Monday, June 25, 2012

A Voice from the Past

By Erin Doane, Curator 

Nearly everyone in the region was touched by the 1972 flood in one way or another.  The Chemung County Historical Society was no exception.  At the time, the historical society and its museum were located at 304 William Street.  In the historical society’s November 1972 newsletter, president Asaph B. Hall gave an account of the society’s response to the flooding and all the work that was done in its aftermath. 

Mr. Hall reported that during the flooding there was 11 inches of water on the first floor of the Center building and 5 feet in the Historian’s office.  In all, the building was inundated with 14 feet of water from the cellar floor up.  The 19th Century House was also flooded with 7 feet of water.   The manuscript collection, school loan exhibits, bound volumes of newspapers, books, glass slides, recordings and other media, as well as the society’s office supplies and printed materials were all stored in the basement.  Everything was lost except for the manuscript collection, of which they hoped to salvage some 60%.

As soon as the flood waters receded, the manuscript collection was removed and placed in freezer storage right away.  This protected the manuscripts from further damage and allowed society staff and volunteers time to properly clean the items.  Mr. Hall reported a great outpouring of help from the immediate community and beyond.  A squad of workers from the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum of Rochester and its director came down to help.  They also provided a truck to deliver the manuscript collection to freezer storage.  Fairport Storage & Ice Corp. in Fairport, NY froze manuscripts at no charge as did the Department of Agronomy at Cornell University and the Seneca Foods Corp. of Dundee, NY.  Elmira College let them use the greenhouses and garages on the Arthur Hoffman estate at Strathmont for manuscript cleaning work.  A crew of volunteers including several high school students helped dry out, wash and clean manuscripts before they were sent through a thymol cabinet to remove mildew residue.  The manuscripts were catalogued and filed and index cards were made for each.  In all, Mr. Hall expected the cleanup of the manuscripts to take about a year to complete.

Many volunteers including society members and Youth Corps workers also came out to get the museum cleaned and repaired.  They worked to remove mud and debris from the basement of the building and cleaned out the 19th Century House.  They cleaned artifacts and furniture, painted walls and cases, and remade school loan exhibits that were destroyed in the basement.  With all the help from the community and funding from several federal, state and local sources, the Chemung County Historical Society’s museum was able to reopen to the public in August 1972, just two months after the catastrophic flooding. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Drowning Memories: Flood Damage to Family Papers

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist
Floods and other water events can seriously damage paper based records.  Water, especially dirty water, can stain and soil documents.  Many inks are water soluble and can run or be completely washed away.  Coated papers, especially those used in early-20th Century books and some photographs tend to stick together.  Mold growth is also a serious problem.
In museums, we have disaster plans that establish instructions for the care of collections before, during and after a disaster.  It includes plans for evacuating material to higher floors or from the building altogether in anticipation of a disaster, establishes disaster response teams in charge of specific areas and lists supplies and contractors needed to help out during the aftermath.  Obviously, most families do not have anything as detailed, but there are some important steps you can take to be prepared in case of a disaster.  Most people have vitally important personal documents in their homes including insurance paperwork, banking and investment paperwork and personal identification paperwork.  Know where these documents are in your house and make sure they are stored in such a way that they can easily be taken with you when fleeing your home. 
Once disaster has struck, your first step to saving your documents and photos from water damage is to assess, sort and prioritize the effected material.  Is any of it dry?  If so, remove it from the damp environment before mold growth begins.  Is there more to dry than you can easily deal with before mold sets in?  Place it in the freezer so you can dry things in manageable batches.  Is there anything really, really important that you want just the way it was before?  Freeze it and call a professional conservator. 
Once you’ve done your sorting and assessing, the real work begins.  Often in the case of floods, your papers and photos are left both wet and muddy.  Before you begin drying, try to remove the surface mud which can be a lot harder to get off when dry.  Paper towels are your friend, but remember to be both careful and gentle, especially with your photos.  It actually is possible to wipe away an image along with the mud.
Now for drying items.  The first thing you’re going to need is a large surface area where you can lay things out to dry.  Ideally, this should be somewhere indoors where you can control temperature and humidity and plug in a fan, but in many cases that will be impossible.  Shake, drip or blot as much excess water off as possible and then lay your papers and photos flat to dry.  If you need to, you can do some layering, just remember to put blotter paper or paper towels in between and have stacks of no more than five items.  If possible have a fan going to continuously circulate the air.  Just don’t aim the fan directly at your papers.  Having a dehumidifier may also help as well. 
Lastly, be aware that there is only so much you can do.  Accept that your coated paper books are pretty much soggy garbage without professional help and that you will never be able to remove mold once it starts.  Water causes paper to swell, so even after drying your water damaged papers will be warped and your photographs will curl inward. 
For more information about caring for your paper artifacts or finding a conservator near you, check out the Northeast Document Conservation Center.  For information about non-paper artifacts, check out "Salvaging Your History" by our curator Erin Doane. 

