Monday, July 30, 2012

Meet Me at the Fair: A Brief Ride Through Fair History in Chemung County

By Kerry Lippincott, Education Coordinator

The history of the Chemung County Fair begins with the Chemung County Agricultural Society.  Formed in September 1842, the society was to meet annually in October “for the purpose of holding the regular fair and exhibition of domestic animals, manufactured articles of the farm and garden and agricultural implements.”  The first fair was held in October 1842.  During that fair cash prizes were given in a variety of divisions including horses, cattle, pigs, butter and cheese, grain crops, fruit, silk agricultural implements and household productions.

Unfortunately, after 1842 there are gaps in the fair records.   Though we may not know the exact dates of the fairs, we do know the locations.   Early fairs were held in Horseheads.  In 1871 400 acres of land between Elmira and Horseheads (the area where Anchor Glass is currently located) was secured for the fairgrounds.  Twenty-one years later the fair moved to its current location in Horseheads.

Of course, county fairs were not the only fairs held in the county.  Between 1841 and 1889 the New York State Fair was held annually throughout the state.  Host cities included Syracuse, Albany, Rochester, Poughkeepsie, Utica, Buffalo, New York City, Watertown and Elmira.  In fact, Elmira hosted the state fair nine times in 1855, 1860, 1869, 1872, 1875, 1878, 1881, 1884, and 1889.  Over the years two locations were used for the state fair – East Water Street (where Kennedy Valve is currently located) or the Maple Avenue Driving Park (now Dunn Field).  In 1890 the state fair moved permanently to Syracuse.

Between 1889 and 1891 the Interstate Fair (a joint effort between New York and Pennsylvania) was held at the Maple Avenue Driving Park.

This week marks the 170th Annual Chemung County Fair.  If you happen to be at the fair, please stop at our booth in the Commercial Building!

Monday, July 23, 2012

When a (Mini) Disaster Strikes

By Erin Doane, Curator  

Normally, I enjoy irony but when I’m on the receiving end of the universe’s sense of humor, I’m not too pleased about it.  The museum just opened up an exhibit on the Flood of ’72 a couple weeks ago and I wrote a blog entry about how to salvage water-damaged items.  So, on the morning of Monday, July 2 when I discovered that our ac unit in collections storage had sprung a leak, I felt like the butt of a cosmic joke.  I don’t think I would have taken it so personally except that a similar thing happened to me at a previous job.  That time I had just completed a disaster response workshop that included salvaging items from a kiddie pool filled with water one week before the plumbing in the men’s room decided to leak into collections storage.  Just a coincidence?  I’m beginning to wonder.

So, just after 9:00 am I walked into textile store to collect the climate information for the past month and was surprised to find puddles of water on the floor.  My first thought, of course, was “oh expletive!”  My next thought was that I’m glad that I’ve been trained in this sort of thing and that the museum has two boxes of supplies collected just for an emergency like this.  I absolutely love it when institutions have disaster plans in place.

A quick perusal of the situation showed that this was only a minor disaster, at worst.  The part of the ac unit that was dripping is mounted on the ceiling above a metal shelving unit containing twenty archival boxes filled with textiles.  Fortunately, the water was coming from a part of the unit that was not directly over the shelves so it only dripped on the floor.  It did splash up, however, and the front edges of four textile storage boxes on the bottom shelf were soggy.  The unit must have dripped all weekend when it was hot and humid. 

I removed the four boxes from storage and brought them into the museum’s conference room.  We are very fortunate to have a space with four large, empty tables.  I’m not sure how I would have laid out the damp items otherwise.  I laid down plastic sheeting from the disaster supply kit and removed the clothing from the wettest of the boxes first.  The water had wicked up through the cardboard and the tissue paper wrapped around a lovely yellow and brown 1870s dress and soaked into where the skirt was folded at the end of the box.  The water went through four layers of fabric but the dress was not soaking wet.  A skirt, a petticoat and the shoulders of another dress from the other three boxes were also slightly damp.  I spread them all out on the tables and brought a fan into the room to circulate the air.  By noon the items were all dry with little sign that they had ever been wet.  The only casualties of this minor disaster were two textile storage boxes that were soaked enough to deform the ends making them useless.  

This mini disaster was caused by a blockage in the drain tube for the ac unit.  The blockage was removed later that day and we haven’t had any trouble since (knock on wood!).  So, I guess one lesson from this experience is to periodically check out the ac unit to make sure everything is running as it should.  Probably the greater lesson is that being prepared can save the day.  The Historical Society has a disaster plan in place that covers emergencies great and small and boxes of supplies ready for when disaster strikes.  The relatively small amount of water from a plugged ac unit was not too difficult to deal with but the potential for other catastrophes is always there.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Clang, Clang Went the Trolley. Ding, Ding Went the Bell: A Brief History of Trolleys in Chemung County

By Kerry Lippincott, Education Coordinator
In July and August the museum is hosting Trolley Into Twain County Tours.  On Tuesdays through Saturdays people can catch the trolley at the museum and go on an hour long, narrated tour of Elmira.  Sites include Mark Twain’s Study, Woodlawn Cemetery and the Civil War Prison Camp.    I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to explore the county’s trolley history.

 On August 23, 1871 the county’s first trolley line opened.  Operated by the Elmira and Horseheads Railway Company, horse drawn cars traveled between Elmira and Horseheads.  Rides within Elmira were five cents while travel to and from Horseheads was fifteen cents.  Other trolley companies were quickly established.

·        The Maple Avenue Railway was part of a real estate project to develop Maple Avenue.  On August 30, 1890 going between 12 and 15 miles an hour, the railway became the first to have an electric trolley in Chemung County.

·        In 1891 to help develop Elmira Heights, the West Side Railroad was started.   

