Monday, January 16, 2017

The Donkeys of Rorick’s Glen

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

When we talk about Rorick’s Glen, we mostly remember it for its amusement rides, theater that hosted the Manhattan Opera Company every summer, and its connections to the trolley lines (having been founded to give people an excuse to ride more often). My favorite story about Rorick’s Glen, however, is about the donkeys.

In June 1902, W. Charles Smith brought 12 Angora goats and a few donkeys to Rorick’s Glen. The management intended to have them pull carts carrying visitors over the park’s new walking trails. The animals were outfitted with little yellow and red carts and the paying public were invited to take a ride. There was one problem: no one seemed to have anticipated just how stubborn goats and donkeys are. On what was supposed to be the inaugural run, not a single animal would move. The animals were whipped and still would not budge. Customers watching on suggested a gentler method, and that too failed. Customers were refunded their money and the stables were shut down for business until they could “teach the animals how to walk.” Smith was particularly upset since the man he purchased them from claimed they were “high steppers and willing workers.”

Rorick's trail showing a donkey and a goat hitched to a cart, c. 1902.

A month later, Smith and his assistants were reportedly making progress and the animals were now demonstrating “agility and submission." The animals, now “acting for all the world like park donkeys and goats should act,” took passengers around the paths at the Glen. The animals lived in a small cabin that was converted into a makeshift stable on the side of the hill.

It’s unclear how long these donkeys and goats were employed at Rorick’s. In 1910, however, new donkeys were brought in. Possibly the first donkeys and goats had died, or perhaps they were only ever used for that 1902 season. Either way, on June 1, 1910, Colorado cowboy George “Blinky” James arrived via train in Elmira with a new shipment of donkeys. The donkeys came with fantastical, most likely totally invented, back stories. Hailing from the Ratoon Mountains of the Rockies, the donkeys were reportedly descended from the mules of Cortez’s Spanish Army which conquered the Aztecs. One of the donkeys was also said to have made its original owner’s family rich by discovering a gold mine by kicking dirt. The owner died on that expedition before the discovery and a court supposedly granted 1/3 of the profits to the deceased’s family because the burro was the discoverer.
Some of the Colorado donkeys, 1910
Blinky James left Colorado with 20 donkeys and arrived in Elmira with 21. Somewhere on the train between Chicago and Elmira, a donkey was born. Upon arrival in Elmira, this made for an instant marketing campaign. The Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Company, owners of the donkeys and the Glen, partnered with the Star-Gazette to hold a contest for children to name the new foal. Helen Turnbull  of 514 Lake Street had her submission selected and the donkey was named Roricka. Helen won a free pass to ride the burros until the 4th of July. Helen wrote “I think Roricka (Ro-ree-ka) would be a pretty name.” Other names suggested included: Nobino, Jacko, Cute, Teddy, Comet, Sanco Pansy, Free-n-Equal, and Billy Bunco.

These donkeys, likely due to their training by Blinky and his staff, seemed to adjust better to their tasks than the 1902 donkeys and goats. They did however suffer some effects of the change in climate and elevation from the Rockies to the Southern Tier. Some were off duty for a couple of weeks before recovering or acclimating.

By July 1910, the newspapers were proclaiming that the donkeys were a must-see for everyone.  One article said: “Moonlight burro parties have become all the rage at Rorick’s Glen. The sport is being enjoyed every evening by Elmirans who have tired of the usual forms of entertainment and are looking for something out of the ordinary.”
Burro party, 1910. Blinky James is front and center. From newspaper on Fultonhistory.com
Another proclaimed: “Had the officials of the Elmira Water, Light & Railroad Company dreamed how popular the little burros at Rorick’s Glen were to become, doubtless they would have purchased a greater number….They are kept busy nearly every hour of the day carrying the children about the pretty Glen upon their backs.”

