Jackson Center leading effort to clear, survey birth site of Robert H. Jackson

The seeds were planted over 10 years ago when a woman wanted to find where her grandfather was born.

But the grandfather wasn’t just any grandfather.

It was Robert H. Jackson.

Fast forward to 2017 and the Robert H. Jackson Center is working with a series of partners – the property owner, Mercyhurst University, students from Warren Area High School and Arthur Stewart’s Cameron Energy Company – to undertake a study of the homestead site.

Jackson was born in Spring Creek in 1892 and raised in Frewsburg, New York.

He didn’t go to college, instead obtaining an apprenticeship with a Jamestown law firm before going to law school in Albany, though he was denied a law degree because he was under the age of 21.

He returned to Jamestown, apprenticed for another year, and then passed the New York bar exam, serving in private practice until the 1930s.

Jackson became solicitor general in 1938, Attorney General in 1941 and then an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court until his death in 1954, during which time he took leave from the court to serve as the chief prosecutor for the US in the Nuremberg trial, which prosecuted Nazi war criminals.

While Jackson was just five years old when the family moved to Frewsburg, the Spring Creek homestead was a place he would return throughout his life.

Gregory Peterson, founder of the Jackson Center, said that a group of people including representatives from Mercyhurst University were at the site in May to lay out the scope of the work. Mercyhurst staff marked the perimeter of the site with pink markers and the task of clearing the trees and thick brush then fell to Stewart and his company.

He called Stewart “a Jackson fan” and said he volunteered to undertake the project.

Peterson said that they will clear a four foot perimeter outside the foundations that remain – which include the house, barn and milkhouse. He said that work will likely be completed this week.

While he said the project was initially a “crazy idea,” it has grown to something much larger and more real than that.

It started with a 2002 trip that Peterson took with Jackson’s granddaughter, Julia Craighill, who wanted to see if the homestead could be found. She recalled coming with her mother, Jackson’s daughter Mary Margaret, to tent camp at the site.

The project then sat until a group of Warren Area High School students wanted to undertake a project on Jackson. Peterson pulled some strings to get the archaeology staff at Mercyhurst involved and, once the site is ready, students from WAHS will be working with Mercyhurst to survey the site.

Keith Jackson, whose family has owned the adjacent property for decades and who not related to Robert Jackson, first started coming to Spring Creek with his family in the 1960s and remembers the homestead as it likely was when Robert Jackson lived there.

He said the house was always well maintained.

“My recollection is that the house was gray,” he said. “Very beautiful.”

The two-story structure had a “humongous brick chimney” as well as a red roof. “It was just a beautiful site.”

The barn – also two stories – was constructed with “huge beams,” Jackson recalled, made with white pine along with large sliding doors. “It was a really big barn,” he said. “It was very striking.”

Jackson said the house was also “very striking” among four large white pines that sat at each corner of the home, which overlooked the Brokenstraw Creek just feet away.

In many ways, though, it was a standard farm house – kitchen, dining room and living room on the first floor, bedrooms on the second and a small basement under one quarter of the house.

He said the farm was still active in the late 1960s and that electric had made its way to the house though the house was “lived in on and off.”

Once the bridge to the home became considered unsafe in the mid-1970s, Jackson explained “that’s when everything went downhill over here quick.”

Jackson said the property owner at the time decided that the barn and house should be torn down. He said that kids in the area burned the barn wood for bonfires.

The house followed within a couple years.

“This stuff just decayed so fast,” Jackson said. “it’s just really sad.

“You knew it was the Jackson estate. You knew there was significance to it… It was impressive. It looked like an estate.”

Peterson said the end result of the survey will be a comprehensive booklet on the history of the site and what was found during the survey.

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