Monday, June 29, 2020

Dying on the Oregon Trail

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

As a kid, I loved playing Oregon Trail. The educational computer game was first released in 1971 and our teachers had us play it in school whenever they were feeling too burned out to teach. For those of you who never experienced the joy, the game went something like this. You and your team were part of a party of settlers heading west from Independence, Missouri to Williamette Valley, Oregon in 1848. You had to purchase supplies, hunt for food, and overcome various obstacles on your journey west. Along the way, you learned about history, geography, and budgeting. The game was wildly popular nationwide with five editions, and over 65 million copies sold. We ended up dying of dysentery half the time, but boy was it fun! 

Graphics from 1985 edition of Oregon Trail

In 1847, Jacob Hoffman of Elmira decided to try his luck on the real Oregon trail. Born in 1814, he was the second son of William and Sally Hoffman. At age 20 in 1800, the elder Hoffman had decided to strike out on his own in what was then the wild frontier of Elmira. At age 32, Jacob was struck by a similar bout of wanderlust and decided to hitch-hike to Iowa. He returned home with a sample of the yellow dent corn found there and planted it on his father’s farm. The natural cross it produced with the local strain was known as Hoffman Dent Corn and the family grew it for years.

Now that he’d had a taste of adventure, Jacob found it hard to stick around at home. In the spring of 1847, he walked to Olean, New York, and then took a series of boats to Independence, Missouri. From there, he joined a wagon train containing 18 wagons, 30 men, 25 women, and 40 children. Along the way, they encountered a number of things familiar to players of the game. At the Kansas River crossing, they were waylaid by Caws who demanded a tole for crossing their land. They lost 40 cattle who spooked at the sight of buffalo, but had a grand old time hunting the buffalo for meat a few days later. Although they didn’t lose anyone from Jacob’s party, the journey was a deadly one. In a letter home, he wrote “there has been more graves made this season than there has been before. I kept an account until I got 100, then I stopped.”

The group had been fairly late leaving Independence, and winter was closing in fast. In early October, they reached Dr. Whitman’s mission in Waiilatpu, just outside Walla Walla, Washington, near the border with Oregon. Jacob decided to stay and help bring in the harvest for $18 a month and then move on come spring. In retrospect, he should have kept going.


Jacob Hoffman's letter home, October 17, 1847


Dr. Marcus Whitman had established his mission near Walla Walla in 1835 in the hopes of converting the local Cayuse tribe to Christianity, but was having a tough time of it. The natives found Whitman and his wife condescending and rude, and the problem was made worse by Whitman’s refusal to pay the tribe for the use of their land, which he insisted had been gifted to him. Despite some initial interest in attending his services, relations between Whitman and the tribe grew increasingly strained. In the early 1840s, Several Cayuse fell ill eating melons and meat which had been deliberately poisoned by the missionaries to trap pests. By that time, the mission had become an important layover and re-supply stop on the Oregon Trail. In 1847, an outbreak of measles brought by passing settlers left the tribe feeling like Whitman had come to kill them. Jacob Hoffman had signed up to work in a powder keg.   

On November 30, 1847, a group of Cayuse attacked the mission. Jacob Hoffman was in the barn dressing beef along with two other men. He was attacked and wounded, but managed to fight his way clear of the barn before being struck down from behind. Rev. Henry Spaulding, a missionary whose 10-year-old daughter was present for the massacre, wrote to the Hoffman family on April 1, 1848 to tell them what had happened to their son. All told, thirteen people were killed including Jacob and Dr. and Mrs. Whitman. 54 people staying at the mission were taken captive and held until they were ransomed by the Hudson’s Bay Company on December 29th. 


Period lithograph of the Whitman massacre. Not remotely accurate according to eye-witness accounts


The attacked kicked off a larger  conflict known as the Cayuse War which lasted until 1855.  In an attempt to end the conflict, the tribe handed over the ringleaders of the massacre for trial. They were hanged on June 3, 1850, but the war continued. When it ended, the Cayuse were decimated, and the remaining natives were pushed onto reservations, opening the way for more settlers and statehood. Jacob Hoffman and the other victims were buried in a mass grave at the mission which is now a United States National Historic Site. He went west looking for an adventure and ended up playing a tragic, if pivotal, role in the history of the Pacific Northwest. 