A July 24, 1910 article discussed the donkey-riding experience of prima donna Mrs. Horace Wright, better known by her stage name Rene Dietrich. She exclaimed, “Well, this burro ride has climbing Pike’s peak or a ramble in the Alps crowded right off the map.” Along with Blinky, Mrs. Wright and her husband decided that they wanted to off-road it, after already riding the short and long trails. The group went from Rorick’s across the Rorick’s bridge (the burros were not happy about that and “one burro was partly carried and partly shoved” across). They then went east down Water Street before going back to Fitch’s Bridge. Another donkey had to be carried over the bridge so the others would follow. When they got back to the paths on the hill, Mr. Wright’s burro sat down and was forced up with a fence rail. Mrs. Wright’s burro tried to jump over a barricade, and since “a burro can’t jump any more than a camel,” she was thrown off. The donkey remained halfway over the fence, “prepared to stay there indefinitely” until more “shoving and heaving” got it to move.

Of the trip, Blinky said “Cute little things, them burros. Never run away or go fast. Patient little things, they’re well trained.” “They’re well trained all right, not to exceed any speed limit,” said Mr. Wright, “you’re wise to charge by the hour, and not by the mile.” The Wrights were so enamored  with the donkey riding that they came back every day. Baby Roricka was also rubbing elbows and hooves with the opera company stars; she was brought on stage for “Family Affairs,” a farce at the theater.

The Wrights enjoying their donkey riding
Blinky James' authentic cowboy charm proved very popular with visitors …perhaps even too popular. From September to November 1910, the divorce proceedings of Fred M. Schmidt and Minnie Kinner Schmidt were published in the local newspapers. Mr. Schmidt filed for divorce from his wife alleging that she had abandoned him and had been having extramarital affairs. Mr. Schmidt claimed that Mrs. Schmidt has spent the night at the Lackawanna Hotel with Blinky on September 8.  Then on September 10, she allegedly stayed at the hotel with Arthur Parker, a one-armed burro assistant. She admitted guilt of adultery and was sent to the Albion home for wayward girls. Blinky James denied any involvement in the Schmidt affair.

By the end of November 1910, Blinky James headed back to Padroni, Colorado. Reportedly, “eastern life was not for George James.” It was the end of the season and there was no mention of him leaving because of the adultery scandal. There were reports that he would come back the next season, but it seems that he may have left Elmira for good.

The donkeys wintered at the Maple Avenue Park, but were back in action in 1911, ready to carry “youngsters over the picturesque paths through the glen, from the theater to the top of the Indian Steps.” That June a new ½-mile burro path opened. In the off-season of January 1913 the highly-decorated donkeys marched in the parade for the opening of the F.C. Lewis company.

In April 1913, four new burros added and it was noted that these “long-eared hill climbers” were “as frisky as kittens and as comical as monkies [sic].” While they weren’t yet ready to ride, children would be able to come and see them.

The donkeys were so popular they became fodder for cultural commentary. A joke in the news used the donkeys to take a jab at suffragettes: “Brownie, Rorick’s glen burro, carried a 250-pound suffragette around the long trail. Brownie is now known as the suffering yet burro.”

The donkeys remained popular for the next several years. The E.W.L.&R.R. Co. gave away a baby burro to the person who correctly guessed the number of people coming into the Utilities Company booth at the Elmira Industrial Exposition. It seems like a strange and high-maintenance prize, but suggests the continued popularity of the donkeys.

The last reference I’ve seen to the donkeys was from September 1917 when a donkey escaped from the Glen and was found by Patrolman John Drolesky. While he “was phoning to headquarters, the animal became overly affectionate and proceeded to butt him in the stern.”


Monday, January 9, 2017

The Great Escape



By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

At 3:30 am on the morning of October 7, 1864, a man emerged from a hole on a side street by the northern fence of the Elmira Prison Camp. He was Washington B. Traweek, a nineteen-year-old private from Alabama who had been captured while serving with the Jeff Davis Artillery. There were Union guards on patrol across the street, but they never noticed him as he snuck along the fence before fleeing around a convenient corner.  He was soon followed by nine other men, the last emerging around 4:30 am. It was the single largest escape from the North’s most secure prisoner-of-war camp. 

