Monday, November 28, 2022

Faces of Chemung County

by Monica Groth, Curator

The display surrounding Julia Stancliff Reynolds,
one of nine individuals featured in our newest exhibit

The Museum’s upcoming exhibit Faces of Chemung County features the portraits of nine distinct individuals. Each face has a unique past and story, and this exhibit invites you to step into the frame. A deeper look into the lives of those depicted reveals that in addition to great differences, our characters also share similarities across time and space. Viewing them side by side helps the visitor compare their contexts and contemplate the lives they lived in relation to each other – human lives filled with the same heartbreak, sacrifice, and perseverance present throughout all of history.

Julia Renolds (left) and Rachel Gleason (right):
notice their difference in dress as well as frame

Julia Reynolds (1836-1916) and Rachel Gleason (1820-1905) both led long lives. As women born in the early nineteenth century, they were subjected to many societal expectations –including the expectation to marry. Julia, born an Eldridge, married twice, experiencing a heartbreaking widowhood followed by a bitter separation from her second husband. She then lived independently abroad and in New York City for the last twenty-five years of her life. Julia was a wealthy woman and readers may remember that her mansion, nicknamed "Fascination" was mentioned in a previous blog of mine.  

Rachel’s husband, Silas, supported her desire to become a physician and encouraged her interest in medicine. Rachel became one of the first women in the United States to receive a medical degree, graduating from Central Medical College in Rochester, NY in 1851. Rachel knew that women not only experienced discrimination in what careers were open to them, but were also deprived of sound medical care. At the time, male doctors dismissed women as hysteric patients and many considered it “indecorous” to discuss female health problems. Rachel therefore specialized in treating women and educating them about their health. She lectured often and promoted her book Talks to my Patients, in which she wrote candidly about women’s health topics. She worked with Silas at Elmira’s Water Cure, established on the city’s East Hill in 1852, and even delivered Samuel Clemens’ (Mark Twain’s) daughters, being Livy Clemens’ personal physician. Both Julia and Rachel lived through Elmira’s Gilded Age, Rachel defying expectations on the city’s East Hill in order to reach success, and Julia fulfilling the responsibilities of a wealthy hostess downtown only to find it very lonely indeed.

Isaac Baldwin (left), Thomas Kane (middle), Colonel Liscum (right)

Beside each other in the exhibit are a young lad and an old gentleman – a 150 year old rocking horse, bedecked in a fine small saddle and bridle, within a few feet of a saddle blanket actually used in combat. Colonel Emerson Liscum (1841-1900), the owner of that saddle, died whilst leading a charge on the walled city of Tien-Tsin, China during the Boxer Rebellion. A career soldier who enlisted in the Union Army at only 19 years old, Emerson married Elmiran May Diven after the Civil War ended. May received a sorrowful letter accompanying the saddle blanket now in the Historical Society’s collection, expressing condolences over the loss of her husband. Known as Old White Whiskers, Liscum’s last words “Keep up the fire” became the motto of the 9th US Infantry he commanded, and a monument and ornate silver bowl were commissioned in his honor. 

Young Isaac Baldwin (1869-1949), likely the proud rider of a rocking horse similar to that one on display, is only nine years old in his portrait. His childhood was comfortable, as his father was a wealthy real-estate mogul, and it is memorialized in the exhibit through toys from the 1870s-1880s. Among Baldwin’s associated objects are a toy cannon and game pieces from a political board game, reminding viewers of the irony of children playing at war and politics when soldiers like Liscum were in the midst of very real conflicts. 

Another veteran in this exhibit enlisted eighty years after Liscum at nearly the same age. Elmiran Pvt. Thomas Kane (1923-1978) was 20 years old when he joined up in WWII. USO artist Freda Reiter captured his likeness in a sketch while he was convalescing in a French military hospital a year later. His portrait, in between the innocent youth and the battle-hardened soldier, gives one a look into the eyes of a young man experiencing the trials of a very different war. Happily, Pvt. Kane survived his wounds and went on to a very successful career in the Postal Service.

Reverend Henry Hubbard (left); Harry York Iszard (right)

Kane may have known two figures who now make their entrances – Harry York Iszard (1893-1971) and Reverend Hubbard (1873-1957). The portraits of these two men were painted within two years of each other, the Reverend’s in 1953 and Harry’s in 1955. The 50’s were a time of great post-war growth in Chemung County, as citizens across the country recovered from the war. Harry Iszard inherited S.F. Iszard’s Department store upon his father’s death. He opened a new branch in the Arnot Mall and sponsored the annual holiday parade to increase business, a tradition which continues to this day. Hubbard served as rector of Trinity Episcopal Church from 1917-1953, retiring the year this portrait was painted. Archival documents reveal his congregation was very grateful for his leadership during both World Wars, and that he was a champion of programs for young people. Though one served the material needs of the community and the other its spiritual, these two be-speckled gentlemen had a great impact on their community.

