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Impact of Batavia's longtime source of history to be 'felt forever'

By Joanne Beck


Larry Barnes
2023 File Photo of former City Historian Larry Barnes showing the files filled with research materials in his second floor office at City Hall.
Photo by Howard Owens

A master researcher, author and presenter of local history, Larry Barnes became the face of all things Batavia as the city historian for 16 years until his retirement in December 2023. Soft-spoken but adamant about capturing various moments and people of history, including his latest penned venture into the lives of Black Batavians, Barnes, 83, passed away on June 21 at The Gateway Home in Attica, where he had received end-of-life care. 

A GCC psychology professor-turned-historian in later life, Barnes also authored several books and scripted a play about the Brisbane Mansion, which is still a hot topic as city management works to put it on the selling block after the police station moves out into new digs downtown. 

Barnes was present throughout the years of discussions about what to do with the police department in an antiquated building that once housed the Brisbane family, and he was pleased to see a final solution. He advocated for repurposing the West Main Street site instead of demolishing the property and its valuable city history. 

Barnes was very active in the community, having served with several history-related groups, including the Landmark Society of Genesee County, Batavia Historic Preservation Committee, Genesee County Historians Association, Government Appointed Historians of Western New York and the Association of Public Historians of New York State.

It was when Barnes was a member of the Holland Land Office Museum board and city historian that Ryan Duffy met and made a connection with him. Duffy is the museum's executive director and the recently appointed city historian to take the reins in January.

“Larry was a mentor to me,” Duffy said Saturday. “When I came on to the museum, he was always there to help me out with anything with local history. He was always a resource for me and for the museum in general. 

"He was the person who wanted me to become city historian after him. So he always admired what I did, and always, you know, pushed me to do more, but I always looked up to him in his research, and I always used it as a resource too, so there's a lot of things that he covered that I think if he hadn't covered it, we might have forgotten about it," Duffy said. "So his impact will be felt forever.”

Barnes was also a go-to source for area organizations, groups and even journalists who picked his brain about certain city topics, gleaning background for news articles. His gentle and willing manner, combined with a dry sense of humor, made interviews easy and informative.

For Duffy, he wants to make sure “I keep the legacy going,” he said.

For Barnes, the historian role was one of many passions that included photography, extemporaneous public speaking (he won a national competition in school), doing methodical research, and putting his highly creative skills to both fun and practical purposes by crafting small whimsical designs up to building two beloved homes.

He took his volunteer role seriously, even to the point of braving the wintry elements during the city's bicentennial celebration by standing on an outdoor stage to address the snow-covered crowd. 

That volunteer gig shifted to a paid position, but only after Barnes' 16 years were nearly up -- when City Council voted to pay the role a $5,000 per year stipend. 

His faithful service and untold hours were a testament to his belief in the importance of documenting history at any -- or no -- cost, which is a stepping off point for Duffy from here forward.

His body is to be cremated, and his earthly remains will be privately interred in the Historic Batavia Cemetery, another site that Barnes knew well.

A Celebration of Life service will be at 2 p.m. July 28 at the Main Street 56 Theater in Batavia. It will be a time of reflection, remembrance, celebration and sharing.

Go HERE for the full obituary.   

New city historian approved, ready to figure out what's next

By Joanne Beck
Ryan Duffy

City Council made it official Monday for Ryan Duffy to establish his second office to be at City Hall.

Duffy, executive director at Holland Land Office Museum, will take the helm as city historian now that former historian Larry Barnes resigned the post at the end of 2023. 

Why does he want to take on this secondary set of responsibilities?
“The nice thing is that it's similar to my regular job. So it's not a huge transition to just do it over here, as well. So I look at it as just adding on to my duties, really,” Duffy said after council’s business meeting at City Hall. “I write columns all the time. But I also deal with genealogy requests and things that city and municipal historians deal with. So a lot of the duties I perform, is a seamless transition. It's just working with a new collection, really. 