Salvaging Your History: Tips for Saving Water-Damaged Objects at Home

By Erin Doane, Curator

With enough money and resources, nearly anything damaged in a flood can be cleaned and restored.  But no one, not even museums, has unlimited funding.  That doesn’t mean that if your home is flooded that you have to throw everything away that you can’t afford to have professionally treated; nor would you want to.  We collect many things in our lives that have great sentimental and historical value.  Many of these things can be dried and saved by you at home without too much expense.

There are many good resources online for dealing with flood-damaged objects.  Heritage Preservation (HP) has posted tips online and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has consulted with the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and the National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (NIC) for recommendations on water-damaged belongings.  My personal favorite resources come in the form of Conserve O Grams created by the National Park Service that offer advice on how to treat specific types of objects by material.

The following basic information is a combination of expert advice from these sources, some personal knowledge and a dose of common sense.  Every item is different so these general guidelines may not work for everything.  Thoughtful consideration should be done before treatment so more damage is not done to the object.

You should try to dry out solid wood furniture within 24 hours.  Any longer and mold growth will begin and make it harder to save the piece.  Remove all the drawers and open up the doors of the piece of furniture.  Blot the water from all surfaces with clean cotton cloths or paper towels.  Do not rub because flood waters can contain dirt and mud that will scratch the surface. Allow the furniture to slowly air-dry indoors.  Rapid drying can cause warping and cracking. Remove moisture from the room with fans but don’t point fan airflow directly at the furniture.

It may be possible to salvage some upholstered furniture but a professional should be hired for the task.  Mold growth is hard to stop and contaminants are nearly impossible to eliminate at home so it is better to leave the care of your antique Belter armchair to a professional. 

Clothing and Textiles
Most personal textiles are everyday clothing and bedding that can simply be machine washed and dried if you decide to salvage them.  For heirloom items, though, like great Aunt Sara’s quilt or grandma’s wedding gown, careful treatment is needed.  Wet textiles can be very fragile and heavy so be cautious when moving them.  They should be dried within 48 hours, especially during warmer weather to prevent mold growth.  Anything that cannot be treated in that time frame can be frozen then thawed later in small batches when you have time to dry them.  Items with dyes that won’t run should be rinsed as soon as possible then laid flat to air-dry indoors.  Do not wring or twist the items.  Blot them with clean, lint free towels and keep the air circulating to help them dry.  Leather items should be treated within 24 hours.  They can be air-dried but require special care to keep them flexible so it is best to seek professional help.

Kitchen Wares
Most of our kitchens are filled with glass and ceramic cups and dishes, metal pots and pans and flatware and other utensils made of metal and plastic that can all be simply washed clean and left to air-dry.  Kitchen gadgets like blenders and coffee makers, once soaked in flood waters are usually not salvageable.

Most electronics cannot survive a flood.  Unless it’s your great grandfather’s radio that he used at the Battle of the Bulge, let it go.

Other Decorative Items Around the House
Air-drying as soon as possible is recommended for most items you find on the shelves and tables  around the house.  Things like wicker baskets or items with shell or bone should be treated within 24 hours.  They should be wrapped in absorbent towels and air-dried with fans pushing the moist air out of the room.  Baskets, especially, should be handled with care because they will be very fragile.  On the other hand, ceramic statuary, other high-fired ceramics, and glass items are fairly stable even when soaking wet so they can be dried after more fragile items.  Terracotta items, however, are very fragile when wet and should be treated quickly and with care.  Bronze trophies, brass plaques, and the like can usually wait up to 48 hours to be dried unless they are corroded.  The longer they are wet the worse the corrosion will get.  If the item is mounted on wood, it should be dried sooner.  As with most other items, blot with absorbent towels and air-dry.

Photographs, Books and Documents
Paper-based items are a whole different subject.  Check out "Drowning Memories" by our archivist Rachel Dworkin for tips on how to treat those items.

Every object is different and will need to be considered individually but these tips and other available guidelines should help you salvage a family heirloom or two in case disaster strikes and you don’t have the resources for professional treatment.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Operation Rebuild: Eastman Kodak's Rather Filthy Secret

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Following the devastation caused by Hurricane Agnes in June 1972, the Southern Tier was flooded with volunteers from all over the northeast.  Organizations like Mission Possible, a group based out of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Horseheads, helped to supply and coordinate their efforts. Two of the volunteers who worked with Mission Possible were John Dickson III and Edward Wheeler of Rochester.  The pair worked for Eastman Kodak as part of their facilities maintenance and construction crew.   In the first three months following the flood, John and Edward worked in Elmira nearly every day, shoveling out mud from people’s homes and removing debris from their properties until they had used up all of their vacation time.

There was still a lot of work that needed to be done.  The flood caused extensive damage inside homes, ruining insulation, frying electrical wiring and destroying appliances like furnaces and water heaters.  Unlike the clean-up, these repairs couldn’t be done by just anyone, so Mission Possible reached out to various regional companies including Kodak, Xerox and NYSEG asking them to send skilled work crews to help in the Elmira recovery effort.  In the end, Kodak sent nearly 100 of their maintenance and construction personnel to Elmira’s Southside as part of their top secret project, Operation Rebuild. 

