Monday, July 1, 2024

Operation Elmira

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, just as the sun was setting, two waves of Douglas C-47s towing Horsa and Waco CG-4A gliders flew east over Utah Beach in Normandy, France. They were headed for Ste-Mére-Eglise, just a few miles in from the coast. Loaded aboard the 176 gliders were 1,190 troops, 59 vehicles, 25 anti-tank guns, and 131 tons of ammunition. It was Operation Elmira and they were flying into trouble.

The first glider combat operation was carried out by the Germans on May 10, 1940 when they used them to land troops inside Fort Eben-Emael, Belgium, allowing them to take what was supposed to be an impenetrable fortress. The United States Army Air Corps began its own glider program in February 1941 in response. In May 1941, army glider pilots began training at Harris Hill in Elmira, New York, on the east coast, and Twenty-Nine Palms, California, on the west. These early trainees were trained on commercial sailplanes, including the Schweizer SGS 2-8, manufactured here in Elmira. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war in December 1941, the Air Corps began training its glider pilots in earnest. American forces first used gliders during the Sicily campaign of 1943 and again in Burma in 1944. 


Gliders proved a valuable tool during the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Operation Elmira was the third and final mission flown by the 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day. The goal of Operation Elmira was to bring in reinforcements and equipment to paratroopers who had parachuted in earlier in the day. The mission consisted 36 Waco CG-4A gliders and 140 Horsa gliders towed by 176 Douglas C-47 airplanes. They left England around 6:30 pm and arrived in France in two waves. The first wave arrived around 9pm while the second arrived two hours later around 11pm. 

Horsa glider being pulled by a tow plane on its way to Normandy, June 6, 1944

 Things went wrong fast. The original plan called for the gliders to land at two different zones, LZ W and LZ O, but troops on the ground were unable to secure LZ W. Ground forces attempted to communicate with the in-coming pilots to warn them to divert all gliders to LZ O, but the message never went through. Instead, the C-47’s and their gliders flew into a barrage of German ground fire as soon as they began their approaches over LZ W. Of the 176 airplanes, 92 were damaged and five are shot down. Eight of the pilots were injured and one was killed. Things were even worse for the gilder pilots.

The gliders came down hard. One pilot, Ben Ward, touched down in a field only to realize that his break line had been shot out and they were headed for a pair of trees at 90 miles per hour. Their Horsa glider slid between the trees, sheering off the sides of the fuselage and killing one of their passengers. All told, most of the gliders were destroyed upon landing. Ten of their pilots were killed on impact with 29 injured and 7 missing in action. Of the 1,190 troops they carried, 157 were killed or injured. 

Horsa glider with rear open for loading

 The glider crews and passengers were still in danger even after they landed, considering many of them had landed behind enemy lines. Glider pilot Clifford Fearn had barely unbuckled his safety harness when his glider was overrun by Germans and they were all taken prisoner. He was freed a few hours later by advancing American troops. Another pilot, Rollin B. Fowler, found himself in a similar situation but managed to free himself with a grenade he had stuffed down his pants.

Despite the initial issues with the landing zones and resulting casualties, Operation Elmira was largely considered a success. Most of their cargo was delivered undamaged, as were the reinforcements. Seeing the first wave arrived in daylight hours helped boost American morale, even as it demoralized the Germans. Gliders continued to be used throughout the war, including on the very next day. Despite how useful they had been in delivering men and supplies, the sun soon set on combat gliders. They were never used again after World War II. Instead, they were replaced in their role by helicopters which had the advantage of being able to fly in and out under their own steam.  



If you’re interested in learning more about Operation Elmira, the Chemung County Historical Society has a collection of first-person accounts of men who participated as compiled by researcher Adelbert Sahlberg in 1998.

Monday, June 17, 2024

The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association

by Erin Doane, Senior Curator

In June 1955, nearly 1,000 people attended the 19th annual district convention of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) at the Mark Twain Hotel in Elmira. AHEPA was founded by eight men in Atlanta, Georgia on July 26, 1922 in part as a reaction against the rise of xenophobia and the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. The organization helped Hellenic immigrants and their families build new lives here and guided them in the process of becoming American citizens and responsible members of their communities. Elmira’s chapter of AHEPA was formed in 1926.

