Monday, November 23, 2020

The Iroquois Confederacy: The Original American Federalism

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

 In honor of Native American Heritage Month, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that Chemung County is on Seneca land. The Seneca are one of the five original members of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy.  Haudenosaunee is the name they gave themselves which means “People of the Longhouse,” while Iroquois is a name given them by the French which has no clear etymology. The Confederacy is the oldest continuous democratic republic in the history of the world. They served as a model for the Founding Fathers when crafting the United States Constitution.


Although no one is sure of the exact dates of its founding, the Iroquois Confederacy is well over 500 years old and pre-dates the European conquest by generations. The time prior to the creation of the Confederacy is known as the Dark Times, when the five nations of the Iroquois were almost continuously at war. Along came a man known simply as the Peacemaker who helped to unite the warring nations along with his allies, the great Chief Hiawatha and Jigöhsahsë, the Mother of Nations. Together, they created an entirely new system of government with an oral constitution known as The Great Law.

Under The Great Law, the original five nations of the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca) agreed to make collective decisions regarding war, diplomacy, and trade, all while each nation retained autonomy over their own region. The members of each clan of each tribe selected a chief to represent them at the regular meetings held in Onondaga territory near what is now Syracuse. The Haudenosaunee are matriarchal and the women of the clan retain the ultimate power to nominate or remove a chief from office. The representatives from the tribes were divided into two groups, the Elder Brothers (Mohawk and Seneca) and the Younger Brothers (Oneida and Cayuga) with the Onondaga serving as serving as a sort of negotiator between them. When the Tuscarora joined the Haudenosaunee as refugees in 1722, they joined the Younger Brothers. In order for any decision to be made or law to be passed, it first had to be approved by the Elder Brothers, then the Younger Brothers, before being confirmed by the Onondaga. If any parties disagreed on the decision, the proposal would not pass. Although I used the past tense, it should be noted that this is still exactly how the Haudenosaunee government works to this day.


Prior to the Revolution, the colonies really did not get on, despite all being offshoots of the same British government. Whenever the Haudenosaunee wanted to make a treaty or trade agreement with the colonials, they had to do it with each individual colony. At one such treaty meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1744, Onondaga chief Canasatego decided to point out how silly this was saying:

"We heartily recommend Union and a good Agreement between you, our Brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become the stronger. Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out one with another."


Canasatego’s words lit a fire in Benjamin Franklin’s brain. He cited the Confederacy as inspiration for his 1754 Albany Plan for a unified colonial government. The idea initially failed to gain traction, but he brought it up again in 1777 when the Articles of Confederation were drafted, and again in 1781 during the Constitutional Convention. In 1988, Congress passed a resolution specifically recognizing the contributions of the Haudenosaunee in the creation of the US Constitution. 

Haudenosaunee Flag


Some ideas in the US Constitution shares with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy include:

·         The centralized government handles issues of war, diplomacy, and trade while individual states retain autonomy over daily affairs

·         Political leaders are chosen by and from the people

·         Political leaders can only hold a single office at a time

·         There is a mechanism for the review and removal of corrupt, incompetent, or otherwise unpalatable leaders

·         A system of checks and balances prevents any one party from having unilateral control

Monday, November 16, 2020

Carrying On During the Flood of 1902

 by Erin Doane, Curator

What would you do if you saw flood waters rapidly rising in the street in front of your downtown business? Would you barricade the door and hope it was enough to keep the deluge out? Would you rush to carry as many things as possible to higher ground? Or would you organize a flotilla of boats to keep patrons coming and going even as the water washed into the building? The last one is what Jerry Collins, owner of Jerry’s Sideboard on Water Street in Elmira, did on March 1, 1902.  

Men in boats in front of Elmira Saddlery Co. and Jerry’s Sideboard, East Water Street, March 1, 1902

The great flood of 1902 began innocuously enough on the evening of February 27 when it began raining. The steady rainfall continued overnight and through the next day. In addition to the rain, temperatures were getting warmer and melting the large buildup of snow and ice left by a cold, stormy winter. By the afternoon of February 28, the Hoffman Creek had overflowed its banks and the newspaper was warning that more flooding was likely.

100 block, East Water Street, Flood of 1902

At 8 0’clock the next morning, water started flowing into the basements of buildings on the north side of Water Street. Just a few hours later, the street was covered in nearly a foot of water. The flood waters continued to rise at nearly two feet an hour until the river finally crested at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The southside of the city was entirely flooded, as was everything on the northside east of Madison Avenue. Hundreds of homes and businesses were under water. The city’s gas mains were shut off, electric plants had failed, and trolley and train service was suspended. Household furniture, clothing, dead chickens, and live rats clinging to cakes of ice flowed down the river.

