Monday, January 18, 2021

Lost and Found: The Labrador Duck

Sculpture in Brand Park


 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

There’s a story in my family that once I was trying to tell them about a duck I’d seen and after denying their many suggestions, I blurted out in frustration, “it was a special duck!” which of course made no sense. Located in Brand Park near the banks of the Chemung River there is a real special duck, or at least a statue of one recognizing the Labrador Duck. The statue is part of the Lost Bird Project, and is located at what is thought to be the last known place in the world where this special duck was seen alive in 1878.

Audubon's painting of Labrador Ducks

The five hundred and forty pound bronze statue of a stylized Labrador Duck was sculpted by artist Todd McGrain, while he was an artist-in-residence at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology. The statue was installed in May of 2009, and is the first in a five bird project highlighting North American birds that have gone extinct. The sculpture was privately funded and a gift to the people of Elmira. McGrain completed the duck and went on to design and install four other birds throughout the continent. They are the Great Auk in Newfoundland, Canada; the Heath Hen in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts; the Carolina Parakeet in Okeechobee, Florida; and the Passenger Pigeon in Columbus, Ohio. Copies of the sculptures have traveled and been exhibited in various museums throughout the US. In 2010 a 63-minute documentary was made about the project and in the fall of 2014, McGrain wrote a book based on this work. 

McGrain has been a sculptor for over 25 years. He has received numerous grants and awards and exhibited widely. His interest in connecting his artwork to environmental issues has grown and evolved to include documentary film work. Currently McGrain is documenting conditions of the Forest Elephants of Central Africa, and involved in a data collection company monitoring ocean climates.

In various interviews about the Lost Bird Project McGrain talks about the importance of memorializing and bringing awareness to birds now lost, saying that “forgetting is another form of extinction.” 

Sadly over 190 known species of birds have gone extinct, and more than 100 of these just in the last century.

The local story of the Labrador Duck’s Elmira demise has been retold in newspapers as far back as 1879 and repeated as recently as 2015. It involves pharmacist, doctor, and scientific investigator Dr. William H. Gregg identifying the remaining head and neck of a duck shot and eaten by a hungry family.

Digging into the Labrador Duck’s extinction story reveals some interesting contradictions. Its name comes from the east coast where it lived along the seashore, and its diet consisted of shellfish. 

Red indicates considered habitat where the ducks lived 

The duck had black and white feathers, and was prized for its eggs and plumage. It has also been called a skunk duck because of its coloring. It was hunted for food though its meat was considered bad tasting and reportedly spoiled quickly. Alexander Wilson, a naturalist in the early 1800s described the species as scarce and located along the coasts, and “never met with on fresh water lakes or rivers.” The only nests associated with the species were identified near Quebec and pointed out to John Woodhouse Audubon, son of the famous ornithologist, as belonging to the pied duck. However the same term was also used for the surf scoter and common goldeneye. The Labrador Duck is considered to be the first species of North American birds to go extinct in modern times. If indeed the unlucky duck actually found its way to Elmira, any ability to thrive seems questionable.

Author Kelli L. Huggins adds further questions about the mythic story by picking apart the principal characters associated with the so-called discovery in her book (available online) Curiosities of Elmira: The Last Labrador Duck, Professor Smokeball, the Great Female Crime Spree and More published by The History Press in 2017.

We can verify the Labrador Duck is no more and seems to carry the distinction of being the first North American bird to go extinct in recorded US history. Whether it came about through the elaborate and somewhat sketchy version of arriving in Chemung County, being shot for food, and finally eaten by a lad from Elmira in 1878 or whether it disappeared due to other reasons is not so clear.


The specialness of Todd McGrain’s work may not be based on an actual event that happened December 12, 1878. It does bring an awareness to species extinction by using art and ornithological history to remind us not to forget. Public art can have a powerful impact on communities, helping us to remember.

To discover more local history, check out our gift shop both in person or online!


