Monday, December 5, 2016

Potato Fight: New York vs. Maine, An Early “Buy Local” Movement

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

When I ask you to think of a state known for potatoes, you probably think of Idaho, right? Well, in the 19th and early-to-mid-20th century, you probably would have said New York or Maine. New York was the United States’ early potato producing leader, but by the 20th century, Maine farmers were starting to outpace New Yorkers. Chemung County, and the Southern Tier and central New York in general, was a significant potato producing region. When Maine potatoes began flooding both national and local markets, farmers from this region felt the pinch (importantly, some of this competition also happened during the Great Depression, increasing financial strains). One local grocery store chain, however, made it a key piece of their advertising to take on the Maine farmers and promote buying local potatoes.

By 1906, the local news was reporting on increased competition on the potato market from Maine growers, particularly from Aroostook County in the far northern part of the state. New rail lines made it possible to ship the potatoes down to the New York City markets, which until then were dominated by New York farmers. Maine potatoes weren’t the only competition; in 1912, potatoes were imported from Scotland and sold in this region, despite a bumper crop locally. Still, Maine emerged as the largest competition. This was troubling, because as one local report called them, potatoes were “a mortgage lifter for southern tier farmers.”  

On October 24, 1927, the A&P grocery store ran an advertisement in the Star-Gazette continuing their annual potato sale. The ad emphasized that they were selling “fancy Maine potatoes,” not to be confused with “local Potatoes which are being offered at a lower price. Remember A&P always sticks to quality.” The ad also noted that their sale had been such a giant success that they had to turn hundreds of potato customers away the week before, but that there would be plenty more “speeding” there from Maine.

This didn’t go over well with the local Serv-U Save-U grocery stores, owned by individual local businessmen. A couple days later, on Thursday, October 27, the full-page Serv-U Save-U advertisement in the Star-Gazette was headed by the following:
“Mr. Farmer:-
          Do you raise State of Maine Potatoes? That’s what is being handled by the Chain Stores. Is this doing you or the community any good?
          Think it over!”
An Elmira Serv-U Save-U store, with presumably local potatoes out front
Now, the A&P did sometimes sell local potatoes, and the Serv-U Save-U stores occasionally advertised southern or Jersey potatoes, but by the late 1920s, the local potato battle lines were drawn for Serv-U Save-U. Over the next few years, their ads featured more and more prominent pleas for people to shop locally. “Help the local farmer” became an advertising rallying cry. (Interestingly, though they carried other local produce, as well as imported, potatoes were the only ones that were the focus of their campaign, probably due to high local, state, and national tensions and pride about that particular crop.)

October 25, 1928

October 12, 1933

October 15, 1936

By the late 1930s and 1940s, Serv-U Save-U seemingly gave up their vocal fight. In 1939, they even advertised Maine potatoes. 
Serv-U Save-U ad for Maine potatoes, March 9, 1939.
Ironically, this might have been because Maine potatoes were suddenly being grown much closer to home. By the late 1930s, Maine potato farmers began buying up land in Steuben County to create large potato farms. They cited taxes as the primary reason (tax rates weren’t necessarily lower, but the land value here was, leading to tax savings for those who relocated). Proximity to large cities in which to sell the potatoes was another key factor. From 1938 to 1940, 32 farms, or 3,000 acres, were purchased by Maine potato farmers.


The potato feud wasn’t totally over, but by the 1940s, Maine emerged the winner, and the state was the top potato producer in the country. Local farms didn’t disappear, however, and there was still a lot of pride in the local yield. In 1943, in the midst of World War II, the War Food Administration proposed creating a storehouse for surplus Maine potatoes somewhere in central New York. The Star-Gazette mocked this plan, stating, “the idea of storing Maine potatoes in a potato section of New York seems illogical, if not impolite. It is bad enough to sell them here…New York State potato growers will have to see what they can do hereafter to overcome these Maine pressures on the home crop.” 

Maine’s potato dominance waned over the rest of the 20th century, opening the vacuum that Idaho would eventually come to occupy. Still, this early example of fighting back against imported crops is a nice example of an organized movement to buy locally, something we associate more with today than the mid-20th century.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Is Your Pantry Ready?