Elmira Gazette and Free Press headlines, March 1, 1902

One would think that at this point in the middle of catastrophic flooding, all businesses would be shut down, but that was not the case on the afternoon of March 1. While it was true that very few merchants were up and running in the flood zone, boot and shoe stores and hardware stores, in particular, were open and doing brisk business. From as early as 9 o’clock that morning, pedestrians filled any downtown street that remained dry and boats carried people over submerged streets even though members of the police and fire departments had stretched safety lines to keep people out of the flooded areas. Downtown Elmira was said to have resembled a circus day or a gala holiday with so many people out and about. Camera fiends were out in force as well taking hundreds of photographs (of which CCHS has a few dozen).

East Water Street, Elmira, March 1, 1902

Jerry Collins saw the sudden influx of people during the flood as a business opportunity. He established a ferry line to bring patrons to his bar, Jerry’s Sideboard, at 204 East Water Street. There were several inches of water covering the bar’s floor, but that didn’t seem to bother those seeking refreshment. Collins, the “Adonis” of local bartenders, had worked at the Hotel Rathbun for years and had just opened his own bar in 1901. His popularity as a bartender may have been why people decided to continue patronizing his establishment despite the natural disaster taking place all around them.

Jerry Collins (circled) with a group of men in front of his bar, March 1, 1902

It does seem like bars and taverns in general were particularly popular gathering spots on March 1 and 2. The Elmira police reported receiving 28 calls on those days during the height of the flooding and its immediate aftermath. Some of the calls were seeking relief for flood sufferers, but the majority were reports of intoxicated people who needed to be taken home or to police headquarters.

Men with high boots having great sport in the water during the flood of 1902

While the flood of 1902 was a major disaster that destroyed countless homes and businesses, it did not take any lives. Everyone directly involved in the flooding survived to recover and rebuild, including Jerry Collins. He continued to run his bar for another year before moving out of the area in 1903.


Monday, November 9, 2020

The Bachelor Governor

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Back in the day when our building housed the Chemung Canal Bank, there were apartments for rent on the top floor. A quick look around reveals about 5 rooms and a common bathroom. These rooms haven’t been rented for years, they now store documents, publications and educational items for the Historical Society. If the walls could talk they would surely share some great stories. One I tried to track down is the story of one of the building’s more famous renters. The story of two-time elected New York governor David Bennett Hill.

David Bennett Hill 1843 - 1910

David B. Hill was born in the village of Havana in Schuyler County in 1843. The settlement was known as Catherine’s Landing until the mid-19th century, when the name changed to Havana. It changed names a third time at the end of the century to what we now know as Montour Falls. David was the youngest of five children born to Caleb and Eunice Hill. His father had been captain on a canal boat and now ran a carpentry and joinery business. His mother managed the family household. David showed an early intellect and attended nearby Havana Academy. At seventeen he left to take a clerking job with a law office in the village. His employer was so impressed that he was encouraged to pursue law as a career. At twenty, Hill moved to Elmira to work for lawyer Erastus P. Hart and to pursue his legal studies. He passed the law exams in 1864 and was admitted to the bar, opening a law office in downtown Elmira. Later that year, Hill was appointed Elmira’s city attorney and became known as a successful and charismatic lawyer.

David Hill never married, but his life was full. Besides his law work, he was an active member of the Democratic Party. In 1871 and 1872 he was elected to the New York Assembly to represent Chemung County.  In the mid-1870s, to further his political agenda, Hill along with other associates purchased the Elmira Gazette newspaper. Begun in 1828, the paper was first published weekly before becoming an everyday paper. While John Arnot Sr., one of his associates, sold off his interests before 1880, it wasn't until 1906 that Hill finally sold the newspaper to Frank E. Gannett.

In 1877 and 1881 Hill was appointed president of the Democratic state conventions. In 1882 Hill was elected mayor of Elmira by a wide majority of voters. At just thirty-nine years old, 1882 also brought another opportunity his way. Hill was nominated as running mate to Buffalo’s mayor Grover Cleveland in his bid for governor. The 1882 election saw an unprecedented number of votes cast and the ticket of Cleveland and Hill won by plurality. Hill left Elmira and moved to Albany to be lieutenant-governor. Our collection contains a printed speech Hill gave which includes a copy of a note Cleveland wrote congratulating Hill:

After two years, Grover Cleveland ran for higher office and was elected 22nd president of the United States of America. Seeing his chance, Hill then ran for state office and won. He was elected the 29th Governor of New York and served from 1892 to 1897.

In New York the Democratic party of the 19th century was heavily controlled by Tammany Hall, a political pressure group out of New York City. This group had a big influence on politics in the city and the state, and while it advocated for social reform, it also became known for rampant greed and corruption. 

As governor, Hill was known for his interest in labor issues and working conditions. He introduced legislation to deal with child labor age limitations and working hour reforms for women and those under 18.