The work for Operation Rebuild was done by Kodak employees and was jointly funded by Kodak and the Catholic Charities of Rochester.  Once again, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church coordinated the efforts while St. Joseph’s Hospital provided the workers with food and Elmira College provided them with shelter.  Two local businesses, LeValley McLoud Inc. and Robinson Lumber Co., agreed to sell supplies to Operation Rebuild at highly discounted rates.  Throughout it all, Kodak took pains to keep their involvement in the project a secret.  While the men used company trucks, they made sure to cover over the company name and logo.  Kodak asked the employees they sent down not to reveal who they worked for.  The whole operation was a vast conspiracy of good that, for whatever reason, they didn’t want their name attached to.

Operation Rebuild ran from September 1972 to the end of the year.  In that time Kodak employees worked in an official capacity on 78 homes, mostly owned by the elderly or infirm, and volunteered to help on many more.  They installed furnaces, rewired electrical systems, replaced ruined insulation and dry wall and, in one case, essentially rebuilt a house from the ground up.  Operation Rebuild indeed.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Floating History

by Kerry Lippincott, Education Coordinator

Flood of 1972
This month marks the 40th anniversary of the ’72 Flood.  To commemorate the flood we have a variety of activities planned at the museum, through our Facebook page and on our blog.  On Thursday June 21 the exhibit Memories of the ’72 Flood opens in the Barn Gallery.  Everyone who lived through the flood has a story.  Through images, objects and oral histories, Memories of the ’72 Flood shares those stories.   In addition to viewing the exhibit, during the opening visitors can listen to period music, share their own flood story and attend “Don’t Blame The River,” a panel discussion sponsored by the Friends of the Chemung River Watershed.  The June edition of The Chemung Historical Journal features articles about the flood as seen through the eyes of emergency responders and the Chemung County Historian Archie Kieffer who was the Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds for Chemung County in 1972.  Our Gift Shop specials continue with the flood issue of the Journal (August 1972) on sale for $3.00.  On Facebook we are asking people to help us locate flood level markers that were issued by the historical society, sharing flood photos from the Booth Library and providing a day to day timeline of the flood.  Throughout the month look for posts here about Operation Rebuild and tips on how to care for water damaged collections.

As we were preparing for Memories of the ’72 Flood, I got extremely curious about Chemung County’s flood history.  My curiosity got the better of me and I discovered a few things.  It should be no surprise, that there have been floods throughout the county’s history but there is a difference between ‘smaller’ floods which never cause much damage and ‘major’ ones that cause damage.  Perhaps this quote from a ’72 Flood oral history explains it best  – “We had been through a lot of floods but had never seen anything like this.  This flood was just unbelievable.  It went up a foot then another  foot and another foot and it just kept coming and it just did not stop.  And most floods you would see recede by the next morning and you wouldn’t have any water there and it would be gone.”   
Flood of 1889 - Corner of Madison Avenue and Church Street

There have been over 23 recorded major floods in Chemung County’s history.  The first recorded flood was in 1784.  Another fact I discovered is that people in the 18th and 19th centuries liked to name the floods.    The 1784 was the Ice Flood. 1833 had the Great Inundation (1833) and the Tremendous Flood occurred in 1861.  There were even several Pumpkin Floods where pumpkins actually floated down the Chemung River.  During the 1817 flood pumpkins made it all the way to Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania.  Can you imagine!  1857 wasn’t a very good year as there were 3 floods in June, July and November.  The worst recorded flooding in the 19th century was the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1865.  Since snow began falling in October 1864 and pretty much never let up, it should not have been a surprise that the Chemung River flooded once the snow began to melt.  Lower areas of the Confederate Prison Camp (mainly the small pox hospital) were evacuated while in the higher areas prisoners were ordered to stay on the second and third tiers of their bunks (where they remained for two days).  The flood even washed away 2,700 feet of the camp’s stockade wall. 

Flood of 1902
Beginning with St. Patrick’s Day Flood it seems each new flood “topped” the last one.   Not only that but it seems several floods were followed by more inclement weather.  The Flood of 1889 topped the St. Patrick’s Day Flood.  The Flood of 1902 topped 1889.  After two days of flooding in March 1902 the area was hit by sharp temperature decline and a snowstorm.  I should point out the mayor of Elmira at the time was Frank Flood.  The Flood of 1946 topped 1902.  In May and June 1946, five days of rain were followed by flooding which was then followed by 2 severe windstorms.  Of course the ’72 Flood topped 1946.

Flood of 1946 - Corner of Main and Water Streets
My favorite flood story is simple flood marker kept by Asa Parshall showing flood crests near Katydid Curve in Chemung.  Mr. Parshall’s marker - a tree! 
Do you have a flood story?