Friday, February 15, 2019

When Crime Doesn’t Pay

by Erin Doane, Curator

Officer John Hurley had come up against some hardened criminals before, but nothing like the gang he encountered in 1903. He had been a member of the Elmira Police Department for five years, arresting people for vagrancy and public intoxication, petit larceny and burglary, and even riding a bicycle on the sidewalk without a permit, but, on June 12, he came upon a type of misbehavior he had never encountered before – a six-year-old boy and his buddies on a wild spending spree.

Officer John Hurley, c. 1900
Little Johnnie Presnel of 103 Bloomer Avenue told all his buddies about the $20 bill in his pocket and led them through downtown Elmira looking for ways to spend the cash. None of his pals bothered to ask where he had gotten the money and none of them cared. Arriving at a store on Water Street, Johnnie entered alone. When he stepped outside again, he showed off the brand new air gun he had purchased for $1. His companions were rightly impressed. All they had were pretend guns whittled out of pine branches.

And not only did Johnnie have a new gun, now he suddenly had more bills than before. As a six-year-old, he likely didn’t have a good grasp on the value of the paper bills. He just knew that he had walked into the store with just one bill and came out with multiple. So, he and the boys went on their way, anxious to spend more.

Johnnie led the procession up Railroad Avenue and they went on a “peanut spree,” buying and eating all the roasted legumes they could, much to the delight of the peanut vendor. The indulgence was a bit much for a few of the boys whose stomachs began to ache. Some went home but there was still a good number in the gaggle when they encountered Officer Hurley. He bravely stopped them in their tracks and demanded to know what they were up to. After listening to several unsatisfactory explanations, he pinned Johnnie as the ringleader and took him into custody.

Detective Charles Gradwell, c. 1900
At the police station in City Hall, Officer Hurley was still unable to get the truth out of Little Johnnie. He had to bring in the big guns, Detective Charles Gradwell. The detective had joined the Elmira Police Department a year before Officer Hurley and had a reputation as a friendly soul who always got his man. Under his questioning, the boy first said he received the money in a letter from an uncle and that his mamma had insisted that he spend every cent in any way he saw fit. Detective Gradwell did not see any truth in his answer so they called Johnnie’s father, John Presnel, into the station. John questioned his son and got no better answers. They did find out that the child had $16 left of the original $20 and that one of his companions had borrowed a few bills from him when he wasn’t looking.

Finally, the detective turned oh his “bad cop” persona and suggested that they hang the boy up with a rope tied around his neck unless he told the truth. At this threat, the six-year-old finally broke. With tears streaming down his little cheeks, he confessed that he had taken the money out of his mother’s pocketbook. With the mystery solved, the police turned Johnnie over to his father who promised that he had a slipper with an extra thick sole waiting at home to be properly brought into use on his wayward son.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Freedom Rider

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On May 4, 1961, thirteen members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) boarded busses in Washington, D.C. with plans to travel south to New Orleans. The mixed-race group consisting of seven African Americans and six whites planned to flagrantly violate local segregation laws in order to challenge the non-enforcement of the Supreme Court decisions Morgan v. Virginia (1946) and Boynton v. Virginia (1960). In both cases, the court had found that segregation in interstate public transportation and associated terminals was unconstitutional. The Riders hoped provoke a reaction that would raise awareness of the on-going problem. And boy, did they ever. 

As the Freedom Riders headed further south, they came under increasing attack. Several were arrested in the Carolinas and Mississippi for violating segregation laws. Their bus was attacked by multiple mobs in Alabama. By the time they reached Birmingham, Alabama, the Kennedy administration was urging them to stop. Instead, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) set out on another bus, this time from Nashville, on May 17. Over the course of the summer, some 450 people from across the country would join the movement. 

A white mob burned the Freedom Riders' bus outside Anniston, Alabama on May 14, 1961
One of those people was Patricia Bryant, a 20-year-old Elmiran and EFA graduate. She’d just finished up her sophomore year studying social work at Central Ohio State College in Dayton, Ohio when she told her father she was going south to test segregation. On June 9th, she and four fellow CORE members took a train down the Illinois-Central Railroad to Jackson, Mississippi. Bryant was the only African American in her group. All five of them were arrested for breaching the peace after refusing to leave the whites-only waiting room at the station. 
Patricia Bryant
Bryant and her friends were given the harshest sentence of any of the Freedom Riders to date at that point: a $200 and 4 months in jail. By that point, the city and county jails were filling up as Riders intentionally got themselves arrested and prisoners were being transferred to Mississippi State Penitentiary where they were subject to abuse. Isaac Bryant was understandably worried about his daughter’s safety and turned to the local NAACP for help and advice. The same day Patricia Bryant was arrested, the NAACP asked the U.S. District Court to intercede on the Freedom Riders’ behalf and protect them from arrest.  The local NAACP could do little to help Bryant, but promised to back her if she attempted to appeal her conviction. They also planned a welcome home party to celebrate her scheduled release in October.