He also signed a bill in 1885 that established 715,000 acres of wild Forest Preserve which later became known as New York’s Adirondack Park.

New York's Adirondack Parks

Looking to run for higher office, Hill sought the 1892 democratic presidential nomination. His platform supported bimetallism, a monetary standard looking at two metals, typically gold and silver, instead of the singular gold standard which was eventually adopted. However, Cleveland soundly defeated Hall on the first convention ballot. The two were now polarizing figures in the party, each with their own set of loyal followers. Hill's group went by the name The David B. Hill club. Denied the nomination, Hill ran for the US Senate. He was elected and held this office from 1892 to 1897. Not content, he ran again for NY governor and this time was not successful. This political cartoon plays up the unlikely possibility of any partnership of Grover and Hill.

"The Funniest Thing Out - Dave and Grover on the same platform."

Though Hill never ran for public office again he was considered for the 1900 Democratic ticket's Vice Presidential position. In the end, the party nominated Adlai Stevenson.

Hill never returned to live in Elmira. In 1910, he died of a kidney condition at his country home Wolfert's Roost outside of Albany. He was buried in Montour Cemetery nearby family members.

Governor Hill's Wolfert's Roost

Checking City Directories for the years Hill lived in Elmira I found no evidence that he lived on the third floor at 415 East Water Street. He did rent a room at 93 Lake Street around the corner. 

We are still looking for who might have rented rooms in the building.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Win with Willkie

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Can anyone remember the last time a presidential candidate visited Chemung County? It wasn’t in my lifetime, that’s for sure. There have been a few vice-presidential candidate visits including Richard Nixon in 1952 and Spiro Agnew in 1972, but we haven’t merited top billing in a while.

The last presidential candidate to visit our fair county was Wendell Willkie (1892-1944). In 1940, he ran on the Republican ticket against the Democratic incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. Willkie was a corporate lawyer and life-long Democrat who had helped on various political campaigns, but had never run for office himself. Due to his corporate leanings, he became increasingly displeased with Roosevelt’s New Deal and was actually involved in a lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1938, several of his friends began urging him to run for president on the Democratic ticket. Once it became clear that Roosevelt intended to run for a third time, Willkie registered as a Republican and put himself forward as a candidate in that party instead. 

Wendell Willkie, 1940

 Wendell Willkie was unexpected as far as Republican presidential candidates go. Not only was he, as mentioned, a lifelong Democrat, he was a political outsider who had never run for nor held political office. He didn’t even bother to run in the primaries, he just put his name forward at the Republican convention and won the nomination mostly based on his image as a pro-business moderate who could bring over disillusioned Democrats. He ran on a platform of keeping some of the more popular New Deal programs, while simultaneously instituting pro-business reforms to get the economy rolling. Although he initially came out in support of the US getting involved in the war in Europe, he took an increasingly isolationist tack once it became clear that polled better.

On September 12, Willkie launched a whistle-stop tour by train. Between then and November 2, he reached 31 of 48 states. On October 25, he hit Elmira. At the Erie Railroad station, he was met by a reception committee comprised of Senator Chauncey B. Hammond, Mayor J. Maxwell Beers, and City Manager Ralph Kebles, as well as local Republican Party officials Charles Perry and Alexander Falck. A crowd of some 200 people awaited Willkie as he exited the station and got into a car accompanied by his wife, Edith. 

Wendell Willkie and the Elmira welcoming committee

Wendell & Edith Willkie in the car from the station

Willkie’s motorcade took him to a raised platform with a canopy at the corner of Church and Main Streets. Somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 people braved the damp to listen to him speak. According to the paper, he mostly focused on his economic platform designed to unleash the country’s full economic potential and on the dangers of the national debt and fascism. After speaking, he signed autographs for a bit before hopping back on the train. 


The crowd gathers to hear Willkie speak

In the end, Willkie lost his presidential bid by about 5 million votes. His supporters, mostly white, affluent, and suburban, were no match for Roosevelt’s working class, multi-ethnic coalition. Gracious in defeat, Willkie accepted a position as Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Great Britain at a White House party on the eve of the president’s third swearing-in. He ran for president again in 1944, but failed to clinch the party’s nomination and died not long after.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Spooks in Wellsburg

by Erin Doane, Curator

The death of Miss Mabel Evans in Wellsburg was a great mystery. How did the beautiful young lady die, and why was she quietly buried at midnight? Thomas McGraw was sitting peacefully at home, thinking about Miss Evans when a strange impulse prompted him to rise and go to the door. Outside, he was astonished to see the graceful figure of a shrouded woman, floating through the darkness several feet above the ground. As he watched, she slowly drifted away and vanished into the night.

