Monday, January 27, 2014

A Sappy Story: The History of Maple Syrup in Chemung County

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

I grew up in maple syrup country (no, not Vermont- but, the Catskills have a lot of it, too), so I’ve always been a fan of the stuff.  None of that fake butter-flavored nonsense for me- sacrilege!  This is why when the fine folks at Tanglewood Nature Center asked us to put together a small history of maple syrup exhibit for their pancake breakfast, I jumped at the chance.  As it turns out, we have a lot of syrup/breakfast items in our collections!  Enjoy and try not to get too hungry reading this.
Syrup pitcher, circa 1845

The history of maple syrup and sugar making dates back to early Native American history.  According to one Iroquois legend, a hunter accidentally discovered the syrup when he accidentally boiled in his cooking pot some sap from a broken maple branch. Early European settlers in the Northeast used wood spouts to tap maple trees.  The sap would collect in wooden buckets.  When boiled over a wood fire, the sap turned into maple sugar or syrup.  The maple sugar was a good alternative sweetener for those who could not afford to purchase cane sugar.  By the mid-1800s, maple syrup production increased as the technology changed.  Metal spouts and evaporator pans made maple syrup making more efficient.   

Wooden sap bucket

Sap trough and spill used by Nelson Rosekrans of Erin, NY


Sap spout, circa 1860s

S.B. Rogers and Son was a local maple syrup producer and dealer in the early 20th century.  In 1917, they were fined $25 by the United States Department of Agriculture for misrepresenting the weight of their ½ gallon cans of syrup. 

Receipt from S.B. Rogers, 1908

During World War I, sugar was rationed.  However, an article in the Elmira Telegram proposed a suitable solution: maple sugar.  Maple production had fallen out of fashion as cane and beet sugars became more readily available and affordable throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  Yet, as the war raged on, people realized that a return to maple sugaring could provide sugar for the home front, thus freeing the easily shippable cane and beet sugars to be sent to the troops.  Producing maple syrup became a patriotic duty!
Metal sap bucket

No discussion of maple syrup is complete without talking about what you put it on: pancakes and waffles.  Enjoy a look at some of the griddles and waffle makers in our collections.

Early waffle iron

Pancake griddle
Stovetop waffle maker

Early electric waffle maker

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Up in Smoke: Chemung County’s Tobacco Culture

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

When most people think of tobacco farming they think of somewhere south, Virginia or North Carolina maybe.  Believe it or not, however, Chemung County was once home to a thriving tobacco industry.  Tobacco was first planted in the area in the 1840s in Big Flats. By the 1870s tobacco was a major cash crop in the towns of Big Flats, Chemung, Elmira and Southport with nearly 60,000 pounds of it grown annual.  At the peak of local tobacco production, area farmers were growing upwards of 100,000 pounds a year.  It grew best in the fertile soil near the Chemung River and the area’s various creeks.  Although it was grown throughout the Chemung Valley as far south as Towanda, it was all known as Big Flats tobacco on the national market.  Some big names were involved in the tobacco farming business including the Baldwin, Beckwith, Brand, Hoffman, Lovell, Minier and Sly families.

Chemung County tobacco farm
 Once it’s picked, tobacco is cured or aged.  There are a number of different ways to cure tobacco, but the one preferred around here was air curing.  In air curing, the fresh cut tobacco leaves are hung in a well ventilated barn or shed and allowed to slowly dry over a period of four to eight weeks.  This curing process results in leaves with a light, sweet flavor and high nicotine content.  As processes go, it is probably the least labor intensive and the preferred method for cigar tobacco.  Even today, the southern half of our county is dotted with this type of tobacco curing barn.

Inside the tobacco curing barn
Chemung County weren’t content to just grow and cure the tobacco, though.  In 1873, John Brand and two others began John Brand & Co., a tobacco packing and processing business on Elmira’s southside.  Within a few years, cigar making was big business in the city.  At the industry’s peak in 1900, there were 33 different cigar manufacturers.  There were also dozens of warehouses, processing plants, leaf importers and cigar box makers. Modern packaging manufacturer F.M. Howell began in 1883 making cigar boxes.  

Chemung County’s tobacco industry experienced a slow decline in the first half of the 20th century.  During World War I, soldiers were issued cigarettes as a way to calm nerves and cigars fell out of fashion.  By the 1940s, the Elmira Tobacco Company, the area’s last cigar manufacturer, had rolled its last cigar.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

Great Guernseys! Lucius Robinson’s Model Dairy Farm

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Lucius Robinson, grandson of the New York State Governor of the same name, had a model dairy farm either in the town of Horseheads or Veteran (I’ve seen both towns listed) in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.  With his model farm, Graymont, Robinson was taking part in a trend that really took off beginning in the early to mid-19th century.  While farmers have always made strides to improve their agricultural output, somewhere along the way, some decided that they would establish experimental, “model” farms that would use the latest science to seek to improve and perfect a certain aspect of farming.  The agricultural press debated the merits of this new “book” farming and printed articles suggesting ways to apply the findings of these practitioners.  Most of these model farmers are also aptly described as “gentleman farmers,” meaning that they were typically wealthy white men who came to farming as a second career or hobby.  They had the time, money, and flexibility to experiment because unlike most farmers, their life and livelihood did not depend the monetary success of their farm.

Part of the scientific process of running a model dairy farm was selecting the cows.  Each farmer chose a breed of cattle that he believed to be superior milk producers (and the breeds that people tried ran the entire spectrum of cows).   Robinson selected Guernseys.  The fawn and white-colored Guernsey hails from the British Channel Island of Guernsey and is renowned for its high milk output.  The article gives wonderful descriptions and images of some of the Robinson’s cows and show how important a cow’s lineage was to its reputation (plus they're adorable).  Let’s meet the herd:
Sir Launcelot

“He is one of the finest specimens of the animal kingdom to be found in this section.  He is large, growthy, vigorous, faultless in color and marking, and possessed of the true dairy conformation.”

Leona of Orange
 “Leona of Orange, is a prize beauty, and would certainly delight the eye of any lover of high grade, thoroughbred cattle . She is kind, gentle and delights to be petted. She is a solid color, rich, reddish brown, neatly built for business at the pail, and Mr. Robinson is banking heavily upon her a s a milk producer.”

Winifred of Orange
“Winifred of Orange, is another choice beauty. She has a rich, yellow skin', and is well balanced throughout, as well as docile and intelligent.”

Deputy's Lady
 “Deputy's Lady is a sister of Elsie of Orange and Jennie of Orange, who are famous butter makers, having a record of 290 pounds of butte r in ten months. She is a persistent milker, and although growing, already outclasses, many that have reached their prime.”

Gertrude of Orange
“She is a sister of Florence of Maplewood, who during the first three months of her milking period gave 1,950 pounds of milk, which is an equivalent of 109 pounds of butter.”

Eleanor Thorne
“She is the granddaughter of the famous cow Beeswax, who gave in twenty-six days 716 pounds of milk, and yielding thirty-eight pounds of butter, an average of eight and one half pounds per week. She is the kind that wins admiration on sight, and perhaps for technical perfection is the gem of the herd.”

Beatrice of Orange
 “She is rich in color and has the true dairy conformation. She comes from a family of great producers and will be up to their records from all the indications.”

Ultimately, I'm not certain how big of a success Robinson's farm was.  He must have done relatively well, though, because his Guernseys appear in the Guernsey breeders' journals through the 1920s.