Visitors are introduced to those who once worked at the historic park
CANANDAIGUA — On April 10, 1865, the Civil War is over, and Frederick Ferris Thompson writes in his journal that he is in Sonnenberg, the summer home he shares with his wife Mary Clark Thompson, in Canandaigua.
“(Gen. Robert E.) Lee has surrendered. There is much gaiety in town. The horns are honking and the bells are ringing,” said historian Barbara Stahl, pulling from her memory the details of Thompson’s journal entry.
On April 15 of that year, Stahl continued, the wealthy co-founder of the First National Bank of the City of New York writes that he’s on a train bound for New York City when he learns of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
“There’s a secessionist there who is happy that Lincoln was assassinated,” Stahl recalled reading, adding that Thompson punches him and knocks him to the ground and the people cheer.
“So he had a bit of a temper,” Stahl said.
This is one of Stahl’s favorite stories to tell about Frederick Thompson. She shared it Saturday while standing on the grounds of what was his home before his death in 1899. Today, it’s better known as Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park.
Moments before sharing the story, Stahl guided a walking tour for visitors — mostly volunteers at the park, like herself — around the site’s 50 acres. During the stroll through history, one attendee described Stahl as the Sonnenberg “guru.”
After her retirement from a career as a school librarian, Stahl — previously unaware of her interest in history — decided to volunteer at Sonnenberg. Her interest blossomed when she realized through research that the branches of her family tree reached into those of the Thompsons.
“It went from there,” Stahl said, who has now written two books about Sonnenberg, including “The Workers At Sonnenberg.”
That was largely the focus of Saturday’s walk. During the tour, she told stories of those who spent their time working on the grounds of Sonnenberg in its heyday — in the garden and on the house. Through research, Stahl and her colleagues have turned up 312 names of those who worked there.
The history came to life on Saturday, as Stahl discussed these men and women, occasionally handing out photographs.
Kate Alonzo, a new volunteer at the park, attended Saturday’s tour, deciding she would brush up on her knowledge of the grounds.
“I’m interested in the Thompsons being such doers of their time,” Alonzo said. “The way they thought just fascinates me. … Besides the fact that they were really rich, lived really well, traveled all over, bought gorgeous things and had a vision for beauty, they were also socially involved. They were abolitionists. (Frederick Thompson) set up a black regiment in the Civil War and pays for that and they were working for women’s rights.”
Julie Askew, another volunteer, said the tour was another opportunity to learn something new — an opportunity she doesn’t pass up.
“Sonnenberg is a jewel in the community,” she said. “I don’t know how to describe it. It’s something the whole community coalesces around. It’s just a treasure.”
For more information
For more information on the events and tours that take place at Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park, as well as information on how to volunteer at the location, visit sonnenberg.org.