Monday, April 6, 2020

The Seven Muses of Elmira


by Susan Zehnder, Education Director 

Traveling west on Church Street, drivers pass a large welcome sign with larger-than-life images of seven people connected with Elmira’s history.




The slogan “Welcome to Elmira: Honoring the Past and Building the Future” is at the bottom, and behind the figures is an image of Samuel Clemens’s distinctive octagon study now located on the Elmira College campus. This slogan was selected from a contest that had over 600 entries, and is a combination of three of those submissions. They were sent in by Marlin B. Stewart from Elmira, Alan and Barbara Hutchinson from Elmira, and James M. Lloyd of Horseheads.

Installed in February 2004, the $40,000 sign replaced a more generic welcome sign. That sign had a stylized glider, road and hills. It had been originally installed in 1986, and refurbished in 1994.


The current sign puts a face on Elmira by honoring famous people in the city’s history. They’re not identified on the sign, and today not all visitors, newcomers, or children know who they are, and what they represent.

In the back row, left to right:

  • Brian Williams-TV Journalist Williams arrived in Elmira as a young boy. He made a name for himself in broadcast news.
  • Ernie Davis-Athlete and scholar Davis arrived in Elmira as a youngster. His local athletic accomplishments earned him a football scholarship to Syracuse where he excelled at football and graduated with an Economics degree. Elected as the first African American Heisman Trophy winner, his career was cut short by illness. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
  • John W. Jones-Civil War hero Jones arrived in Elmira and became a key leader in the local Underground Railroad and at Woodlawn National Cemetery. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.

In the front row, left to right:

  • Hal Roach-Movie producer Roach was born in Elmira. He is best known for popular films featuring comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. He is buried in nearby Woodlawn Cemetery.
  • Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain-Writer and humorist Twain married an Elmira native and for twenty years spent summers in the area, writing many of his well-known stories.
  • Eileen Collins-Astronaut Collins was born and grew up in Elmira. Collins was the first female pilot and first female commander of a space shuttle.
  •  Tommy Hilfiger-Fashion Designer Hilfiger was born and grew up in Elmira. He opened a clothing store here in 1969 called “The People’s Place.” When it closed, he moved operations to New York City.
In 2015, a controversy arose around the sign when newscaster Brian Williams, the figure on the far left, was discovered to have fabricated some of his own history. People in the area questioned his suitability on the sign as a person Elmira would or should be proud of.

NBC suspended Williams without pay for six months, relieving him from his position as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBS’s Nightly News. In June of that year, he was demoted to breaking news anchor for MSNBC. Two months later he was promoted to be MSNBC’s chief anchor, and today he set to co-anchor the network’s coverage of the upcoming 2020 United States Presidential election.

It was determined that editing Williams off the sign would just damage it. Addressing the controversy, Elmira’s mayor in 2015 responded "After examining our sign in its entirety, I find that it is showing its age. So it is possible that the whole sign may come down for that reason only." Five years later, the 3,000 lb. sign remains as it was originally installed. 

In August 2019, local news reported that Elmira’s City Manager was aware the sign was showing signs of wear.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The First Quarantine

The First Quarantine

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On the morning of October 15, 1918, Elmira Free Academy freshman Clara Gilbert was on her way to school with friends when they were stopped by a neighbor. “Girls, there’s no school on account of influenza,” he told them. As she wrote in her diary later that night,  she was so happy she could have hugged him. She would soon change her mind. “Jiminy, I’d rather go to school and have parties than stay home,” she wrote on the 18th. By the times the schools opened again on November 3rd, it was a relief to go back.

Clara Gilbert, student & diarist

In the autumn of 1918, Spanish Flu was ravaging the nation. Over one quarter of the population fell ill and approximately 600,000 Americans died. Despite the alarming numbers, there was no nationwide, or even statewide, plan to deal with the crisis. It was up to each community to decide what, if any, precautions they wanted to take.

On October 15th, Elmira made the decision to shut down schools, theaters, churches, pool halls, bowling alleys, libraries, and art galleries. There would be no club meetings, dances, public funerals, or other large gatherings. The street cars could run, but they would have to be thoroughly cleaned daily and keep the windows open to allow for increased ventilation. All big sales at area stores were to be cancelled, but shops remained open.  So too did factories and the railroads, although employees were told not to come in if sick. Surrounding towns and villages shut down schools and churches too. Horseheads did it first on October 10th with Southport following on the 15th, and Wellsburg on the 16th. 


Elmira Herald, October 15, 1918

Life under influenza was not exactly social distancing. Today across the state, all non-essential businesses are shut down and people are being encouraged to stay at home. In 1918,  students and people put out of work by the quarantine were encouraged to volunteer to bring in the potato harvest on area farms. At least 10 of them were known to have done so. The mayor urged citizens not to slack off on the purchase of war bonds and boy scouts continued to sell them door to door. Clara Glibert fell sick on October 21. That same day, her little sister had two school friends over. 

Despite the lack of prohibitions on public interactions, the quarantine was no picnic. Stuck in my home, I can stay entertained with Netflix and the internet, but Elmirans in 1918 didn’t have any of that. With TV not yet invented and the theaters and libraries closed, students stuck at home were bored out of their minds. Clara spent a lot of time hanging out with friends and making paper dolls. 

A number of area churches and synagogues have started streaming their services on-line. In 1918, the newspapers published the sermons in the Sunday morning papers. Although the churches were closed to the public, Catholic priests were still allowed in to perform the mass to an empty church. Congregants were encouraged to pray along at home at the usual time. 

The city-wide quarantine ended on November 3, 1918 with much fanfare. In retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have. At the height of the quarantine, there were 60 new cases in the city a day with between 6 and 10 daily deaths. On the day it was lifted, there were “only” 28 new cases. The city's two hospitals were still full, as was the temporary hospital at the Gotham Hotel. People continued to fall sick in the city well into the start of the next year. 


Majestic Theater ad, November 2, 1918
There were 3,549 confirmed cases of Spanish flu in the city with an untold number cases inaccurately reported as pneumonia or polio. At least 150 Elmirans died of it or related complications. Could the spread have been slowed and those deaths prevented if health officials had enacted more stringent quarantine measures for longer? It’s impossible to say but, in the current crisis, we do know that social distancing will help to ease the strain on the health care system and save lives. Check out our other blog posts Spanish Flu and Flu Season for more information about the 1918 flu epidemic while you do your part to help flatten the curve. Stay healthy, stay safe, and we’ll see each other again. 

Our Local Whiskeys

by Erin Doane, Curator

InternationalWhisk(e)y Day is coming up on March 27 and World Whisky Day is on May 16 (it takes place on the third Saturday of May each year). This is a great time to learn about whiskey in Chemung County. We have three local whiskey bottles here in the museum’s collection – Land Lord Whiskey, Old Lowman Whiskey, and Macmore Whiskey.

Whiskey bottles in the collection of the Chemung County Historical Society
Old Lowman Whiskey

In 1792, Jacob Lowman set up a distillery on a parcel of land on the Chemung River in what is now Lowman. It was the first commercial distillery in the county, producing whiskey from mixed mash of rye and corn. Some years later, George Lowman operated a distillery on Baldwin Creek producing Old Lowman Whiskey using the same recipe Jacob used. The distillery operated until the Civil War when high taxes forced the business to close.

In 1902, Edward Lowman, Fred Ferris, Fred L. Thomas, and Nathan Blostein incorporated the Old Lowman Distilling Company to manufacture, supply, and deal in whiskey and other alcoholic liquors. The company’s headquarters were in Elmira, and the distillery was in a converted creamery in Lowman near the Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad tracks. Jacob Lowman’s original recipe was used to make the whiskey.

Old Lowman Distillery and Warehouse
Image from “Hardwood Bark,” the magazine of Cotton-Hnlon and Ireland Mill, May-June 1973
I read somewhere that Klapproth’s Saloon in Elmira was said to have exclusive sale of Old Lowman Whiskey, but it was also available from Fred Ferris’s store at 201 Railroad Avenue in Elmira. Ferris was a partner in the distilling company, and he was also a wholesale dealer in wines, liquors, tobacco, and cigars. He had started his business in 1897. Additionally, he sold the “finest food for medicinal purposes,” and ran a saloon. 

Ferris’s store with Fred himself standing at the corner, early 1900s
On October 1, 1918, the city of Elmira officially went “dry,” making the sale of alcoholic beverages illegal. This effectively killed the Old Lowman Distilling Company’s business, and the distillery closed for good.


Macmore Whiskey

In 1907, after 18 years working for J.J. O’Connor wholesale liquor, Michael E. McElligott opened his own wholesale liquor business at 111 Railroad Avenue in Elmira. One of his products was Macmore Whiskey.

Macmore Whiskey promotional tray
In 1911, there were two versions of the whiskey available: Macmore Blend and Macmore Bottled in Bond. I don’t know precisely the difference between the two, but the blend bottle was labeled with McElligott’s name while the other had R.W. Wathen & Company of Kentucky as the distiller.

Advertisement from the Star-Gazette, December 18, 1911
By early 1918, talk of local prohibition was in the air, and it seemed to be a perfect time for McElligott to diversify his business. He purchased what was known at the Richardson building at the corner of Railroad Avenue and Market Street. He set up his shop on the first floor, and rented out the upper floor.


Land Lord Whiskey

Around 1914, James G. McLaughlin and John R. Flynn opened their wholesale liquor business at the corner of Fox and Carroll Streets in Elmira. There they sold Land Lord Whiskey, among other things.

Land Lord Whiskey bottle
When the city went dry, McLaughlin & Flynn Co. suffered. In October 1920, the company sold off 1,000 empty barrels that were “first class for cider or grape juice.” Less than three years later, the company officially dissolved. McLaughlin went on to run the Carey Medicine Company, and Flynn worked in real estate.


Whiskey and Churches??

Finally, in my research, I found two interesting connections between these liquor companies and local churches that I just had to share. First connection: After the Old Lowman Distilling Company closed in 1918, Edward Lowman had the warehouse torn down. He then donated the lumber to the Lowman M.E. Church, and it was used to build a community hall. And the second connection: When renovations were being done on the Park Church in 1958, a bottle of Macmore Whiskey was found inside one of the walls there.

Macmore bottle found inside a wall at the Park Church



Monday, March 16, 2020

The Luck of the Irish

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Currently events around the world are being reevaluated as preventative measures against spreading this year's coronavirus. Cities like Boston and Chicago have canceled popular St. Patrick's Day activities to avoid drawing crowds. Locally officials have canceled the thirteenth annual Horseheads St. Patrick's Day parade, and postponed the gathering attempt to break last year's record for the largest human shamrock.
Horseheads parade from the past

St. Patrick's Day has been celebrated since the beginning of the 17th century and odds are it will be widely celebrated again. Various traditions and customs associated with the holiday have fairly recent roots. Contributing to this, today more people claiming Irish ancestry live outside of Ireland than the  Irish population living within its borders. Here in Chemung County the 2010 census reported 9% or just under 8,000 people who claimed Irish ancestry.

The United States has always attracted people from around the world, looking for a chance to make a new life for themselves and their families. Here in the 1700s, at least three early white settlers were Irish. They arrived as soldiers accompanying Irish American General John Sullivan on his 1779 military campaign to wipe out the Native populations. Impressed with the fertile valley, Abijah Ward and brothers John and William Fitzsimmons returned to the area to settle and farm.  

For many immigrants, including the Irish, it wasn't easy to assimilate into American life. As a group, the Irish were viewed with suspicion set apart by their accents, funny religious practices and culture. Being Irish in America during the 1800s really wasn't so lucky.

It wasn't particularly lucky for the Irish back in Ireland either. Ireland was in the midst of successive years of  potato blight, a time known as the Potato Famine. Conditions were so bad that Ireland's population decreased by one-fourth. Many died, and others fled the country. 


In 1848 gold was discovered in California. The Gold Rush lured 75,000 people west, including many Irish newly arrived in the United States. Estimates of mining camp populations put the Irish workers at 10 - 20%. The phrase 'Luck of the Irish' comes from this time. It was used sarcastically to describe random luck that didn't require any skills.

That luck began to change towards the end of the century when the sheer number of Irish Americans grew. Once shunned, now their sizable and growing population offered an influential political voting block called "The Green Machine." Politicians courted the Irish American vote, and curried favor by appointing many to public offices.

Today people continue to celebrate their Irish ancestry, and St. Patrick's Day is the most widely celebrated national holiday around the world.

In Ireland, March 17th is observed as a national holiday with citizens getting the day off. Once a purely religious holiday, observations have taken a more secular turn. Many traditions we associate with the holiday started here in the United States.

The first St. Patrick's Day parade took place, not in Ireland but in New York City in 1762. It was organized by homesick Irish soldiers fighting for the British. Together soldiers marched and sang through the streets as a sign of comradery.

The color green, called "Irish Green" in Ireland, is called "Kelly Green" here. Kelly was first used in 1917 as slang to refer to anyone Irish or Irish American. The closest authentic Irish surname is O'Callagah. 

Kiss me I'm Irish comes from the good luck one is supposed to gain when he/she kisses the legendary Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle in Cork, Ireland. Elsewhere it's become good luck and a good excuse to kiss anyone of Irish ancestry.

Things like Green Beer, Lucky Charms, and Sexy Leprechauns all fall into the category of questionable origins. They are a nod to the change that has happened over the years. Now it's desirable to be Irish, even if it's just for a day.

Slainte!
 
Last year's Human Shamrock

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Hopkins Street School Fire


By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On the morning of Sunday, April 5, 1959, George and Ellen Henley of 741 Hopkins Street in Southport woke up early to do laundry. Glancing next door, he noticed a red glow coming from the basement of the Hopkins St. School and immediately telephone for the fire department. By the time they arrived shortly after 5 am, the entire north end of the school was engulfed in flames.  

Hopkins St. School was first opened in 1928 to alleviate overcrowding in other Southport schools. The two-story brick schoolhouse had eleven regular classrooms, a laboratory, industrial arts room, home economics room, combination gym and auditorium, and administrative offices. Not one room escaped the fire undamaged.   

Hopkin's Street School
The fire began in the kindergarten in the basement, gutting the classroom before racing up a dumb waiter shaft and open stairway onto the first floor. Flames ate their way through the laboratory and a section of the gymnasium. Although firemen were able to get control of the blaze before it made it to the upper story, every room in the building had smoke or water damage. All of the desks and books in the kindergarten were completely destroyed and much of the material elsewhere were made unusable. 

Basement kindergarten classroom, before & after the fire.


There was one thing which was saved: the flag! As firefighters worked to control the blaze, 14-year-old Dean Pappas waited anxiously behind the firetrucks. It was his job each day to raise and lower the school’s flags. As soon as the firefighters gave the okay, he ran into the building to retrieve the American flag as well as the school’s safety flag. Both were smoke damaged, but salvageable. Dean made the papers.

Dean Pappas with the rescued flags.

The former student who put me on to the story claimed that the fire was caused by arson, but I could find no evidence of that in the papers. It was thought to be electrical in nature. Interestingly enough, the school had recently been evaluated for risk by fire and insurance inspectors. In their report, which had been presented on March 24th, they urged the school board to install fire doors in the stairwells to slow the progress of fire between floors. The Board of Education never got a chance to act on their incredibly prescient recommendations.


The fire exacerbated the overcrowding in the city’s schools. Three-hundred and fifty students were displaced. They were sent to Hardy School at Lyon and Perine Streets. In order to accommodate the extra children, the school schedule was arranged so Hardy School students attended class from 8:15am to 12:15, while the Hopkins St. students attended from 12:30 to 4:30pm. The Elmira City School District put $127,480 into renovating and expanding the Hopkins St. School. It opened again for students on January 25, 1960.

Principal Martha Kime and Arthur Goodwin, district director of buildings & grounds, inspect the new furniture