Caroline Bishop, Letchworth State Park’s First Superintendent

One of William P. Letchworth’s final requests was for his longtime secretary, librarian, and executive assistant, Caroline Bishop, to become the first superintendent of Letchworth State Park, which was honored after his death in 1910. This responsibility was the culmination of her life’s work, which began almost thirty years previously when she came to live at the Glen Iris. Her early life as a farm girl and educator prepared her for the exciting role she would play in the history of the Genesee River Valley and especially the park beginning in 1883.

Early Life and Education

Caroline Bishop was born on February 26, 1849, to Lora Parks Bishop and Daniel Bishop of Richmond, New York. The Bishop family had been in Ontario County and the Richmond area soon after the turn of the 19th century, settling into farming life in this fertile region. Like many families originally from New England, the Bishops moved westward after the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Caroline was the fifth child in a family of eight children, and she learned the benefits of hard work, gaining the skills needed to manage a busy household with a large family in her formative years.

In 1850, when Caroline was just a year old, Daniel and Lora moved their family to the Town of Genesee Falls, purchasing farmland along Glen Iris Road. The Bishop home still stands on the corner of Glen Iris and Denton Corners Roads today. Daniel was a successful farmer and became good friends with William Pryor Letchworth in 1859 when Letchworth purchased property along the Genesee River, including a former tavern that would soon be renovated and expanded into his new home, the Glen Iris. This was when ten-year-old Caroline first met the man who would shape the course of her future career.

The Bishop children attended the District No. 2 School, then located on a plateau near the bank of the Genesee River, north of the Glen Iris. Caroline fondly remembered years later that Mr. Letchworth often visited the classroom and even gave the occasional lesson, usually in geography. In addition, he was concerned for the welfare of the children in the district, giving gifts to them at Christmas time and supplying the school with materials to broaden the scope of their education.

Caroline chose to further her education rather than marry, and after her 21st birthday in 1870, she boarded the train and departed for Albany, New York. She became a student at the Albany Normal School to earn her teaching credentials. In 1874, at age 24, Caroline graduated from Albany Normal School, immediately transitioning from student to faculty at the Normal School as a teacher of elocution.

Elocution classes are foreign to the 21st-century student, but during the 1800s, it was considered a necessity for the well-educated man or woman. Proper diction, appropriate attire, gestures, and posture were all part of elocution education. Persuasive speech, recitation, and rhetoric also came into the curriculum. The Toastmasters Club is likely the best modern connection we have to this subject today. No doubt, Caroline gained confidence and poise because of her classroom teaching and the subject she taught.

She became seriously ill in 1882, so sick that she was forced to resign her position and return home to recover. After a year of living with her parents and younger siblings, a job opportunity came along that she couldn’t pass up. Mr. Letchworth had visited Europe in 1880, traveling extensively to observe the treatment of patients at insane asylums to assist his work as a member of the New York State Board of Charities. He’d begun writing about the different treatment methods, along with his observations—an extensive and analytical work entitled, The Insane in Foreign Countries. Because of his many responsibilities, Mr. Letchworth worked sporadically at the text, soon realizing he needed assistance with it and someone who could help with his voluminous correspondence and his library. In addition, he needed an executive assistant, and in 1883, Letchworth offered the position to Caroline Bishop, who accepted at once.

Glen Iris Life

She came to live at the Glen Iris that year and joined the household. At that time, Letchworth’s widowed sister, Mary Ann Crozer, and a cousin, Ann Eliza McCloud, lived there and managed the house for him. Life settled into a comfortable, fast-paced routine as Caroline learned her employer’s habits and the requirements of her new job, which continually unfolded over the next three decades. Mr. Letchworth’s great concern for children, the insane, and epileptics filled the days with meetings, correspondence, writing reports, and arranging travel. Work continued on The Insane in Foreign Countries, which was finally published in 1889 by Putnam despite part of the manuscript being destroyed by fire at one point. It was considered a defining work concerning the treatment of the mentally ill, which was in dire need of change in the 19th century. After the 374-page tome was published, work was commenced on a book about epilepsy, and he was instrumental in establishing Craig Colony for epileptics in 1896. Despite the heavy workload, the Glen Iris was always a place of hospitality, and the estate often had several guests at one time. The three women worked tirelessly to accommodate the important charitable work of Mr. Letchworth and the stream of friends, family, and business associates who found refuge from the stresses of the world at Glen Iris. It would be difficult to overstate the value of Caroline Bishop’s work in enabling William P. Letchworth to accomplish the amount of public charity work, preservation of Seneca history, expansion of the Glen Iris Estate, and advancing education for local children.