By Megan Barney, Elmira College Intern


During the 1950s and 1960s, there was a widespread fear of nuclear war. In response, the government advocated for the creation of fallout shelters, both in personal homes and in community places.  In Elmira, families built their own fallout shelters and organizations created community ones.  Among others, one was located in the since demolished Robinson Building on Lake Street.  Each location provided a central place for people to escape to in the event of a nuclear attack.
Advertisement, 1950
Robinson Building, c. 1960s
The Office of Civil Defense on the local, state, and federal levels also released comprehensive documents on how to survive a nuclear attack. Such publications included what goods and necessities should be stocked in the fallout shelter.  When it came to food, the New York State Civil Defense Commission and the United States Department of Defense suggested that food should be stockpiled in the shelter.  Each family member was supposed to have enough food for 14 days in order to let the nuclear fallout settle.

The suggested foods included milk, juice, fruits, vegetables, soups, one-dish meals, sweet spreads, crackers, cereals, beverages, sugar, hard candy, and salt, all of which equated to 2000 calories per day for an adult.  Most Civil Defense Offices argued that non-perishable food such as the ones listed above could last for up to three years if stored correctly.  In the case of emergency, however, moldy bread was edible, sour milk was drinkable, and fruits and vegetables with rotten spots were acceptable to eat.  Even foods that were exposed to nuclear fallout could be washed, peeled, and enjoyed.

C. 1950-60
1960
In the case of a nuclear attack, water was more important for the survival of people than food.  Under extreme circumstances, people can survive three weeks without food, but only three days without water.  The Civil Defense Offices advocated that each family member should have seven gallons of drinking water stored in air tight containers.  In most cases, water could also be found in hot water heaters that often stored anywhere from 30 to 60 gallons of water. However, if push came to shove, water was readily available in different pipes in the home, including the toilet bowl.

In the end, the most important part of surviving an atomic bombing was not only finding immediate shelter and having a stockpile of food for two weeks, but also selecting familiar foods.  The New York State Civil Defense Commission suggested that families should select familiar foods because “they are more heartening and acceptable during times of stress” and could be a potential morale lifter in times of tragedy.  So if tragedy strikes, is your pantry and family ready?

Friday, November 18, 2016

If I’d Known You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake



by Rachel Dworkin,  Archivist

Pork Cake – Half a pound of salt pork chopped fine, two cups of molasses, half-pound of raisins chopped well, two eggs, two teaspoons each of clove, allspice and mace, half a teaspoon of salertus or soda, and soda enough to make a stiff better.  Oven must not be too hot.  Our Own Book of Everyday Wants, 1888

Baking isn’t easy for me on a good day, but old-time recipes certainly don’t make it any easier. Our Own Book of Everyday Wants was published and distributed by the Elmira Weekly Gazette & Free Press in the autumn 1888. It contains recipes for deserts like cakes and cookies, as well as meat and side dishes. Some of them sound pretty good and some of them are creamed codfish. None of them include cook times or cooking directions any more specific than ‘not too hot.’
Top of the line stove in 1888.
 The modern convenience of an oven with precise temperature control is a relatively new thing.  Back when Our Own Book of Everyday Wants came out, most kitchens had a cast iron wood or coal burning oven range.   Temperature control was less than precise. On the stove top, cooks adjusted the temperature by moving the pots to warmer or cooler sections of the range.  This was known, for some reason, as the ‘piano method.’ The oven, on the other hand, could only be adjusted by adding more fuel or letting the fire die down.
The first electric range was patented in the 1890s. It produced heat by running electricity through a metal coil and allowed the user to adjust the temperature by controlling the strength of the current. Despite the usefulness of the invention, it took a while for electrical oven range to catch on. The biggest problem was infrastructure. In the 1890s, only the new mansions along Maple Avenue actually had power and it wasn’t until 1930 that the entire county was electrified. See Let There Be Light for details.

