Sunday, March 19, 2017

Curiosities of Elmira

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I wrote a book. Curiosities of Elmira came out last Monday, and if you'll forgive me indulging in a bit of shameless self-promotion, I'd like to tell you a bit about it how it all came about.

Curiosities of Elmira was a surprise opportunity for me. I was in the beginning stages of another book project (feel free to ask me about that project another time- it involves fun stories about train-riding dogs in the late 19th century), but was at a bit of a standstill. Then I got an email. A mentor and friend of mine had gotten a request to write a book for The History Press, but it wasn't something she had time for. So she mentioned my name to them and said that I might be interested in a project. It was as simple and serendipitous as that.

After exchanging a bunch of emails with the acquiring editor, we decided that given my penchant for historical oddities, I would write a book in their Curiosities series. I submitted a proposal, including a tentative outline of chapters, and when that was accepted by the publishing board, I was ready to go. Approval came in January 2016.

Then the hard part started. My manuscript (all 35,000+ words of it) was due in September. So in about 8 months, I wrote the book. It was a tight timeline, but fortunately, through my work at the museum over the past 3+ years, I'd already done a bunch of the legwork and research for the stories. When the manuscript was submitted in September 2016, then we went through a whirlwind of edits, cover design, marketing plans, etc.

And that brings us to now. I hope that as someone who is already reading our blog, this book will have some stories that will interest you. In fact, you may recognize some of the stories in the book as things that first debuted on this blog! The book gives far more expanded versions of stories about Henry Clum, DeHollis and Valora, Edgar Philo, and more. And then there are lots of other stories that I haven't told anywhere else. The book covers a wide-range of topics, including chapters about important inventors, unusual crimes, weird animal stories, the supernatural, and forgotten famous Elmirans. Long-time blog readers and folks who know me pretty well know that I love a good strange story. Writing this book gave me an opportunity to celebrate some of the weirdest and most colorful people and events in our local history.  

Curiosities of Elmira is available at CCHS, from me (email me at or call me at 607-734-4167 ext. 205), at local retailers, and online. I'm proud of my first book and I hope that you pick up a copy. I'll also be doing some book signings and talks, starting with one at CCHS on Wednesday, March 29, from 5:30-7pm. I'll be sharing more about the stories in the book-- and some things that I regrettably had to cut!

Monday, March 13, 2017

We Work for Glory

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Around 8:30pm on the evening of May 7, 1878, the band played a solemn death march as Elmira’s volunteer firefighters paraded for the last time.  The city council had voted to discontinue the 48-year tradition of volunteer fire companies in favor of a paid department.  As they marched, the members of Elmira Hose No. 1 carried a sign which read “Shoot the Paid Fire Department—Too Thin! We Worked for Glory, They Work for Pay - $100 a Year.” The parade began at the Hose Tower and was supposed to make an orderly loop of downtown, but dissolved into chaos instead when it began to pour.

In November of 1830, the Village of Elmira Board of Trustees appointed 30 men to serve as the village’s unpaid firemen. These early firemen fought fires with bucket brigades until May 1834, when the village purchased an old goose-neck fire engine. The village firefighters re-christened themselves Torrent Fire Company No. 1. Using their new engine’s hand-pump to draw water directly from the river or canal, they could blast water at the fire for as long as their strength held out.  They used this pumper until the city bought them a steam-powered fire engine in 1864.

Example of a period hand-pump fire engine, 1848

The volunteer firefighters did more than just douse flames. They were also an important part of Elmira’s social scene. Elmira’s volunteer fire company’s participated in an annual 4th of July parade and held water pumping competitions. Most firefighters were young and physically fit. They hosted dance parties and were some of the most eligible bachelors in town. Even after they retired from firefighting, if they had served five years, they were exempt from jury duty and certain municipal taxes.

Fire engine barn used by Companies No. 1 & 2, ca. 1870s

Between 1834 and 1878, there were over a dozen volunteer fire companies founded in Elmira. Some of my favorites include:

-         Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 used their ladders to rescue people and their hooks to tear down buildings in order to create fire breaks. They were formed in 1844, but disbanded in a snit in 1846 after being snubbed in the 4th of July parade. They reformed in 1849.
Invitation to the Hook & Ladder Ball at Eagle Tavern, November 12, 1845.
-         Young America Company No. 4 (1854-1863) consisted entirely of teenage boys. In 1855, they won a pumping competition at the New York State Fair and were presented with a silk banner made for them by the young ladies of Elmira. Most of the members ended up joining the army during the Civil War.

