Monday, October 14, 2019

This Photo of a Dirigible Over Elmira is Fake!

by Erin Doane, Curator

“The Pageant of Decision” was a massive theatrical production that celebrated the Sesquicentennial of the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign.  On September 28, 1929, 2,000 local participants in Elmira performed the 17-act pageant on a half-mile wide outdoor stage on the slope of East Hill in front of nearly 75,000 spectators. The above photo from CCHS’s archive shows the Navy dirigible Los Angeles hovering over the pageant crowd. It is a wonderful, striking image. Too bad it’s fake.

The crowd shown is indeed gathered for the pageant in Elmira on September 28, but the Los Angeles was not there that Saturday afternoon. The massive airship, in fact, had flown over Elmira one week earlier on September 21. A photo that appeared in the Star-Gazette after the pageant show the exact same image (though a slightly wider view) without the dirigible.

Star-Gazette, September 30, 1929
The USS Los Angeles was a 658-foot-long rigid airship built in Germany in 1923-1924 as part of reparations after World War I. It was delivered to the U.S. Navy in 1924. It was primarily used as an observatory and experimental platform and as a training ship. In 1929, Congressman John Taber of Auburn arranged to have the dirigible fly from its base in Lakehurst, New Jersey up to Geneva on September 21 where it would circle the pageant being held there to commemorate the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign. (“The Pageant of Decision” was actually performed all across New York State in 1929.) So, the Los Angeles did appear at a pageant, just not at Elmira’s pageant. And it actually showed up early to the Geneva one, much to the disappointment of those in attendance.

The original plan was for the Los Angeles to leave Lakehurst on the morning of September 21, passing over Elmira around noon and arriving in Geneva in time to circle above their pageant, which began at 2:00pm. Instead, because of the weather conditions, the dirigible left New Jersey at 5:45 Friday evening, which changed its arrival time in Geneva to 7:30am on Saturday. The flight was non-stop, as there was no place for the airship to land except for in an emergency, so even though it circled the town for about half an hour, very few people there got to see it.

In Elmira, folks were also disappointed by the early passing of the massive airship, but it actually ended up passing over Elmira twice that day. At 5:40am, people who were awake and in the streets at that time could hear the dirigible’s motors droning as it passed over the city. The fog was so thick, however, that it was not visible. When Representative Gale H. Stalker of Elmira learned about the unexpectedly early flyover obscured by fog, he wired naval authorities to express his dissatisfaction. Navy officials then communicated with Lieutenant Commander Charles Rosendahl on the Los Angeles, and ordered him to return to Lakehurst by way of Elmira.

So, at noon on September 21, the Los Angeles sailed majestically over Elmira, bathed in sunlight. It lazily droned in from the northeast, cruised down the center of the city at an elevation of only about 1,000 feet, and then disappeared to the southeast. The original plan was for the dirigible to pass over the city at noon, so the only thing that really changed was the direction in which people saw it traveling. The newspapermen and cameramen of the Star-Gazette climbed onto the roof of their building to cover the story.

Photo taken from the roof of the Star-Gazette building 
Saturday, September 21, 1929. The towers are those of 
the First Presbyterian Church.
The Star-Gazette reported that when the airship passed overhead Elmira came to a standstill. “Husbands phoned their wives at home, binoculars and telescopes were brought forth, cameras were hastily adjusted and restaurants and offices were vacated and points of vantage were sought. Even automobiles were stopped in the streets, the drivers and passengers peering upward and hoping, no doubt, that no policeman would come along to spoil it by making them move on.” There was no waving of handkerchiefs or cheering, however, as everyone was too impressed to become vocal.

So, the USS Los Angeles did fly over Elmira and 75,000 people did gather the watch “The Pageant of Decision” in Elmira, but those two events did not happen at the same time or even on the same day. Why, then, do we have a photograph that indicates that they did? I, frankly, have no idea. Perhaps some photographically-talented trickster was just having a little fun back in the day, never expecting his or her creative image to become part of a museum’s collection. We will probably never know, but it is important to set the history straight.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Who works at a museum?

by Malachi Doane, museum helper

All buildings have a certain amount of internal infrastructure. Electrical, Plumbing, and Air Conditioning are all present in our homes businesses and at the museum as well. Normally my day to day work is as a project coordinator based at the museum and working on tourism projects. I look for and promote interesting but lesser well known sites in our area. Some days however I get to help with other needs around the museum such as exhibitions and electrical projects.