While Caroline was deeply committed to her work, she didn’t neglect her personal social life and community service in the Village of Castile. A member of the Castile Presbyterian Church, she was involved with its ministries and often served on community committees organizing village events. Two of her closest friends were Dr. Cordelia A. Greene and Dr. Mary T. Greene of the Castile Sanitarium.

Later Years

In 1893, Letchworth’s sister, Mary Ann Crozer died, and he began to consider his legacy and what benefit the Glen Iris could be for those less fortunate. His plans to provide impoverished city children with a respite from urban living at his beloved home came to nothing when the possibility of a dam above the upper falls became a reality. Caroline was instrumental in assisting him in the battle against the plans to ruin the gorge for the sake of electric power and water storage. But in 1903, at age 80, W. P. Letchworth suffered a stroke, from which he never fully recovered. Caroline wrote about the evening in her diary:

“After supper this evening, Miss McCloud, Sister Ellen (Caroline’s sister, Ellen Smallwood) and I went to the library, and soon after Mr. Letchworth came in and asked for a volume of Tennyson. He wished to look for a quotation in which occurred the expression “an ancient tale of wrong.” He opened the volume to Lord Burleigh which I read aloud at his request and then Mr. Letchworth took the book and began reading Lady Clare. He had read but a few words when his speech grew inarticulate; a strange expression came over his face, his head bowed, and his book dropped to the floor. But while Miss McCloud and I went to summon assistance, Mr. Letchworth looked up and spoke naturally to Ellen. That was about 7.15 o’clock. We assisted him to the couch, when he said something indistinctly about paralysis, and requested us to look in a medical book to find out what to do.”

Dr. Miller of Castile attended him that night, and then Dr. Roswell Park of Buffalo came with a nurse the following day to care for him. Despite this major setback in his health, Letchworth fought to regain his strength, relying heavily upon Caroline to continue his fight against New York State and private business, which still threatened the future of the Glen Iris and the beautiful gorge. He finally prevailed by deeding the Glen Iris to the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society in 1906 with the ultimate goal that the entire property would become a public state park. Caroline played a major role in completing the work to assure a smooth transition from the Preservation Society to New York State once the state agreed to make the area a park for the enjoyment of all.

Letchworth’s cousin and housekeeper, Ann Eliza McCloud passed away in 1904, and once more the home was in mourning. While Mr. Letchworth grieved for his cousin, he gained more physical strength, but he remained confined to a wheelchair until his death in 1910. His mental faculties were not significantly impaired by the stroke, and he continued his charitable work, dictating daily correspondence to Caroline until the end. She also became his caregiver during that time, a testimony of her loyalty and affection for him.

Letchworth State Park

After the complexities of W. P. Letchworth’s will were settled, Caroline took up the responsibilities as the park’s first superintendent at age 62. Her duties were comprehensive as the park opened to visitors, but only Caroline had the knowledge of what was required to manage the large property. She oversaw repairs and improvements to the Glen Iris, the maintenance of the roads, management of the farms which were rented to individuals at that time, facilitated the establishment of the arboretum, and the building of the park’s museum. Below is one of her monthly reports to Charles Dow, the chairman of the Letchworth Park Committee which demonstrates the scope of the job and her passion as an educator.

December first, 1911.

Hon. Charles M. Dow

Chairman Letchworth Park Committee

Dear Sir:

In compliance with the request of Dr. Hall that I make to you a brief report of the affairs of Letchworth Park and submit such suggestions as may seem desirable when transmitting to you the monthly accounts/ I will say that, in addition to the necessary preparations for winter – protecting the hydrants and pipes of the water system from freezing, partially clearing the lawns of leaves, etc. – the work done during November by the men under direction of Foreman Johnson and with his assistance has consisted very largely in taking down the board and wire fences, piling the posts and boards, and removing the wire. Many of these fences were so concealed that one would have but little idea of their extent when passing along the roads and paths of the Park. The mound of earth and stone work outside of the front gate has also been removed during the past month.

The cottage on the Council House grounds, which has been occupied by Mr. Perry and his wife for nearly three years past, was vacated by them on the 28th ult., and the grounds are now without a resident custodian.

A request received a few days ago from a gentleman in Cleveland, Ohio, who passed through the Park last summer, for a copy of the notice which has hung for many years on the front entrance gate, inviting people to walk through the Glen Iris grounds, brings to mind again the thought that the “Rules and Regulations” or notices which it is contemplated placing in the Park next season, are a matter of a good deal of importance. It seems to me that it will be an advantage if they can be so formulated as to serve the purpose of “Rules” and at the same time exert an uplifting influence throughout and beyond the Park.