What’s your favorite part about working with history?
“My favorite part, I went and studied history to study history. And the research aspect is always something I've enjoyed probably the most,” he said. “And I don't always get to do it all the time at the museum, at least in the same capacity. So it was a way to be able to do that but still dealing with something that I'm pretty passionate in, and know quite a bit about.”

Why is there a city historian?
The Arts and Cultural Affairs Law of New York State mandates that there be a city historian, and the position is appointed by City Council. Duffy’s term is for four years, effective immediately, according to the resolution approved during Monday’s business meeting.

Duffy was uncertain how many hours he’d actually be putting into the job, which is paid $5,000 annually. That wasn’t always the case, and for most of Barnes’ 16 years in the post, he was an unpaid volunteer. A push that began with former management and council led to the stipend in 2023. 

The city historian’s office is located on the second floor of City Hall next door to council chambers, where filing cabinets are filled with research materials. During his terms, Barnes authored four books about various city topics, and Duffy isn’t certain just yet what he might " deep-dive” into. He is open to requests and questions, he said.

“I know there'll be ways to get in contact, even if I'm not here. So I welcome everybody to get in touch with me if they need something. Once I get settled in, I'll do my best to start combing through things and getting the history of Batavia out there,” he said. 

The main number for City Hall is 585-345-6300.

Duffy to be appointed as city historian for important Batavia role

By Joanne Beck
Ryan Duffy

You could say that 2024 is looking like a banner year for Ryan Duffy so far, first being in line for a Chamber of Commerce Special Recognition of the Year Award on behalf of Holland Land Office Museum, and now being asked to fill an important role for Batavia.

City Council gave its unofficial blessings to appoint Duffy as city historian during Monday’s conference session at City Hall after City Manager Rachael Tabelski introduced the idea.

“I’m excited to present the appointment of Ryan Duffy to the historian’s position. He has been the executive director of the Holland Land Office since May 2017. His position actually brought him to Batavia. Since then, he's been an integral part of history in Batavia and in Genesee County to the residents, and thousands of visitors who visit,” Tabelski said. “At the Holland Land Office Museum, he's completed many different research projects related to our local history. He's published articles, one of which was on the Richmond Mansion, published in Western New York Heritage magazine. And I think he'll make a wonderful city historian for us.”

The part-time position is for a four-year term that runs to 2027. Duffy will be responsible for compiling information and data, maintenance of records concerning the history of the city. He will assemble historical data of significance to the city of Batavia by consulting various sources; conduct research into genealogy, maintain family files; organize and evaluate research data as to its authenticity and significance; maintain in narrative form, with photographs, when available, a chronological record to the locality’s past and current history; handle correspondence and request for information concerning the city’s history. 

He may also act as advisor or consultant on research studies relating to the city.

What does it take to be a city historian? Good knowledge of practices and techniques used in historical research activities, good knowledge of sources of historical information and data; good knowledge of and interest in local history; ability to keep historical records and to prepare historical reports; ability to write in a clear, descriptive and interesting manner; ability to establish and maintain favorable contacts with individuals and groups; initiative and resourcefulness, all according to the city’s job description.

Duffy will fill the vacancy left by former historian Larry Barnes. He will be paid a yearly stipend of $5,000.

City Historian explains what sparked his passion, recognized for service

By Joanne Beck
Kathy Briggs and Larry Barnes
City Councilwoman, Ward 5, Kathy Briggs reads a proclamation to retired City Historian Larry Barnes Monday evening at City Hall. 
Photo by Joanne Beck

While it may have been a foregone conclusion that former college professor Larry Barnes taught history while at Genesee Community College, given his proclivity for the stuff as long-running city historian of 16 years, those assumptions were not correct, he says.

Barnes cleared that up while accepting a certificate of appreciation for his service Monday at City Hall. 

