In early 1973 Louis Van Wey, a retired naval officer and local history buff, and Leonard Schrantz began discussion of starting a historical society for the city of Dunkirk. As a result others were approached to help in the effort, including MacLeod Williams, Observer editor; reporter Ted Lutz; Lamar Schnur, Observer photographer; City Historian Leslie Chard, who agreed to act as temporary chairman; and Mrs. Louise Nowak, who offered to host the meeting in the Dunkirk Public Library. She also volunteered to take on the role of acting secretary. An article about their intentions was published in the paper, and the first meeting held on March 12, 1973, which was attended by a large number of people. Rev. Chard suggested that the organization be called The Historical Society of Dunkirk, N.Y., and that name was adopted. The first officers were elected, including Louis Van Wey, president; Philip E. Hanlon, vice-president; Mrs. Louise Nowak, secretary- treasurer. Additional officers were added at a later meeting, so that Robert Harris served as treasurer, while Norman Boorady, Donald Loeb, Leonard A. Schrantz, Pauline Valone, and Kenneth Hollander as trustees.
The Society was granted a provisional charter from the New York State Board of Regents for a three year period, 1974 to 1977. During this time, the city granted permission to use a room in the Water Department garage on Robin Street in return for $10 a month, and a lease was signed on October 1, 1974 to that effect. It took seven months to clean the garage, put up shelving and simple opera board stands, and obtain articles for display. On Saturday, April 5, 1975, the first Historical Museum in Dunkirk was officially opened to the public. Chautauqua County Historical Elizabeth Crocker cut the ribbon, Mayor Damian and the city council were present, refreshments were served, and Frances Dew gave some remarks. At some point the city allowed the Society to use a second room, but it was clear the facilities were inadequate and that a suitable place was needed for a permanent museum building.
In February of 1976, the Society received a letter from Tom England, who was Director of Housing and Urban Development in Washington and who had served Dunkirk as Director of Development. He informed the Society that it might obtain funding through the Community Development Act of 1974, so a meeting was held with the mayor to discuss possible sites for a museum and they were informed that the Christian Science Church at 513 Washington Avenue was for sale since its membership had dwindled to the point where the church could not function. The sale price was $85,000. At the next Society meeting the majority of members agreed the church was the most viable choice. The Society leadership attended the next council meeting and movement toward acquiring the building began.
In May of 1977 Rusch Reality contacted the church leadership and after negotiations the Society’s offer of $50,000 was accepted, HUD was willing to appropriate $40,000 to the city for the purpose of acquiring the building for a museum. Legal entanglements had to be ironed out, so that much time passed before the week of November 6, 1979, when the deed to the church was delivered to the Society, HUD provided $40,000 to the city, and the additional $10,000 was presented to the city by Robert Meister, Jr., on behalf of the Meister Contracting Company for the purposes of purchasing the building. The sale was completed on December 3, 1979.
In June of 1978 the state granted the Society its permanent charter .
A number of local businesses assisted with additional funding to repair and paint the building’s interior, and volunteers worked to turn the interior into a museum. The first official meeting in the building took place on April 1, 1980, and the building was dedicated as the city museum on May 24 of that year. A plaque is fixed to the front of the building outlining the efforts needed to turn the former church into the city’s museum.
The museum has two part-time staff members, including a director, and operates with the assistance of volunteers. All of them are dedicated to the preservation of Dunkirk’s history, and we welcome you to join us in that endeavor.
About our Home Page images:
At Left: the Neptune Fountain
Middle: The Dunkirk Historical Museum
Right: ALCO/Brooks Locomotive #444
Second Row, Middle: This image was created using painting with light technique; each area of the locomotive was photographed with a long exposure while a flashlight lit that area. All the resulting images were merged together in Photoshop, and then the final image enhanced to dramatize the clouds. Image by Diane Andrasik with the assistance of Pam Arnold.