Brighton Town Historian Mary Jo Lanphear in the historical archives, Brighton Town Hall [Photo: David Kramer, 1/29/20]
On Sunday January 26th at the Brickstone Wintergarden on Elmwood Avenue, about a hundred people, mostly members of Historic Brighton, gathered for its 21st annual meeting and to hear a talk by Rochester Democrat and Chronicle columnist Jim Memmott. Jim is the creator of the Remarkable Rochesterians series, and that afternoon he focused on “Brilliant Brightonians.”
Describing himself as a “lapsed” or “recovering” Brightonian — having lived on Brooklawn Drive for 17 or 18 years — Jim praised the town’s diversity, its students “who take their SATs in the third grade” and, citing our per capita number of authors, said we are like a writer’s colony.Jim did tweak us by suggesting that Brightonians may be statutorily prohibited from crossing the Genesee River except for chiropractic appointments in Gates. Invoking fond memories, Jim lamented the loss of Don & Bob’s where our high school ritual was to feast on BLT’s during A.P. test breaks and the bygone era when the July 4th fireworks exploded over the school fields — a firecracker’s throw from Jim’s home — as light ash occasionally drifted onto your hair. Jim’s wit and encyclopedic knowledge notwithstanding, the highlight of the event was the awarding of the Leo Dodd Heritage Preservation Award 2020 to Mary Jo Lanphear, Town of Brighton Historian and Historic Brighton, ex officio member of Board of Trustees. Recently, I visited Mary Jo at the Town Historian’s Office in the Brighton Town Hall. Actually, her archive is one of three in the Hall. Mary Jo’s collection is a non-circulating non-governmental storehouse of Brighton and local history texts, images and artifacts, while official town documents, such as Town Council meeting minutes, birth and marriage records, are kept by the Town Clerk Daniel Aman. The Brighton Memorial Library also has a mostly circulating section devoted to local history.
For almost thirty-five years, Mary Jo has been the Town Historian. As described on its website:
The Town Historian collects and organizes local history materials and cooperates with other public officials in the preservation of historically valuable Town records. The Town Historian researches, writes, and makes public presentations on aspects of Town history, serving as a resource to the community.
The Town Historian serves as an advocate for the preservation of the Town’s historic sites, maintaining records that document the built environment of the community. The Town Historian is a liaison to Historic Brighton and serves as non-voting advisor to the Historic Preservation Commission.
In “The Historians’ Law Centennial, 1919 – 2019,” Historic Brighton Newsletter and Journal, Volume 21, No.1, Winter 2020, Mary Jo provides comprehensive biographies — though not exhaustive as all biographers lament — of Brighton Town Historians beginning with Laura Holton Benedict. Modestly, Mary Jo does not include herself — partially because she has more projects to finish!
Moving beyond the generic mission statement on the website, in her ever engaging style, Mary Jo offers her own biography and a glimpse into the life of a town historian:
Town historians tend to stay in their positions for a very long time. I’m not sure why that is so but may be because they possess a quirky brain enabling retention and recall of obscure facts. Given my quirky mind, I’ve been the Town Historian since 1986.
Often, Town Historians come from non-history backgrounds. One recent historian was a pharmacist, another a mechanical engineer, still another a lawyer. I have a more likely education with a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in American History.
In 1992, concurrent with the Brighton town historian position, I became the Assistant Records Management Officer for Ontario County. Working with government records dating from 1789 allowed me to fully use my education and archival skill. I retired in 2011.
After retirement, I joined a group of Canandaigua residents who processed Sonnenberg’s Thompson family papers and photographs. When that project ended, we took on the transcription of the approximately 125 letters of Frederick Douglass held by the Department of Rare Books at the University of Rochester, a project that I will present in a program at the Buckland house on Sunday, February 9, in celebration of Black History Month. Currently we are working on some letters of Susan B. Anthony, also part of the Rare Books collection.
The Brighton historian’s office is part archive and part library. One might call it the town’s “attic,” even though it is located in the lower level of the town hall. Maps, directories, bound copies of the Brighton-Pittsford Post, photographs, and a biography file are available to town residents doing genealogy or local history research.
A few years back, historians received most of their requests for information by postal mail but today almost all requests come via e-mail. Digitization has also changed how we reproduce and transmit photos and copies of documents. One memorable request came from a Brighton homeowner trying to lower her assessment by proving the sink hole in her back yard was detrimental. I found and sent her an image from a map that showed a long-ago sewage treatment plant had been located on her property. More recently, a young man from Council Rock School came to the office to learn what second grade was like a long time ago. Often residents want to know what their houses used to look like. Programs, tours, and articles on Brighton history comprise another part of the historian’s job. In my case, I also work with the town’s Historic Preservation Commission to identify local landmarks.
I’m sure my position as historian is the best job in town although I’ve heard Bill Moehle say that he has the best job in town. I’m grateful to Bill and his predecessor, Sandra Frankel, for appointing me and for the continuing support I receive from the Town Board. — Mary Jo Lanphear
SEVERAL FRIENDS OF THE MAGAZINE WERE ON HAND
Matthew Bashore (other articles that include Matt)
William Moehle (other articles that include Bill)
Sandra Frankel (other articles that include Sandra)
Robin Wilt (other articles that include Robin)
Howard Enis (other articles that include Howard)