Luckily for her, Patricia Bryant didn’t serve her full sentence. She was released on June 16th on $500 bond. A large crowd was on hand to greet her at the Chemung County Airport when she flew home after a brief stay with her mother in Long Island. In September, she transferred to Ithaca College where she received her degree in social work. No word on if the local NAACP ever threw her that party.

The Freedom Rider movement continued to build throughout the summer even as the violence against the Riders escalated. By September, leaders from CORE and SNCC began planning a mass demonstration in Washington, but their plans were interrupted by a ruling from the Interstate Commerce Commission. Effective November 1, 1961, all interstate transportation lines and terminals would be forced to desegregate everywhere. Black passengers could sit where they wanted, eat at the station lunch counters, and use what had once been whites-only bathrooms. The alliances formed between Southern and Northern activists became the backbone of the later civil rights movement and many individual Riders went on to participate in subsequent campaigns.  

Patricia Bryant’s story is just one of those profiled in our up-coming on-line exhibit The Color of Change. The exhibit looks at the 100-year history of the local branch of the NAACP. It will go live on February 15th. Come check it out at:

Monday, February 4, 2019

New Year, New Mascot

by Susan Zehnder, Director of Education 

February already, it seems the year just started. Regardless, it’s still a great time of year to reflect on new things. While new resolutions, new diets and new ideas abound, here, with a change of the educational baton at the Chemung County Historical Society, the new season of school and outreach programs has kicked off. For us, it’s a chance to encourage young historians from all over the county to learn more about our museum and the stories inside. When I recently asked a kindergarten class what’s inside a history museum, I was delighted to hear the reply, “everything!” And, cheering us on is our trusty and beloved museum ambassador Mark the Mammoth already known on Facebook and Twitter for his quirky antics. 

Our mammoth loosely represents the Big Horn Mammoth tusk or horn discovered in the Chemung River similar to the one prominently displayed in our main gallery. It is the confessed current favorite museum artifact of our own Director Bruce Whitmarsh, and is our mascot of mirth. Seems to fit, as Mark gets his name from another important Mark associated with Chemung County.

Speaking of mascots, did you know at the end of last year a new museum in Whiting, Indiana opened as The Mascot Hall of Fame? Looking up the dictionary definition for mascot, I find they are supposed to bring good luck! So here are a few other local lucky mascots they might consider:

First, we have the Elmira Pioneers in 1936 posing here as 2nd half champions.  Note their mascot was youngster H. Arnold, who probably doubled as their bat boy. He looks pretty pleased with his role, I’m just wondering what happened to the first half champions?

Likewise, many local homeowners may have considered the LaFrance Fire Engine’s Dalmatian mascot especially lucky when they needed help. 

Our museum collection also houses a few other examples of local mascots. For example, we’ve got a bumper sticker from the Southside Green Hornets,
 and an image of Elmira Free Academy’s Blue Devil mascot.
EFA is proud of notable alumni like Hal Roach (1908), Ernie Davis (1958), Bob DeLaney (1942), Tommy Hilfiger (1970), and Eileen Collins (1974). Today, known as the Ernie Davis Academy and serving grades 8-9, their mascot remains a blue devil, but they identify as the Elmira Express, a nickname given to the legendary Heisman winning Ernie Davis, a player noted for his exceptional speed.

Over the years, mascots change. Today, our local Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League Elmira Pioneers use an image of a fierce pioneer as their logo but their mascot Stitches is the one who cavorts with the crowd to bring the team luck.
   (photo supplied by Elmira Pioneers)
And the new Federal Hockey League Franchise, The Enforcers have their version too. While their logo shows a burly police officer, their good luck charm may be their mascot Captain K-9.
  (photo supplied by Elmira Enforcers)
Like all the other mascots, he  shows up at games to engage the audience, and charm the crowd. He is a dog who accompanies the Enforcers ice hockey team at home and away games, strutting his stuff.

Our own icy mascot has changed too. Here at the Chemung County Historical Society, we’ve kicked off our new year introducing a new version of our mascot on Twitter and Facebook and now Instagram. He’s a smaller, leaner dude with just the right attitude.

