Monday, August 21, 2017

Breaking the Law on Two Wheels

by Erin Doane, Curator

In 1900, Elmira police made 1,438 arrests. The top three criminal offenses for which people were arrested were intoxication, vagrancy, and violating bicycle ordinance. 107 people were arrested for violating bicycle ordinances. That’s almost 7 percent of all arrests in the city that year. 1900 was the first and only time that bicycle-related criminal activities broke into the top three. So, why was that?

A bicycle gang? No, just the Kanawehola Bicycle Club at Fitch's Bridge in the 1890s.
The years around the turn of the 20th century are seen as the golden age of bicycling. The earliest bicycles first appeared in the early 19th century but bicycling as a craze really takes off after the invention of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. The safety bicycle was an alternative to the penny-farthing which had one giant front wheel and a smaller rear wheel. The safety bicycle was, as its name implies, safer, so more people took up riding as a hobby and as a means of transportation.

Penny-farthing bicycle
"Elmira" model D lady's bicycle made by the Elmira Clipper Chilled Plow Company, c. 1890s
By the 1890s, the city of Elmira had detailed bicycle ordinances in place regulating where and when cyclists could ride their vehicles. Rules that kept cyclists from riding on sidewalks without permits or riding at night without lanterns were made for the sake of public safety. Bicycling can be a dangerous activity for both riders and those who happen to get in their way. On July 17, 1897, the Elmira Star-Gazette reported on two wheelmen, as cyclists were also called, colliding with each other at 10 o’clock at night while riding on the cinder path in front of the table factory in Elmira Heights. One of the men suffered from a fractured cheekbone and a blackened eye while the other was knocked unconscious. Neither bicycle had a lamp.

Brass bicycle lamp
Many of the complaints about bicyclists came from residents in the vicinity of Eldridge Park. The park was a very popular destination for cyclists. It was in the evenings at the end of a concert or play that had been held in the park that problems arose. Cyclists would speed away on the sidewalks, weaving through pedestrians as they went. Several accidents were reported in which pedestrians were run down. People also complained that cyclists used the roads surrounding the park as race courses for their own entertainment.

Pedestrians and bicyclists in Eldridge Park, 1890s
In 1899, the city began to crack down on those violating the ordinances. In July, two Elmira police officers, H.B. Murray and F.A. Gitchell, were tasked with helping with the crack-down. They were assigned bicycles of their own and, being good riders, were easily able to run down all guilty parties. Within just two days the pair arrested seven people for riding on the sidewalk without either permits or lamps. Those arrested were brought to city hall. They were not held in jail but their wheels were kept as security. After appearing before the city Recorder the next day, they paid the $1 fine and their bicycles were returned to them. It’s interesting to note that a bicycle license, which would have kept the riders from being arrested in the first place, cost $1, the same amount as the fine.

Elmira Star-Gazette, July 13, 1899
In October, 1899, the city’s common council passed a new set of bicycle ordinances. They appear to be only slightly different from the previous ordinances. Cyclists were prohibited from riding on sidewalks unless the street was not paved or macadamized. In that case, they would need to purchase sidewalk permits at the cost of 50 cents. Cyclists were required to have lights on their bicycle which could plainly be seen two hundred feet ahead if they were riding between sunset and sunrise. They were also required to carry a bell or whistle to alert pedestrians when they were riding on sidewalks. A bicycling speed limit of 6 miles an hour was also enacted. Any violation of the ordinances was punishable by a fine of not less than five dollars or, in absence of payment, imprisonment in the Chemung County jail for a term not exceeding five days. All money collected from the sales of permits and fines would go toward paving streets in the city. The Kelly-Keefe Co. offered a printed summary of the new ordinances on a neat card that could be picked up at their shoe store on Water Street.

Elmira bicycle permit, 1900
The common council promised strict enforcement of the new bicycle ordinances and they delivered on that promise. The Star-Gazette reported on dozens of arrests for violations from the fall of 1899 through the new year. For some, though, enough was still not being done. Enforcing and strengthening the city’s bicycle ordinances became a pet project of Alderman Eugene Barnes who represented the city’s 11th Ward. Barnes was an engineer with the Northern Central Railroad who lived on South Main Street. In July 1900, he reported to the common council that a woman bicyclist had run into him and he demanded that a speed limit be set for bicycles. He was told that the ordinances passed some eight months earlier did set a limit and he countered that it had never been enforced. At the next meeting, Barnes introduced a resolution to have the police enforce the bicycle ordinances more strictly. That evening, the police received orders to take all wheelmen into custody who violated the ordinance.

Bicyclist in Eldridge Park posing near the American Girl Statue, 1899
From July 10, when the resolution for stricter enforcement was passed, through August 21, 98 people were arrested on charges of violating the ordinances. Despite all these arrests, some cyclists insisted upon continuously defying the ordinances. Trouble-makers Laverne Allen and Miss Grace Wood appear twice in the local newspaper for their crimes. In April 1900, the pair was arrested at 9 o’clock in the evening for riding on the sidewalks without a lamp. When they appeared before the Recorder the following day, Allen argued that they were not guilty. He said that he thought the sun set at 9 o’clock and that bicyclists were not required to carry lamps until some time after the sun set. The court did not agree with his argument as the sun actually set closer to 8 o’clock and found the pair guilty. Allen paid the fines for both himself and Miss Wood. Three months later, Allen and Wood were arrested again for disobeying the bicycle ordinances. This time, their bicycles were confiscated.