Memorial at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site

Monday, June 22, 2020

Tales from a Flooded Hotel

by Erin Doane, Curator

On Wednesday, June 21, 1972, the rains from Hurricane Agnes began to fall on the Twin Tiers. By the next day, the Chemung River was at 15 feet in Elmira, local creeks were overflowing, and people all throughout the region had begun evacuating their homes. On June 23, the river overtopped the dikes in Elmira and surged through the city’s streets, submerging businesses and homes under feet of turbulent, muddy water. Local first responders and the National Guard rushed to evacuate hospitals and rescue as many people as possible from the raging flood waters. Through it all, the Mark Twain Hotel in downtown Elmira became a refuge, but not everyone got out alive.

Aerial view of Elmira, June 1972
The Mark Twain Hotel turned into an island as flood waters rose and was cut off from the outside world. Reports in the Star-Gazette estimated that there were 1,500 to 1,700 people who had fled to the hotel, but no one seemed to know who sent them there as it was not a designated evacuation site. The truth was that there were only 194 people at the hotel during the flooding including employees, registered guests, and people who sought shelter at the hotel as flooding intensified.

Roseanne M. Whitted and Nancy Rios were both working at the Mark Twain Hotel during the Flood of 1972. Our archive has an oral history recording of them telling about that time. Roseanne remembered working in the Connecticut Yankee Lounge in the hotel and repeatedly checking to see if the flood waters were rising. “We were basically going to the Grey Street entrance not thinking of the North Main Street entrance where the water would come in first.  Then when that appeared it was like ‘Oh, my G-d!’” When the water started coming inside, patrons helped her start moving things out of the lounge and upstairs to protect them from the rising flood.

Both Roseanne and Nancy lived at the hotel as part of their compensation for working there and so they became stranded with the rest of the guests when downtown went under water. Nancy recalled that they did not get evacuated because it wasn’t considered necessary. “We felt safe the whole time that we were there,” she said. Since the power was out, all the food in the big refrigerators and freezers in the hotel had to be cooked. Fortunately, there were gas burners in the kitchen so that could be done, and it gave guests and staff fresh food to eat on top of the supply of C-rations that were delivered to the hotel by boat. They spent a lot of time playing cards, hanging out in the lobby, and conversing with the guests because there was nothing else to do.

View down Gray Street toward the Mark Twain Hotel as the flood raged
Among the guests stranded at the Mark Twain Hotel was an Eastern League baseball team, Three Rivers, that had been schedules to play against the Elmira Pioneers on Saturday, June 23. (An amusing side-note: the game appeared with other Easter League scores in the newspaper as “Three Rivers at Elmira, rain.” Dunn Field was actually under water.) When the flood waters washed through Bern Furniture, which was across Main Street from the Hotel, the players and umpires grabbed furniture as it floated by and pulled it into the hotel to save it. One table still had a plastic floral arrangement on it as it rode the current across the street. After the waters receded, the team had to wait for a tow truck to come and pull their bus out of the three feet of mud into which it had sunk while parked beside the hotel.

Others, who weren’t already guests at the hotel, went to it to take refuge from the rising waters. 25-year-old Richard Wein of Williamsport, Pennsylvania checked into the hotel with his wife and two young children after a harrowing experience. While fleeing from their home, their car got caught in flood waters. Richard was able to get his family onto higher ground but had to abandon their car. They hitchhiked to Elmira where they found shelter at the Mark Twain Hotel.

Edward M. McNulty and his wife Edna check into the hotel at 3:30am on June 23 to escape the impending flood.  Just two and a half hours later, Edward suffered a heart attack and died in their room. Edward was a well-respected man in the community and served as executive director of the Chemung County Council of Alcoholism. He was 62 years old. At 8:00am that same morning, the dikes overtopped, and the hotel was surrounded by raging waters. Everyone became trapped inside, including Edna and her dearly departed husband. It was not until the next day when the flood waters receded that they were able to leave.  