Native American Woman tentatively identified as Sha-ko-ka of the Mandan tribe (left);
Black Woman tentatively identified as a member of the Williams and Underwood families (right)

It is equally important to draw attention to those individuals who are not always remembered by history – those who do not come from privileged backgrounds and are marginalized due to gender and race. The identities of two individuals in this exhibit have been lost to history. The first portrait is of a Native American Woman. Her portrait is thought to have been painted by the prolific western artist George Catlin. From 1830-1838 Catlin toured the native tribes of the American West, creating a portrait gallery.  In traveling up the Missouri River around his final years of work, he encountered the Mandan tribe of the Heart River area of North Dakota. There he painted a young woman named “Mint”, or Sha-ko-ka in her native language. This young woman bears some resemblance to the subject of the portrait we are now displaying and may be a rendition of her in different dress. Sha-ko-ka, like many Native Americans in the early 19th century, were wrongly viewed as exotic people part of a romanticized past rather than as individuals with rights. Continued Westward Expansion, of which Colonel Liscum was later a part, pushed Mandan people from their ancestral lands and afflicted many with smallpox and disease. 

Another unidentified portrait in our collection is that of an African American woman, tentatively identified as Elmer Underwood’s mother and a member of the Williams extended family. The Black community in Chemung County faced much discrimination in housing, education, and employment throughout the late 1800s, the approximate date of this portrait. Yet, many political action groups fought against this injustice, including Colored Citizens of Elmira and the Elmira chapter of the NAACP. Five members of the Williams family were founding members of the city’s chapter of the NAACP, created in 1942, and worked to advance the status of the county's Black community. 

History is filled with unrecorded stories and the circumstances and biases which prioritize some lives whilst relegating others to footnotes. Both of these women’s portraits reveal unrecorded lives we must recognize in telling the county’s story and highlight our mission to turn historical omissions into learning experiences.

Faces of Chemung County is currently being installed. Visit the Museum to view the objects which accompany these portraits and see if you can identify more similarities and differences among them.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Mr. Bookmobile: Thompson Ellsworth Williams

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Known affectionately as Mr. Bookmobile for over thirty years, Thompson E. Williams not only drove the county’s first bookmobile, he shared his love of learning with generations of readers.

Thomas E. Williams, Chemung County's first bookmobile clerk and driver

Born in 1918 in Elmira to George and Helen Williams, Thompson came from a family who worked hard. His mother, Helen, raised the couple’s five children, worked at the department store Sheehan Dean & Co., and was active in many clubs and community organizations. His father, George, was a professional boxer who fought throughout the northeast under the name “Cyclone” Williams, competing in the lightweight division. Despite being recognized for his speed in the ring, he attributed to a higher power the fact that he had avoided visible scars or scrapes.

In the 1920s, George gave up boxing to pursue a different path. He threw himself into his studies, working odd jobs to support himself. He studied at Elmira Free Academy, Cook Academy in Montour Falls, and Berkley Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. One job he had was running a shoe shine business. It was located under the viaduct near Lake Street, and he often told people that his business had a million-dollar overhead. In 1929, he was ordained and became an AME Zion minister. Over the next few years he was appointed pastor at churches in Corning, Wellsville, and Waverly, NY, Meriden, CT, and Pittsburgh, PA.

Growing up, Thompson Williams was active in the Boy Scouts. He graduated from Elmira Free Academy in 1937, and next to his senior picture, the yearbook lists Howard University, where he intended to study.

EFA, Class of 1937

He didn’t end up going to Howard. After high school, he joined his mother to work at Sheehan Dean & Co. In 1944 he was drafted into the United States Army to fight in World War II.

Thompson trained at Fort Myers gunnery school and graduated in 1945. It was at a time when options were limited for Blacks in the military. Seeking better opportunities, Thompson joined the newly formed Tuskegee Airmen. The airmen were an elite all-Black squadron established in 1941 and the nation’s first Black military aviators. The airmen offered one of the few chances for Black soldiers to excel during harshly segregated times. Thompson did excel and achieved the rank of Corporal. Collectively, the Tuskegee airmen were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 in recognition of their efforts during the war and leadership in integrating other branches of the U.S. military.