 Already out visiting school classrooms, fairs, and even posting some of his exploits (with help), we’re finding he’s a good match for February’s cold and ice.  
Follow our icy @MarktheMammoth on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and our wish that he brings you good luck too!

Monday, January 28, 2019

Tragedy at the Airmada

by Erin Doane, Curator

On November 5, 1945 the Wings of Victory Airmada buzzed over the city of Elmira. The fleet of ten warplanes landed at the Chemung County Airport and prepared for a three-day event celebrating the Victory Bond campaign. At the conclusion of the event, two airplanes collided. Both were destroyed and six men lost their lives.

Chemung County Airport, November 8, 1945
The Wings of Victory Airmada was a joint operation of the U.S. War and Treasury Departments following World War II. Its mission was to promote the Victory Bond campaign. It was one of several fleets touring the country. The Airmada assembled at the Rome Army Base at the end of October and flew to Rochester and Buffalo before coming to Big Flats on November 5. It was supposed to move on to Stewart Field at West Point after visiting Chemung County.

Maj. Philip D. Wachtel Jr. of Truax Field, Madison, Wisconsin was Commander of the fleet of fourteen military aircrafts. Because of the length of the air field in Big Flats, only ten of the planes could land: B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell, A-26 Invader, P-51 Mustang, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-38 Lightning, C-46 Commando transport, C-47 Skytrain transport, AT-6 Texan trainer, and CG-10 cargo glider. The 34 members of the Airmada’s crew were assembled from eight airfields throughout the country. Most of them had served overseas and been in combat.

Wings of Victory Airmada crew, Star-Gazette, November 2, 1945
The Airmada spent two full days on the ground at the airport, offering tours to the thousands of people who visited. “With the lid off on military secrecy,” as a Star-Gazette reporter put it, visitors could see “many instruments and devices which put the real dent in the Axis powers.” Airmen played tour guides, opening up cargo ships and inviting people to step inside. Of particular interest was the P-38 reconnaissance ship which had five huge cameras, one in the nose, two on each side, and two beneath, to capture various views of the enemy.

While nearly 10,000 people got to explore the airplanes, the main purpose of the Airmada was to raise money through Victory Bonds. Capt. Henry N. Hamington, pilot of the B-17 Flying Fortress, and Capt. Bedford B. Riggan, pilot of the C-47 cargo ship, spoke to a large gathering of employees at Remington Rand. They shared battle stories and urged people to buy bonds “to clinch the peace.” The cargo glider was transformed into a Victory Bond booth on the airfield. The Minute Maids, “the trim special event sales girls,” handed out bond order blanks and signed people up for subscriptions. At the end of the second day of the event, the glider was towed over to Schweizer Aircraft Corp where the employees there held a bond rally around it.

Star-Gazette, November 9, 1945
The Airmada had a successful fundraising visit to Chemung County. Fifty-five county businesses and countless individuals subscribed to Victory Bonds, exceeding the quota and setting the campaign well on its way to meeting its $1.3 million goal. But as the fleet was leaving on Thursday morning, November 8, tragedy struck.

At around 10:30am, as the fleet was taking off to leave, the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter and the B-25 Mitchell bomber collided in midair and burst into flames. The five crewmen of the B-25 and the pilot of the P-47 were killed and debris was strewn over more than 20 acres at the north end of the airport’s north-south runway. Fortunately, the crash occurred far enough away from the nearly 100 spectators who had gathered that none were injured.

Eyewitnesses told the Star-Gazette that the P-47 appeared to be trying to come into formation with the B-25 when it crashed into the bomber. An experienced combat pilot who was there did not think that the pilot of the fighter actually saw the other plane. The blunt nose and forward-set wings of the P-47 may have obstructed his view. Members of the Army Air Forces Board of Inquiry from the Rome Air Base arrived that afternoon to conduct an investigation but I never found a report in the press.

Photograph taken by Myron Mills, former Army Air
Corps pilot and amateur photographer, seconds after
the collision, Star-Gazette, November 9, 1945
On November 9, 1945, the names of those who died in the crash were announced:
·        2nd Lt. William J. Driver, Detroit, pilot
·        1st Lt. Edwin S. Tyler, Saisun, California, pilot
·        1st Lt. John L. Corum, Hopewell, Virginia, bombardier-navigator
·        Pfc. Verrel C. Shook, Aurora, Indiana, engineer
·        Cpl. Wilbur G. Heckner, Rochester, radio operator
·        1st Lt. Merle R. Capp, Springfield, Missouri, P-47 pilot (veteran of 77 European combat missions)

Star-Gazette, November 9, 1945