Monday, June 7, 2021

Hotel Rathbun

by Erin Doane, Curator

The northwest corner of Baldwin and Water Streets in Elmira, where the Chemung Canal Trust Company now sits, was once the site of Hotel Rathbun. In its heyday in the early 1900s, the hotel was considered one of the finest between New York City and Buffalo. It had hundreds of luxurious rooms (65 with their own bathrooms), richly furnished parlors, a gentlemen’s café, and a billiard room, which was frequented by Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain).

Hotel Rathbun, c. 1900
In 1833, Abraham Riker built the Eagle Tavern – the precursor to Hotel Rathbun – where Isaac Baldwin’s house had once stood. The new brick building was three-stories tall with a domed cupola on top and tall columns at the Water Street entrance. It had one of the largest meeting rooms in the village, which made it a popular gathering spot.

Image of the eagle that once graced the Eagle Tavern, Elmira Telegram, October 19, 1924
In 1841, the owner at that time, a Mr. Webb, was swayed by that year’s temperance campaign and banished all liquors from the tavern. The business, inevitably, failed and Silas Haight took over ownership. In 1844, Haight became owner of the Mansion House on Lake and Market Streets and E.R. Brainard took over the Eagle Tavern. After the tavern burned in 1849, Brainard rebuilt and reopened the business as the Brainard House.

Brainard House, c. 1850s

Brainard died in 1851 and John T. Rathbun took over ownership of the hotel. He changed its name to Hotel Rathbun during the Civil War. Just a few years later, in 1868, the hotel underwent extensive renovations. A new building was erected in the rear of the hotel where the old kitchen had been. It included an elegant billiard room, parlors, offices, and additional guest rooms. Existing rooms were repaired, painted and papered, and refurnished. A new, spacious entrance was added on Water Street as well as an iron porch with a balcony on the second floor. The hotel could accommodate 500-600 overnight guests and seat up to 400 in the dining room at one time.

John T. Rathbun leased the hotel to a series of different proprietors over the years. Coleman and Pike were the first to operate the property, followed by Enos Blossom, then Slater, Abbott, and Hayt. In 1898, Col. David C. Robinson bought the land and building from Rathbun and John W. Kennedy and Edward M. Tierney took over as proprietors. Under the new owner and managers, the hotel underwent another major renovation. The building was completely modernized, including the addition of ensuite bathrooms and electric lighting. An elegant new gentlemen’s café and barroom was added with a billiard room off the back. The new design also included storefronts and offices on the first floor.

Hotel Rathbun lobby, 1899

Hotel Rathbun billiard room, a favorite hang-out of Samuel Clemens, which had shrimp pink walls, 1899

Hotel Rathbun barroom, 1899
Hotel Rathbun’s grand reopening in 1899 marked the start of the its golden age. The hotel became known throughout the East for its hospitality and cuisine. The dining room, bar, and grill were enjoyed by both travelers and Elmirans. Samuel Clemens was said to have been a regular visitor to the billiard room in the years he summered in the city. Until the Mark Twain Hotel opened in 1929, Hotel Rathbun was the area’s most modern, luxurious hotel. The front desk clerk had to turn guests away nightly because the rooms were always filled.

Hotel Rathbun, c. 1920s

In 1934, Hotel Rathbun was taken over by the Knott Hotels Crop. Then around 1940, the American Hotels Corp. took up the lease. The hotel had gone into decline, likely from age, the economics of the time, and growing competition from other hotels and motels. Up until June 10, 1941, there were advertisements in the newspaper offering accommodations at $7.00 a week for permanent residents, but that wasn’t enough to keep the business afloat. On June 12, residents were served with notices to vacate and the hotel’s demolition began on August 1. Hotel Rathbun was completely razed by October 1941.

Hotel Rathbun’s entrance, 1940

 

 

Monday, May 31, 2021

Viewing the Civil War

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

How did Americans experience the Civil War away from the battlefield? Earlier this spring we hosted our annual Civil War Lecture series online. This year’s talks examined how viewers participated in the war through practices of reading, mapmaking, and prison tourism, and how prisoner of war memoirs shaped public understanding after the war. The three talks are now available to watch as one or in parts, and can be found on both our Facebook page and YouTube channel. Each talk is around twenty minutes and offers a new way to view events that took place over one hundred and fifty years ago. Here’s a brief description to entice you to watch them, or watch them again and share.