Keeping it all going falls to many hands and everyone at a small museum has to wear a few hats.  When it’s lighting in the cases the exhibits staff, typically under the direction of the curatorial department, become electricians.


Like many, our museum has lighting in the exhibit cases and small low voltage puck type lights were installed around the year 2000. This type of light fixture had halogen light bulbs in them when they first came out, it was before the revolution in LED technology we all enjoy today. As such they ran hot and bright, and emitted ultraviolet light even at low voltage. At our museum a clever system was installed to manage the light/UV/heat output of the little bulbs back when they were installed. Over the last twenty years though, the little lights and the crafty controllers did start to wear out.

Skip ahead to 2019 and the miniaturization of electronics along with advances in LED technology meant we could replace the old halogen bulbs directly, keeping the old fixtures with a bulb that made no UV light, used a fraction of the electricity and none of the heat in the cases.

A little digging for some new transformers as well to replace the old units which had nearly made 20 years in operation, and it was time to get out the ladder and bring our case lighting ahead into the twenty first century!

It’s good to remember that it takes all sorts of people to make a museum work. Our staff all come from various backgrounds, not always in history museums, some not from museums at all. As students we all faced the question, “when am I ever going to need to know this?” Electrical training for me began in high school volunteering backstage in theatrical productions as well as tinkering with ham radios in my spare time.  Internships and summer jobs between semesters called on those resources and helped me build new ones.  Today I was an electrician and an exhibits technician, tomorrow I’ll go back to managing social media and researching in the archives because keeping a museum working takes all sorts of skills.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Tell Me a Story

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

We tend to think of history as being paper-based, but some of the most interesting stories never make it onto the page. Newspaper accounts can’t tell us what it felt like to grow up in the Great Depression or deal with prejudice or fight in a war. A photograph can’t capture all the work and planning which went in to organizing the annual Iszard’s Holiday Parade. Only a conversation can. When it comes to understanding the lived experience of everyday people, oral histories are an invaluable tool.  

On September 6th and 7th, we held a story collection event at EOP. I spoke to five community members about what it was like growing up on Elmira’s Eastside. We also scanned photographs which other community members had brought in. Our plan is to not only use the stories and images in our up-coming exhibit on the Eastside, but also to share them as part of an on-line digital collection. If you, or anyone you known, has images or stories that they’d like to share for either part of the Eastside project, please contact me at (607) 734-4167 ex. 207.

Edna Mae Taylor, Woodrow Aikens, and Boyd Lee Taylor by the old EFA, 1950. Image courtesy of Edna Mae Taylor.
The Chemung County Historical Society recently joined the South Central Regional Library Council and I am super excited about it. SCRLC has all sorts of resources for digitizing collections including training, grants, and equipment. Members can share their digital collections via the New York Heritage website for researchers and educators to use. We already have three collections up on the website thanks to past collaborations with the Steele Memorial Library and the Corning Museum of Glass, but I hope to add more. This autumn, I plan to apply for a grant to digitize and post our oral history collection to New York Heritage so we can better share it with the world.

We currently have over 100 oral history recordings in various formats including audio cassette, VHS, and digital recordings. Topics include, among other things, the history of the local African-American and Asian-American communities; veterans’ experiences in the military; the flood of 1972; and the role Chemung County played in the 1969 moon landings. As I mentioned in an earlier post, in-house digitization of recorded media isn’t too expensive provided you have the right play-back equipment, but it is time consuming. A grant would allow us to digitize everything in one fell swoop without tying up computers or staff. We also have some born-digital material I hope to post in the coming months, whether or not we get the grant. 

