Voice: Kassadee Paulo
The heart of Friends of History in Fulton can be found on South First Street – The John Wells Pratt House Museum. Although this museum is filled to the brim with items of historical significance, this episode is about the origin of the house itself and the family who lived there. This is Kassadee Paulo with Oswego County Today and you’re listening to Fulton, New York: A History, a podcast meant to uncover the history of Fulton that has almost been forgotten. With us today, we have Alan Drohan, a long time member of the historical society and neighbor of the Pratt House.
Voice: Alan Drohan
My name is Alan Drohan. Except for higher education after Fulton High School, I moved back to Fulton eventually and have always been involved and interested in history. And I felt the community needed an historical society and that this building should be saved.
The house was built between 1861 to 1863 by John Wells Pratt and his wife, who I believe her name was Harriet. John Wells Pratt, his father, Timothy Pratt, was originally from Vermont and moved to Onondaga County around 1833. And then shortly thereafter, to the Town of Volney.
Timothy Pratt was involved in lumbering, boat building and making boats for himself or having boats for himself to transport flour from Oswego to Syracuse. He was also a driving force in Fally Seminary, which originally was on Fourth Street, a very old educational institution in Fulton. And he was also involved in the Citizens National Bank, which I believe originally was eventually acquired by Marine Midland [Bank]. Timothy and his wife had four children, and the third one was John Wells Pratt.
The house is what’s called Italianate – Victorian Italianate – and if you are into architecture, Victorian Italianate is usually the houses are rectangular or a square, and there is usually a tower on the top. Because the Italian villas always had like a bell tower or a viewing tower. So the architecture was adapted and we have now what’s called at the top of this magnificent building, what’s called a widow’s walk. It had been said it was used to view for ships, for people on ships, for women to go up and see if they could see their husbands coming home. The Italianate style flourished during the Civil War and continued on until around, I think, around the 1880s.
The original house is pictured in the what’s called the “History of Oswego County” that was published in 1877. The present house is noticeably different in the front than the original house. Supposedly, in the 1880s, the front porch, there was a very small entrance, small porch, just like a portacle type thing. That was removed and the present porch was put on. Further embellishments were done to the entire outside of the house.
If you compare the original photograph in the 1877 book with the present house, you’ll see these elliptical decorative motifs under the eaves between the corbels. Corbels are large brackets that hold up a roof. And why they did that is because – use the brackets – is because in the Italianate style, you had a very sort of slow, low sloping roof and the weight needed to be distributed. That is one thing that is different from the present house, from the original picture. The other thing is is that the cast iron embellishments over the windows seem to be different.
There was also a large barn and other outbuildings on the property, and this piece of property that the house now stands on went from First Street, which it fronts on, all the way through to Second Street. In 1912, I believe, the house was electrified and also a furnace installed. It also appeared that the hardwood floors might have been put in.
We’re sitting in the main parlor, which is on the North side – the front North side of the house. There are a pair of French doors, which probably I would date from the 19- 1912-1920s. And probably there was originally an arch here, but they probably wanted to close off because of winter.
Back to the family. Again, John Wells Pratt was the third child of Timothy. And John Wells and his wife, Harriet, they had a son by the name of George. George inherited the house in 1912 and that was probably when some of the renovation was done. George, I believe, became involved in the coal business. And the coal yard, as far as I remember as a kid growing up, the Pratt Coal Yard was on the corner of Division Street and South Second, or 481 in Fulton. It was a huge, huge, huge, like three-story building, which of course is now gone and there’s a used car lot.
The Pratt family was very influential. John Wells Pratt’s father, Timothy, was involved in the Citizens National Bank, which would have been a “a big deal” back then and in the boat building business. I think it was George went into the coal business. So they obviously were affluent and participated in the community. South First Street in Fulton was THE street in Fulton and next to the Pratt – next to this house – was one of the Hunter houses of Hunter Arms, that made the famous guns.
And the house would have been occupied by the family, the front of the house. The front of the house or the main let’s say square or rectangle, was then you’d find attached to that a smaller square or rectangle at the back, usually two stories. That was where the servants were housed on the second floor, and usually the first floor was the kitchen, kitchen and prep area, and sometimes a small dining room for the servants. In order to accommodate the servants, in so not to interrupt the family or privacy of the family, there were two staircases. The main staircase, of course, was grand as you walked into the front door to the house, of this house, then the back staircase usually went off the kitchen. This back staircase goes off what I’ve always thought was a small dining room or a prep room and then goes upstairs.