“I taught classes at GCC for 37 years before becoming city of Batavia historian … I taught psychology courses,” he said. “How did I make the transition to history from psychology? When I retired from GCC, I started looking around for opportunities to do volunteer work in the community. Then I learned that the staff at the Office for the Aging helped to place volunteers,” he said. “Subsequently, with the assistance of OFA staff, I discovered that then County Historian Sue Conklin was actively seeking volunteers. Sue had received boxes of records from the years when Paul Weiss had served on City Council. And these records needed to be sorted and organized. So she said, 'would I be interested?' Well, why not? And soon I was off and running.

“In a nutshell, this is how I acquired the job as a volunteer in the County History Department,” he said. “Now let's cut to the chase. Long story short, the knowledge I acquired in working through these records fascinated me. Pretty soon I became a city of Batavia historian buff.”

All of that eventually led Barnes to author and co-author four books, write many monographs, and create several other oral presentations, all focusing on some aspect of City of Batavia history.

“In the 37 years I taught psychology classes I never imagined that here in 2024 I would be standing here in recognition not as a psychology instructor, but as Batavia’s city historian. I didn’t even know who Joseph Ellicott was,” he said, joking that he was certain all of the audience members knew. “I thought you might find this anecdote of interest. I also thought it might inspire a future historian.”

City Councilwoman Kathy Briggs read a proclamation to Barnes in honor of his service that began in 2008 and ended with retirement on Dec. 31, 2023. 

He has been an important resource for offering his knowledge of city history to any and all who has requested it, maintained historical records, compiled information, contributed useful data for historical records, has been involved with groups such as the Landmark Society of Genesee County, Batavia Historic Preservation Committee, Genesee County Historians Association, Government Appointed Historians of Western New York and the Association of Public Historian of New York State.

“Now, therefore, be it resolved the City Council of the City of Batavia does hereby congratulate Larry Barnes, city of Batavia historian, on his dedication and service to the city, and wish him and his family good health and happiness for years to come,” Briggs said.

Barnes wrote “Images of America: Batavia Revisited,” “A Polish Revolutionary in Batavia, His Wife & Descendants, & A House Divided,” and “Black Batavians: Who They Are, Their Local History, and Aspects of Our Larger Culture That Have Especially Shaped Their Experiences,” and co-authored “Genesee Community College: The First 50 Years” with Ruth Andes.

Larry Barnes
Batavia city resident and former historian Larry Barnes has been a prolific writer of articles, presentations and books. He wrote “Images of America: Batavia Revisited,” “A Polish Revolutionary in Batavia, His Wife & Descendants, & A House Divided,” and “Black Batavians: Who They Are, Their Local History, and Aspects of Our Larger Culture That Have Especially Shaped Their Experiences,” and co-authored “Genesee Community College: The First 50 Years,” with Ruth Andes.
Photo by Joanne Beck

Making Black Batavians count: city historian's book a step to help 'end legacy of slavery'

By Joanne Beck
Larry Barnes

City resident and historian Larry Barnes studied the lives of Black people who lived, worked, and/or had gone to school in the city of Batavia at some point in their lives, and the resulting message was as much philosophical as it was statistical.

Barnes is grateful for the prior work of local writer Ruth McEvoy, who thumbed through news articles from 1880 onward, and developed a list of articles about people who were Black. “That was a starting point for me,” he said, “where they lived, what they were doing, if they were working.”

Those articles did more than record people’s actions and behaviors; they documented the limitations imposed on the Black population even after the slaves were officially freed in 1865, Barnes said.

There was discrimination, Barnes notes, by imposed and non-statutory means, including deed restrictions, employment restrictions, facility restrictions, such as at Godfrey’s Pond, land, mortgage, and property rental restrictions, and the deeply subjective problem of “driving while Black,” he said.

How did that impact the Black community? Less family wealth — three cents for every dollar of non-Blacks — and lower household incomes of 60 cents for every dollar, a shorter life expectancy, higher incidence of chronic diseases and a greater chance of dying in a pandemic, being shot by police, getting convicted of a crime and being imprisoned, he said.

One source that proved to be “very interesting” for his book, he said, was the local paper, which was quite specific in identifying people as being Polish or Italian or Black in news articles, especially when the tone of the piece looked unfavorably toward the person of color, he said. They would sometimes be boldly and crudely labeled, such as a “Black stick of licorice.”