All those who had been holed up at the Mark Twain Hotel during the flood were sent on their way as soon as possible. Even those who had been living and working there like Roseanne and Nancy were forced to leave as the devastated city went into lockdown and a curfew was put in place. Cleaning and repairs to the hotel began almost immediately as the building was to continue serving as a refuge for those affected by the flood. The Federal Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD) leased the second and third floors of the hotel to be used as homes for displaced flood victims over the age of 60. The senior housing officially opened just one month after the flood on July 24, 1972.

Mark Twain Hotel, 1974

Monday, June 15, 2020

Juneteenth


by Susan Zehnder, Education Director
On June 19th in 1865, two months after the last significant battles of the Civil War had ended, the Union General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. 


They had traveled 460 miles from Mobile, Alabama covering just eight miles a day. The usual mileage for troops of that era ranged from 15-30 miles per day. However, the news they delivered that day was immediately life changing. Word spread quickly that two months earlier the confederate leader of the Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered, the American Civil War was now over, and all enslaved people were to be freed.

Two years earlier, Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation which had minimal impact on the institution of slavery. Under his presidential order, “all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are and henceforth shall be free” and the proclamation encouraged all rebellious states to rejoin the Union. Lincoln intended to win the war and preserve the Union. Not only did no southern states join the Union, the proclamation did not free any enslaved people. It allowed slave states fighting on the side of the Union to retain slaves, hoping these states would not be tempted to switch sides, and it did not require areas held by the Union to free enslaved people. It did allow freed slaves to join the Union army, an army desperately short of soldiers.

In history, the Emancipation Proclamation is considered an important catalyst in changing the US Constitution, and in passing the 13th (1865), 14th (1868), and 15th (1870) Constitutional amendments. In black and white, these address the abolishment of slavery; the granting of citizenship to former slaves; and prohibition of states from denying citizenship to former slaves.

In 1861 Texas had declared secession from the United States and joined the Confederate States of America. Soldiers fighting for Texas headed east and few battles were fought on Texas soil. The two years between Lincoln’s proclamation and Granger’s news in 1865 saw little change in the state of slavery for Texas. When the official word arrived in Galveston, it also had restrictions including not permitting formerly enslaved people to “travel on public thoroughfares unless they had passes or permits from their employers.” The realization of the release of 246 years of chains must have been something. Reactions ranged from shock to pure joy, and overwhelmingly, Black people fled without a look back. So people left, many historians have called this “the scatter.” Heading to find family members in neighboring states, or to strike out on their own.

The word Juneteenth comes from the combination of June and nineteenth. It is also sometimes called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day and Cel-Liberation Day. Observed on the 19th of June, it has been celebrated ever since in communities all over the nation. 
Juneteenth festivities, Texas, 1900
Early years were difficult and growing segregation laws prohibited access to public places and parks. In 1870 formerly enslaved people in Houston raised $800 to purchase 10 acres of land they could use. In 1980 Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth an official state holiday, and in 2004, it was recognized as Juneteenth Freedom Day by New York State, but only as a commemorative day. Over the years the level of celebrations has varied. During the Jim Crow days, many felt there was little to celebrate. Things picked up in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement. Today it has some recognition in most states. It is a day for all to promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture through education, prayer, history, and the arts. It is a day for recognizing Black excellence in all forms of expression.