-         Ours 4 Hose Company (1868-1872) had a reputation as a bunch of dandies. Their fire station not only housed their fire engine, but also served as a club house with a gaming parlor and reading room. They were so good at firefighting that other companies decided to adopt their decadent ways.
Decadent dandies of Our 4 Hose Company, 1868

-         Independent Hose No. 3 (1866-1878) operated out of a fire station on the Southside at the foot of the Lake Street Bridge. I don’t know much about these guys but I love them, if only because some of their members actually posed for the photo below. 
How can you not love these dorks from Independent Hose No. 3?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lilacs in Sapporo

by Erin Doane, curator

Every year since 1959, the city of Sapporo, Japan has held a lilac festival in downtown Odori Park. What, you may ask, does that have to do with Chemung County? Well, if not for the efforts of Elmira missionary Sarah Clara Smith, there would be no reason to celebrate. Smith brought the first lilacs to Sapporo from the United States in 1889.

Sarah Clara Smith
Sarah Smith was born in Painted Post on March 24, 1851 and grew up in Elmira. She attended the Elmira Academy before going on to Brockport to become a teacher. After graduating, she returned to Elmira and taught at Diven Elementary School for several years. She may have continued her career as a local school teacher if not for the sudden death of her brother, who was an evangelical pastor. His death caused her to reevaluate her path in life.

Smith was a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Elmira. Rev. G.W. Knox was the son of the pastor at the church and was involved in missionary work in Japan. Rev. Knox told Smith about a newly established women’s seminary in Tokyo that was looking for female missionaries to join the staff. He was willing to recommend her for the position if she was interested. Encouraged by the memories of her deceased brother, Smith gave up her job and life in Elmira to become a missionary.

In the fall of 1880, Sarah Smith arrived in Tokyo, Japan. While she enjoyed her work, she was not well-suited to the region’s climate. The excessive dampness caused her to suffer from severe rheumatic problems. Her doctor recommended that she return home but she refused. Instead, she moved north to Hokkaido, which had a much dryer climate. Smith taught private English and Bible classes in Hakodate, a port city in Hokkaido, as she convalesced. In 1886, she took a position as an English teacher at a new school in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido.

Smith’s two great passions in life were religion and education and she was determined to bring both to her new home. On January 15, 1887, she opened her own private school – Sumisu Jogakko or Smith’s Girls’ School – as the first girls’ school in Sapporo. The Governor of Hokkaido gave her permission to use a small stable as a classroom and she used her salary from her job as an English teacher to fund the school. She started out with just seven students. In 1894, the school relocated and expanded. Its name was changed to Hokusei Gakuen or Northern Star Women’s School, inspired by a Bible verse, Philippians 2:15: “shine like stars, in a dark world.” Hokusei Gakuen still exists today as a four-year private university.

For nearly 45 years, Sarah Smith provided a Christian education to girls in Sapporo. Her efforts, however, were not without controversy. There was a significant Christian population in the area when she arrived and her goal was to see her students, “the future mothers of Japan, safe in the Christian faith.” Yet, many of the girls faced opposition from home to conversion. In a letter from Smith to the Ladies of the Foreign Missionary Society of Chemung Presbytery in 1907, she wrote that many parents said that when their daughter is of age she may do as she likes but gave various reasons for not permitting her to become a Christian yet. That same year, the Emperor’s birthday fell on a Sunday, the day of rest. The school celebrated on Monday and subsequently received a letter of censure for having honored God before the Emperor. There was talk in government offices about closing the school but no punishment was imposed. In fact, in 1923, Smith was awarded the Imperial Decoration of the Order of Sacred Treasure for meritorious civil service by the Japanese government.

Sarah Smith wearing the Imperial Decoration
of the Order of Sacred Treasure
The Foreign Missionary Society, and in particular the Chemung Presbytery, provided support through the years to Smith’s school. They donated money and materials and helped to spread news of her work by sharing letters she regularly wrote to the organization. Smith returned to the United States several times. During these visits she would speak at events held by the Women’s Missionary Society in Elmira. After a visit in 1899, she returned to Sapporo with 200 dolls given to her by the Society to distribute as Christmas gifts to her students. Every one of the dolls made it through the long passage without any damage. 