Despite the obstacles, many Blacks have had notable achievements, he said, as documented on pages 14 through 19, including:

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), a noted playwright and author whose plays were performed on Broadway and her best known work is “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Percy Julian (1899 to 1975), a research chemist and pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. His work laid the foundation for the production of cortisone and birth control pills.

Alain Le Roy Locke (1885 to 1954), a writer, philosopher, educator and patron of the arts who was a Rhodes Scholar and a significant contributor as a Black artist, writer, poet and musician to the Harlem Renaissance.

Barnes lists several random Black achievers, but more to the point of the book, Black Batavians have overcome and achieved much in their own right, namely the adversity of frequently having been descendants of slaves with limited knowledge of the individuals from whom they came from or precisely from there their ancestors originated, he said. 

“They have been uniquely subjected to especially long-term persecution and discrimination, including being the target of Jim Crow laws,” Barnes writes. 

“And we also observed that, largely as the result of their history, as a group, American Blacks fare less well than most other groups in personal wealth, income, health, and encounters with our country’s justice system,” he states in the book. “Finally, and this needs to be stressed, despite these differences, Blacks have, again and again, excelled in all cases of life activities. I have provided five pages of examples to drive home a point often ignored.”

There’s Mattie Butler, born in 1865, who was a personal cook for President Benjamin Harrison, who served from 1889 to 1893, and was a housemaid at Harrison’s executive mansion in Indianapolis. After later moving to Batavia, she worked at Scott and Bean’s and Henning’s department stores, dying in 1935.

Rev. Raymond Walker graduated from Byron-Bergen Central School and enlisted in the Marine Corps, later becoming a Genesee County Sheriff’s deputy and earning a master’s degree. Walker taught history at Batavia Middle School and later was assistant principal at BHS until he retired in 2005. 

Dean Edwards, a BHS 1988 graduate, is an entertainer who works as a standup comedian, actor, singer, writer and musician who joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2001 for two seasons and has worked as a voice actor, staff writer and has appeared in commercials.

The late Dr. Diane London directed the medical response in 1994 when an Amtrak derailment injured 109 passengers near Batavia, and more than 500 volunteers responded. She was the emergency doctor and medical director at Genesee County Health Department, had a medical office in Batavia, and practiced emergency medicine at United Memorial Medical Center, St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston and Lockport Memorial Hospital. 

Want to know about more awesome Black Batavians? The book, “Black Batavians: Who They Are, Their Local History, and Aspects of Our Larger Culture That Have Especially Shaped Their Experiences,” is on reserve at Richmond Memorial Library and available at Holland Land Office Museum, and Genesee County History Department.

By studying the lives of Black Batavians, Barnes spotted a trend, he said. 

“What you find over a period of time, is that, before World War II, Blacks were employed in menial jobs that didn’t require much education, and after WW II, jobs were more evenly distributed, and Blacks began to move into positions that did require advanced education,” he said. 

By the 1970s, the Black population had grown rather significantly, he said, by 10 percent, in the city of Batavia.   

People from larger cities of Buffalo and Rochester were attracted to this area’s socio-economic, safety and physical attributes that came with a smaller, rural city, he said. 

What did Barnes glean from his research about the Black population? That, because of their association with slavery, Blacks bring a different perspective — one that shapes how much of the Black population looks at the world, he said.

“Many people are surprised to learn there were slaves in Batavia in the early 1800s,” he said. “If you were a descendant of a slave, you wouldn’t know who your ancestors were. People who are Black often came here from a part of the country where Jim Crow laws are in effect.”

Bryan Stevenson, a Black lawyer, Harvard graduate and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, asserts that “we will never achieve really good race relations in our society until we acknowledge and face up to our history,” Barnes said. “An attitude of white supremacy made slavery tolerable and, later, the Jim Crow era virtually inevitable.

