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A PRESERVING SPIRIT ABIDES <br> FREDONIA'S TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY AMBIENCE SURE TO CHARM

You could say the war on drugs had its early start in Western New York's "grape belt," specifically in the Village of Fredonia -- birthplace of the first Women's Christian Temperance Union.

And those 1800s crusaders just might have been around during a recent "ghost tour" in the village.

This might be a good week to check out the charming turn-of-the-century ambience in this community of about 4,000 families some 50 miles west of Buffalo.

"Any village which has been around as long as Fredonia definitely ends up with a number of spirits and energies left over from past occupants and citizens," said Susan Mackay, marketing director of the circa-1891 Fredonia Opera House.

"Add to that ambience the events and history of Fredonia, such as the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, the Women's Christian Temperance Union campaign for Prohibition, catastrophic fires and just plain 'good and evil' (persons) passing through or staying a while."

Without efforts to revitalize Fredonia over the years, it could have turned into a ghost town. Take the impressive remodeling of the opera house, for example. In the 1980s there was a plan to demolish the building. Most of the 580 seats in the theater were in disrepair.

The Fredonia Preservation Society formed to fight the demolition and raise money to restore it, according to Jim Boltz, interim executive director of the opera house.

The village trustees decided to float a bond for the opera house, and it was supported in a public referendum.

Funding was found through a local capital construction campaign, grants from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and other state sources, help from the Gebbie Foundation and the village itself. About $900,000 was raised.

And there were many contributions of labor and material. Each theater chair was dismantled, stripped, refinished or reupholstered, reassembled and finished off with a regal paint scheme. The grandeur of the balcony was preserved, and the theater is expected to stand for at least another century as a multipurpose community cultural center.

"The theater is a keystone building in the downtown area," Boltz said. "We are marketing it in the tri-state area, and it's had a positive economic impact on the surrounding small businesses -- gift shops and watering holes."

Mackay returned to her hometown in 1995, after living in Arizona for 15 years.

"Fredonia looks like a movie set," she said, "like the American ideal hometown, right out of 'Back to the Future.' "

She added: "It's a wonderful village. People look you in the eye. When we came back, I told my teenage son, 'Everyone is going to know your name -- good or bad.' "

A tour of Fredonia could start with the village's Victorian churches. There's First United Methodist, "based upon King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England. The style is neo-Gothic," Mackay noted. St. Joseph's Church "was built around 1899 in High Victorian Gothic style.

"Fredonia Baptist Church was built in 1853. The village clock was erected in the steeple atop the church when the Village Hall was found to be inadequate to hold the weight." Trinity Episcopal was destroyed by a fire, then rebuilt, "modeled after a small English parish church," she said.

A few blocks from downtown Fredonia, you'll see homes in architectural styles including Queen Anne, Italianate, Second Empire, Stick Style and Colonial Revival. Nineteenth century homes provide a contrast to famed architect I.M. Pei's buildings at Fredonia State College.

Fredonia, about three miles from Lake Erie, has prosperous agricultural roots. Its history also includes the drilling of the nation's first gas well and the founding of the Grange, an agricultural organization.

Halloween is the time when spirits are said to walk the earth. If that's true, then Fredonia's 40-acre Forest Hill Cemetery, on Lambert Street, should deliver the required seasonal chill. Dating to the 1700s, the cemetery is the resting place for Civil War heroes as well as Romanesque stone buildings.

"Soldiers are buried there. It's a very peaceful place with a lot of trees," said Mackay, adding a Halloween warning: "But if it's foggy, it will be spooky."

Have an idea about a local person whose life would make a good profile or a neighborhood issue worth exploring? Write to: Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240, or e-mail lcontinelli@buffnews.com.

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