Local celebrations started here in 1993, led by Anthony Fedd. In 1994 Earl Derry took over Elmira-Corning’s NAACP Juneteenth planning, and the event has been held ever since. For many years, celebrations have taken place in Elmira’s Ernie Davis Park and included a central stage, vendors and food. The tradition of barbeque pits and strawberry soda date back over a hundred years. Events include prayers led by Black ministers, patriotic demonstrations, Juneteenth history, and exhibitions by local groups including choral, step and dance teams, poetry readings, drill teams, music, rap groups, and a fashion show by Black designers. The mood is festive, celebratory, and patriotic.
See more at www.facebook.com/ElmiraJuneteenth


This year’s local events will be virtual, from June 13-19th. Centering on the theme Cooperation over Competition, events will include daily TV informational spots, and social media activities. Check out the community leaders recorded short messages on history, faith, voting, health, music, Black love, business mentoring and inequities in our society, on the Economic Opportunity Program’s website. On the 19th, ethnic foods will be available from food trucks parked at EOP, 650 Baldwin Street, Elmira, NY.
 Juneteenth statue in Emancipation Park, Houston
It has been 155th years since General Granger delivered the news to Galveston, a city just 50 miles south east of Houston, Texas. Recently, national attention turned to Texas again with the tragic murder of George Floyd. Floyd was buried in Houston, his hometown. Protests, vigils and rallies for justice were held in Houston’s oldest park, Emancipation Park, the one purchased by formerly enslaved people back in 1870.
Juneteenth is an opportunity for all to celebrate Black Lives, African American history and culture, and some of the tremendous contributions to the crazy quilt of American history.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Fierce Urgency of Now

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

By now, you may have noticed that we are living in unprecedented times. A global pandemic has killed more Americans in three months than died in the Vietnam and Korean Wars combined. That same pandemic has paralyzed our economy and caused record levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression. Citizens in every state in the nation, including right here in our community, are in the streets protesting the murder of Blacks by police and the president has threatened to use the military to put down those protests by force. We stand at the precipice of something. We are living history.

The mission of the Chemung County Historical Society is to collect, preserve, and share the history of our county, but history isn’t just the stuff in grandma’s attic. History is happening right now. In order to capture history in the making, we have launched the COVID Memory Project. We’re collecting oral histories, photographs, videos, diaries, and objects associated with the pandemic and protests. 

Here’s how you can get involved:

Oral Histories

So far, I have collected several oral histories including one from a high school senior and one from my religious leader. We’re hoping to get stories from health care workers, teachers, school administrators, grocery store and other essential retail workers, restaurant owners, someone working from home, someone laid off, someone who was sick, someone who lost someone, someone with small children, someone elderly, and anyone with a story to tell. If you fit into any of those categories and would like to participate, please contact me at archivist@chemungvalleymuseum.org or by phone at (607) 734-4167 ex. 207. Don’t worry about maintaining social distance. We’re set up to do interviews over Zoom or the phone. 


Patrick Hemenway, our first interviewee!

But wait, there’s more! If you’ve got a cell phone, microphone, or camcorder, you too can can be an oral historian. Interview your friends, neighbors, and relatives about their experiences. Contact me or check out StoryCorps (https://storycorps.org/participate/) for suggestions and recording apps. If you’re shy about doing interviews, we’re also looking for folks to listen to and help transcribe the ones that have already been collected. 

Photographs & Videos
In the first month of the pandemic, there were inspirational chalk drawings everywhere in my neighborhood. A man a few blocks over would practice his bagpipes in his driveway while people sat on their porches to listen. There are signs everywhere reminding people to wear masks, be hopeful, and stay strong. I’ve been going around with my camera to document it all the best I can, but I haven’t been able to catch everything. Bagpipe man, for example, keeps eluding me. 


Legion Park, Elmira Heights


We’re looking for a proactive team of historians willing to go out and take photos or videos around the community while keeping track of where and when those photos were taken. Please contact me for details and instructions if you’re interested. If you already have photographs or video footage of the things going on in your neighborhood, things you’ve been doing to stay sane, or the protests, we would love copies. 

Diaries

I’ve been keeping diaries for years, so you know I’ve been writing about what it’s like living under COVID. Come the end of the year, I will be donating a copy of my 2o20 diary to the museum and I plan on willing my entire diary collection to the museum after I die. If you too have been keeping a diary of this year’s goings on, please donate a copy. You don’t even have to make the copy yourself. Just plan on bringing your diary in during the first few weeks of 2021 and we’ll do it for free.