“And it isn’t just a Southern problem, however, but an all-American problem. Racism permeates our society,” he said.

You can read more about Stevenson’s thoughts and Barnes’ reflections on the topic, and he leaves the reader with a challenge.

“In any event, it’s time for action,” Barnes said. “Each of us can play a part. What are you going to do to help end the legacy of slavery?”

Capping off a 'tremendous experience' after 16 years

By Joanne Beck
Larry Barnes
And now, as we approach the city’s 108th birthday and another eight years for Barnes since that frigid night, he couldn’t help but also recall how his predecessor didn’t think he had the chops for the job, having only lived in Batavia a mere few years and all. Larry Barnes, who is retiring as Batavia's city historian at the end of December, in his office in City Hall, where he's compiled numerous historic documents in filing cabinets over the years.
Photo by Howard Owens.

He may not have been a City of Batavia resident for long before being appointed city historian, but whatever Larry Barnes may have lacked in residential longevity, he made up for with a growing passion.

It was while serving as an assistant to then County Historian Sue Conklin that Barnes became involved in researching city government — sifting through all sorts of materials and, as a result, becoming quite interested in the city.

That was more than a decade and a half ago.

“It’s been a tremendous experience, I’m really going to miss it,” Barnes said during an interview with The Batavian at his second-floor City Hall office. “It’s been a major part of my life for 16 years.” 

Since those humble beginnings, he has gone through a city centennial celebration, watched the unfolding process of the historic Brisbane Mansion — aka current police station — become a prospective boutique hotel or serve some other purpose as a new police facility moves toward final plans. He has researched several requests about homes that have physically been moved or relatives’ ancestors or other Batavia history, though he’s quick to tell you he’s not one’s personal genealogist. He has written books about the city’s most prominent people and places, and been quoted dozens of times over the years for news articles about the birthplace of western New York.

Batavia was once a village, founded in 1827, and became a city in 1915. Eight years ago, there was a grand centennial splash, despite a whirling blizzard that helped all ring in the New Year on Dec. 31, 2014.

In true western or upstate, take your pick, New York fashion, it was a windy, blustery, snowy, icy cold — and certainly not cooperative — evening for the plans the centennial committee had made for the outdoor portion of the event. 

But Barnes had committed to do his part as city historian.

“I remember standing on a platform trying to give a talk to a very small audience,” Barnes said. “Most of the people had gone inside where it was warm.”

And now as we approach the city’s 108th birthday, and another eight years for Barnes since that frigid night, he couldn’t help but also recall how his predecessor didn’t think he had the chops for the job, having only lived in Batavia a mere few years and all. But he’s also well aware of the fact that it doesn’t take one’s personal upbringing to be a good historian. 

Not that Barnes didn’t bring an attractive portfolio to the position; he began teaching at Genesee Community College in 1968, lived in the towns of Batavia and Byron and built a home in the City of Batavia in 2005, where he had lived for three years before taking the job. 

The city’s first historian was William Coon, who seemingly fell into the role as the city attorney, and was appointed by the mayor in 1919. He died in office after serving until 1953, which is something Barnes most definitely did not aspire to, he said: “My goal was to not die in office,” he said.

The last historian was Corinne Iwanicki, who served from 1995 to 2007, and she was succeeded by Barnes, who was the sixth city historian and the first one to be paid, if only for a short time. The position was not paid until this past year, when City Council agreed to provide a stipend. 

There also was no formal job description until former City Manager Jason Molino and Barnes worked on one that was officially approved by City Council in 2010.

Over the years, Barnes has researched various landmarks, people and happenings, such as where the first bridge was located in Batavia, when railroads changed to their current location and why, what happened to certain houses in the city, including some formerly located where the Southside roundabout is now. 

Barnes received so many questions about relocated homes that he wrote a small book about 40 houses that have been physically moved to other locations. 

“If I get interesting questions, I will do that,” he said. 