Ten years earlier in 1889, Sarah Smith brought lilac seedling back with her from a visit home. She planted the trees at her school and over time, they naturalized and spread throughout the region. During World War II, most of the lilacs were cut down because of their origins from the United States, a hostile nation. A few did survive including one that was preserved at the Hokkaido University Botanical Garden, the second oldest botanical garden in Japan. In 1960, the lilac tree was designated the official tree of Sapporo.

Sarah Smith spent 51 years of her life in Japan. She finally returned to the United States for good in 1931 at the age of 80. She passed away on February 18, 1947 at the age of 95 in Pasadena, California.

Monday, February 27, 2017

John Turner’s Freedom

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

On October 30, 1904, the Elmira Telegram ran a single paragraph about a “remarkable colored man,” John Turner. That one paragraph outlined Turner's undeniably remarkable story, one that was also heartbreaking. Turner was the well-known manager of the stables at the Platt House hotel in Horseheads. Turner, who had lived in Horseheads for 18 years, started his life in the North as an escaped slave.
The Platt House
Turner was enslaved on the plantation of Turner family in Virginia, near Fredericksburg. From the little information given in the blurb, it is difficult to ascertain what plantation he was enslaved on, but it might have been Belle Grove in King George, VA. At the time of his Turner’s enslavement, the plantation was owned by Carolinus Turner.

During the Civil War, John Turner took one of his master’s horses and rode across Union lines. He asked for freedom, proving his master was an officer in the Confederate army. He was not made to return.

The article mentioned that Turner had since been working to locate his mother and brother, from whom he had been separated during his enslavement. He had written to former master George Turner (Carolinus had a son named George who would have been a child when John escaped) asking for assistance locating them. The report said that he had received two letters in response, but that neither could give him any information. It is unlikely he ever heard from them again.

Turner’s experience looking for lost family members was not unique. After emancipation, formerly enslaved people had little recourse to locate lost family. “Lost Friends” columns appeared in some newspapers and people placed ads looking for any information about loved ones. You can read some of their heartbreaking notes here:

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Orpheus Club

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

During the 1930s, there were over a dozen clubs at the Elmira Free Academy and none of them accepted Black members. These clubs offered kids a chance to socialize, showcase their talents, perform community service, and enhance their academic studies, but EFA’s Back students were excluded from all of it. In the spring of 1938, junior Edith Smiley decided to change all that by creating the Orpheus Club. According to their statement in The Torch, the club was created “to increase the number of social activities for colored students and to give them an opportunity to exhibit their talents.” By the end of the school year they had formed a glee club and hosted a party at the home of one of the club officers.
Edith Smiley, Founder and First President
Over the next few years, the Orpheus Club became a vital part of the school. Club members performed for their classmates in various school assemblies. They regularly hosted a booth at the Annual Fall Carnival. They threw jitterbug dance parties in the gym and at club members’ homes. 1942 was a banner year in terms of programing. That spring, they brought in Rev. George F. Fauntleroy of AME Zion Church to lecture on Black history and sing traditional Black spirituals, and hosted the Double VV for Victory dance honoring the first Black fliers to receive their wings from the U.S. Army Air Corps (including former club member and Tuskegee Airman, Clarence Dart).  The 1940 EFA yearbook said “For the few years this club has been in existence, it has risen to be one of the outstanding and respected organizations in the school.”

Orpheus Club show off their dancing skills, 1942
In some ways, the success of the club lead to its disappearance in 1943. In just a few short years, the Orpheus Club had succeeded in integrating Black students into the social life of the school. During the 1940-41 school year, Blacks were finally allowed into the various clubs and the first Black student, Orpheus Club member Charles Brown, was elected to Student Council. By 1943, Black students were involved in so many different clubs it must have been hard to schedule Orpheus Club meetings around them. 

Original Orpheus Club, 1939

Thanks to the Orpheus Club, Elmira Free Academy’s Black students now had many opportunities to participate in the social life of the school. Once the club was gone, however, they lost the very group that had allowed them to organize and work together for social justice.

Orpheus Club in their final year, 1943

**As a side note, if you, dear reader, were a member of the Orpheus Club or know someone who was, I would very much like to speak with you. Please drop me a line if you’d like to share your story**