·        The East Side Railroad operated briefly before merging with the West Side Railroad.

·        Residents along West Water Street contributed money to have a one mile track between Main Street and Foster Avenue.

·        The Elmira Transfer Railway ran between East Water and Fifth Streets along Clemens Center Parkway.

·        Known as the Glen Route, the Elmira and Seneca Lake Railway Company made trips between Horseheads and Watkins Glen.

·        Since trolleys were not equipped with bathrooms, the Elmira, Corning and Waverly Railway could not provide non-stop service from Waverly to Corning, passengers had to change cars in Elmira.  A popular activity on this route was shipping canoes on the cars to Corning and paddling back to Elmira down the Chemung River.

 The period between 1890 and 1939 is called Elmira’s Trolley Car Era.  Connecting people, places and events, the trolleys were the life lines of the community. With five cents (during World War I the fare increased to six cents) and routes running every fifteen minutes, one could go practically anywhere within the county.   During the summer open cars left for Rorick's Glen every 7 ½ minutes and double deck cars transported people to Eldridge Park.  The Hotel Rathbun (now the Chemung Canal Trust Company on Water Street) had special tracks from its Baldwin Street side to the Erie Railroad Station so hotel guests could be transported by a special yellow trolley to and from the hotel.  People choose homes based on distance from a trolley line.  There were even trolley parades where people traveled to an event in decorated trolleys.   1919 was a record breaking year for trolley fares.  In that year alone there were 10 million fares (this broke the previous record of 8 ½ million fares set in 1913).

By the early 1900s most of the trolley companies were consolidated under the Elmira Water, Light and Railroad Company.  Not only did the company control transportation routes, but the water and electric light utilities as well.

Like most things in life, all good things must come to end.  With the increase use of cars and the introduction of bus lines people rode the trolleys less.    On March 11, 1939 Car 501 made Elmira’s last trolley ride. To commemorate the event, the Chamber of Commerce staged a parade.  Pulled by a team of horses, Car 501 led a procession of three bands and several buses from City Hall to Third Street to the car barn on East Fifth Street.  The crepe decorated car had a “To Graveyard” sign on the front and “Good-by, Elmira” on the back with its roll turned to “Home for the Aged.”   At 4:16 pm the car barn reported that the trolley had completed its route and the order was sent to Fred B. Reynolds to turn the power off.  Nearly forty-six years earlier Reynolds had turned the power on for Elmira’s first electric trolley.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Tourist Traps and Other Summer Pitfalls

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

July is Summer Appreciation Month and nothing says summer quite like tourism.  Since the invention of disposable income and a reliable means of transportation, people have been hitting the road to escape their humdrum lives heading anywhere and everywhere, including our own little slice of the universe. 
Chemung County’s first tourist trap was a product of the railroads.  In 1860, Dr. Edwin Eldridge, a big investor the Erie Railroad, bought up about 300 acres of swamp land beside the tracks.  He spent 10 years and a whole lot of money turning it into the tourist destination for the Southern Tier.  It had everything - beautiful lakes, manicured gardens, a casino and, most importantly, a dedicated train stop. 

During the 1890s, a local trolley company decided to replicate the effect and opened a park at Rorick’s Glen on the south bank of the Chemung River.  Rorick’s Glen offered walking trails, rides, restaurants, swimming and plays by the Manhattan Opera Company.  A dedicated trolley line ran out along Water Street from the heart of downtown to the entrance to a foot bridge across the river near what is now Demarest Parkway. 

Eldridge Park is still in existence and is, in fact, making a resurgence with new rides and landscaping.  Rorick’s Glen, sadly, lives on only in the photographs, theatre programs, postcards, tickets and newspaper articles in our collection.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Good Olde Summertime Along the Chemung

By Kerry Lippincott, Education Coordinator

We have been suffering very much at this place for some time part from the effects of a severe drought.  But little rain has fallen for several weeks.  Wheat and grass were too forward to be much injured therefore the crops of those have come in very well.  Early potatoes will not recover from the injury done to them and corn, oats, and late potatoes are also suffering severely.  This afternoon a light rain is falling though it continue for any length of time – it will do a great amount of good.  Some days this season have been excessively warm, warmer then I ever knew – the therometer standing at one time at 92 degrees in the shade.  I found the river quite convenient to cool myself in I can assure you.
Francis Hall
August 4, 1843

By the mid to late 1800s the importance of the Chemung River was shifting from industrial and daily needs to recreation, especially during the summer.  There was canoeing, boating, picnicking along the banks, swimming, fishing, sculling, and regatta races.  A must was shipping a canoe by train from Corning and then paddling back along the river’s winding course.

Between Grove and Lake Streets in the river were several islands strung together. Known as Clinton Island, it was a popular place to spend a Sunday afternoon swimming, boating, walking, and picnicking.  To get to the island there were wooden stairs at the Lake Street and Walnut Street Bridges.  A popular phrase of the time was “meet you at the island.”  During the Civil War era political and patriotic rallies were even held on the island.

Located 2 ½ miles from Elmira along the southern banks of the Chemung River was Rorick’s Glen.  The primary reason for the park’s existence was to build up street car customers.  For the price a street car ride passengers got into the park for free.  There was, of course, plenty to do at Rorick’s Glen - canoeing, donkey rides, enjoying one of the many picnic grounds, riding a miniature railroad, roller coaster or giant swing, and walking along a variety of trails. 

From 1901 to 1918 Rorick’s Glen was perhaps best known for its summer theater.  The open air theater sat 2,000 people.  The theater even attracted Broadway stars looking for work during the summer months.  A skeleton company was hired for the season and Broadway stars were brought in for a week’s run.  For ten to fifteen cents audiences could enjoy operas and musical comedies everyday, except for Wednesday evenings and Sundays.

What are your summer memories of Chemung County?