Dr. Jillian S. Caddell

Our first speaker was Dr. Jillian S. Caddell. Dr. Caddell’s Civil War talk “To Follow with Eye and Pencil: Experiencing the Civil War from Home” showcased alternative ways that American citizens participated in the war by following accounts published in newspapers or telegrams. Viewers recorded the events on specially printed Marking maps.

As she mentions in her talk’s introduction, Dr. Caddell is familiar with the work we do at the Chemung County Historical Society. She also discovered a personal connection with our area, finding a Confederate relative buried in nearby Woodlawn National Cemetery. She reflects on this personal experience in a wonderful C19 podcast she did on SoundCloud titled “Monumentalizing John W. Jones.Dr. Caddell is also one of the 2021 Mark Twain Fellows at the Center for Mark Twain Studies and scheduled to speak in Elmira in the fall.

More about Dr. Caddell's scholarship looking at 19th century literature, concurrent history, and how it affected and influenced a sense of place can be found here

Dr. Michael P. Gray

Our second speaker was Dr. Michael Gray, a professor at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Gray’s talk “Looking Over the Deadline: The Rise of Elmira Prison as a Dark Tourist Destination in the Chemung Valley” considered another kind of viewer participation. Rather than viewing the war through telegrams and reports, Gray’s viewers participated by gawking. They paid money to climb observatory platforms and view the prisoners. These viewers were encouraged to mock, insult, and even throw objects at the prisoners, despite military rules prohibiting this kind of behavior. While not unique to Elmira’s Civil War prison, as Dr. Gray points out, it was practiced enthusiastically and profitably here. Unlike Dr. Caddell’s sympathetic viewers who followed along, these were viewers who wanted to participate directly in the war and were frustrated by social barriers.

Dr. Gray has been series editor on Voices of the Civil War for University of Tennessee Press for over a decade and has published multiple books and writings on the Civil War, including The Business of Captivity: Elmira and Its Civil War Prison published by Kent State University Press, in 2001. His Civil War talk for us was from part of a new chapter in Carceral Footprints Left in the Civil War North: Trappings of the Camp Douglas and Elmira Prison Environs published this spring by Kansas University Press.

Dr. Angela M. Riotto
Our third speaker was Dr. Angela Riotto, a historian with the Army University Press in Kansas, Missouri. Her talk was titled "Poor Helpless Soldiers at their Mercy: Survivors of Elmira and their Memories of Captivity." Viewers in Dr. Riotto’s talk were the Confederate prisoners themselves. Using primary sources in the form of narratives and diaries, she looked at how prisoner views and recollections shapeshifted after the war. During their imprisonment, prisoners made few references of blame in their personal writings, but after the war many feared their confederate cause would be lost. Many prisoner recollections changed to blame, and the shift reinforced common tropes of intentional evil. Rewriting their own experiences affected a public understanding of prisoner experiences, and overall view of the war.

Dr. Riotto has contributed to many books on the Civil War, including The War Went On: Reconsidering the Lives of Civil War Veterans published by LSU Press in April, 2020, and more recently, Useful Captives: The Role of POWs in American Military Conflicts published this past February by University of Press, Kansas.

CCHS was honored to host these three speakers from very different parts of the world. Each speaker’s email is posted in the recorded talk and they encourage and welcome any questions and comments.

We do regret they can’t hear our applause.



Monday, May 24, 2021

Frank Hall’s Window to Japan

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Although few today remember his name, an Elmiran named Frank Hall was instrumental in shaping 19th century America’s image of Japan. In 1639, Japan’s ruling shogunate closed the country to all foreigners except for a select group of Chinese and Dutch traders. By the mid-1800s, the United States decided that really didn’t work for them and so, in 1853, the president dispatched Commodore Matthew Perry to Tokyo to force the country open with a little gunboat diplomacy. Between 1854 and 1858, the United States and Japan signed a series of treaties opening Japanese ports to American citizens. Under the treaties, Americans could not only dock in 6 Japanese ports, they could live there indefinitely, own and lease property, erect buildings, practice their own religion, and avoid prosecution in Japanese courts. The result was a massive influx in American tourists, missionaries, and businessmen.