This was not Mr. McGraw’s first brush with the supernatural. His home just outside the southeast limits of Wellsburg next to the cemetery was a hotbed of paranormal activity in 1894. The two story house had a story-and-a half wing that had been closed up and unoccupied for years. Yet, two or three times a week for over four months, Mr. McGraw heard strange noises in the wing. Between 10pm and 2am, the sounds of distinct, measured knocking, muffled footsteps, and strange whisperings could be heard. Occasionally, there was a cacophony of sound that resembled the falling down stairs of a tray full of beer glasses accompanied by a bass drum and a barrel full of cymbals. Every time Mr. McGraw went to investigate the sounds, he found absolutely nothing amiss; not even the spider webs on the windows had been disturbed. 

Word of the strange occurrences got around the small village, but no one was particularly surprised. Many residents had their own tales of deeds done by those who has long ago shuffled off this mortal coil. The stories managed to reach the ears of a reporter for the Elmira Telegram, and he was determined to investigate. While the reporter was never named in the subsequent article that described his experience, he did make it clear that he was a pronounced skeptic in matters pertaining to the spirit world when he put together the amateur crew of ghost hunters that would spend the night in Mr. McGaw’s haunted house. 

The newspaper man began his report of that night with the following: “Your emissary the other night had an attack of the horrors, felt his flesh creep and then stand in goose pimples, like the excrescences on the countenance of the tranquil cucumber, and all on account of an assignment to look up the story of an alleged haunted house in Wellsburg.” How did the avowed skeptic come to declare that “indisputable proofs of mysterious happenings in the realm of spooks have been furnished” after just one night?

Elmira Telegram, November 18, 1894

The reporter and his committee of four other investigators – Herman Murphy, the druggist and a man of undoubted integrity; Thomas F. Pickley, the station operator; and William J. Dalton and Harold Loomis, both respected young men of the village – arrived at Mr. McGraw’s home late in the evening. The reporter wrote that it was “a gruesome looking place, indeed as viewed…in the grey misty atmosphere.” The night was bitter cold and “the glistening white of the tombstones lent additional chill to the occasion.” Mr. McGraw greeted the men at the door and they joined the goodly company that had already gathered, which included Mr. and Mrs. Broderick Davidson and Frank Robinson. Mr. McGraw, “a most conservative and truthful man,” told his haunting stories to the rapt audience and then they waited. They strained their ears and watched the door leading into the unused wing until 11 o’clock at night, but nothing happened.

Disappointed, but still hopeful, the ghost hunters decided that perhaps they were too early and that it would be best to go downtown for some time (to a pub or tavern, if I had to guess) and return later when the spirits were more likely to be abroad. While the crew and their hosts were at the undisclosed location downtown, those present shared blood-curdling stories about numerous murders, mysterious disappearances, and suicides that had taken place near the old church yard next to Mr. McGraw’s residence.

The investigators returned to the graveyard at midnight and “sat like five ghoulish figures” on headstones near the center of the burial ground. They “huddled shiveringly together, tried to smoke away the feeling of oppression, but in vain.” Suddenly, Mr. Pickley went pale. He slowly lifted his arm and pointed his finger to a spot not more than thirty feet away. The other men’s eyes followed his movement and they all plainly saw “a stately white robed figure…moving majestically along just above the toppling headstones.”

The five men rose from their hard, cold perches as one and gaped at the astonishing apparition. Without thinking, the reporter rushed toward the “beautiful gaseous figure.” Just before reaching it, the female figure turned its face toward him, rooting the hapless man to the spot. An indescribable feeling of oppression inspired by the awful spectral presence came over him and he fell face-first into the dead grass. The spirit turned away and dissolved into the darkness.

That vapory, filmy, relicts [sic] of those who once lived here on earth, do hover about us, and keep tabs on what we do or what we leave undone, is now [my] firm conviction. 

– unnamed Elmira Telegram reporter, November 18, 1894


Sunday, October 18, 2020

Spirits of the season...

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director.

For those of you able to make this year’s historic Ghost Walk, we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. This was the 14th year in a row the Chemung County Historical Society, the Friends of Woodlawn, Inc., and Elmira Little Theatre have offered a historic Ghost Walk at Woodlawn Cemetery. We worked with the Health Department to offer a safe experience for all and we know we had to turn away disappointed people when we sold all our tickets in record time. We were thrilled to be approved to offer this popular event despite things being so different right now. 
Alice Shaw, Lucius Robinson, Isaac R. Taylor

This year's version was different. For the first time, visitors began and ended their evenings entirely at the cemetery. 

Socially distant gathering
Masked guides from Friends of Woodlawn

We're encouraging everyone who attended and those that wanted to attend to visit the museum. Ask our receptionist about the scavenger hunt based on this year’s ghosts and enter into a raffle for an October surprise. (Hint to all: you can review the ghosts by reading the 2020 scripts now posted on our website.) Search above for 2020 Ghosts for some additional information on the ghosts including a link to a rare recording of Alice Shaw's whistling.

