By Erin Doane, Curator
I had never heard of local Elmira folk artist Alsace S. Blandford until recently which is not surprising. The ex-slave painted during most of his life but few of his works seem to have survived. The museum has three paintings donated by his son in 1966. Our own archives only has a slim folder of information about him. The few sources available provided just a tiny glimpse into his long life.
Alsace S. Blandford was born a slave on March 17, 1858 in Maryland. He and his family lived on a plantation of 1,000 acres with more than 120 slaves in Prince George County, Maryland which was just 12 miles from Washington D.C. When the Civil War broke out, Alsace’s father, Thomas Blandford, learned that they could become freedmen if they escaped Maryland. This information set a plan in motion. Thomas was the foreman at the plantation and was responsible for driving produce to Washington for sale. He created a false bottom on the produce wagon under which he hid his wife and six children. Alsace was just three years old at time. Thomas placed a full load of potatoes in the wagon and left the plantation as he always did. Since he was a common sight on the route Thomas was never challenged. This time instead of going to market he took his family to freedom.
The story of the potato wagon is common among the few sources I found but after that some accounts differ. A 1938 newspaper article reports that the family stayed in Washington until 1867 when they moved to Sherwood, NY and then to Poplar Ridge, NY a year later. Alsace is said to have remembered the family’s former master coming to visit them in Washington after the war. He asked Thomas to come back to work for him and offered the family 100 acres of land. Thomas declined the offer. Another source states that Thomas drove the wagon to the Northern part of Maryland where they made contact with some Quakers who were members of the Underground Railroad. The family was passed from one station to another to Philadelphia before finally ending up at last in Poplar Ridge, NY.
It is known for certain that Alsace Blandford, himself, came to Elmira in 1879 at the age of 22. He married an Elmiran named Helen Abigail Condol and they had six children together. He made his living as a house painter and paperhanger even though he was told when he started that no one would hire an African American for such work. He continued to support himself with that trade well into his 80s. His real love, though, was painting landscapes and rural scenes. He had always enjoyed painting pictures from an early age and his works show great skill even though he was never formally trained as an artist. The walls of his home on Madison Avenue in Elmira were said to have been covered in oil paintings, pastel drawing and watercolors that he had created. Alsace died on April 13, 1948 at the age of 91.