Enter Francis “Frank” Hall. Born in Ellington, Connecticut in 1822, Hall had come to Elmira in 1842 at age 19 with a wagon load of books and a dream. It took him a few years to get off the ground but, by 1845, Hall’s bookstore was a staple of the community and the hangout for the village’s intellectual set. Hall quickly became attached to Elmira. He invited several of his brothers to join him in business, married a local girl (who tragically died), and was elected to public office. He was a driving force behind the creation of Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira College, and Elmira Free Academy, and helped to bring the Lyceum lecture circuit to the village. 

Francis "Frank" Hall, 1822-1902

 

In 1859, he sold his store to his brothers Frederic and Charles, and headed for Japan. One of his dear friends, R.S. Brown, was heading to Japan as a missionary and asked Hall to join him on the voyage. In order to support himself in his travels, Hall took a position as Japan correspondent for the New York Tribune. Hall arrived at Yokohama, Japan on November 1, 1859. For the next six years, his 70 plus articles in the New York Tribune, Elmira Weekly Advertiser, and Home Journal would provide American readers with a window to a country few of them would ever get to visit.

Hall’s time in Japan was one of the most tumultuous periods in the country’s history. Uncontrolled foreign trade resulted hyper-inflation and the collapse of Japan’s gold standard system. Conflict between the shogun and the daimyos, or Japan’s noble class, resulted in multiple assassinations and four different armed rebellions. Even though the United States was in the midst of its own civil war, Hall’s monthly articles describing this political and economic turmoil received both a surprising amount of space and prominent placement. His coverage of the naval battle between the USS Wyoming and Choshu ships at Shimonoseki took the front page on October 2, 1863. 

Front page of New-York Tribune, October 2, 1863

 

But Hall wasn’t just reporting about the events of the day. Part travel-writer, part anthropologist, he crafted vivid descriptions of the culture and landscape of Japan as well. His articles contain accounts of festivals, children’s games, earthquakes, firefighters, snow-capped peaks, terrible storms, bustling cityscapes, and government surveillance. Here, Hall describes the port city of Hakodate in an article from December 29, 1860:

It is well built after the Japanese way, with spacious streets of two rods in width, laid out with regularity, well sewered and kept clean by daily and repeated sweepings. The houses differ from those to the southward in few respects. A large number of them are weather-boarded with broad strips of bark placed vertically...Tiled and thatched roofs are mostly supplanted by shingle roofs, and these neither pegged or nailed down, but secured by stones from a child’s to a man’s head in bigness. The aspect of continuous roofs of the streets, when viewed from an eminence, is that of a Vermont sheep pasture for stoniness.

Hall left Japan on July 5, 1866, a much richer man than when he arrived. In addition to his work for the newspaper, he had become an agent for and, later, co-owner of Walsh, Hall & Co., an export company specializing in tea and silks. Even though he sold his shares before returning to Elmira, he continued to remain in contact with his various Japanese friends and business associates. He also kept an extensive collection of Japanese art and artifacts in his home at 213 College Avenue. In fact, until his death in 1902, he was known locally as Japanese Frank Hall.

 

Japanese art in Hall's home at 213 College Ave

While we here at CCHS have a good-sized collection of papers from Hall’s business and estate, we do not have his journals from his time in Japan. Those are held by the Cleveland Library’s John G. White Collection of Orientalia. In 2001, the diaries were annotated and published as Japan Through American Eyes: The Journal of Francis Hall, 1859-1866, edited by F.G. Notehelfer. We have 2 copies if anyone is interested in reading.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Elmira Clipper Chilled Plow Company

 by Erin Doane, Curator

When you think about bicycle manufacturers in Chemung County, the first company that usually pops into people’s minds is Eclipse. Not many people think of the Clipper Chilled Plow Company. A plow company made bicycles here? Yes! In 1897, its factory at the corner of William and Clinton Streets in Elmira was running day and night, with 150 employees cranking out 65 bicycles every 24 hours. The company also made plows and farm equipment and had a surprisingly turbulent history. 