Objects

Do you have lawn signs, protest signs, or masks? We want them. Does your business have a special COVID menu, a reopening policy, or new employee guidelines? We’d like that too. 


Lawn sign, W. Church Street, Elmira

We’re smack in the middle of a pivotal moment in history. The staff at CCHS are doing all we can to document it, but we need your help to capture it all. I look forward to working with you. 

Monday, June 1, 2020

Working at the Elmira Knitting Mills

by Erin Doane, Curator

Elmira Knitting Mills was one of the first industries in Elmira Heights. It was founded in 1893 by five Elmira men – Matthias Arnot, Charles M. Tompkins, Harlan H. Hallock, Casper G. Decker, and William Bilbrough – for the manufacture and sale of woolen, cotton, and silk goods and garments. For 70 years, it was a major employer of hundreds of men, women, and children in the area. From the beginning, it drew in new employees with promises of steady work in a pleasant, clean, safe environment. The company was not always able to keep those promises.

Elmira Knitting Mills in Elmira Heights with employees, c. 1895
There’s no real way to know if the promise of a pleasant workplace was fulfilled. The company ran frequent help wanted ads in the local newspapers to recruit new employees. That may be a sign that it wasn’t as pleasant or clean a place to work as the company claimed. Conditions in the factory were likely similar to other textile mill at the time with stifling temperatures in the summer, loud machinery, and clouds of lint in the air that was impossible to keep out of employees’ lungs. In 1956, there were reports of noxious odors emanating from the mill property. The smells were coming from a pond next to the factory into which waste dyes used in the plant were dumped. That doesn’t seem particularly clean or pleasant.

Star-Gazette, July 16, 1956
The promise of safety is a bit easier to quantify. Over the years, various accidents at Elmira Knitting Mills made it into the newspaper. In 1895, a 14-year-old boy who had just started working at the mill that day was injured while riding in the elevator. He was looking over the edge when his head got caught between the elevator and the floor. Fortunately, a worker saw and was able to stop the elevator before he suffered more than a bad scalp wound, a broken chin, and several knocked-out teeth. In the 1910s, at least two employees cut their hands so badly on machinery at the mill that they had to have fingers amputated. In 1944, an 18 year old suffered chemical burns on his hands. That same year, a man lost two toes when his right foot got caught in an elevator. No word if it was the same elevator in which the 14-year-old was injured years before.

View inside the sewing department at Elmira Knitting Mills, c. 1900
The promise of steady work was one that was fairly easy for Elmira Knitting mills to keep during both World Wars. In 1918, the factory turned to war production. It manufactured 159,000 winter drawers and 13,000 winter undershirts for soldiers fighting in the Great War. The recession after 1920 brought hard times, but the company was able to partially overcome its financial problems by introducing the production of women’s rayon underwear. When World War II came around, the company received lucrative contacts to produce gloves, sweaters, underwear, and other clothing for the U.S. military.

Display of products of Elmira Knitting Mills, 1944
In 1945, right after the war, the plant underwent major upgrades. New sewing machines, new tables, and better lighting were added. Changes were also made in how employees worked. Better groupings of workers on single projects were made, rest periods of 10 minutes were added in mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and a public address system played music for about 15 minutes each hour. The previous staff of about 350 was reduced to 250, but production increased because of the improvements that had been made. So, for about 100 employees, work abruptly stopped being steady.

Elmira Knitting Mills, 1941
Despite the reduction in the workforce, Elmira Knitting Mills enjoyed post-war prosperity for years. In 1957, the mill manufactured 120,000 cotton garments a week including shirts, panties for women, children’s sports shirts, pajamas, and children’s bibs. It produced 25 different items in all. It sold primarily to chain stores, but also did work for the military, making over 12 million shirts for the Army, Navy, and Marines. The company did about $2.5 million in business a year.

