was the best way I could think of memorializing him.