The Clipper Chilled Plow Company trade card, early 1880s

William G. Strait of Elmira and H.G. Mix and J.G. Green of Williamsport, Pennsylvania organized the Clipper Chilled Plow Company in the early 1880s. By 1890, it employed 21 people manufacturing agricultural implements, including plows and harrows, at its Elmira factory. Just two years later, the company was embroiled in the first of many lawsuits related to its products, its employees, and its non-payment of bills. That first lawsuit was against the National Harrow Company. National Harrow claimed that the Clipper Chilled Plow Company infringed on its patents and went after both the company and dealers of the spring tooth harrows in question. It seems that most, if not all of the cases, were found in favor of Clipper Chilled Plow and the dealers.

With that issue behind it, in 1896 the company started investigating how to diversify its operations into bicycles.  It began negotiations with the Butler Wheel Manufacturing Company of Ohio in September and by May 1897, the “Elmira Special” high grade, full nickel bicycle was on display in the window of Hyland & Brown department store in downtown Elmira.

Elmira Model D bicycle made by the Clipper Chilled Plow Company in the late 1890s
The factory was kept so busy manufacturing bicycles and farm equipment around the clock that security began to slip. Pieces of bicycles and tools began to go missing. At least four employees, including an 18-year-old machinist and a 43-year-old foreman, were arrested for theft. It was around that same time that the company began neglecting to pay its employees on time. At least 20 workers filed suit against the company to get paid back wages in 1897. Oddly enough, that same summer, someone doused a rear room of the factory with oil and lit it on fire. The night watchman discovered the fire just after it had started and was able to extinguish it.

Along with the legal actions against the Clipper Chilled Plow Company for back pay, there was another lawsuit against the company. The plaintiff, Leroy Sunderlin, had been injured on the job. On April 27, 1896, Sunderlin, a 25-year-old shipping clerk, was lowering harrows in a hand-operated freight elevator from the second floor to the first floor. The rope attached to the brake became untied and the elevator dropped down the shaft. Sunderlin was struck by the elevator. His head was badly cut, his right forearm fractured, right leg fractured in the thigh, and left hand crushed. He survived but three fingers on his left hand were amputated, he lost use of his right arm, his set leg ended up being shorter than the other, and his head injuries led to epilepsy.

Sunderlin claimed negligence by the company and filed suit for compensation. Dr. T. A. Dundas, who had responded to the accident and treated Sunderlin on site, also sued the company to get paid for his services that day as had been promised by the company. The doctor won his case and was awarded the $364 due to him plus interest. The jury in Sunderlin’s case, on the other hand, could not reach a decision after a full night of deliberations so he received nothing.

Sunderlin’s accident had ended his employment with the Clipper Chilled Plow Company and his new disabilities prevented him from getting regular work. His wife took on sewing jobs to help support their family with two young sons. He did manage to earn some money by delivering bills and notices for firms within the city. Rumor has it, though, that one of the business owners was not fond of Sunderlin and turned him in to the United States Post Office Inspector for running an illegal mail route. A deputy U.S. marshal arrested Sunderlin on January 4, 1900. After agreeing to no longer make deliveries, Sunderlin was released and not prosecuted. Eventually he found work at American LaFrance.

Clipper Chilled Plow Company factory, c. 1890s

Back at the Clipper Chilled Plow Company, there were more business and legal troubles. In June 1900, 31 employees walked off the job and filed lawsuits because they had not been paid on time. Shortly after they went back to work, a constable arrived at the factory and removed a number of plows and bicycles to cover debts owed by Clipper Chilled Plow Company to other businesses. On August 25, 1900, the Chemung Canal Bank, the company’s largest creditor, took possession of the factory and shut it down. The factory reopened in mid-October but it was destroyed by a massive fire on November 1.