Of course, the electric oven wasn’t the only new and improved thing in the kitchen.   From the 1880s through the 1920s, there were hundreds of patents issued for time and labor-saving devices. These handy kitchen gadgets included everything from mechanical peelers to meat grinders to mixers to beaters. They made life so much easier and housewives quickly fell in love.
Sargent's Gem Food Chopper - Your kitchen isn't complete without it

Take, for example, Sargent’s Gem Food Chopper, first patented in 1901.  It came with four blades for shredding, chopping, and pulverizing, as well as a special sausage stuffing attachment. Instead of spending hours manually chopping up meats or vegetables, a housewife could do it all with a few cranks of a handle.  It even came with its own cookbook full tasty recipes and labor-saving ideas.  Compare the two pork cake recipes.  Which one sounds easier?

Pork Cake
1 pound fat salt pork
1 pound raisins
2 cups sugar
1 cup molasses
2 eggs
5 cups flower
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon soda


Gem-Chop together one pound each of fat salt pork and raisins; pour over these one pint of boiling water, add two cups of sugar, one cup of molasses and two eggs, well beaten; mix thoroughly, then sift in nearly five cups of silted flour, two teaspoons of cinnamon, one teaspoon each, of cloves, mace, and soda. Beat thoroughly and bake in two tins, lined with buttered paper, about one hour.  A slow oven (300o) is needed.  Gem Chopper Cook Book, compliments of G.A. Gridley &  Son, grocer, 1901


Monday, November 14, 2016

A Tragic History of Tiny Stoves

by Erin Doane, curator

Children love to pretend to cook. That’s not surprising as food is such a huge part of our lives. I remember making mud “pies,” milk weed pod “pickles,” and “pizza” out of a piece of wood covered in sawdust “cheese” (I grew up at a lumber mill). Some of my luckier friends actually had Easy-Bake Ovens so they could really bake. Kitchen toys have been around for longer than some of us may imagine. In the 19th century, girls played with toy stoves to help them learn their duties as a housewife.
Miniature cast iron stove, late 19th-early 20th century
Miniature cast iron stoves, which very closely resembled the real thing, were very popular by the 1890s. No child’s playroom was complete without a real little kitchen including a toy stove. Some were just toys that children could pretend to cook on while others were functional. In 1892, the Marshal Field & Co. catalog had a listing for a toy stove that could actually be used for cooking. Small hot coals could be put inside to heat it up. The miniature stove pictured below from the museum’s collection has some sooty residue inside which means it was probably used like that at one time or another.

Miniature cast iron stove, late 19th-early 20th century
You might think that giving a child a working stove may be a bad idea and you would be correct. My research into toy stoves took a dark turn when I found a story in the April 23, 1890 Rome Daily Sentinel reporting on how some children in Utica tipped over a toy stove and set their 2-story frame house ablaze. That made me wonder if it was common for children’s toy stoves to set things on fire. Unfortunately, it appears that it was.

I did not find any stories of accidental toy stove fires in Chemung County but there were many more from around the state and region. In 1897 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a 2-year-old left alone at home was playing with matches and a toy stove. She set her clothes on fire and burned to death. In 1909, a 6-year-old in St. Louis, Missouri lit a fire in her toy stove with coal oil. The stove exploded, setting her dress on fire. Both her mother and father were injured trying to extinguish the flames and the child died of her burns. There were two reported cases of toy stove fires in New York just days apart in 1915. A 2-month-old burned to death in her a crib after her 3-year-old sister started a fire with her toy stove. Another 5-year-old girl, Edna May Frost, died when she tried to heat up some milk on her toy stove to feed her new baby doll. You can read all the sad, terrible details of both incidents in the article below.

Article from the New York Herald, June 12, 1915
These kinds of accidents kept appearing in newspapers through the 1920s. In 1921, three little girls are playing with a new toy stove and iron they had just received for Christmas. The youngest, 3-year-old Lillian, tried to put some paper into the stove and her cloths caught on fire. Marion, who was 5 years old, and Gertrude, 7, tried to put out the flames but also caught fire. An older sister came to their rescue but Lillian died from her burns. An opinion article that appeared in the Watertown Daily Times in 1923 called for the manufacture and sale of toys stoves to be prohibited because of all these fires. The writer argued that children naturally wanted to emulate the adults around them. They would find ways to start fires in their stoves as they saw their mothers do in their real kitchens no matter how careful the parents were. A ban on the toys could be the only solution.