George had a son by the name of John, and John eventually married a lady by the name of Madeline. Madeline and John had one child, Eric. Madeline unfortunately however died after giving birth and John Pratt then turned around and he married Helen Hayes. The Hayes family was very prominent in farming on the West River Road and that farm remained in that family for years and years and years and years and years. She – John and Helen married, and my understanding is that she brought up Eric as her own child. Her family was extremely interesting also. She had a sister by the name of Mrs. Bicken, I don’t know what Mrs. Bicken – I don’t recall what her first name was. But anyway, her brother – they called him Bill, and his first name was William, was a very well known attorney in I believe it was Boston or Philadelphia.
I owned the house directly across the street on the river. And I had bought that to move my parents into, and while parents had known Helen Pratt and her husband, John, they actually, because of them being across the street, then became very good friends. And very often my mother would be sitting on the front porch with Mrs. Pratt during the summertime, or Mrs. Pratt would be sitting on a deck at our house, so I did know Mrs. Pratt. She lived in this house until 197 when she moved to the Hayes farm with her brother and her sister because of ill health, plus the house was just becoming I think too much for her.
I always remember coming in and the house was filled with Victorian furniture, which of course was the right time period. The room that we’re sitting in, the North parlor, was always set up as if it was ready for tea. There would be a silver tea set out, lots of china cups, linen napkins and the whole house looked like it was then a museum as it is now today, which is very, very, very fitting.
When Mrs. Pratt moved to the Hayes Farm in 1979, the house was eventually sold by Mrs. Pratt to what is now Burger King on Second Street in 1978. And the Friends of History in Fulton, New York, purchased the house in 1979. Prior to that, when she still owned the house, a group of us got together and decided we needed an historical society and also to try to save the house.
I organized, along with several other people, a tour of the house. It was late fall and it was just bitterly cold. And we had about 50, 60 people. And back then, mink coats were very fashionable and in for women to wear, so most of these ladies had on these lovely fur coats because it was colder than H in this house. Everything was going splendidly well. We had decided to also serve hot coffee and tea.
So we had set up a table – by the way, there was nothing in the house. All of the original furnishings in the house had been dispersed to either the family, by Mrs. Pratt, Helen Pratt, had been dispersed to the family, taken to the farm for her own personal use or sold. So it was bare bones. There wasn’t anything here. We brought a couple of folding tables and so we had everything set to go and went to make coffee and plugged it in and we blew all the circuit breakers. So we had no lights. Yeah, it was very exciting.
The place quickly cleared out after that, okay, and as we’re getting ready to go, I think it was the late Jean Ingamells, my friend Jean, she’s twitching her shoulder. And I said, “What are you twitching about?” And she goes, “Well something just brushed my shoulder.” And I said, “What do you mean?” And then I believe Marion Stanton, she also did the same thing, and then Eleanor Vayner and Donna Lozito and a whole host of people. And I’m [like] “What’s going on?” Well it turned out that obviously there were bats in the house. And so the bats hadn’t been invited to the party, and they didn’t like it, so they had come down to visit us. We quickly left and a group of us came back the next day and cleaned up. The house has been maintained by the Historical Society since it was purchased and is in excellent condition.
Back to Mrs. Pratt for a minute, the other thing that always impressed me was that she always looked like she stepped out of Bonwit Teller or Sak’s Fifth Avenue. She dressed impeccably, hair always done. She was a very nice lady and did a lot for the community.
Back to the historical society, a group of us, again, got together and decided that we needed an historical society, and the historical society was incorporated in 1979. Marian Stanton I believe became the first president and she was instrumental in driving it forward. I had left Fulton at that point to go to law school so I wasn’t around. And I felt bad about that because I felt like I sort of dropped the ball. I did later serve a term as president.
We have a staff director who does a wonderful job, as have her predecessors. The board of directors does a superb job, but most of all, it descends to the volunteers. And with due respect, if you come into this place, into this house, it is spotless. The displays are well arranged. The display room is on the second floor. It’s all due to the volunteers and made possible of course by the membership.
Voice: Kassadee Paulo
That was Alan Drohan with Friends of History in Fulton telling you the story of the house the historical society resides in. This city has so much history and, like I hope you are, I am eager to hear it all.