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< Gouverneur Stories — The Dean High School Class Ring Mystery

Elizabeth "Bess" McFalls
Circa 1917

Sometimes you find a historical mystery in an everyday object. This was the case for Lynda H. Andrews, history detective. A unidentified Dean High School class ring had been found in the floorboards of 71 Austin Street. It had passed from one owner of the house to the next. But whose ring was it? How could it be returned to the family of this 1917 graduate? 

In the early part of the 20th century, the house at 71 Austin Street was occupied by the John McFalls family. The house was later owned by David and Susan Fenlong. During renovations, David and Susan found a 1917 Dean High School class ring in a crack in the floor. The owner of this memento was a mystery, but Dean High School was well known.

Gouverneur High School had once been named Dean High School, after its generous benefactors, the Dean family. Dean High School opened in 1915. In 1887, the Village of Gouverneur adopted the Union Free School system and at first, made use of the Wesleyan Seminary building, which had been built in 1840, for the new Gouverneur "Seminary." The idea at the time was that a "seminary graduate" would have more standing than a mere"high school" graduate. But in 1894, a new high school was built and was called "Gouverneur High School." A few years later, in 1914, Mrs. Mira Dean and her daughters Cora and Jennie Dean built and equipped the brand new Dean High School at the corner of East Barney and Rock Island Streets.

In 1914, when Dean High School was built, Elizabeth "Bess" McFalls lived at 71 Austin Street. She was in the 1917 graduating class of the new Dean High School. Bess must have been very sad on the day she lost her Dean HS class ring. She must have looked everywhere.


The admiration of antiques isn't just wonder that an object has survived the years, it's a fascination with what might have happened to the object along the way, its history. 


Objects like those in the Museum's collection are links to the past. But they are inanimate and silent until the curious uncover their history. History isn't old and dusty when you can hold it in your hand. And if you have a curious nature and a bit of luck, you can sometimes uncover things about an object that would have remained hidden. 


Such was the journey of "history detective" Lynda Andrews of Gouverneur.


Close to 100 years later, a class ring was found in a crack in the floor of 71 Austin Street. The owner of the ring remained a mystery, until one day, when at the local gym, Lynda Andrews, local history detective, struck up a conversation with David Fenlong, who was telling the story of the class ring he had found. How could they find out whose ring was it? David and Susan were anxious to learn more about its past and, if possible, see it returned to the family of the original owner. So began Lynda's journey through decades as she traced the lives of a local family who had moved away. One of them had been in the Gouverneur Class of 1917.

Lynda wrote the following about her "historical detective" experience:

A chance conversation at the local gym took me on a wonderful journey through decades of the lives of a once-local family. The Gouverneur Class of 1917 ring that belonged to Elizabeth "Bess" McFalls, daughter of John and Harriet McFalls, who lived at 71 Austin Street has been returned to the rightful heirs because of the generous hearts of David and Susan Fenlong. 


I enjoy research and was thrilled to have the opportunity to connect with Bess' daughter Alison Fuller, in California. She was so grateful for David and Susan's "find" and will pass the ring on to her beautiful 10 year old granddaughter, Claire.


A close examination of the ring revealed a letter engraved on the inside. It was either an "M" or a


"W" depending on the ring's orientation. I consulted Harland Brown of Brown's Jewerly Store. He said if the ring had been done by a professional, the letter would be an "M." This was an excellent first piece of the puzzle.


Tribune Press archives were my main source of information that led me to Bess's delighted family though many articles over the years. My first big break was finding her marriage announcement in the Northern Tribune to Dunlap Cameron Clark in 1923 (when the newspaper cost 3 cents). This article indicated that she graduated in 1917. It also included the information that the wedding reception was held at the family home at 71 Austin Street.


The Gouverneur Museum provided me with information about her graduation and also the year that she taught history during the school year of 1921-1922 at the Gouverneur High School.


I received a lovely letter from Bess' daughter, Alison Fuller, thanking me for the things I'd sent: the ring, copies of the newspaper articles and the photos of the McFalls grave sites at Pleasant Lake, and other information I found in reference to her family. She enclosed a photo of herself and her cherished granddaughter, who will one day be the recipient of this treasure.


Thanks for letting me share this interesting adventure. June 8, 2009


Alison Fuller, daughter of Elizabeth "Bess" McFalls Clark sent her best wishes to all who helped return a cherished memento to her family.


Granddaughter, Claire Bivins, will soon have the Dean High School Class of 1917 ring that belonged to her Great Grandmother.


Photo posted in the Gouverneur Tribune Press, June 11, 2009

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