In this connection occurs to me the suggestion made by yourself of placing the last two lines of the poem on Inspiration Point by Sarah (not Sara) Evans Letchworth in enduring form somewhere within the Park. Would a modest boulder inscribed with these lines and placed at Inspiration Point be suitable? I have been impressed with the sentiments expressed on the tablets at Cornell and other places, and venture to suggest that brief extracts from the numerous writings about Glen Iris and vicinity placed securely in different parts of the Park would have a beneficial educational influence.

As the park superintendent, Caroline often spoke before various community groups throughout Western New York during her tenure to keep William Letchworth’s legacy before the public and report on the improvements and projects in the park. She was also heavily involved in the William P. Letchworth Memorial Society. The arboretum and the construction of the Letchworth Museum were significant undertakings, the arboretum was planted during May 1912, and the museum construction commenced in September 1912.

The Arboretum was the “first forest arboretum in the world,” Miss Bishop wrote in her May 1912 report to Charles Dow. On the 9th of May, 3,400 trees were planted. She further reported:

Fifty-two acres have been prepared for planting, which are now nearly covered with a variety of small forest trees, including the pine, fir, spruce, maple, and oak in different varieties; tulip trees; elms, American and European; Russian mulberry; ash, American and European; catalpa, locust, cottonwood, chestnut, birch, black cherry, European linden, and others.

In connection with the Arboretum has been established a nursery in which acorns and walnuts have been planted and seed from ash and red and white pine has been sown. A lack of competent assistants has prevented the accomplishment of all that was desired in this direction. The squirrels have already discovered the acorns and it is doubtful if any great oaks from these little acorns will ever grow.

Wild flower seeds in considerable variety have been sown along the borders of some of the paths and driveways and in other portions of the Park.

The museum was a labor of love to preserve the library and the collections of Letchworth over his lifetime. Even today, his correspondence is still being cataloged for posterity. Caroline’s work as superintendent of the park and museum curator was all-consuming, but during the winter, the park and Glen Iris were closed, giving her a break from her duties and being constantly in the public eye. Caroline resided with family and also at the Castile Sanitarium during the long winters and even found time for vacations. In 1914, Dr. Mary Greene and Caroline toured Europe, a most welcome respite for both women who were dedicated to their vocations. They also cruised the Caribbean together another year.

In November 1916, Caroline and her widowed sister, Ellen Smallwood, purchased their own home on Liberty Street in the Village of Castile. Both continued to be involved with church work and often hosted the Castile Presbyterian Church’s missionary society meetings. Their younger brother, Lyman, came to live with them after he was in a serious accident in February 1924. Lyman was hauling wood from the park to his home that winter day when the seventy-one-year-old was thrown from his sleigh and fractured his leg. Somehow, Lyman managed to crawl back into the sleigh and drove the team to the Denton home for help. The elderly Caroline and Ellen took their brother to Liberty Street to recover, where he remained until his death at age 88.

Caroline retired from the park at the beginning of 1926, looking back on a career that spanned over 40 years at the Glen Iris. Sadly, her retirement was short-lived, and she became critically ill in April. Caroline was taken to Warsaw Community Hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and passed away on April 7, 1926. The family held the funeral at her Liberty Street home, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church officiating. Her burial was at Grace Cemetery in Castile.

Caroline Bishop was known for her sense of humor, love and knowledge of nature, calm demeanor, and generous hospitality. She was always a student, learning all she could about every subject, and she especially enjoyed studying people. Despite the demands of her working life, she served the Castile community in many ways. She was on the board of the Cordelia A. Greene Library Association, aided with food distribution during World War I, helped organize Memorial Day celebrations, and assisted at the Castile Sanitarium. She was also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Pioneer Association. Her leading role as park superintendent, museum curator, and librarian was accomplished with grace. Humble, hardworking, and selfless, Caroline Bishop remains a vital part of Letchworth State Park’s and the Genesee River Valley’s rich history.


Letchworth Museum Records

The Life and Work of William P. Letchworth by J. N. Larned

Castile Historical House Records

A Guide to Letchworth Park by Caroline Bishop

U.S. Census Records, 1860, 1870, 1910, 1920

Albany Normal School Records

Democrat & Chronicle, February 19, 1918

The Castilian, April 15, 1926

Nunda News, October 7, 1911, July 5, 1919

Perry Record, 1930, Feb. 21, 1924

Wyoming County Times, April, 1926

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