Monday, April 17, 2017

“Chief Ross” and the Elmira Fire Department

by Erin Doane, Curator

While doing research for the exhibit To the Rescue: Early Firefighters in Elmira, I came across a note about a man called “Chief Ross.” A file containing reminiscences of firefighters in the early 20th century included the story of a local character who made daily rounds visiting all the fire stations in the city. Chief Ross was described as “a simple, trusting soul with a retarded mentality but a faithful desire to please others.” He adored the firemen, lived meagerly, and died of pneumonia. His funeral was attended by a platoon of off-duty firefighters in full uniform and he was buried in the Exempt Firemen’s plot in Woodlawn Cemetery.

The short reminiscence gave a very brief account of this man’s life but I wanted to know more. In so many cases like this it is difficult, if not impossible, to find more information. Imagine my surprise when I found a newspaper article about Chief Ross and then a photograph of him as I continued my research in our archives. An online search of newspapers uncovered a half dozen more articles. While I still have a lot of questions about Chief Ross’s life and death, these articles provided far more information than I had expected to find.

"Chief Ross" wearing some of his many medals in 1907
Charles Owens was Chief Ross’s actual name. In 1926, Elmira fire chief John H. Espey told the Star-Gazette how Owens had come to be known as “Chief Ross.” “The only way I can figure it out is that Owen greatly resembled the lost Charley Ross, kidnapped in the ‘70s and never found. Although never a fireman, he bossed the department and told the boys just what to do, and when they didn’t do it, he threw off his coat and entered the thick of the fight with them. So they called him Chief Ross and the name stuck.”

Chief Ross started following the activities of the Elmira fire department at an early age. He visited the stations regularly and helped out whenever he could at the stations and at the scenes of fires. During the Lyceum Theater fire on March 8, 1904, which burned most of a block on Lake Street between Carroll and Market Streets, he hurried to assist the firefighters when asked while other men simply stood and watched. A newspaper report about the fire declared that Chief Ross was “a rough sort of fellow and possibly don’t know why it is that radium cures cancer, but he has just enough of that fool-hardy valor to make him of much use on such occasions.”

In another instance, when the department was still using horse-drawn equipment, Chief Ross stepped in to lend a hand. It was a cold winter night and three homes were on fire. The driver of one of the engines could not manages the horse so Chief Ross took the reins. He was able to calm the rearing horse and got the engine to the fire in record time. When he drove through Eldridge Park on the way, the horses were going so fast that they could not be slowed down to go under the railroad. Thinking quickly, he turned them and ran around the lake instead.

While Chief Ross never took a salary as a firefighter, he was a fixture in the department. He was at nearly every fire in the city and had a wonderfully retentive memory for facts and figures related to the conflagrations. Over the years, he also amassed a remarkable collection of firefighting badges, medals, and pins which he wore on a vest. One particularly large badge was made from the boiler plate of a steamer fire engine. It was reported that he wore his “18 pounds of medals” when he attended the firemen’s convention at Hornell in July 1909. The Star-Gazette reported that “‘Chief Ross’ will be one of the characters of the convention. He expects to open the new fire station and expects that he will be the grand marshal of the parade. He will also, he expects, respond to the address of welcome and will bow to the right and left when a chorus of 600 children sing ‘We Welcome You, O Chief.’”

Newspaper articles about the “Chief” were often written in a playful, or one may say, patronizing tone. For example, when he was found drunk at West Church and Davis Streets in April 1916, it was reported that “he was arrested for having taken on too big a cargo of fire water.” He appeared before the judge wearing a “big badge, the gift of No. 5 station firemen” and his sentence was suspended. While most people, including the firefighters and reporters, were quite fond of Chief Ross, it seemed that others would put him down and picked on him because of his lower mental capacity. During the Lyceum Fire mentioned before, the reporter noticed that among the gathered crowd of onlookers “there were a lot of men and boys who were doing all they could to amuse themselves at the chief’s expense.” Even the firefighters themselves would sometimes make him the butt of their jokes. In the original reminiscence that introduced me to Chief Ross, a firefighter stated that they were not unkind to him but they “would have a little fun” with him at times.

In June 1926, while visiting fire station No. 2, Chief Ross fell ill. The firefighters helped him to the bunk room to rest but he got worse. They then took him to the hospital and found that he had a severe case of pneumonia. On June 21, he died at the county farm in Breesport. The firefighters immediately started a fund to raise money for a fitting burial. Chief Espey, Commissioner Leonard Whittier, George Remer, and nearly every off-duty firefighter in the city attended the funeral while six firemen served as pallbearers. After devoting nearly 45 years of his life to the Elmira Fire Department, Chief Ross, Charles Owens, was laid to rest in the Elmira Exempt Fire Association’s plot in Woodlawn Cemetery. His headstone is inscribed: Member of Paid Department.