By the early 1960s, however, business went into steep decline because of increased competition and the loss of major contract from two of the company’s large customers. In September 1963, Elmira Knitting Mills closed its doors for good.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Throw Like a Girl

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director


Like many organizations, our small and vibrant Chemung Valley History Museum, run by the Chemung County Historical Society, has been on #NYPause since mid-March. We're eager to reopen when safely allowed to do so and are working hard to make that happen. We want to hear your concerns, and if you haven’t taken our survey yet, we encourage you to do so. 

While we pivoted to answer questions and post exhibits, talks and videos online, we believe in the power of original artifacts, documents and stories. The experience of seeing a physical object’s size, color, and material cannot compare to anything online, and we can’t wait to see you back in the brick building.



The distinctive building opened in 1833 as the Chemung Canal Bank, one of the area’s first banks. Brick buildings weren't common at the time, as most other buildings were made of wood, a cheaper and more plentiful material.

Making bricks is labor-intensive and the hand-crafted process can still be found in use throughout the world today. Technological advancements in the mid-
19th century changed the industry. 



Investing in machines allowed large-scale brick manufacturing to improve the brickmaking process. Workers used various machines to help mine, mix and knead the raw materials, to press the mixture into molds, and to move the new bricks into high-intensity ovens to dry. Machines helped increase brick production and regulate brick quality. Producing more bricks meant building with bricks became a more affordable option. They also became more fashionable. Architects came up with ways to use bricks in decorative ways, softening the look of the ever taller and larger buildings.


Cowles Hall, Elmira College

Fire resistance was another good reason building with bricks became popular. Cities were growing in size and population, and closely built wooden buildings and structures were prone to fire. There were no official city Fire Departments, building codes and safety inspections yet. Sadly looking through old newspapers, it is common to see reports of devastating fires that wiped out entire city blocks, even into the 20th century. 

Lyceum Theater fire, March 1904

In 1830, to save lives and property Elmira established its first fire company. It was an all-volunteer crew. The city's first professional fire department was adopted fifty-eight years later in 1878. Building codes for fire safety and inspection didn't show up until 1905. This was when the National Board of Fire Underwriters, a group of US insurance companies got together to come up with a National Building Code model to help minimize fire risk. Today model building safety codes are adopted by state or local jurisdiction and enforced by municipal fire departments. While brick buildings didn't prevent devastating fires, they were fire resistant. Building with brick was a good investment.

Mr. Albright established The Horseheads Consolidated Brick Co. in 1840. It  was one of the area's largest brickmakers. Considered one of the oldest industries in Horseheads, it churned out bricks for more than a century.
Early on, the Horseheads plant adopted the latest technological advances. They operated five molding machines which allowed them to produce up to 6 million bricks per year. The nearby Chemung Canal, opened the same year as the bank building, became critical in the company's growth. They used the canal to bring in raw materials and later to ship out the finished bricks. After the canal closed, railroads and trucks extended the company’s ability to ship bricks across the nation. Early 20th century production peaked to two million bricks a month, and the company employed seventy-five workers. Things slowed down and company changed ownership many times. It finally closed down operations in 1961.

Horseheads Consolidated bricks came in five different sizes: Standard, Jumbo, Roman, Norman and SCRSM sizes. The bricks were stamped with one of four different markings: H, H-H, HHDS, or the word Horse over Heads. This brick is on display in our museum:



Brick color depends on which blend of materials are used. Horseheads Consolidated offered four different colors with different blends of clay, shale, sand and oxides. Today we think of red bricks as standard, but red oxide bricks only became popular during Victorian times in England. They were reported to be the best color visible through London’s thick fog.

When we reopen, we invite you to come look at the Horseheads Consolidated Brick example on display, and to discover more in our historic brick building. For another look at Horsehead bricks, visit the Horsehead Historical Society when it reopens, or view J.D. Iles’s Hidden Landmarks episode filmed 5/15/20.  

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Sisters of St. Joseph


by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In spring 1907, Mother Agnes of the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester knelt in the chapel of the Nazareth Convent waiting for a sign from god. J. John Hassett and Dr. John A. Westlake of Elmira had approached Bishop McQuaid of Rochester about opening a Catholic hospital in Elmira in the old Academy of Our Lady of the Angels school. The Sisters of St. Joseph were selected to run it and Mother Agnes was praying for guidance on who to send when Sister Alice Rose Conway walked in. She would serve as St. Joseph’s Hospital administrator until her death in 1939.