Portion of our oral history collection
I once interviewed a woman who was convinced her story wasn’t worth capturing because it had just been her, living her life. That, I explained, was exactly what made it so valuable. I wanted her story of working in a local department store. I want your story of being a student or an activist or a housewife or whatever you are. I want your story because it is unique and valuable and fills in the history of our county. If you want to share it, I want to hear it. Call me. I’m ready to listen.

Monday, September 23, 2019

How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Last year Southside Community Center planted a community garden. They grew and harvested strawberries and cabbage.
Strawberry harvest from Southside Community Garden
Access to fresh fruits and vegetables from your own garden can be a seasonal bonus. Growing your own food isn’t new, and gardening as an American pastime has varied in popularity. As we slide into fall, here’s a snapshot of American home gardens over the last two hundred years.

At first, early settlers planted gardens at home for survival. Their gardens supplied most of their fresh fruit and vegetable needs. During the 1800s, storing and preserving methods improved, and more shops and food markets came into business. The reasons why people gardened and what they grew now changed. Having a garden at home became less critical, and growing flowers became popular. By the end of the 1800s, more gardeners grew decorative and ornamental plants than edible ones. 

American middle class home owners, heavily influenced by English landscape styles, started adding manicured lawns to the front of their homes. This moved food gardens to side or back yards. The image of a Victorian house and garden plan here from 1890s is a good example.

The house area is blue, and the food garden area is marked in pink. Foods  listed are currants, raspberries and grapes. These crops are hardly the kinds of food that would sustain a family. For many Americans, gardening became a hobby.

The early 20th century saw US citizens encouraged by the government to rethink this. During WWI, Americans were asked to step up and do their patriotic duty by preserving and growing their own food, again.

Later in WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked every American household to grow “victory” gardens to support the country's war efforts.
By 1943, close to 20 million home gardens flourished in the United States. Amazingly, these Victory gardens supplied almost half of the country's produce grown that year. Post wartime years returned better access to food, and many people became less interested in home gardening.

The 1970s brought renewed interest in gardening, directly inspired by the back-to-nature ecology movements. Concerns about chemical hazards prompted many gardeners to start using more organic gardening methods.

Today, reports indicate one-third of American households grow some sort of food crop. Living situations have changed over the last two hundred years, and finding spaces to garden today can be challenging. It’s not uncommon for people to grow edible plants in small spaces using containers and trellis supports. It's an opportunity to look at different kinds of gardens, like Southside’s community garden.

Community gardens, on private or public lands are defined as a single plot of land gardened collectively by a group of people. Like their name, these gardens provide a sense of community and connection to the neighborhood and to the environment, much like the garden at Elmira’s Southside Community Center. When asked what she thought the biggest impact the Center’s garden had on the kids, Director Cathleen Deery responded:

“…there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing something useful (especially edible!) that you’ve made yourself. Your success is obvious. I think that many of the Center’s kids especially need that sense of personal efficacy.
Southside Community Gardener at work
In 1979, the Star-Gazette featured an article on Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) of Chemung County, highlighting three community gardens. For more than one hundred years, CCE of Chemung County has offered classes to area farmers, local gardeners and interested hobbyists. Today, CCE's website lists over 10 community gardens located throughout Chemung County, along with helpful gardening advice:

One local company that started business in Elmira in 1880 as Jennings Seed Company on West Water Street provided seeds in small pouches like this to gardeners.
Small seed pouch
Renaming the company to Banfield-Jennings, they relocated to the Miracle Mile in Horseheads, where they continue to offer products and advice to gardeners with garden and lawn needs. 

Whether using containers, a backyard plot or being part of a community effort, what we grow in our gardens and the reasons we garden, differ. Few home gardens are planted for survival anymore. It just costs more in time and effort to grow our own food. We are lucky that food is widely available at local supermarkets, and food markets. Yet, we garden. An informal poll of nonprofessional gardeners by a large Midwest university found today’s gardeners rate exercise, beauty, and learning about plants and the food we eat as the top reasons they choose to garden. 

These proud gardeners from Southside Community Center reflect how gardening can be something to be proud of.
Proud Southside Community Center Gardeners