His own questions piled up about a certain population in the city that seemed to go undocumented, and Barnes wanted to do something about that. While he noticed that quite a lot had been written about Italian, Polish and Irish residents whose families had emigrated to the United States, there was nothing about Black Batavians, he said.

The first simple but pointed question had to be; who is a Black Batavian? Do you go by the color of one’s skin, or facial features, or ancestors? Answer: the person is a Black Batavian if they or someone else defines them as such, he said. 

For more about his latest book, go to: “Black Batavians: Who They Are, Their Local History, and Aspects of Our Larger Culture That Have Especially Shaped Their Experiences.”

Another piece of history: Larry Barnes to resign after 16 years as city historian

By Joanne Beck
Ryan Duffy and Larry Barnes
2019 File Photo of Holland Land Office Museum Executive Director Ryan Duffy, left, and City Historian Larry Barnes, with their amended version of the "History of the City of Batavia." Barnes has submitted his letter of resignation as city historian effective Dec. 31.
Submitted Photo

Larry Barnes — the go-to guru of all things related to the City of Batavia's history for the last 16 years — will be resigning his post effective Dec. 31, he says.

Barnes met with City Manager Rachael Tabelski Wednesday to personally deliver his letter of resignation and give an official 30-day notice. He decided to leave for a number of reasons, he said, including health issues and “it’s time to move on.”

“It’s been a terrific experience. I’ve learned a lot about the community in the process of doing the research for the books that I’ve written and the monographs that I’ve written, and just in terms of putting together talks and that sort of thing,” Barnes said to The Batavian Thursday. “State law requires that we have an appointed city historian.”

As of 2010, an official job description went into effect for the position, he said, which requires that the proper candidate live in the City of Batavia and is not allowed to keep city documents outside of the office maintained at City Hall.

City Code states that “there shall be a City Historian as required by Article 57 of the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law of the State of New York,” and thatthe City Historian shall be appointed by the City Manager with a term of office of four years. The City Historian may be appointed to consecutive terms by the City Manager. The City Historian must be a resident of the City of Batavia.”

Barnes has authored several books, and more recently scripted a play about Brisbane Mansion, which has been a hot topic of late. City officials are mulling options for the property, currently housing the city police department, and a consultant proposed two possibilities of selling it to a developer for use of a boutique hotel or market-rate apartments.

Barnes has been a proponent of repurposing the Main Street site and not letting it falter or be demolished, paths that other pieces of city history have taken in the past.

“That building definitely needs to remain, it shouldn't be torn down like many other historical buildings have been. And the proposal that has just been presented, either a boutique hotel or apartments or a combination of the two, would be ideal, I think.”

Barnes, a retired educator, has been quite active in the community, either serving or having served with several history-related groups, including the Landmark Society of Genesee County, Batavia Historic Preservation Committee, Genesee County Historians Association, Government Appointed Historians of Western New York and the Association of Public Historians of New York State.

For nearly his entire city historian career, Barnes has done the work as a volunteer. City Council just approved a yearly pay of $5,000 this past year. 

He and his wife Jerianne plan to stay in the community, Barnes said. 

Always one to offer up tidbits of history, he added that Jerianne’s first name has not always been this. In fact, it wasn’t until five decades later that she changed her original name to Jerry Louise, he said.

Her parents had planned to name their impending child Jerry Lewis for a boy and instead named their baby girl Jerry Louise. Hating all of her life, Jerry decided to give herself a 50th birthday present and had her name changed to Jerianne Louise.

While not really a part of Barnes’ retirement, Jerianne has been part of his life, and therefore the history indeed belongs with the historian.

Photo: City historian receives Volunteer of the Year award

By Howard B. Owens

City Historian Larry Barnes received his Volunteer of the Year award from the Batavia City Council at the start of Monday night's meeting at City Hall.

Barnes was named Volunteer of the Year earlier but was unavailable to receive the award.

The honor recognizes his many years of volunteer work as city historian, especially his efforts in support of the city's centennial celebration. 

Barnes said the award was really a shared award and recognized the many people and organizations who have helped him throughout his tenure as historian.

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