Elmira Exempt Fire Association plot in Woodlawn Cemetery




Monday, April 10, 2017

The Bumps On Your Head: The Phrenological Reading of Edward Billings

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

In 1861, Edward B. Billings had his head “read” by Prof. Orson Squire Fowler in Elmira. Fowler was a renowned phrenologist who published and lectured extensively on the pseudoscience. Phrenology, the study of what the physiology of peoples’ heads could reveal about their character and abilities, was all the rage in the early 19th century. Elmirans were familiar with phrenology so it makes since that Billings would have had his own reading done when Fowler came to town (Elmira had its own self-proclaimed phrenologist around the turn of the 20th century. You can read all about Professor Smokeball in my book Curiosities of Elmira).
The cover of Billings' handwritten reading
We have Billings’ phrenological reading in our archival collection, and let me tell you, it doesn’t disappoint. The report reads like a series of bizarre fortune cookie predictions that were allegedly based on the good professor’s expert findings. Fowler didn’t mince words and one has to wonder what Billings reaction was to the report (since it was preserved all of these years, he must not have minded too much). I’ve pulled some of the best excerpts below for your reading pleasure:  
You inherit your characteristics from your father’s mother. This in part also from your own mother and are consequently more sentimental and effeminate than powerful and need force more than any other quality.”

“Before you were born, your mother was rather weakly and has transmitted rather small and feeble vital organs to you and hence ought first and mainly to take special pains to supply yourself with force.”

“Tell your wife, from me, not to scold you for your never can love a scolding woman, and see to it that you marry one who praises all she can but blames none, and see to it further that you do not trifle with your affections for they are very hardy and will render you correspondingly happy when happy but miserable when miserable.”
“Are very fond of children, home, and friends, quite fond of the girls, should go into their society in a genteel way and cultivate gallantry. Should be especially careful not to allow affections to fasten except where they can remain.”

“Are very well adapted to traffic, particularly good in buying and selling, are calculated to get rich, are candid and frank; are a little vain, wanting in dignity to apt to play with boys beneath you; to much a recipient of character instead of an author of it.”

“Are best of all adapted to business but better adapted to take a business already established than establishing a new one.”

“Could make a good literary man if you had the brass but you have not.”
So was Professor Fowler right? For the most part, it’s impossible to tell how much of the report was nonsense (I’d wager a large part of it falls under that category). But, Billings did end up in the coal and wood business, so I guess the “buying and selling” and “adapted to business” bits rang at least a little true.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Archives Explained



By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

So, you recently donated a collection of papers to the Chemung County Historical Society. First off, thank you. It is only thanks to the generosity of folks like you that we’re able to have the amazing collections that we do. Hopefully by now you have returned the deed of gift, but you may be wondering just what we plan on doing with your donation.  Well, sit back and let me explain. The end goal of archiving is not to preserve history, but to make it accessible. Everything I do is geared towards making it easier for researchers to find what they’re looking for. 


Step one is to take the collection and organize it in a sensible fashion. When organizing a collection of documents, standard archival theory prioritizes two principals: provenance and original order.  Provenance refers to a document’s creator or source. The idea is that things created by the same person, business, or organization should all go together and things made by someone else should go somewhere else.  Pretty simple, right? The principle of original order basically boils down to using the organizational scheme established by the creator instead of wasting time coming up with a new one. If the creator alphabetized their papers, I leave them alphabetized, and, if they had them in chronological order, I keep them that way instead. It’s only when I get papers without any discernible order that I impose one.

I might have to impose some order on this one


Step two is housing and labeling. Documents get stored in folders, folders get stored in boxes, and boxes go on the shelves. Each folder has to be labeled with the name of the collection, folder and box numbers, and a brief description of the contents. Each box is labeled with the collection name, box number, shelving location, and a brief description of the contents. All this labeling may seem really tedious, but it’s the only way I can tell boxes apart when I’m searching and make sure I put things back in their proper locations once researchers are done using them. 


I label my boxes so I can tell them apart.
 The last step is to create a description of the collection, also known as a finding aid. A good finding aid provides researchers with a summary of the contents of the collection and the context to understand what any of it means. For example, take the Beers Family Letters  which, as the name implies, is made up of letters to and from various members of the Beers family. In addition to listing the various letters, the finding aid explains how the letter writers are related to each other and places what they’re writing about in historical context. We post our finding aids on our website so that researchers all over the world can find what they are looking for.

And that, dear donor, is what I did with the papers you gave us.