Monday, January 11, 2021

A Shot in the Arm

 By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

 The first mass inoculation in North America occurred in Boston during an outbreak of smallpox in 1721. The inoculation campaign was spearheaded by Cotton Mather and Zabdiel Boylston, using a technique known as variolation which had been taught to Mather by an enslaved man named Onesiumus. Variolation, as practiced in Onesiumus’s native West Africa, involved rubbing dried pus from smallpox scabs into shallow cuts in a patient’s arm. They would then develop a relatively mild case of the disease and henceforth be immune. Over the course of the epidemic, Boylston and Mather managed to inoculate 247 people before anti-inoculation mobs forced them to stop. Still, the success of their efforts lead to the widespread adoption of variolation throughout the Colonies, especially in urban areas. In 1777, George Washington ordered that the entire Continental Army be variolated to prevent outbreaks in military encampments.

Modern vaccines are a bit different from variolation, although the basic idea is the same: give the body a taste of the disease so it knows how to fight it when it encounters the real thing. With variolation, the idea is to give the patient the actual disease, just a mild form. Vaccines, on the other hand, confer immunity without actually infecting the patient. There are seven types of vaccines currently in use:

  1. Inactivated vaccine using dead cells from the virus or bacteria. Examples include the Salk polio vaccine, hepatitis A vaccine, and most flu vaccines.
  2.  Attenuated vaccine using live, but weakened, strains of the virus (similar to variolation). Examples include the mumps, measles, and rubella vaccines.
  3. Toxoid vaccines using inactivated versions of toxic compounds which cause illnesses. Examples include tetanus, diphtheria and rattlesnake venom. 
  4.  Subunit vaccines using a fragment of a virus or bacteria rather than the whole thing. Examples include vaccines for hepatitis B, human papillomavirus, and the plague.
  5. Conjugate vaccine using a virus or bacteria along with a toxoid to boost immune response. Examples include vaccines for meningitis and typhoid fever.
  6. Heterotypic vaccines using a virus or bacteria which cause diseases in animals, not people. Examples include the original smallpox vaccine and the current tuberculosis vaccine.
  7. RNA vaccine using a virus’s genetic material. Examples include the COVID vaccine. This is the most cutting-edge type of vaccine on the market.

The first Chemung County residents to be vaccinated were soldiers. Beginning in 1812, the United States Army began regularly vaccinating troops against smallpox. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, all mobilized volunteer and militia members received the smallpox vaccine too. In fact, members of the US military were vaccinated against smallpox as late as 1990, long after the disease had been eradicated in civilian populations. Typhoid vaccines have been mandatory for members of the armed services since 1911. Even today, military members receive a battery of vaccines not commonly in use by civilians.

The first wide-scale civilian vaccination drive in Chemung County occurred in the summer of 1925. The Elmira Health Department worked with the Elmira City School District to vaccinate children under the age of 11 with the new toxoid diphtheria vaccine. Diphtheria is a potentially life-threatening bacterial infection which causes fever, cough, sore throat, and swelling of the throat resulting in difficulty swallowing or breathing. Over the course of the summer, the health department managed to vaccinate 1,468 children. Over the coming years, they continued to vaccinate children at their free Child Welfare Clinics and with the assistance of school nurses. By 1937, approximately 41% of pre-school aged children and 70% of school-aged children throughout the city were vaccinated against diphtheria. 

Dr. George Murphy of Elmira Health Department vaccinates child, 1935
 

During the 1940s, the city health department stepped up their vaccination efforts, adding vaccines for tetanus and whooping cough. In 1942, they launched a smallpox vaccination campaign. Starting on May 5, they offered weekly vaccination clinics. By year’s end, they’d vaccinated 1,218 children. Today, New York school children are required to be vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough, but not smallpox. 