The escape plot began on August 24th when John F. Maull, John P. Putegnat, and Frank E. Saurine all swore a secret oath to dig together. Traweek joined them almost immediately. The four men started digging the tunnel from Maull and Putegnat’s tent located approximately 68 feet from the camp’s northern stockade wall. The digging was exceptionally slow going so they recruited six additional men, S. Cecrops Malone, Gilmer G. Jackson, William H. Templin, J.P. Scruggs, Glen Shelton, and James W. Crawford, to help out.  Berry Benson of South Carolina joined the team in early September after he spotted Traweek disposing of rocks from the tunnel and asked to be let in.

Berry Benson in his old uniform after the war.


The tunnel took months to dig. Two men would go down into the tunnel where one man would dig with a pocket knife while another would load the dirt into a bag made from a spare shirt. The team up top would unload the dirt into their pockets to be disposed of later around camp and then send the bag back down. Working in the tunnel was deeply unpleasant. In his memoir, Benson said it was “next to death by suffocation to go into it.” The tunnel was so narrow that the digger’s body blocked the flow of air leaving the digger sweltering hot and struggling for oxygen. Diggers came up with racking headaches, dizziness, and vomiting and needed to be relieved every 15 to 20 minutes. 

The bag used to move dirt with insets of John P. Putegnat during and after the war.

In mid-September, Traweek and Putegnat dug a second tunnel from the newly constructed hospital, this time with a spade. They made it to the wall in just two nights but, before they could gather their friends to get them out, the tunnel was discovered. Traweek was thrown in the camp’s jail and the guards conducted a camp-wide search for additional tunnels. Twenty-eight were discovered, but not the team’s tunnel which was concealed by a carefully preserved chunk of turf held in place by a plank just below the surface. 

Traweek was released from the camp jail in late September to rejoin his fellows. By this time, Saurine had been kicked off the team for refusing to dig. It turned out to be a bad decision on his part. All of the tunnel conspirators made it out and away. Maull, Jackson, and Templin made their way south together on foot, as did Traweek and Crawford. Somehow Malone and Putegnat got turned around and ended up in Ithaca. They headed still further north before taking jobs in Auburn and using their earnings to travel to Baltimore by train and boat. Benson and Scuggs both made their own ways home alone while Shelton seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.

The escape was discovered during roll call on the morning of October 7th and threw the camp into an uproar. Guards frantically searched the camp and surrounding area for the tunnel and missing men. Wild rumors circulated among the prisoners. One prison diarist, Wilbur Grambling, wrote that 25 men had escaped, each with a stolen horse. 

Morning roll call at the Elmira Prison Camp

Although many others tried to replicate their feat, theirs was the last successful tunnel escape at the camp. Seven other men managed to make their way to freedom by various other methods. One smuggled himself out in a swill barrel. Another stole a Union sergeant’s overcoat and strolled out the front gate without being challenged. The most brazen escape was by a man named Buttons who faked his own death and jumped out of a coffin on the way to the cemetery.   

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Day in the Life

by Erin Doane, curator

Old newspapers are great sources of information. If you read a newspaper from a single day you can get a fascinating glimpse into the past that hints at the large historical picture. Thanks to websites like Old Fulton New York Post Cards (http://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html) a lot of historic newspapers are available now to the public. I found a full 12-page issue of the Elmira Star-Gazette from January 2, 1917 on the Fulton site. So, what can we learn about life in Elmira 100 years ago from the local paper?


Front page of January 2, 1917 Elmira Star-Gazette
The typesetting staff must have been having a rough day.
They got the date wrong on the front page.
The Great War was headline news
While the United States did not official join the fighting in World War I until April 6, 1917, the war was still major news. The newspaper’s top story was about the Allied forces’ rejection of a German peace proposal. They considered the rigid proposal “empty and insincere.” Germany was unwilling to give concessions and insisted on keeping Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine under its control. Even after two years of fighting and a total of over one million dead and wounded on both sides, England, France, and Russia refused to give the proposal any consideration. 

People were feeling the effects of the war locally. Prices of rubber footwear and other products were rising because of war shortages and Elmira lawyer Richard H. Thurston had just learned that his nephew Charles Thurston Bowring had been killed while fighting in France.