Honorably discharged, Thompson returned to Elmira. He coached the X-Cel Oilers basketball team from the Neighborhood House

Manager Williams at left
through an unbeaten season, and he worked for the Elmira Foundry Company. He also fell in love with the girl across the street, whose last name was the same as his first - Eva M. Thompson. They married in 1948.

Eva M. Thompson
1950 was a big year for Thompson and Eva Williams. They welcomed their first of seven children, and in December, Thompson was hired to be clerk and driver for Steele Memorial’s brand new $9,000 Bookmobile. He would hold the position he held for the next thirty-one years.

Mr. Bookmobile in action 
Chemung County had qualified for the first bookmobile under the State Aid for Libraries Law passed in June 1950. When it began, the bookmobile carried close to 3,000 books and delivered around 500 weekly. It served 21 rural communities, 65 schools, and 5 village stations.

In 1974, Thompson’s health forced him to scale back and he switched to driving a van for the library. Six years later, he died unexpectedly at 62 years old. It was one week before he had planned to retire.

In 1990, the Historical Society started collecting Black oral histories from people of Chemung County. We are fortunate that Thompson’s wife Eva Williams, was one who shared her story. (link to interview here) In her interview she talks about her husband, mentioning that he encouraged her to return to school to further her own studies, which she did. She talks about how he believed in education and sought out scholarships for his own children to go to college. He also encouraged Eva to vote, telling her that "it makes a difference in your job and in your community."

Thompson and Eva’s oldest child, Holly, who went on to be an educator, school administrator, and minister, remembers her father loved reading and always had a book with him. When asked what kinds of books her father read, Holly remembered that he liked books on early African civilizations and would share what he learned with his family.

Chemung County's first bookmobile, 1950s

Today the bookmobile continues to deliver books around the county. You can find current stops and times at

Monday, October 31, 2022

Capabilities and Disabilities

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, but, for disabled workers, employment can be complicated. When the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established the country’s first minimum wage, it included exceptions for tipped workers, prisoners, agricultural workers, and “persons who by reason of illness or age or something else are not up to normal production,” i.e. disabled workers. The law radically altered the employment prospects of disabled workers, and not always in good ways.

In October 1955, the Chemung County Committee for Help for Retarded Children decided to open a sheltered workshop to provide employment for disabled workers. They called their new workshop Capabilities, Inc. The sheltered workshop movement began shortly after the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and really picked up steam in the post-war 1940s as a way for disabled workers to learn or, in the case of wounded veterans, re-learn the skills necessary for gainful employment. Like the proposed Chemung County workshop, they were often run by charitable organizations.  All of them paid their workers subminimum wages.

Capabilities, Inc. struggled in the early years. Grants and charitable donations kept them more or less afloat, but they struggled to find paying clients or steady work for their employees. They also struggled to find good employees. They went through four managers in two years and were forced to implement an employee screening process as it soon became apparent that some people were simply not physically or intellectually capable of industrial labor. Finding the right workspace and equipment also proved to be an issue.

In 1960, the Elmira Rotary Club became involved. They donated land for a new facility at 1149 Sullivan Street. A local architect associated with the club donated his time to design a new building free of charge. Two area foundries donated over ten thousand yards of fill needed to level the ground, while the City of Elmira provided power shovels and graders to do the work. The last load of fill was delivered on Christmas Eve. Construction began on February 27, 1961 with various business and labor organizations providing either free labor or building supplies. Once the building was complete, several local manufacturers donated gently-used machines and equipment. In May 1961, Capabilities moved into their new workspace and business quickly grew. 

1149 Sullivan Street

 Despite being originally proposed to help those with intellectual disabilities, by the 1960s, Capabilities only hired those with physical disabilities. New hires were evaluated on their existing skills and were set to perform different tasks to see which department they were best suited for. By that time, Capabilities had a wood-working department, small machine shop, electrical and mechanical assembly departments, secretarial department, and sewing shop. In 1963, New York State selected Capabilities as a pre-vocational evaluation unit and training site. Under this new system, workers who performed well enough would be encouraged to find regular employment within the wider community after a 16- to 26-week period of personal adjustment training. 

Electronics assembly shop, ca. 1960s

In May 1975, a group of 46 disabled workers at Capabilities signed a petition objecting to the working conditions associated with the training program. They argued that the training was a “joke” and that they were not being hired for outside positions. Workshop officials, they claimed, treated them poorly and were often rude and demeaning and they called for several of them to be fired. The biggest issue though was the pay. In 1975, regular hourly minimum wage as $2.10. For disabled workers, it was 35 cents. For workers being paid by the piece, their wages were calculated as a percentage of what a non-disabled worker could make which meant that they could make just pennies a day. No wonder they were upset! Although some of these issues were resolved, one former employee reported receiving subminimum wages when she worked there in the 1990s.