At the museum, you can also pick up a map of this year’s Ghost Walk route which you can use to walk the route again during the daytime, share it with others, or enjoy it yourself if you weren’t able to join us this year. At the bottom of the website's Ghost Walk page, you’ll find a family scavenger hunt for Woodlawn Cemetery. When everything shifted to online learning last spring, we developed this for elementary school students and their families. It connected with their learning about immigration and important people in Elmira’s past. If you are interested, download the map and plan on taking about 20-40 minutes to complete the walk. 

Last year we offered Ghostly Readings at the museum. This was an event where staff and Elmira’s Fire Marshall -  our celebrity guest -  read ghost walk scripts for those who were not able to navigate the nighttime walk. We don’t pretend to be actors, but were able to include some extras like images and fun facts about the ghosts. We look forward to offering this again in future years, while this year we have a special treat coming from Elmira College Theater students under the directorship of their Professor, Hannah Hammond. Watch for their short videos popping up on our Facebook page near the end of the month and into November.

Woodlawn Cemetery is a peaceful place to walk during the day, the winding paths through the trees pass a variety of grave sites and monuments. The cemetery was designed and influenced by the Rural Cemetery movement that was happening throughout the United States in the 19th century.

The first cemetery designed in this style was Mount Auburn located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Opened in 1831, it offered a sharp contrast to the existing overcrowded cemeteries in Boston. It was located on the outskirts of town and in addition to being a place to bury their dead, these cemeteries offered urban dwellers a respite from city living. The Rural Cemetery movement intended these places to be as much for the living as for those who had passed on. People were encouraged to visit, picnic and stroll among the grave sites. Designers used an English landscaping approach to highlight the outdoors, and give the impression that the cemetery was a part of wild nature when it was in fact really carefully planned. By providing this natural setting for people, it offered city dwellers the chance to stroll among trees to contemplate life, a very different experience than their daily lives existing in a quickly mechanized society.

A search for how many cemeteries are named Woodlawn brings up 336 throughout the USA and Canada. There are 17 alone in New York state. Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira was designed by architect Howard Daniels and chartered in 1858. It is spread over 184 scenic acres and over the years 80,000 people have been interred there. Today the cemetery is visited walkers, joggers, dogs on leash, and by those with loved ones buried on site. Everyone is welcome to visit as long as they show proper respect and follow the posted guidelines.

Look here to find more blog posts about Woodlawn Cemetery.


Friday, October 9, 2020

Absence Makes the Vote Go Yonder

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

President Trump has claimed that universal mail-in ballots will mean that no Republican will ever be elected again, but the original absentee ballots were introduced by Republicans in order to ensure their victory in the 1864 election. Between 1862 and 1864, every state in the Union except Illinois and Indiana passed a bill allowing active duty soldiers to cast ballots in their home election districts. Democrats pushed back, citing the potential for fraud and abuse. Nine state supreme courts heard cases regarding the constitutionality of the laws and they were ultimately struck down in four states. All told, approximately 150,000 out of 1 million Union soldiers voted in the election of 1864 under the new absentee voting laws. Lincoln carried a whopping 78% of the soldier vote, although, in the end, he probably would have won without them anyway.

New York passed its absentee voting law in April 1864. The rules were byzantine to say the least. In order to vote, a soldier had to authorize someone in their home district to cast their ballot on their behalf. In addition to their completed ballot, each soldier needed to sign a document granting power of attorney to a registered voter back home. The document needed to be signed by them, the surrogate voter, a witness, and their commanding officer. New York State dispatched representatives to military encampments to oversee the process and ensure the ballots made it back to their home districts.

New York State soldiers have voted in every war since. In the 1898 election during the Spanish American War, it wasn’t until December that the soldiers’ votes were counted, mostly because it took so long to ship them from Hawaii and the Philippines. By then the process had changed somewhat. Instead of having surrogate voters, soldiers would fill out and seal their ballots in a special envelope. All the ballots for the regiment would then be collected by the commanding officer, sealed inside a special pouch which was then sent to the secretary of state. The secretary was then responsible for sending off the competed ballots to each voters’ home election district to be included in the count.


Official war ballot, 1898

In the election of 1917, the soldier vote played a decisive role in two contests in the county. When the polls closed on election day, George A. Douglas, candidate for alderman in Elmira’s 10th ward, and his opponent were neck and neck with 401 votes for Douglas and 402 for his opponent. Then they counted the soldiers’ absentee ballots. Eight of the fourteen ballots were for Douglas, pushing him over the top. In Big Flats, Democrat Dan Lloyd and Republican John Markle had tied in the race for Assessor. The town’s two soldier voters won Lloyd the election. Chemung County’s soldier voters also voted overwhelmingly in favor of the amendment for women’s suffrage with 76 ballots in favor and 16 opposed. The ballot initiative still failed in Chemung County by 798 votes, but points for effort or at least feminism.