Lawmakers were trying to make changes in the New Year
On January 1, Republican Charles Seymour Whitman began his second term as governor of New York. In both houses of the state legislature, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 2 to 1. In the new term, the legislature would be considering many new bills. There would be attempts to impose censorship on motion pictures and efforts to both legalize and prohibit the showing of movies on Sundays. There were proposals for compulsory military training in public schools and for requiring state farms to provide produce to state institutions. Legislators would also take up the question of enfranchisement of women, or giving them the right to vote.

On a national level, some bills set to come before Congress could change election laws. There were proposed limits on campaign contributions. Individuals would not be able to contribute more than $5,000 to a presidential campaign and corporations would be prohibited from contributing at all. Also, election betting and advertising of election odds would be a felony if upcoming bills were passed.


The weather was typical for the season
Tuesday, January 2 was a cloudy day with a temperature around 35 degrees. The ice on the Chemung River was thick enough to ice skate on between the dam and Rorick’s Glen and there was enough snow to enjoy coasting, or sledding, in the surrounding hills. Unfortunately, most kids wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy free time outdoors. The schools were back open that morning after a 10 day holiday break.

The snow and ice did cause some problems, however. Just a day or so earlier several youngsters coasting over in Pine Valley ran into a concrete horse block and suffered severe sprains and bruises. A car and a delivery truck went sliding on the ice and collided at the corner of Railroad Avenue and West First Street in Elmira. In another incident, five-year-old Robert Mooney stepped off an ice wagon and ran across Grand Central Avenue. He slipped on an ice covered snowbank and was run over by a police auxiliary automobile. The boy wasn’t seriously hurt; only one of the front wheels ran over him.


There were a ton of things to do for fun in the city
Back 100 years ago there was little danger of not finding anything to do in Elmira. The paper is filled with entertainment options. The YMCA presented a pet and hobby show and a gymnastic exhibition and the Business Women’s Club held a dance at the Federation Building. The Mozart Theater was hosting the play “Puddin’ Head Wilson” based on Mark Twain’s novel, “Other Man’s Wife” was playing at the Lyceum Theater, and there was a vaudeville show at the Majestic.

Boxing and bowling were particularly popular. There were several small articles about the results of boxing bouts. Elmira boxer “Cyclone” Williams was defeated by Harry Boyle in Binghamton in a bout that fans called “one of the classiest that has been staged in the city for many months.” Bowling scores from various local teams were also reported. The new bowling alley had just opened at Morrow Manufacturing Company’s plant and Tool Room #1 team was at the top of the rankings.


Individuals also attended all sorts of other events from card parties and bridal showers to dinners and bon fires, many of them held in private homes. This leads me to the next thing I learned about people back then...

Everyone was up in each other’s business
Did your out-of-town niece visit over the holidays? Did you have a nice dinner with six of your closest friends? Did you have an emergency appendectomy? Well, if you did, you very well could have ended up in the paper. This one issue alone has pages and pages of social announcements. There are listings of births, engagements, weddings, and funeral, as is typical in our newspapers today, but there was also more personal information. For example, everyone got to know that Mrs. O.D. Shoemaker of Van Etten was staying with Mrs. John Bigley while Mrs. Shoemaker’s daughter was in the hospital here and that Mr. and Mrs. William B. Howe of Euclid Avenue spent New Year’s with Mrs. Margaret Howe of Binghamton. Who cares? Well, apparently the readers of the Star-Gazette did.


People are just people no matter the time period
I think ultimately what I learned about life here 100 years ago was that it was not that different from the way things are now. The newspaper ran advertisements for groceries, undergarments, records, and miracle cures. It listed commodity prices and stock market reports. It published editorials, funny stories, comics, and recipes. The classifieds were filled with employment opportunities, apartments for rent, and miscellaneous items for sale. People lost jewelry and found stray dogs. They offered painting and handyman services and bred ferrets for sale as pets. They read world, national, and regional news but seemed most interested in what was happening in their own hometown.


Oh, and one more thing I learned…

Everyone was constipated