Sister Alice Rose Conway


The Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph was founded in Le Puy, France in 1650. They established their American chapter in upstate New York in 1836 and have served the Diocese of Rochester, which includes Chemung County, since 1868. Prior to establishing St. Joseph’s Hospital, the sisters were strictly a teaching order. Sister Alice Rose was a French and math teacher at Nazareth Academy. Of the seven sisters who helped to establish the hospital, only two, Sister St. Ann and Sister Jerome, had any previous hospital experience. The former teachers had a lot of learning to do.

St. Joseph’s Hospital opened for patients on September 24, 1908 after extensive renovations. The first few years were incredibly hard and the hours were brutal. The sisters rose at 3am to do laundry in the kitchen before seeing to their nursing duties. At the end of their shifts, they ironed before dinner and then attended classes on nursing after. Money was tight. While the sisters made sure the patients had food, they, on several occasions, had nothing more than soup made from potato skins. Gas and electric service was spotty and wards were often lit by candles stuck in potatoes.

Original St. Joseph's Hospital and adjacent convent


The hospital grew rapidly under the guidance of Sister Alice Rose. Despite her limited experience, she was an able administrator and skilled fundraiser. In 1909, they held their first fundraiser, a baseball game between Elmira and Wilkes-Barre. The following year they built a laundry building and almost immediately launched into a campaign to fund construction of an annex. By the time Sister Alice Rose died in 1939, the hospital had expanded from a tiny converted school with 26 beds to a goodly-sized hospital complex with 5 buildings, 245 beds, and a dedicated nursing school with dormitory.

Care at St. Joseph’s had a uniquely Catholic flavor. The sisters believed it was crucial to heal patients both physically and spiritually. Patients could pray with the sisters, receive sacraments, and attend mass. At the tail end of the 20th century, they could even watch an in-house religious channel on their room’s TV. The nursing school was decidedly Catholic too. Each floor of the dormitory was overseen by a resident nun who kept the girls from sinful behaviors like dating. Students not only took classes on nursing and health, but also on the Catholic faith. Everyone, Catholic or not, was required to attend chapel at 6:50 am and Mass twice a week. It’s no surprise, really, that over the years, upwards of 40 students ended up as nuns themselves.

Sisters of St. Joseph on hospital steps, ca. 1930s

Sister Ruth Schicker, the last of the founding sisters, died at age 81 in 1967, but there where still plenty of nuns at St. Joseph’s Hospital. At the Order’s peak in 1947, there were 40 sisters working as nurses, administrators, and clerks. As the 20th century progressed, however, the number of nuns across the nation as a whole began to decline from a peak of 180,000 in 1965 to 92,107 in 1996. By the turn of the 21st century, there were only four sisters still working at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Sister Marie Castagnaro was the last, finally stepping down as administrator in 2010, shortly before St. Joseph’s merged with the Arnot Health System. 

An interesting side note: in 1942, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester established a mission in Selma, Alabama and founded Good Samaritan Hospital for the treatment of impoverished blacks who could not be admitted to the local white hospital. Sisters from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elmira and the mother house in Rochester took turns working there. On March 7, 1965, Civil Rights activists lead a march for voting rights which was supposed to be from Selma to Montgomery. Instead, the marchers were brutally beaten by state troopers and white supremacists at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Four sisters from St. Joseph’s were working at Good Samaritan at the time and helped to care for the wounded from the march. Within six hours, the hospital treated over 100 patients and admitted 15. Martin Luther King later visited the hospital to thank the sisters personally. In 1989, Margaret Hanley, formerly Sister Michael Ann Hanley, gave an interview about her time in Selma. Thanks to a grant from the South Central Regional Library Council, we were able to digitize the interview and make it available on YouTube. A quick warning before watching: it’s an hour long, so maybe grab some popcorn first.