The instances of fires and deaths caused by toy stoves decrease through early 20th century. That could have been because of some sort of crackdown on the sales of the toys. It could have also been because of the introduction of electric toy stoves around 1915. Girls no longer needed fire to heat their stoves. They simply plugged them in and the tiny ovens and range tops would come up to temperature. By the late 1930s, parents were adding electrical outlets to their children’s play rooms so they could plug in their new toy stoves.

Electric toy stove, early-mid-20th century
Electric toy stove, mid-20th century


Monday, November 7, 2016

Competitive Eating: A Local History

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

In recent years, competitive eating has become a popular and widely-recognized activity (some would say sport) with professional organizations and contests with major prize money. The 4th of July hot dog eating contest sponsored by Nathan’s Famous on Coney Island is a televised annual spectacle that features contestants downing inhuman amounts of processed meats. But, while taken to extremes now, competitive eating is nothing new. For example, in Elmira over the past 100+ years, there have been eating contests featuring raisins, crackers, corn, bread, cake, fried cake, pancakes, ice cream, clams, hot dogs, doughnuts, eggs, lollipops, apples, candy, milk, sandwiches, and peanuts, just to name a few.
Local corn eating contest, 1921
American eating contests got their start at county fairs and community gatherings. For most, pie was the food of choice. Pie eating contests were popular in Elmira from as early as the 1890s. Sometimes the contests would be only for youths or they would be separated by gender (yes, ladies-only pie contests were popular). In other contests, everyone participated together.
Pie contest, Elmira Heights, 1955
 Pie contests were a centerpiece of local company outings and were the source of the most anticipation and drama. For example, at a September 1920 American-LaFrance annual gathering: “In the tug-of-war contest the most disastrous event of the afternoon occurred. P.D. Zeippto, a man upon whom friends relied to carry away the laurels in the pie eating contest, lost a tooth. Zeippto, while resting upon the ground, placed the end of the tug-of-war rope in his mouth. Someone pulled the rope and with it came one of Zeippto’s teeth.” The contest continued, minus Zeippto, and “All four contestants during the contest suffered from acute attacks of lockjaw” from the quantity of huckleberry pie.
Advertisement, 1926
That same month, at the American Sales Book Company picnic, “the most disastrous event of the afternoon came in the pie eating contest. Murphy was far in the lead in this game and was nearing the center of his third cocoanut pie when someone pushed his head. Flanden then took the lead in the race and easily won by eating four pies- an apple, one custard, and two rhubarbs in less than three minutes.”

The other most popular food for eating contests was watermelon. Watermelon contests, while frequently open to all competitors, did often have racist connotations and built upon the post-Emancipation stereotypical racial symbolism of the fruit. As late as the 1930s, these contests were advertised as only open to African American boys or they pitted black children against white children.
Contest recruitment, 1901.
Most contests were more light-hearted, however. When the Hoyt’s Musical Revue was at the Lyceum Theatre in 1918, they arranged special events, including a spaghetti eating contest to “learn who the champion spaghetti eater is in Elmira.” In 1925, cracker contests (which involved eating a bunch of crackers and whistling a tune) were so popular, the newspaper printed contest instructions. The YWCA hosted caramel and marshmallow contests in 1930 as part of their Halloween celebration. A 1933 Kiwanis meeting featured a “ludicrous banana eating contest” between Fred D. Crispin and Osmond G. Wall.