Sewing shop, ca. 1960s

The sad fact is that Federal law still allows employers to pay disabled workers subminimum wages. Currently, the regular Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but the disabled minimum wage is just $3.34. Training programs at sheltered workshops are common, but a 2001 study by the Government Accountability Office found that only 5% of disabled workers actually graduate from sheltered workshops to full-pay employment in the wider world. This is especially true for those with intellectual disabilities.  Within the last decade, New York State has taken steps to improve conditions for disabled workers. Under state law, disabled workers must be paid at least minimum wage and the state offers a Workers (with Disabilities) Employers Tax Credit to business which hire disabled workers.

Meanwhile, Capabilities is still going strong. They continue to offer pre-vocational training to people with both physical and intellectual disabilities. In addition to these services, Capabilities also runs several businesses including a print shop, an upholstery shop, and a machine shop located at 1149 Sullivan Street, plus Elmira Tea and Coffee House cafe on Water Street, and a custodial service. The workers are all paid at or above minimum wage. 

ETCH menu, 2020


Monday, October 17, 2022

The History of Hitching Your Horse

by Monica Groth, Curator

Hitching Post Collection by Talitha Botsford

During the 19th century, horse-drawn transportation ruled the roads of Chemung County and the United States. The Chemung County Historical Society has a collection of varied horse-drawn transportation, including a 1936 milk cart from L.J. Houck and Sons Dairy and a beautifully restored c. 1860 ladies basket phaeton with a fringed shade believed to have belonged to Elmira's Foster family.

Ladies Basket Phaeton c. 1860, restored in 2010 and displayed in CCHS's
2019-2020 Transportation exhibit

The common use of carriages necessitated the invention of two interesting objects still seen along streets today: the hitching post and the carriage step. A hitching post was a post to which a rider or carriage driver could tie their horse. A carriage step, often a block of stone or a cast-iron step, provided a raised spot from which a person could climb into a carriage. Ubiquitous in the 1800s, hitching posts and carriage steps slowly disappeared from cities as automobiles replaced horse-drawn carriages. 

In the mid-late 19th century, Morgan Dyer manufactured cast-iron farming tools, fences, and hitching posts at a foundry at what is now East Market St. and Clemens Center Parkway. Cast-iron can be easily molded into decorative shapes and was in high demand as a material for hitching posts. In 1871, Dyer designed and patented a cast-iron hitching post and carriage step combination. This creation would have been deeply buried in the ground beside a road. It has both a post to which a horse can be tied and a set of steps from which a passenger can alight into or from a carriage. 

Thanks to the excellent research of Elmira History Forge, one of Dyer’s hitching post/carriage steps located in New Jersey was made known to the Historical Society. The step was subsequently donated by its finder to CCHS and recently returned to Elmira. It's seven feet tall and roughly 250 lbs. 

Hitching Post/Carriage Step 
Manufactured by M. Dyer, Elmira, NY

Local artist Talitha Botsford, whose watercolor paintings are on display in a current exhibit Talitha’s Brush, painted a collection of local hitching posts, including one of the Dyer design (then in Wellsburg on Front St.). Botsford, who lived from 1901-2002, was a prolific artist, composer, poet, and musician who loved capturing historic sites throughout the area. Take a closer look at a few hitching posts as painted by Talitha. 

Three hitching posts by Talitha Botsford

Botsford also included a parking meter in her collection – because meters were used as hitching posts in the 20th century. Modernizing our streets doesn’t always change our ways. 

Hitching one's horse to a parking meter on Water St. c. 1930

It is interesting to think about how historic practices persist - sometimes simply out of personal habit or necessity, and sometimes out of intentional choices to preserve treasured aspects of the past. 

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Take a Look: New in the Galleries

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Everyone who has been to the museum has a favorite artifact or document that they remember long after they’ve visited. One of my personal favorites is not currently on display, but it's something I often share with groups. It is a connected series of iron links that make up an unassuming Victorian pot scrubber. Because it's function is not immediately obvious, it can spark people's curiosity to look a little longer and look a little closer in order to discover more.

The object was used during the early 20th century to scrub pots clean, and I use it to prompt questions like these: Who used it? How did they use it? Why was it used? What was the user’s position in society? What limitations did the user have or not have when using it? Each question has the potential to reveal new information. The stories behind the answers can help us understand history in new ways.

