Our Family Companions: The History of Pets in Ontario County
by Laurel C. Wemett
Pet lovers agree. “Our Family Companions: The History of Pets in Ontario County” at the Ontario County Historical Society (OCHS) is the cat’s meow and a doggone good display. And the topic for this annual exhibit which opened in mid-2021 is timely.
“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we decided that something lighter and more family oriented would be a great topic,” says Wilma Townsend, OCHS curator. “People in Ontario County appear to have had pets of some kind since early settlement. During times of difficulty and in this case isolation, our pets are important to us as companions, creatures that need our care and devotion, and are a source of unconditional love.” Townsend was responsible for identifying and interpreting the role of pets over many generations from the Native Americans to the present.
On view at the Canandaigua museum through April 2022 are paintings, studio photographs, needlework, original art, advertisements, and snapshots of the four-legged animals, birds and other creatures that have become beloved companions. Together with a diverse selection of three-dimensional objects like bird cages and children’s toys, the exhibit’s focus on pets offers a refreshing look at one aspect of local cultural history.
“Our love for pets and the way we treat them as family members is not new and when we realize that through pictures and artifacts, we can start to break down the barrier of time and understand our history a little bit better,” says Cody Grabhorn, executive director of OCHS. The exhibit puts the topic of pets in historical context, tracing the origins of their domestication to today’s humane animal care movements.
The historical society has typically mounted themed exhibits related to the 100th anniversaries of a major event or time period like World War I,
women’s suffrage, prohibition, and immigration.“Each exhibit focuses on the impact on and resulting changes in Ontario County within the larger framework of regional and national history,” explains Townsend. The longtime curator has a master’s degree in American History and Museum Studies from the University of Delaware and has been curator at OCHS for over 30 years. “I gather research information, locate artifacts and images, contact other local historical agencies for possible loans, write the labels, create the label panels, and install the exhibit.”
Depending on the topic, it can take six to 12 months from concept development to exhibit opening. The society’s educator and director join the Curator to coordinate funding, activities, and programming. Volunteers often conduct research on aspects of the exhibit – a great asset, says Townsend, for a small staff. The OCHS archives yielded several hundred early images of pets and farm animals with their owner-families. A request on Facebook for pet photos brought more responses.
Making history fun and relatable
“The pet exhibit, which was planned and executed before I came on board as the new director is a great example of how museums can make history fun and relatable,” says Grabhorn. “What I love most about the exhibit is that it allows us to connect on an emotional level with those who came before us.”
Sometimes early paintings reveal a pet’s status. A large formal oil portrait of “Joshua Stearns and his Cat” shows a young lad in 1843 with his tabby and white cat. Townsend, a cat-owner, explains children were often painted with a favorite pet, but more typically in that era it was a dog.
A close look at older photographs of families gathered outside homes can reveal pets like the dog in the 1895-1900 photo of the Warner family at the Warner Homestead in Orleans, New York. Likewise, studio portraits of the late 19th and early 20th century occasionally included a person’s well-loved companion. An enlarged cabinet card, shows an “Unidentified Girl with her Pug Dog” taken in the 1890s by the Crandall Brothers photography studio in Canandaigua. “The dog and the little girl are so devoted to each other,” observes Townsend.
Birds kept as pets always need special accommodations as represented by three bird cages in the exhibit. A photo of the castle-like building at Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua shows part of what was once an extensive aviary complex, which housed some 216 different species of birds, including a white peacock.
Upton T. Dubell (1858-1914), the superintendent at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Canandaigua, had his family immortalized in a Mora automobile, manufactured in nearby Newark. While the car is striking, an attention-grabbing dog sits upright on the car’s running board. Being held by female family members is a similar dog and a cat – their presence a reminder that these pets were loved and valued.
Our Most Popular Pets: Dogs & Cats
Recent years show no less enthusiasm for pets, particularly dogs and cats. Judi Cermak loaned a 1980s cat-inspired appliquéd comforter which captures the cozy warmth of a purring cat. Cermak, the director of the Ontario County Arts Council, used cat postures to create a pleasing design in red, white and blue fabrics. Kathy Cooper and Gene Rogers of Bloomfield loaned the doghouse Rogers built for “Bert the Beagle” (1979-1992). Bert’s doggie domicile has been elevated to museum artifact in the center of the exhibit gallery.
The love of pet ownership can be passed down from one generation to the next. Sharon Cornelius, curator of the Town of Gorham Historical Society, loaned many older images to the exhibit including a charming view of her mother, “Oneta Hayes (Moody) (1917-1999) with her Dog in Bristol, NY.” Cornelius walks every morning with her dog, Haywood, a Great Pyrenees breed that the family adopted.
Pet adoption is another theme explored in the exhibit. Photos of Haywood and Butters, a beloved Cornelius family cat, are on display. One shows Cornelius’s toddler grandson Sam during his first meeting with Butters. Today, Sam, now 11 years old, is focused on his family’s new puppy.
OCHS will be offering programs in connection with Our Family Companions. A pet costume contest was held during the society’s Halloween open house. The museum at 55 North Main Street in Canandaigua is open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information visit OCHS.org or call 585-394-4975.