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Excavating Brigham Young's mill site

Sheldon Fisher has spent much of his life preserving early Church history

FISHERS, New York — Years ago as a child, J. Sheldon Fisher watched his mother take great care to see that the missionaries always had a good Sunday meal. Since then, he has taken great care — sometimes at personal expense — to see that Church artifacts and history in the Mendon, N.Y., area were well preserved.

J. Sheldon Fisher, now nearly 94 years old, is curator of a museum, above, he created to preserve artifacts of early Church members.
J. Sheldon Fisher, now nearly 94 years old, is curator of a museum, above, he created to preserve artifacts of early Church members. Photo: Photo by Shaun D. Stahle

Mr. Fisher's mother wasn't a member of the Church, but she had a soft spot for missionaries. These fond feelings, he believed, stemmed from his great-grandfather who was a member of the Mendon Baptist Church when missionaries came into the area in the early 1830s and baptized about 60 members of his congregation, including several close friends, among whom were Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball.

Mr. Fisher, who is not a member of the Church, doesn't know why his great-grandfather didn't join the Church, especially since he esteemed the missionaries highly enough to provide space on his homestead for Church meetings.

He believes his great-grandfather, a prominent member of the community who owned a large tract of land and several mills, was too rooted in the area to leave with the members when they joined the main body of the Church in Ohio.

"This was a crucial time for my great-grandfather," Mr. Fisher said. "His wife and two daughters had just died and he was employing about 60 men. He was promoting the railroad and had many reasons to stay."

Many of his friends who joined the Church and migrated to Kirtland continued to write to him, urging him to follow. Brigham Young, who, as a glazier had installed some windows in the homestead, is believed to also have encouraged him. But the Fishers remained.

Over the years, the significance of those associations helped shape Mr. Fisher's appreciation for the place in history that upstate New York plays in the Church.

Emboldened by a strong sense of history and a desire to preserve the past, Mr. Fisher created a museum to house artifacts of the area's rich history. At nearly 94 years old, he continues as curator and proprietor.

There is little to suggest Mr. Fisher is nearing the century mark. His stride is strong as he walks from his home — built in 1830 — through a small stand of trees and across the street to his museum. His voice is vigorous and his eyes blaze with his passion for the past.

Valentown museum

"Many large buses of tourists would exit the interstate and take the 'Historic Mormon Country Tour' as I called it," he said describing how, in short time, his museum grew in popularity until it became his livelihood. During those years, Mr. Fisher involved the entire family which included his four children and wife.

Tap and screw was made by Mr. Fisher's ancestor for Brigham Young to use in his furniture shop.
Tap and screw was made by Mr. Fisher's ancestor for Brigham Young to use in his furniture shop. Photo: Photo by Shaun D. Stahle

Built in 1879 by Levi Valentine on an Indian trail, the all-wood building was originally used for administration of Valentown, as it was known. The building was divided into segments that were rented as a banquet hall, general store and meat locker.

Artifacts from the historic five-county area near Palmyra now cover the floors and walls of this two-story museum. Besides artifacts of the Church, the museum includes documents showing how the area was originally surveyed and a peace treaty signed by George Washington with the Seneca Indians.

One artifact that is a particular treasure, said Mr. Fisher, is an old tap and screw created by one of his ancestors for use by Brigham Young in his furniture shop.

Mr. Fisher is generally credited with preserving much of Brigham Young's possessions. Beginning in the early 1960s, Mr. Fisher began searching for the exact location of Brigham's mill and home. Skeptical of any local folklore concerning the site, he researched county records and learned that Brigham's home and mill were built on a creek in the field of the property of his father, John Young.

"The exact location took quite a while to find," he said. "When the Church members left, the records were gone too. Three generations of people have lived there since the Youngs."

Excavation of mill site

Every summer for six years Mr. Fisher excavated the site. He sifted through shovelfuls of mud dug from the creek bed and found silverware, rings and wooden objects. "I knew I was on the right track," he said. Further excavation found pieces of furniture, tools and parts of Brigham's home.

"The home was built over the creek," Mr. Fisher said. "The first level was the mill. The second was the home where he dwelled. It was a fine home."

After the Youngs left Mendon, new owners moved in and destroyed the mill and home. They left various pieces of the home and Brigham's craft work lying in the stream. Over time, mud covered the artifacts, which preserved them from decay.

"Most people in that day were farmers," he said. "They didn't have much need for making furniture. So they tore the mill down. It was fortunate that parts of the home were covered by mud which preserved them.

"Brigham's wood lathe had been dismantled and stored in a shed two miles from the farm. I found it just before the shed collapsed," Mr. Fisher said. "I also found shoes that could have belonged to Brigham's two daughters, and pottery made by Heber C. Kimball.

"All this was preserved in the museum at great effort," he said. "A few years ago, after an illness and fearing for the future care of the artifacts, I sold a large van full of Brigham's possessions to the Museum of Church History and Art." Many artifacts, including the lathe, are on display in the Church museum in Salt Lake City.

"This area is now the fastest growing area in New York state," Mr. Fisher said. "Saving these major historical sites before the massive construction of homes and businesses has been my contribution to life."

"He is spry and his heart has always been in the right place," said President David L. Cook of the Rochester New York Palmyra Stake. President Cook recounted how Mr. Fisher was honored by the stake on his 90th birthday nearly four years ago. "He wore the same suit to the celebration that he wore on his wedding day," President Cook said.

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