Certificate of vaccination, 1886

 In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk developed the world’s first polio vaccine. Just two years earlier in 1953, the county had suffered a serious outbreak of the illness. Beginning in May 1955, the county launched a massive and unprecedented vaccination drive. Children were bused from the schools to the County Health Center for their shots. Civil Defense volunteers were called up to help control the young crowds and direct traffic. Between May and October, they vaccinated 12,472 first, second, third, and fourth graders using vaccines donated from the Polio Foundation and the federal government. When the Sabine oral polio vaccine was released in 1962, the health department did it all over again, this time vaccinating 100,000 people of all ages.  

Little girl takes Sabine oral polio vaccine, July 1962. Image courtesy Star-Gazette

 
The current push to vaccinate everyone against COVID-19 is unprecedented only in its scale. Approximately 70% of the nation’s population will need to be vaccinated in order to generate herd immunity. Already, local efforts are underway. Employees at the local hospitals are being vaccinated and the Chemung County Health Department just opened up the Arctic League Headquarters at 249 W. Clinton Street as a vaccination center. The process will take months but, together, we can get there.  

Monday, January 4, 2021

Capturing the Local Faces of the Great Depression

by Erin Doane, Curator

In September 1940, Jack Delano, a photographer with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), arrived on Rumsey Hill near Erin, New York. His job was to document the challenges of rural poverty during the Great Depression. The FSA was a New Deal agency created in 1937 to help combat rural poverty. It emphasized rural rehabilitation programs that included purchasing submarginal land from poor farmers and resettling them on group farms. The agency’s most famous initiative was its photography program, which actually began under the preceding Resettlement Administration. When people today think of what American looked like during the Great Depression, it’s likely they’re thinking of images taken by FSA photographers.

Mrs. Garland and her little boy, Rumsey Hill, near Erin, New York

From 1935 through 1944, eleven photographers under the direction of Roy Stryker traveled throughout the United States documenting and humanizing those who struggled living in rural poverty. They photographed families from the dust bowl of the Great Plains, to shanty towns in California, to the submarginal farmland in northern Chemung County. In the nine years the program operated, 250,000 images were taken. Fewer than half of those survive and are now housed in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. You can view and search the collection online by visiting https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/.

Jack Delano was a Russian Jew who moved to the United States with his parents and younger brother in 1923 when he was nine years old. As a youth, he studied music, illustration, and photography. He was the ninth photographer hired by Stryker for the FSA photography program and he worked for the agency until 1943. He was 26 years old when he made his way to Rumsey Hill to document the farm families living there. There are 36 images from that time available in the Library of Congress’s digital archive Several of the images include information about the subjects. The following are some of those images and the descriptions that accompany them.

Mr. Jimson

Mr. Jimson, one of the oldest residents of Rumsey Hill. His family has been there ninety years and he knows everybody in the area. Has a ninety-acre farm in the submarginal farm area of Rumsey Hill, near Erin, New York.

Mr. Jimson

Mr. and Mrs. D’Annunzio

Mr. D'Annunzio, Italian farmer who has been living on submarginal area of Rumsey Hill for a year. He was an unemployed auto mechanic in the city. Hasn't farmed much. Is trying to fix up the old house and roof before winter comes. They have been living in Rumsey Hill for a year.

Mr. and Mrs. D’Annunzio in front of their house in Rumsey Hill

Mrs. D’Annunzio

Mr. Miller 

Mr. Miller, farmer and minister. He is the only Negro farmer in the submarginal area of Rumsey Hill, near Erin, New York. He came about seven years ago after having farmed in Tennessee and New Jersey. His farm is on the very crest of the hill and he is doing a little better than most of his neighbors. His two boys go to high school and his wife works in town.

Mr. Miller

Young farmer working in the field of Mr. Miller’s farm

Mr. and Mrs. Ben Harris

They come from Luzerne County Pennsylvania. Have goats, and sell goats milk. Do hardly any farming. Live in the submarginal farm area of Rumsey Hill, near Erin, New York.

Mr. and Mrs. Harris

The Harris home

I didn’t find any more information about most of the people in this series of photographs, but I was able to learn quite a lot about a farmer named Uhro Maki and his family. So much, in fact, that they warrant an entire blog post of their own. Look for it here on January 25, 2021.