The Clipper Chilled Plow plant was insured by 13 different companies but none of them were willing to cover their portion of the estimated $40,000 in damages. The factory was equipped with a sprinkler system but the factory’s watchman signed an affidavit that on the night of the fire the faucet had been turned off. When Chemung Canal Bank took the insurance companies to court, the watchman went back on the affidavit and testified that he had turned the faucet off earlier but had turned it back on again just a couple hours before the fire broke out. The court found in favor of the Chemung Canal Bank and the insurance companies had to pay up.

After the fire, the Clipper Chilled Plow Company moved to Elmira Heights and operated until 1907 when it shut down for good.

 

 

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Billiard Table

 By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

It’s hard to miss the billiard table on display in the Museum in the Bank Gallery’s Mark Twain section. It came from the third floor playroom of the Langdon home on Church and Main streets. When the home was demolished in the 1930s, the table was moved to the J. Langdon & Co. office on Baldwin Street. It was later sold to lawyer and businessman John Sullivan who had offices on East Church Street and, later, Baldwin Street. When Sullivan died in 1965, Sullivan’s cousin and law partner, William Delaney, inherited the property along with its contents and donated the table to the Historical Society.

Clemens with his biographer Albert Bigalow Paine
The connection with the Langdon family is one reason it's placed in the Mark Twain exhibit, since Samuel Clemens, who often went by the pen name Mark Twain, was Jervis Langdon's son-in-law. Sam's passion for the game of billiards is another.



His daughter Susy wrote that “Papa’s favorite game is billiards, and when he is tired and wishes to rest himself he stays up all night and plays billiards, it seems to rest his head.”  The family home in Connecticut even had a distinctive room used just for billiards.
The Billiard Room, Hartford, Connecticut

If you look closely, the table in the Connecticut home has corner and side pockets. Games played on this table would be slightly different than those played on the museum's table, which has no pockets.

Billiard games peaked in popularity in the mid-19th century. Billiards is a general term for games played on a billiard table, with or without pockets. There are two main categories of billiard games: those played on tables without pockets, and those, called pool, played on tables with pockets. Both categories have a common origin in a popular lawn game from the 15th century, somewhat like lawn croquet. The word “billiards” is connected to the French word “bille” meaning ball while the word “pool” means a collective bet, as in pooling bets. From early on billiard games have appealed to and been played by people from all social classes.

When the game moved indoors, the playing surface required walls called banks, like the river, to prevent the balls from escaping. Players initially shoved the balls around using a mace. Like the weapons, a mace has a large head on one end of a long pole. Its pole or handle is called a tail, or “queue.” However if a ball landed near a side wall, players found they needed to turn the stick around to shove the balls with the queue because the mace’s head wouldn’t fit. What we now know as cue sticks seemed to have developed in the late 1600s and players soon discovered using a bit of chalk on one end of the cue stick increased friction, and was advantageous. Early on women were not allowed to use the cue end of the mace, as it was thought women weren’t capable of skillful moves and would just rip the table surfaces. At the turn of the 18th century, leather tips were added to cues. This now allowed players to apply side-spin, topspin, and backspin to the ball in play. The two-piece cue stick came on the scene in 1829, and table surfaces changed from wood to slate to prevent warping. By 1845, tables sported rubber billiard cushions.

The goal of any billiard game is to make a carom shot. This is a shot where the object ball or cue ball hits another ball to move or pocket it. Scoring depends on the game being played, and there were many versions developed. American Four-Ball was the most popular game played until the 1870s when Straight Rail and American Fifteen-Ball Pool then surpassed it. The Nine-Ball was developed in the 1920s.

The game was so popular during the 19th century that championship tournaments were held yearly, even during the Civil War, and celebrated players would earn their likenesses on trading cards.

Billiard tables were often located in hotels and bars. In Elmira City directories from the 19th century, suppliers of billiard equipment are listed, but no independent billiard businesses. One local site of tournaments was located on East Gray Street. There the Father Matthew Society, a Catholic society built on the idea of total abstinence, erected a clubhouse in 1898. It had a room dedicated to billiards on the second floor and held a yearly tournament.

In 1907, Elmira passed an ordinance to require a license fee or tax on billiard tables in halls or saloons and prohibited play between the hours of 1 am and 7 am and all day Sunday.