Kanawehola Bicycle Club in front of the Elmira Reformatory, July 4, 1895
The popularity of bicycles started dropping off after 1900. As cars became more popular through the 1910s and 1920s, bicycles became seen more as recreational vehicles and children’s toys. Perhaps that is why reports of arrest for violations of the city’s bicycle ordinances rarely appear in local newspapers after 1914.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Interview with the Mammoth

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Have you met our sixth staff member yet? The small, fuzzy, prehistoric, supposed-to-be-extinct one? I’m talking about our museum mascot, Mark the Mammoth. You can often see him at the museum or check out his exploits on his Twitter page:

Mark the Mammoth, the star of the show
While the human staff here at the museum like to think we’re cool (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary), we’ve got nothing on Mark. Mark has an international fan base. He helps us spread the word about Chemung County history near and far. He has been featured in articles and conference presentations, starred in music videos, has participated in an international mammoth exchange, and more. From his Twitter account, he shares items from the museum’s collections, glimpses into daily life at the museum, and some extinction humor thrown in for good measure.

Mark with his pal Mortimer the Mammoth of the Hull Museums on Mark's international mammoth exchange to Hull, England. There are multiple mammoths and mastodons on Twitter.
At the risk of increasing his already over-inflated ego, I’ve asked Mark to take some time from his busy schedule to sit down for this interview.

The staff competes in an annual Mark the Mammoth Halloween costume contest. This is curator Erin's 2014 Marie Antoinette masterpiece (which wasn't even the winner that year!).
Kelli: Thanks for agreeing to this interview Mark. I know that you have a pretty packed Tweeting schedule to attend to.

Mark: Thanks for the invitation.

K: Let’s start with the basics. Why are you here as the mascot of the Chemung County Historical Society?

M: Over 10,000 years ago, my kind roamed this area. Of course, there weren’t any of you humans here and things were a lot icier, but this has long been my home. Then extinction happened. As we died off, our bones fossilized and were found thousands of years later by some rather confused humans. This area was named “Chemung,” meaning “land of the big horn.” We’d call them tusks now, but horn works, I guess. Most of our visitors don’t realize this county is named after mammoths. I blow a lot of minds with that fact.

K: Your Twitter bio says that you “beat extinction.” Could you describe that process?

M: The scientists are still examining how that happened. Basically, I somehow shrunk down, allowing my body to survive on far fewer resources than a full-sized mammoth. People think I’m a stuffed animal, but they are mistaken. I am an actual, miniature mammoth. A modern scientific marvel, if I do say so myself.

K: That is certainly fascinating. I see that you are named after important local figure, Mark Twain.

M: Since I’m thousands of years older than him, I prefer to think that he was named after me.

K: Ok, sure. What do you see as your main role at the museum?

M: I like to think that I put a friendly, approachable face on the museum. Even though I know that my human colleagues aren’t scary and intimidating (most of the time), I know that a lot of people feel that museums aren’t for them or that they wouldn’t be welcome. We want everyone, of all ages, to feel like they are welcome to come visit us. Who wouldn’t feel welcomed looking at my adorable, fuzzy face? And for people around the world, my Twitter account is a way to spread the word about our fascinating local history to people who probably will never get a chance to visit Chemung County.

K: You are pretty adorable. Is there anything you would like to do more of at the museum?

M: I’d like to do more educational programming about mammoths and mastodons here in our local history. We already do some, and I might be biased, but I think we could do more! Our mammoth tusk is the literal centerpiece of our Bank Gallery and it’s definitely something that wows our visitors. 
Our "big horn"
K: Thank you for your time, Mark. Is there anything else you’d like to share before we go?

M: Just that people should check out my Twitter account. You can see what I’m posting even if you don’t have an account yourself. Find it here: There are also lots of other fantastic museum mascots out there to follow. Just ask me if you want recommendations!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Marriage Search

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Your ancestors were probably married but, if they did it in New York before 1880, you’re going to have a hard time proving it. New York State began statewide registration of births, deaths, and marriages in 1880, although full compliance was not reached until 1913. Prior to that, records tended to be a bit, shall we say, inconsistent. A good breakdown of what official records are available where can be found at the New York State Archives website.

So, what resources are available when you can’t find official records? There are a couple of options:

1. Church Records

Most churches and pastors keep a record of services performed for members including marriages, baptisms, and funerals. Unless they have been lost due to catastrophic flood or fire damage, most churches maintain their records into perpetuity. When churches close, they often send the records to their denomination’s regional or national archives. Here at the Chemung County Historical Society, we have the original records of the First Baptist Church of Elmira and of itinerant Methodist preacher Rev. Joseph Riggs. We also have an index to the records held by Trinity Episcopal Church.

Page from the records of Rev. Joseph Riggs, 1864.
2. Newspapers

Often times newspapers would print marriage announcements. The Chemung County Historical Society has historic newspapers dating as far back as 1819. We have an index of marriage announcements which appeared in Elmira Gazette, 1830-1850, and are working on creating a comparable one for Elmira Republican & General Advertiser, 1832-1837. In addition to the various papers in our collections, there are a number of on-line databases you can search as well.

Marriage and death announcements in the Elmira Republican & General Advertiser, February 16, 1833

3. Ephemera

Lots of items are produce both in the run-up to and as part of the marriage which may serve as evidence. Some examples include invitations; marriage certificates; wedding souvenir books; photographs; accounts in letters and diaries; material associated with anniversaries; family bibles. Here at the Chemung County Historical Society we have a number of all of the above and your family probably has more. Don’t be afraid to use them as evidence in the absence of official records. 

Clark-Dean wedding, 1880