Alderman George A. Douglas, Elmira's 10th Ward

In 1919, a ballot initiative for civilian absentee voting was passed. Starting in 1920, voters who knew they would be out of town on election day owing to duty, business, or occupation could cast their vote by mail. Those permitted to vote absentee were subsequently expanded to include voters out of town for any reason as was as those too ill or infirm to make it to the polls; those caring for someone who is sick or physically disabled; residents or patients of a Veterans Health Administration Hospitals; people in jail awaiting trial; and people in jail for convictions other than felonies. Today, every state in the country has absentee ballots and several western states vote entirely by mail.

Although some have argued that absentee voting grants Democrats an advantage, a recent study by Stanford University showed that the party affiliations of absentee voters do not differ significantly from other voters in their states. Despite certain claims about fraud and abuse, voting by mail is actually quite safe. A study by the Washington Post found that, in 20 years and 250 million mail-in votes, there have been only 143 criminal convictions related to fraudulent absentee ballots.

If you are a resident of New York State and need to apply for an absentee ballot, you have until October 27 to request one from your local board of elections. Once you’ve filled your ballot out, you have until November 3rd to either mail it or drop it off at the board of elections or any polling site. Remember to vote in this and every election.

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Other Tunnel Escape

by Erin Doane, Curator

On October 7, 1864, 10 Confederate soldiers tunneled their way out of Elmira’s prisoner-of-war camp. You can read all about that famous Civil War-era tunnel escape in Rachel Dworkin’s blog post, The Great Escape. Another, much less famous, tunnel escape took place in Elmira just four months later, on January 27, 1865. This time it was from the county jail.

Courthouse and Clerks Office, Elmira
“About 8 o’clock yesterday morning as the Jailor of our county jail, Edward Thomas, called the prisoners to breakfast, upon looking over the number of his charges, found several missing,” read the story in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser the next day. The missing prisoner who caused the greatest concern was Lorenzo C. Stewart (aka Leroy Channing Shear, aka Charles R. Clark, aka Frank Mallory), a murderer who was supposed to be transferred to Albany.

Stewart’s troubles with the law began in 1863. On September 4 that year, he enlisted in the Union Army at Utica. He took the enlistment bounty, disserted, then reenlisted in Ogdensburg a month later, where he collected another bounty. On October 9, however, he was arrested for bounty jumping and brought to Elmira. He tried to escape by poisoning two soldiers who were guarding him. Both men died. Stewart was tried, convicted of murder, and sentenced to be hanged, but he had powerful friends. President Lincoln himself commuted Stewart’s sentence to ten years in the Albany penitentiary. (Later he married a woman who used her family’s influence to get President Hayes to pardon him for the murders.)

Before that transfer to Albany could happen in 1865, however, Stewart and six of his fellow prisoners, tunneled their way out of the county jail. When Jailor Thomas went to investigate their absence on the morning of January 27, he found a hole in their cell cut through 6-inch-thick solid timbers, just large enough for a medium sized man to crawl through. Beyond the opening was a 20-foot-long tunnel that sloped just deeply enough to pass under the jail’s east wall. The men had likely been digging the tunnel since November.

Seven men slipped out through the tunnel. Besides Stewart, who seems to be considered the ring-leader, there were Charles F. Varian, who was awaiting trial for forgery, and Warren King, William Manning, Anthony Laponte, George Lee, and Wilson Jackson who had broken into L. Strauss and Co.’s dry goods store and were being held on charges of grand larceny. Stewart and Varian both left letters behind. Varian wrote to his wife while Stewart wrote to his sister and his father, and to Sheriff Edwin W. Howell.

Transcription of the letter from Charles Varian to his wife that was found after
the escape, first printed in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser, January 28, 1865

Transcription of the letter from Lorenzo C. Stewart that was found after the
escape, first printed in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser, January 28, 1865

A reward of $200 was offered for the apprehension of Stewart, and $100 for each of the others, but I only found a report of one, Charles Varian, being recaptured soon after the breakout. On the occasion of his death in the Auburn prison hospital in 1897, the Star-Gazette had an article enumerating Varian’s many encounters with the law. “Probably there is no one criminal every before the Chemung County bar, outside of murderers, who had more notoriety than Charles F. Varian of Horseheads and Elmira,” the reporter declared.

Elmira Star-Gazette, July 9, 1897
Varian’s first appearance in the local criminal record was when he was arrested for forging his father’s name on drafts amounting to several thousand dollars in December 1864; the crime that led to him being held in the county jail in Elmira. After his recapture in February 1865, he jumped bail. He was on the run until 1868 when he was caught and sentenced to two years in Auburn prison for forgery. He was arrest for forgery again in 1892 and sentenced to ten years of hard labor in Auburn prison, where he ultimately died.