Elmira Chapter No. 111 AHEPA fez donated by Mark Greven

AHEPA is a secret Hellenic fraternal, non-partisan, non-political, non-sectarian organization that encourages the emulation of ancient Greek culture and ideals including civic responsibility, reason, moderation, and a focus on education. Its creed, as summarized by District Governor Kimon A. Doukas in 1955, was:

  • to promote loyalty to the United States of America
  • to marshal into active service the noblest attributes of Hellenism
  • to champion the cause of education
  • to instill progress in every one of our members and
  • to keep our Order united and benevolent

At that time, membership was open to any male of good moral character over 21 years old who was a resident of the U.S. and could read, write, or speak English. AHEPA is still an all-male society but there are auxiliaries - Daughters of Penelope for women, Sons of Pericles for boys, and Maids of Athens for girls.  Being of Greek descent was not a condition for membership. Harry S. Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy, Herbert H. Humphrey, Gerald R. Ford, and John H. Glenn, Jr. were all AHEPA members.

President Roosevelt and the national officers of the order of AHEPA Greek American society, 1936, Harris & Ewing, from

Elmira’s Chapter No. 111 of AHEPA began in 1926 with 26 members. It is one of 30 chapters in District 6. The group first met in rented rooms in the Gladke Building on E. Water Street. From the very beginning its members were involved in political and social activism. They supported charitable endeavors, assisted victims of disasters abroad, and offered educational and service programs for both adults and young people.

In 1939, on the precipice of World War II, the local chapter played host to the district convention at the Mark Twain hotel for the first of four times (1939, 1948, 1955, and 1966). At the meeting, past supreme president of AHEPA Dean Alfange of New Yok City urged members to “promote and encourage loyalty to the United States, its flag, constitution and laws.” He added that “Greeks are doing their part in meeting civic responsibilities and fighting the twins of reaction, Communism and Fascism.”  Throughout WWII, the Elmira chapter lived up to this call to action by selling U.S. war bonds - $40,000 worth in just April 1943 alone - and raising funds for Greek refugees.

Officers of Elmira Chapter No. 111, AHEPA, 1955
Seated l to r: James Siotes, John Knapp, Peter Patros, Edward Sindone, Peter H. Theopheles
Standing l to r: George Apostolou, Tom Greven, Perry Vasil, Peter T. Greven, John K. Diveris, Gus Greven

In 1950, Elmira’s AHEPA chapter moved into a new hall at 129 E. Chemung Place. At that time, the group had 102 members from Elmira, Corning, Ithaca, Waverly, Sayre, Athens, Towanda, and Watkins. The hall had a temple, a spacious dining hall for dinners and dances, a reception hall, a smaller meeting hall, and a kitchen. Nearly 500 people attended its dedication on December 17. Not only did the club used the hall for its own activities, such as church services, club socials, and meetings, it also rented the space to outside groups for suppers, receptions, holiday parties, and other private events. AHEPA gave up the hall in the late 1970s and it later became home to the Teamsters Union Local 529.

Elmira Chapter 111 AHEPA hall, Elmira Star-Gazette, October 29, 1950

The Elmira chapter was very active in the 1950s and 1960s, raising money for educational and health programs within the Greek-American community and serving as a social club for its members. Mentions of the chapter in local newspapers decreased throughout the 1970s. While the chapter still exists today, it is inactive except for some members attending regional and national conferences. 

Members of AHEPA (l to r) unidentified priest (non-member), Mr. Steve Anthony, Mr. Mike Labatos, Mr. Pete Greven, and Mr. Constantine (Dean) Pappas.
Photo provided by Christine Pappas

AHEPA is still very active as a national organization more than 100 years after its founding. Since 1922, over 500,000 members have been initiated and there are over 400 active chapters in 11 countries on three continents. It still adheres to its founding values, providing over $1 billion in humanitarian aid to people throughout the world and awarding over $1.8 million in scholarships to Greek-American youth.


Monday, June 3, 2024

Fly the Friendly Skies? The First African American Stewardess

 By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Do you remember Mohawk Airlines? The “Route of the Air Chiefs” airline carried passengers all around New York State. 