A new resource is now available to help visitors connect with our museum objects and the stories behind them. Inspired by a comment from our office manager, Samantha Sallade, and a suggestion from our archivist Rachel Dworkin, our curator, Monica Groth, recently created the first of what will be many self-guided tours available for free at our front desk. These tours take you through the galleries on a scavenger hunt to discover new connections to the artifacts and documents on display. 

This is one way to check assumptions and appreciate the object for what it is while we consider its place in history. Of course many of our exhibits change throughout the year, and not everything we have is on view at all times. We have thousands of artifacts and documents in the collection that are available for research, but are not on display due to their condition, conservation concerns, or the fact that we simply do not have space for everything. It doesn’t mean that we value the items any less.

We share stories of Chemung County events, people, and places through our exhibits and frequently add to and update them in order to tell these stories more completely based on what we verify.  Sometimes visitors share information and sometimes we uncover new information that helps us reframe those stories. Our volunteers working on HistoryForge have put in many hours collecting and entering data to tell more complete stories of Chemung County’s past. They meet twice monthly, and if you'd like to get involved, contact coordinator Andrea Renshaw at for more information.

Self-guided tours that are currently available are "Black Stories of Chemung County" and "Women's Lives in Chemung County." We plan to update these pamphlets periodically and to create more based on different topics, as we work to keep our collections fresh, relevant, and inclusive of the history of Chemung County residents.

Tours like these can help visitors see documents and objects from different points of view. For example, in the "Women's Lives in Chemung County" self-guided tour, we highlight this photo of Jenny Dunmeyer on display in the Bank Gallery. Jenny was part of the Women's Ambulance Defense Corps (WADC) , a volunteer group of young women ages 18-45 who helped out during World War II.
Jenny Dunmeyer (center) wearing her WADC uniform

The WADC admitted women of every race and background except Japanese. What privileges did they have that Japanese women did not? As a Black woman, Jenny was included in this group during the war, but what were her experiences post-war? You can read more about her life in a previous blog on the Reid family, You can also view Jenny's story from another point of view since she is also included in the self-guided tour "Black Stories of Chemung County."

If you have a suggestion for a tour, mention it to our receptionists or write to me directly at And the next time you’re in the museum, pick up one of our self-guided tours for yourself. It’s a chance to see Chemung County history through different lenses, and the museum through fresh eyes.


Monday, September 19, 2022

The Library Project

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist


Sometimes visitors ask me what it is I do all day. Each day is different, but I currently have an interesting project I’m working on. In addition to the over a million manuscript items and 14,000+ photographs in our archival collections, the Booth Library here at the Chemung County Historical Society also contains over 2,000 books. They include government publications, local history books, genealogies of area families, works by local authors, and scholarly works about topics related to our other collections. Right now, I am in the midst of a project to assess and update our holdings. It will be a multi-stage process. 


All of our books are cataloged on the Southern Tier Library System’s (STLS) StarCat catalog. In recent years, I’d built up a bit of a backlog of new books which needed to be added. In August, catalogers from STLS came to catalog the new books and add them to their on-line system. They assigned each book an item ID and a call number based on the Dewey Decimal System. Call number are assigned based on their topic: 000 is computer and information science; 100 is philosophy and psychology; 200 is religion; 300 is social science; 400 is language; 500 is sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology; 600 is technology; 700 is arts and recreation; 800 is literature; and 900 is history and geography. This system is used by libraries throughout the world. Each topic then subdivides so, for example, a history book on Chemung County would be 974.779 plus the first three letters of the author’s surname. Once the call number had been assigned I created a label for each book.


The next step is shelving which involved quite a lot of shifting. I started at the very top in the 000 section, adding the new books and dusting as I went. I’m also weeding as I go. Shelf space in our library is at a premium and I want to make sure that every book we have is relevant to our mission and up-to-date in terms of scholarship. Our mission is to document and share the history of the Chemung Valley. We don’t need a history of Albany County or a list of the heads of households in the 1790 census for Connecticut. The Steele Memorial Library has agreed to take any discards, so I am putting together a box for them. Once I’ve selected which books to pull from the shelves, I’ll contact STLS so that they can transfer the catalog records to Steele when I bring them the books.

Once all of that is done, I’ll be bringing back the folks from STLS to do a shelf read. They’ll go through each shelf to confirm that everything on the shelf is also in the catalog and add anything that isn’t. I hope to have this last bit completed sometime in the coming year. And now you know at least a little bit about what I do all day!