I wasn’t able to track down the five men who were being held in 1865 for grand larceny, but I did find Lorenzo Stewart in a March 1902 article in the Star-Gazette. That year, the police in Boston contacted the Elmira Police Department asking for any information they could provide about Leroy Channing Shear, aka Lorenzo Stewart. He was wanted in that city on charges of passing worthless checks. The article detailed some of Stewart’s other criminal activities, including his arrest in Burlington, Vermont in 1884 for check fraud and his arrest in Albany in 1891 for grand larceny. He had served time for both crimes and by 1902 was at it again. He was arrest in May of that year. The last mention I could find of Stewart, under the name Shear, was on June 13, 1914. He was again wanted for passing forged checks, this time in Syracuse. According to the police records, he was nearly 80 years old at the time, so his life of crime was likely near its end.


Monday, September 28, 2020

The Chemung Speedrome

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 1950, while visiting an auto mechanic in Ithaca for repair work on his car, a Chemung County farmer was asked, “Do you have any land on your farm where a small quarter-mile dirt track could be built?” The auto mechanic, Karl “Blue Eyes” Beilou, was a driver and member of the Finger Lakes Racing Association, and his group was looking for a new place to race. The farmer he asked was Eli H. Bodine, a fan of auto races, operator of one of the largest poultry farms in New York State, and future grandfather to a trio of NASCAR Drivers. Bodine’s ‘yes’ answer was the green light the group was looking for.
The Bodine family moved from Wisconsin to the town of Chemung in the 1890s. Their son Milton was the first dairy farmer in Chemung, and other family members went into the poultry, dairy and beef cattle breeding business. Milton had nine children, including Eli. Eli attended Cornell University to study Agriculture and had a side hobby of watching car races. One of Eli’s ten children was Eli H. Bodine, Jr. known as “Junie.”

At twenty-two years old, after studying at Cornell University and just before he left to fight in WWII, Junie married eighteen-year-old Carol June Sechrist of Elmira. After his war service, he returned to his hometown.

In Chemung, Junie and Carol June ran the Pedigreed Leghorn Farm and the popular Dairy Bar. The young couple had two small children, a daughter Denise and son Geoffrey.

The day after Eli, Sr. answered Beilou’s question, eight or more members of the Finger Lakes Racing Association showed up at the Bodine farm, ready to roll. Using machines, they set to work laying out stones to mark and prepare a quarter-mile oval track. The location came with a nearby pond making it helpful to keep track dust down, and a hill where spectators could gather. They rigged lighting using poles from the woods and surplus generators. They named the track the Chemung Speedway and later called it the Chemung Speedrome. It opened for business in May 1951.
The quarter mile long dirt track had two nearby competitors: the Shangri-La Speedway had opened in 1946 in Owego, and there was a track at the Troy Fair Grounds, in Troy, PA. Each weekend from late spring to early fall, spectators gathered to watch auto races and cheer on their favorite drivers. By the 1960s, the Speedrome attracted close to 2,000 spectators each weekend. In 1969, the track lengthened to three-eighths of a mile and its surface was paved over.

In the US, dirt track racing is the most common form of auto racing held. Early stock cars have connections to Prohibition (1920-1933) when bootlegging drivers would modify small cars to make them faster and better handling. As a spectator sport, it caught on quickly, especially in the rural south. 

Racing stock cars on dirt tracks began just before WWI, and quickly gained popularity after the war. NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, and is a privately-owned company founded in 1948. Their inaugural season began the following year, known as NASCAR Strictly Stock division. Factory cars with no modifications were eligible, and all races took place on dirt tracks. The only exception was Daytona’s Beach and Road Course, a paved four and a quarter mile track. Today’s Daytona International Speedway is two and half miles long.

In a 1967 race program, Eli Bodine, Sr. wrote that early days at the Speedrome welcomed “anything with four wheels,” and the whole thing often looked like “one, big demolition race.” Apparently, cars on the dusty track traveled every which way, with some ending up upside down, running backwards, or moving on only two or three wheels. It was not uncommon to have cars end up on the infield or over the banks.

It was a family business: Eli Sr. attended all Speedrome races; Junie was part-owner and promoter; his brother Earl raced, and his brother Milton was a top mechanic. Earl set early track records for the most consecutive wins at the Speedrome.

As they grew up, Junie’s children worked at the Speedrome too. They picked up trash or rode the grader to keep the dirt track in shape. When he was five, Geoffrey discovered the thrill of racing, finally allowed to race when he was eighteen. Known as Geoff on the motorsports circuit, he become a successful driver achieving many career highlights. His younger brothers Brett and Todd followed in his footsteps, and today the next generation of Bodines continue the tradition.