The heyday of competitive eating in Elmira seems to have peaked in the 1920s, but it remained popular through early 1950s. Understandably, there was a decrease in that type of activity during the Great Depression. Likely, if there was extra food available, it would have been seen as poor taste to make such a spectacle of gorging oneself. By the 1910s and 1920s, contests sometimes featured branded products (like the original Nathan’s contest in 1916) or a 1920 Nabisco eating contest in Elmira.
1939
I will conclude with my favorite instance of competitive eating in Elmira, which also happened to be a city-wide endeavor. For Good Friday, April 10, 1925, local bakeries worked together to make 56,936 hot cross buns. The goal was for everyone in the city to have all of them eaten by midnight. By 3pm, 31,726 had been eaten. I’m not sure if they hit their goal or not.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Dead Presidents

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Over the course of United States history, four presidents have been assassinated in office: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy.  In each instance, their deaths rocked the nation. Here at the Chemung County Historical Society we have a surprisingly large collection of material associated with each presidential assassination.
Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865)

Thanks to the telegraph, news of President Lincoln’s death spread like wildfire. The assassination shocked and enraged a nation still reeling from the aftermath of the recently-ended Civil War.  His assassination was part of a larger plot to re-start the war. At the time of Lincoln’s death, one of the conspirators, John Surrat, was in Elmira scouting out the Confederate prisoner of war camp in the hopes of opening up a second front behind enemy lines.  He fled to Canada when he heard of Lincoln’s death and was never convicted for his involvement in the conspiracy. 
After lying in state for two days in Washington, D.C., Lincoln’s body was placed on a funeral train which went on to visit 12 cities in 13 days. A public funeral service was held for the president in each city before he was finally laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois, on May 3, 1865. Although the funeral train never visited Elmira, the city did hold a massive public funeral service for him in Wisner Park.
Mourning ribbon worn at the funeral service for Abraham Lincoln in Wisner Park, 1865

James Garfield (July 2, 1881)
President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau shortly after taking office and died of his wounds eleven weeks later.  During his trial it became clear that Guiteau was mentally unstable.  He claimed that he killed Garfield out of revenge for not being appointed as the ambassador to France.  

Invitation to the hanging of Charles Guiteau, 1882
Local reporter J.H. Post was invited to attend the hanging of Charles Guiteau on June 30, 1882 in Washington, D.C.  Afterwards, he received a piece of the rope used to hang the assassin.  CCHS has the letter from the hangman authenticating it, but the actual rope fragment has been lost to time.

William McKinley (September 6, 1901)
President McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901.  Over the next few days, the nation watched anxiously as he seemed to recover.  On September 13th, he took a turn for the worse when his wounds became infected and died the next morning. 

Pan-American Exposition at night taken by Robert Turner, local amateur photographer

John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963)
President Kennedy was shot by while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. His assassination was captured on film by several people in the audience, including Dallas resident Abraham Zapruder.  The Zapruder film was purchased by Life magazine and key frames from it appeared in November and December issues. On the TV, the nation watched live coverage of Kennedy’s funeral and witnessed his family’s grief firsthand.

Thank-you letter from Jackie Kennedy in response to a letter of condolence sent by Mr. & Mrs. Bernard Webb

Monday, October 24, 2016

Executions in Elmira

by Erin Doane, curator

During the 19th century, more than 90 people were executed in New York State. Three of those executions took place in Elmira.

Henry Gardner – Executed March 1, 1867 for the murder of Amasa Mullock

Henry Gardner was a soldier with the 12th Regiment of the United States infantry stationed at the Pickaway Barracks in Southport. The 24-year-old from Ohio was one of many soldiers who came through Elmira during the Civil War. Amasa Mullock was an old man who was well-known about Elmira. On December 29, 1864, Gardner robbed Mullock of $300-$400 and a watch then beat the man to death with his musket.

Nearly three months later, on March 19, 1865, a group of soldiers were rambling in the woods about a mile and a half from Elmira when they came upon Mullock’s body. His head was terribly mangled and the rest of his body showed signs of violence.

Gardner was the last person seen with Mullock before he disappeared in December. He was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Hanging was the prescribed method of capital punishment at the time. Gallows were erected in the Chemung County jail yard in Elmira for the execution. Before the sentence was carried out, Gardner spoke to the crowd that had gathered to watch the hanging. He spoke of his misdeeds and declared that “liquor is the ruination of any man.”

