The Mysterious Historian

Arthur Wellington Anderson (October 6, 1889-December 12, 1949), according to his Jamestown Journal obituary and Lake View Cemetery records was born near Augusta, Maine. He came to Jamestown from Massachusetts about 1922 when he would have been in his early 30’s. I find him in newspaper accounts by 1924 when he was an active prohibition speaker. He formed a local prohibition party and got the mayor to declare an alcoholic emergency in 1925.

By the time of the big Jamestown centennial celebration in 1927 he was very active in several aspects of the event including writing numerous lengthy historical newspaper articles, articles for the centennial booklet, instituting the historical marker program and authoring the original historical marker booklet, and creating a post card and sketch series depicting events in early Jamestown. That he could have become so interested and informed about local history after such a brief residence is remarkable implying enormous amounts of time and a prodigious memory.

Last week I discussed the first Prendergast dams and the table Anderson had made from remnant timbers. According to Anderson’s sworn and notarized statement in the label found in the oak table recently acquired by the Fenton History Center “in the year 1931, A.D., the remaining timbers of the mill-dam built by James Prendergast in the year 1811…were dredged out of the bed of the said stream (Chadakoin); and I, Arthur Wellington Anderson, County Historian of said county, secured portions of said timbers… In the year 1934, A.D., I sold portions of the timber thus obtained to William E. Trantum of Jamestown…Trantum caused this table or stand to be constructed, in March 1934, the actual work being done by Magnus Seawall of Jamestown…”

In 1932 Anderson’s 468 page book of local history was published by the Journal Press in Jamestown. It is a wide ranging anthology of Jamestown and county history drawing heavily on the Elial T. Foote papers which were then housed in the Prendergast Library, Gilbert W. Hazeltine’s Early History of the Town of Ellicott, and early newspapers also then in Prendergast Library. It also featured photos and biographies of numerous early and later Jamestown residents. Anderson tracked down or was given numerous rare photos of early Jamestown settlers and he located some of the earliest local history artifacts. In the 40’s he tried to organize an historical society in town.

In the early 1920’s newspaper mentions and ads indicate that Anderson was in the advertising business and was considered an expert on the psychology of advertising. I can’t find him in the city directories until 1934 when he appears as an author. In 1937, however, he filed for bankruptcy and the 1940 census indicates he had no job and no income. His draft registration card from 1942 available on-line at Ancestry shows him living at 507 East Second Street. The person listed as knowing his whereabouts is Mrs. Esther Olson, probably his landlady. He is listed at some other locations in various city directories and he died a resident of the YMCA. A now deceased Jamestown businessman told me his father often fed Anderson and that he was penniless. The YMCA paid for his cemetery plot and the Jamestown welfare department stood the funeral costs with Henderson-Lincoln, probably the only compensation the city ever provided its historian apart from limited storage space at city hall. He had no known reachable relatives at the time of his death although the obituary named brothers Frank and Herbert in Massachusetts. He never married, not locally in any event. Early news articles and William Bradshaw’s introduction to his book refer to him as “Dr. Anderson,” but his 1940 census report indicates an eighth grade education.

The Fenton History Center somehow obtained some of his files many years ago, mainly typed notes and hand written notes in his rough writing including some of his poetry and sketches.

In response from last week’s column, the sketch on page 318 of Anderson’s book and copyrighted by him was actually drawn by commercial artist Ivar E. Nordstrom who worked for Journal Press.

Anderson made some errors, as all historians do, but he was certainly among our top 20th century local historians. Why and how he fell on such hard times is a mystery but his lack of financial support as an historian is no surprise. The “Volume 1” in the title of his book is one of the great undropped other shoes of local history.

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