It was one of the first feeder airlines to take advantage of the 1944 Civil Aeronautics Board’s (CAB) push to increase access to regions previously not served. A decade later, Mohawk Airlines increased another kind of access, by hiring the nation’s first woman of color as a stewardess.

Mohawk airlines was the renamed Robinson Airlines operating out of Ithaca, NY. Inventor Cecil S. Robinson started it as a side business to his aerial surveying company, though it wasn’t always profitable. The CAB push meant the government was willing to subsidize new routes, and Robinson sold operations to Robert Peach, one of his pilots and a Cornell University law student. Peach had learned to fly as a pilot during World War II. By 1948, Mohawk Airlines was certified as a regional carrier and flying routes throughout the region, including in and out of Elmira/Corning. In less than a decade, the company outgrew their Ithaca facilities and moved their headquarters to Utica. The growth in aviation encouraged competition among the airlines, and they actively looked for innovative approaches to appeal to passengers. Social norms were changing. In 1956, the carrier publicly expressed an interest in hiring flight attendants of color, and one year later, Mohawk hired twenty-five-year-old Ruth Carol Taylor.


Taylor had lived in upstate New York, graduated from college, and was a practicing nurse. She was born in Massachusetts, the eldest of two daughters of Ruth Irene Powell, a registered nurse, and William Edison Taylor, a barber. The family lived in New York City for a short while, then moved to Trumansburg, so that her father could run a farm. She attended Trumansburg Central High School, and then enrolled at Elmira College.

In 1951, her father died and her mother moved back to New York City. Taylor then transferred to Bellevue School of Nursing in NYC. She graduated and practiced nursing for three years before applying to be a flight attendant. At that time, airlines hired nurses to reassure the flying public, so that was a good fit. However, no airline had hired anyone of color. Taylor, interested in flying, applied to Trans World Airlines (TWA) and was interviewed three times, but was not selected. Determined, she filed a complaint with the New York State Commission on Discrimination. About that same time, Peach, perhaps realizing that things needed to change, instructed his company to look for good candidates. Almost 800 women of color applied and were interviewed to be a Mohawk hostess. The company only hired one, Ruth Carol Taylor. Her first flight was February 11, 1958, and generated so much publicity that TWA quickly hired Margaret Grant and declared her as their first African American flight attendant.

Six months after her first flight, Taylor hit another discriminatory wall and was let go for violating the rule that all stewardesses must be single. She had married her fiancé, Rex Legall. The couple moved to the British West Indies and then to London. They divorced and Taylor moved to Barbados. In Barbados she created the country’s first professional nursing journal. In 1977, she returned to NYC bringing her son and daughter with her.

Ruth Carol Taylor was an activist all her life, fighting for racial equality. She participated in the Civil Rights Movement, co-founded the Institute for InterRacial Harmony, and after her son was mugged, wrote The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America or Staying Alive and Well in an Institutionally Racist Society.


Being the first of anything isn’t always easy, but seeing Taylor in her uniform certainly encouraged other young women to consider the profession. When interviewed for an article in JET magazine, Taylor shared that she “…didn’t take the job because she thought being a flight attendant would be so great...I knew better than to think it was all that glamourous. But it irked me that people were not allowing people of color to apply…Anything like that sets my teeth to grinding.”


An activist to the end, Taylor was 92 when she died in May 2023.


Monday, May 20, 2024

A Listing of Local Photographers

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivists

There were almost 50 photography studios in operation in Chemung County during the 19th century. For much of that century, there were no amateur photographers. Taking and developing photographs was a difficult process requiring expensive equipment and training, so, until the 1890s, pretty much every photograph taken in the area was done by one of the professional studios.

Each of these photographers and studios had their own makers’ marks. For us here at the Chemung County Historical Society, knowing a photographer’s years of operation is invaluable when it comes to dating their photographs. Below is a handy-dandy list of all know 19th century photographers and studios in Chemung County along with their dates and some additional information.


M.A. Breese, 1889-1890

W.M. Boyd, 1882-1884

J.M. Clark, 1860

C.C. Doty, 1863-1864

E.T. Dunn, 1866-1867

Elmira Portrait Co., 1887-1911

Elmira Portrait Company was a partnership between three artists, Herbert M. Daggett, Samuel C. Woodside, and Allen O. Adams. In addition to doing portrait photography, they also offered portraits in crayon, India ink, and watercolor. 