Billiards became less popular after World War I when returning troops didn’t have time to spend entire afternoons hanging out around a pool table. 2020 has been such a strange year, seeing some pastimes like puzzles rediscovered. I wonder what iconic object from the 2020s will be on display in the future.

To see an example of play on a billiards table, here's a link .

Monday, May 3, 2021

Queen City Gliders

 By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

 On Memorial Day 1969, 13-year-old Bobby McDowell was so excited that he got up at 5:30 a.m. to practice. He’d recently joined the Queen City Gliders Drill Team and that day would be his first time performing with them. Bobby and the team went on to march and back-to-back parades in Elmira and Elmira Heights. By the end of the day, he was so exhausted, he overslept and almost missed delivering the next day’s paper route. 

Queen City Gliders in Memorial Day parade, 1967
 

The Queen City Glider Drill Team was founded in 1964 by Matthew “Duke” Greene and Wilbur Reid. They wanted to create an all-Black group to march in Elmira’s City Centennial Parade in June 1964. The original plan was for a fife and drum band, but they quickly discovered that instruments were more than they could afford. Not that a drill team was particularly cheap. Each member needed to be outfitted with their own khaki uniform and maroon beret. It took them two years to raise enough funds to buy the boys rifles. 

 

Queen City Gliders, 1964

Luckily, the color guard’s collection of flags had all been donated. First came the American flag, given to them by the Harry B. Bentley American Legion Post where Duke Greene was a member. The flag for the City of Elmira was presented to them by Mayor Edward T. Lagonegro as part of the 1964 centennial celebration. The New York State flag had previously flown over the capitol building in Albany and was given to them by the local assemblyman, L. Richard Marshall. By the late 1960s, they also had a United Nations flag given to them by Ambassador Ralph Bunche and a NATO flag given by Senator Bobby Kennedy shortly before his death. 

Queen City Gliders color guard, 1965

 Founders Greene and Reid had created the team to help instill Black youth with discipline and a sense of pride, and to prepare them for future military service. Members were all between the ages of 12 and 17 and they worked hard. Not only did members have to maintain at least a D average in school, the team practiced for two hours every night throughout the spring and summer. Over the course of a season, they frequently participated in at least ten parades, festivals, and drill competitions across New York and Pennsylvania. In 1966, for example, they competed at the Pine City Fireman’s Parade, Elmira Heights Fireman’s Parade, Seneca Falls Aqua Festival, East Smithfield Parade, Wellsboro Laurel Festival, Chemung County Fair, Endless Mountain Drill Competition, Bentley Creek Parade, Elmira Elks Parade, and the Naples Grape Festival. They ranked among the top three in every contest that year and were generally considered one of the premier drill teams in the area.

Despite their triumphs on the drill field, the Queen City Gliders struggled financially for years. They had a sponsorship from the local Rotary Club, but that didn’t always cover all their travel and uniform expenses. The team regularly held bake sales and other fundraisers. For nearly 8 years, the Queen City Gliders were a central fixture in Elmira’s Black community with whole families involved. Over 40 local boys marched, along with dozens of girls in the Gliderettes.

The flood of 1972 spelled the end of the group. Not only were many of the members too busy cleaning their ruined homes to march, the team lost much of their equipment and several of their trophies to the flood waters. There were some efforts to re-start it in later years with mixed results. Although there were a series of co-directors over the years, original founder Matthew “Duke” Greene remained the driving force of the organization. Following his death in 1974, the Gliders never flew again.

In March 2021, Krista Heyward of the Elmira Center for Cultural Advancement interviewed former member Craig Watson. Check out their interview on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/105198718065649/videos/513279569655091

In 1989, a volunteer from the Chemung County Historical Society interviewed co-founder Wilbur Reid as part of our Black Oral History Project. He talks about the Queen City Gliders for a bit in last 20 minutes. Check out the interview on our YouTube channel: https://youtu.be/avau_Smrct4 

If you or anyone in your family has images, artifacts, or stories associated with the Queen City Gliders Drill Team, I would love to hear from you. Give me a call at (607) 734-4167 ex. 207 or shoot me an e-mail at archivist@chemungvalleymuseum.org

Monday, April 26, 2021

How Grocer Girl Caused a Dictionary Shortage

by Erin Doane, Curator

On February 2, 1933, WESG aired the first in a series of weekly musical radio programs sponsored by Standard Food Stores. Just nine weeks later, on April 7, an article in the Star-Gazette reported that dictionaries were suddenly in high demand at the Steele Memorial Library.  “Legitimate” students were being crowded away from the library’s few available dictionaries as a direct result of this new radio show. How did this strange turn of events happen?

Postcard showing the Steele Memorial Library, c. 1940s
The perpetrator of the unexpected dictionary shortage was Standard Food Stores. In 1929, grocers in Elmira, under the guidance of C.M. and R. Thompkins, came together to form a group under the name “Standard Food Stores.” Each member business in the group remained independent but they worked together to give customers “better quality, better service, and better prices.” Initially, it was just grocers within the city of Elmira who were members of this group but it quickly grew to include stores throughout Chemung County and northern Pennsylvania.

Standard Food Stores Advertisement from the Star-Gazette, May 23, 1929
As part of its promotional efforts, Standard Food Stores started sponsoring a musical program on local radio station WESG in February 1933. For 15 minutes every Thursday morning starting at 11:30, listeners were treated to the sounds of the Standard Food Stores Orchestra under the direction of Don Huber. Also featured were Grocer Boy with his flowing tenor and Grocer Girl with her pleasing voice who would sing old time tunes. The duo was credited with much of the show’s popularity. Fans said they made the program one of the best broadcasts of its kind on the local station.

Many listeners wanted to know who Grocer Boy and Grocer Girl actually were. The pairs’ identities remained a secret until early May when their names were finally revealed. Grocer Boy was Paul Huber, brother of the orchestra leader. He was a regular performer on WESG throughout the early 1930s and also involved in local minstrel shows.

Grocer Girl was 31-year-old Florence Rohan. Florence was a musical prodigy who started playing the piano before she was three years old. Around 1925 she started touring with her two young daughters Jacqueline and Marilynn as the vocal group the Lullaby Trio. The group’s heyday was in the late 1930s and early 1940s when they performed on several national radio program including NBC’s Children’s Hour, the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour on CBS, and Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. The Trio also performed numerous times in Florida and once on a cruise ship to Bermuda.

Florence had moved with her family to Elmira from Hornell in 1932 and quickly became a regular on WESG. She was particularly active on the Arctic League programs. She ended up being the first woman announcer on Elmira radio, writing and presenting her own programs as “the Rosenbaum Stylist.” At the time of her unexpected death in 1962, she was one of the region’s best known musicians and performers.

But what does all this have to do with the shortage of dictionaries? Well, I’m getting there. On March 30, 1933, a word-building contest was announced on Standard Food Stores’ weekly musical radio program. During the 1930s, word games and contests became quite popular. In one particular type of word-building game, a song title was given and people tried to make as many words from the letters in the title as possible. Those with the most words could win prizes. A large dictionary was a great tool for such a challenge. I don’t know the particular details of the WESG contest, but because of the large audience brought in by the song stylings of Grocer Girl and Grocer Boy, many people heard about the contest and got working on word-building.

Headline from the Star-Gazette, April 7, 1933

Within a week, the three dictionaries at the Steele Memorial Library were in high demand. Librarian Kate Deane Andrew reported seeing people stand in front of their newest dictionary, which was tied to a table, for up to an hour at a time. “It is obvious that many of them are contest workers who hope to make some money by sending in the solutions to the word puzzles,” she told a reporter from the Star-Gazette. She seemed perturbed that the contesters were keeping those with more studious inquiries away from the dictionaries. The library did make efforts to accommodate these new patrons; they got a small booklet containing all of the three-letter words in the English language.

By mid-summer, the run on dictionaries at the Steele Memorial Library slowed down. The series of entertainments on WESG featuring Grocer Girl, Grocer Boy, and the orchestra with the associated word contests came to an end on August 3, and a whole series of novelty broadcasts commenced under the sponsorship of Standard Food Stores.