150 Years Ago: Clara Barton’s first visit to Dansville


clara-barton-articleMathew Brady’s ionic 1865 photo of Clara Barton

December 11, 1866 — Clara Barton’s First Visit to Dansville

Although Clara Barton called Dansville her residence from 1876 to 1886, her first visit here was ten years earlier – on December 11, 1866 — when she spent one evening lecturing at Canaseraga Hall opera house. This building still stands as the left-hand end of the Dyer Block on Main Street. The opera house was on the third floor of today’s 152 Main Street.

This lecture was part of her tour throughout the northeast U.S. from 1866-1868 to raise money for her efforts to identify dead and missing soldiers, especially those who perished at Andersonville prison.

Will Conklin’s book Clara Barton and Dansville includes an announcement of the upcoming lecture made in A.O. Bunnell’s Advertiser, and in the next issue (December 13, 1866), Bunnell reports: “Clara Barton’s Lecture delivered at Canaseraga Hall on Tuesday evening last on ‘Work and Incidents of Army Life,” was a very rare treat. She gave us the story of only about three weeks of her four years of army experience; but her narrative was as replete with interest as her life must have been full of the hardest toil.”

Barton’s diary for that time period shows how incredibly taxing her travels were. Tuesday morning of December 11, she traveled from Rochester to Avon, and from there left at 12:30 p.m. for Wayland via the Erie Railroad. She arrived in Wayland at 4 p.m. and took the stage to Dansville at 6 p.m. “Tire came off wheel a mile out of Dansville. Walked in, put up at Am. House…Went to lecture at 7 ½. Hall seats 400, about full, pleasant audience. Met Miss Dr. Austin, a pleasing lady in bloomers, and other ladies from Water Cure. Received 50 dollars. Came home and retired at 11.”

It was a snowy evening. How hard walking a mile in that weather must have been. Also, here’s a curiosity. Records show that Barton usually charged 50 cents per head for her lecture. She received 50 dollars in Dansville at a hall that “seats 400” and was “about full” as her diary recounts. The math does not add up. If she did indeed charge 50 cents each, then only 100 paid to attend. Also, Conklin quotes the Advertiser’s December 13th edition: “That the audience should have been small enough to allow Charley Niles to lose $20 out of his own pocket, is a burning shame to the citizens of Dansville.” From this, we might suspect that indeed the audience was much smaller than capacity. Maybe even as few as 60 people?? Could that be?

We do know that by December 1868, Clara Barton lost her voice from fatigue and mental prostration while delivering a speech. In 1869, she closed The Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army, having received and answered 63,182 letters and identified 22,000 missing men. By September 1869, on the advice of her doctor, Clara Barton traveled to Europe to regain her health. There she would meet Dr. Louis Appia in Switzerland, read about the International Red Cross, and continue to overwork herself until she returned again to Dansville in 1876 to convalesce at “Our Home on the Hillside” and to found the first chapter of the American Red Cross in August 1881.

 

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Clara Barton’s lecture notes from the Library of Congress archives, filed as “Clara Barton War Lecture, ca. 1866, describing her decision to challenge stereotypes and go on to the battlefield.” These notes might have been part of the lecture she delivered in Dansville.

 

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