The hanging was described as “bungled, horrible and revolting.” Gardner was dropped through the trap three times before finally dying. If that was not bad enough, his body was then turned over to Dr. P. H. Flood, a local Elmira physician. Flood embalmed and mummified Gardner’s body and kept it on display in a glass case in his office for many years. Eventually the body was moved into the cellar of Flood’s home then out to a barn on the property. A group of boys found the body in the barn and stole it. They put it in a vault at the brewery at the foot of East Water Street and set it on fire. Police found the charred remains and briefly investigated the “murder” before discovering that the body was that of Henry Gardner.

Peter H. Penwell – Executed July 20, 1877 for the murder of his wife

Peter Penwell was a resident of the Town of Erin. In December 1871, he married a woman from Toledo, Ohio whom he had known for just a week or two. He was in his late 50s at the time. About five years into their marriage, Penwell became jealous of a “magnetic quack” who was paying a great deal of attention to his wife. As a way to end their troubles as a couple, Penwell and his wife decided to poison themselves with arsenic. He gave his wife a large dose that put her on her sickbed without killing her and he took a smaller dose that was said to have made him crazy. Penwell’s father had died in a madhouse so mental illness was not unknown in the family.

On March 10, 1876, Penwell borrowed a razor from a neighbor, claiming that he needed to shave. He went into the room where his wife lay sick and chopped her to death with an old ax. He then cut his own throat with the borrowed razor. Penwell’s wound was not serious enough to kill him.

When he was first arrested, Penwell admitted to the crime. He said he had committed the murder in a jealous rage. Later he denied killing his wife. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was reported at the time that all agreed that he had committed the crime but some questioned the punishment. An Albany newspaper called it a “judicial murder.”

The gallows were constructed in the space between the old and new jail buildings in Elmira and a high board fence was built around the yard to keep out the immense crowd that gathered for the execution. Soldiers from the 110th battalion were even called in to keep the crowd under control.

About 250 people were admitted into the enclosure to witness the hanging. Penwell was attended by three ministers. His last words were of thanks to the sheriff and his family for the kind treatment he had received leading up to the execution. He then turned to the sheriff and said, “I am ready.” Unlike with Gardner’s hanging ten years earlier, Penwell’s execution was flawless and he died almost instantly. 

Joseph Abbott – Executed January 6, 1882 for the murder of George Reed


Joseph Abbot was described as “a tall, stoop-shouldered man with a beardless face and an evil look in his deep black eyes.” On September 14, 1879, he robbed a man named Brown of $5.50 and a silk handkerchief on a highway near Rome, New York. He was arrested and taken to Utica. On the way, he made a desperate attempt to escape. He jumped off a rock ledge, swam across a canal, and ran one and a half miles through a swamp before being recaptured. He was sentenced to the Elmira Reformatory for highway robbery.

While incarcerated, Abbott worked in the Reformatory’s hollowware shop making pots and kettles. George Reed was another inmate working in the shop. He was serving time for grand larceny. Some sort of argument took place between Abbott and Reed in the shop on April 10, 1880. Abbott found a 4-foot long, 1-inch diameter iron rod and hit Reed in the back of the head with it. He beat Reed several more time then returned to his work station.

The morning of his execution, Abbott had beefsteak, potatoes, toast, cake, and coffee for breakfast. He spent some time speaking with family, friends, and reporters. Abbott’s brother was by his side but his father was serving a life sentence in Connecticut State Prison for murder. The sheriff read the death warrant inside the jail because Abbott did not want to stand out in the cold listing to anything, then they proceeded to the gallows in the north jail yard. He was attended by three clergymen. Sources report that there were anywhere from 40 to 150 witnesses at the execution.

The 26-year-old’s final words were, “Good bye, gentlemen; in my death you witness a terrible injustice.” Abbott was hanged at 11:15am but his neck did not break. He was left to strangle for about five minutes before losing consciousness. He was declared dead by physicians 14 minutes after the hanging. His body was taken by train to his hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut to be laid to rest.