Elmira Portrait Company letterhead, ca. 1890s

Empire View Co., 1897-1899

Excelsior View Co., 1888-1890

C.J. Sylvester, 1890-1900

 Charles Sylvester ran the Excelsior View Company for two years before deciding to operate the studio under his own name. All our photographs of the Flood of 1889 were taken by Sylvester and have the Excelsior logo.

 C.F. Fudge, 1899-1917

W. Gulick, 1897

J.G. Harrison, 1884-1886

A.P. Hart, 1857-1877, 1880-1893

Hart & Evans, 1878-1879

Abraham P. Hart was born in Goshen, Connecticut in 1816 and came to Elmira in 1837. He was one of the first photographers in the area and certainly one of the longest running. He was still working right up until his death in January 1894.

 T.S. Hathaway, 1857-1859

Hathaway & Letts, 1860

 A.B. House, 1866-1867

J.W. House, 1860

Howe, 1882-1899

Charles Howe came to Elmira from Binghamton in 1882 and bought out the studio of N.D. Luce at 137 East Water Street. In 1899, he purchased an art supply store just down the street and became Howe’s Art Shop, specializing in photography supplies, developing, and framing.

L. Hurley, 1895-1901

Lottie Hurley was Elmira’s first female photographer. She specialized in portraits, mostly of women and children, and also sold wallpaper and did interior decorating. 

Photo of a young woman by Mrs. Lottie Hurley, ca. 1890s


J.E. Kendall, 1861

Kendall was one of the few non-Elmira photographers in Chemung County. He operated in Sullivanville in Erin, N.Y.

W. Knowlton, 1866-1869

F.L. Landon, 1895-1898

J.E. Larkin, 1860-1891

John E. Larkin was born in Rome, N.Y. in 1836. He came to Elmira as a young man in 1858 to open his photography studio. He took some of the best pictures we have of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp. He retired from photography to become the treasurer of the Elmira Mechanics Society and, later, the director of the Second National Bank of Elmira.

A. Lawhead, 1866-1867

Luce & Silverman, 1876-1877

N.D. Luce, 1878-1882

McFarlin & Speck, 1893-1896

A. McFarlin, 1897-1951

Abram McFarlin came to Elmira from Shellsburg, Pennsylvania. His studio at 158 N. Main Street, which was later demolished to make way for the Mark Twain Hotel, had previously been home to the studios of W.C. Rowley and W.A. Gulick. He specialized in portrait photography, amassing over 50,000 negatives over the course of his career.

W. Mitchell, 1863-1864

W.M. Morgan, 1895-1898

William J. Moulton, 1860-1864

E.L. Mowry, 1884-1888

New York Photo Co., 1897-1898

G. Personius, 1893-1919

Personius Studio, 1920-1945

George Personius began working as an itinerant photographer in northern Pennsylvania before settling down in an apprenticeship with Charles Howe. He eventually established his own studio in Elmira. His health declining, he sold the business to Randall H. Warne in 1945 and the Personius Warne Studio continues to this day.

W.C. Rowley, 1886-1896

H. Sartor, 1893-1910

W. Seeley, 1861-1864

A.L. Snook, 1872-1873

R.F. Snyder, 1891

D. Stamp, 1895-1905

C. Tomlinson, 1874-1891

E.M. Van Aken, 1874-1904

Elisha Van Aken came to Elmira from Lowville, N.Y. in 1874. He was eventually joined in his business by his son, Charles, who took over and re-named the studio following his father’s death. Here at the Historical Society, we have a large collection of his glass plate negatives of area views. Most photos of Mark Twain or his family taken in Elmira were done by Van Aken.

P.J. Ward, 1868-1897

For most of the 19th century, Peter J. Ward was the only photographer in Horseheads. In 1897, he was forced to sell his business to Charles Sylvester due to ill health. 

Back of photograph by P.J. Ward, ca. 1870s


J.H. Whitely, 1863-1871, 1874-1881, 1885-1895

Whitley & Denton, 1872-1873

Whitely & