GENEVA — History can be slippery.
In Walt Gable’s article “Honoring Lafayette’s travels through the FLX” (Times, June 5), it has been called to our attention that one statement merits further explanation.
Gable wrote, “It has been reported that the Lafayette party rested briefly under a tree that became known as the Lafayette Tree ... ”
It is true that this has been reported, but although this information has been written previously, Historic Geneva has evidence that the Lafayette travel party did not actually rest briefly at the spot.
Historic Geneva’s Archivist Becky Chapin provided the following background on the propagation of the Lafayette tree story:
“Prior to 1911, the tree was referred to as the Century Tree. Respected historian George MB Hawley says that Charles Bean, owner of Maple Hill, wanted to sell the home and began calling it the Lafayette Inn by 1914 so he could get a higher price. Hawley references papers in his possession printed by Lafayette’s reception committee which prohibited the Geneva citizens from going west on Hamilton Street beyond ‘Rees’s Hill’ (for which I don’t have an exact location). But even in some of Charles’ own papers he refers to the Century Tree by name. In his letters, Hawley calls the whole story concocted by Bean “a fake and a veritable tragedy in history” and had some other colorful words to describe him.
“Charles Bean was a very odd person, he fancied himself a historian and published numerous booklets on behalf of an imagined ‘Delphian Historical Society.’ In 1916, the Central New Yorker magazine published an article by W.H. Stevens titled ‘A Historic Visit to Geneva’ which outline Lafayette’s visit and how he supposedly stopped at this tree. It’s later revealed in Bean’s memoir ‘Reminiscences’ that he was the author of that story. He also took the legend further, telling visitors that General Lafayette visited the house, made a speech and slept in one of the rooms, but given the house was built a decade after the visit and after Lafayette’s death, these claims are impossible.
“Geneva City Historian Malcolm Johnston dug into the rumor further in the 1940s. A branch that had fallen off the tree in 1932, being preserved in Hobart’s Department of Biology, was tested separately by a botanist from the New York Botanical Garden and Dr. George Slate of the Experiment Station. They determined that in 1825, the tree would have only been about 30 years old and 8 inches in diameter. Dr. Slate said ‘the tree could not have been a landmark then. The important thing, however, is that in the detailed account of the event there was no mention of the tree or of the party stopping there.’
“Other histories written by respected historians prior to 1911 make no mention of Lafayette being greeted at the tree. It is only after Bean had started to spread this story that it became part of the retelling of the visit.
“It’s unfortunate that in the 1931 ‘The Story of Geneva’ series written for the paper by E.T. Emmons, the tree legend is perpetuated. Emmons retracts the statement in 1965, but even that article contained errors.”