While proud of the Bodine achievements, the town had mixed feelings about the racetrack. There were complaints of crowd behavior, fights and bad language. In a May 28, 2002 Star-Gazette article, Geoffrey Bodine acknowledged this.

There were also at least two driver strikes at the track, taking place in 1963 and 1968. Both strikes temporarily halted the evening’s planned races. They seem to be “solved” by hasty negotiations with the striking drivers allowing the races to go on. Later, track management sent these same drivers suspension notices by mail. Other reports of financial and managerial problems surfaced in local papers and by the late 1970s the track was struggling. The Bodine family sold the Speedrome in 1978 and was it taken over by Chemung County a year later for back taxes.

Buying the Speedrome, one of the owners, Robert Stapleton, hoped to reopen it by the mid-1980s. His plans were blocked when the city of Chemung denied zoning changes. The city hearing brought out 400 people, and after heated debate, all changes were denied.

Twenty years later the track reopened in 2001. It continues to grow in popularity.
The Speedrome has just opened again. See their website for detailed information and racing schedules.

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Last Video Store

by Rachel Dworkin 

The Family Video on College Avenue is closing. The other weekend, I stopped by to pick up some of their old stock on the cheap. Is it streaming, I asked the manager, or the pandemic? It’s both, he said. It’s a lot of things.


Family Video, September 2020

 Video stores and I grew up together, so it’s a little sad to be writing their obituary. The first home video store opened in 1975 in Germany with a guy renting out his personal collection of Super 8 films before video cassettes were even invented. Two years later, the first American video store opened in Los Angeles, California after 20th Century Fox began licensing their films for video cassette. From there, the phenomenon exploded. The first video store in Elmira was Rent-a-Flick at Diven Plaza, opened in 1982. Within just three years, there were dozens of places to rent videos around the county. By 1985, there were 15,000 dedicated video rental stories in America with several thousand record, drug, and grocery stores also renting tapes.

My parents were members of a rental club run by a home electronics store near our house. The membership model was a popular one, especially if you didn’t own a VCR. Rent-a-Flick, Little Joe’s, T & C World of Video gave club members discounts on video and machine rentals. In 1985, local membership rates ranged between $19.95 and $39.95 a year. Elmira Home Theatre in West Elmira, however, specifically marketed itself as a non-membership store that charged a flat rate to everyone.


Courtesy of Elmira Star-Gazette, June 25, 1985

Area residents could get videos at a number of other places outside of video stores. The Super Duper in Elmira, Minier’s in Big Flats, and, oddly enough, the U-Haul in the Heights all had videos. In September 1985, Gerow’s Dairy on Ithaca Road in Horseheads installed the county’s first video tape dispensing machine as a way to draw in customers. Most of these side-business rental outfits were a lot cheaper than the dedicated video stores. The Rite Aid on Main Street, for example, initially rented tapes for just 49 cents, while Elmira Home Theatre charged $1.87. The basic idea was to lure renters in and get them to buy other stuff.

The 1980s were the golden age of the video store. Chemung County went from 1 in 1982 to 14 by the end of the decade. Nationally, there were over 25,000 dedicated video stores and 45,000 places with rental side businesses. In 1989, the revenue from rentals surpassed that of theaters for the first time. It’s no surprise really. The average price for a movie ticket at the time was $4. Paying just $1.87 instead of $16 to entertain a family of four was a no-brainer, especially when you had the power to pause for pee breaks. While renting was cheap, actually owning your own video tape was prohibitively expensive. They cost anywhere between $50 and $75, which meant that no one was starting their own video libraries. During the first decade of their existence, VCRs cost anywhere between $1,400 and $500, hence why people rented them as well.

Video King Super Store, Horesheads, courtesy Elmira Star-Gazette, April 25, 1992

 Prices fell rapidly for both during the 1990s. It was around that time that my family started to build our own little library of favorites. Video stores didn’t decline during this period, exactly, but they did sort of consolidate and plateau. A lot of the small grocery and drug stores got out of the rental business, while a lot of the small, independent stores got bought out by large chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. In Chemung County, there went from being 13 video stores in 1990 to 8 in 2000. Video Loft, the last of the Elmira independents, consolidated its locations in 2003 before going out of business in 2007.

Video Loft on South Main, courtesy Elmira Star-Gazette, June 10, 2003 

 The Family Video dying today first opened in that same year, but the poor thing scarcely stood a chance. Industry experts were already talking about the dangers posed by Netflix’s DVDs-by-mail service. And then came online streaming and cable videos-on-demand.  The Hollywood Video on South Main closed in 2010, as did the Horseheads Blockbuster, leaving Family Video as the last store standing. Then the pandemic came along to shoot it in the head. Sure, they reopened for business soon into the shut down, but no new theatrical releases meant no new video releases. Why get off the couch when there’s nothing new? The Family video may soon be gone, but, if you can still rent new releases at RedBox, not mention old favorites at the library.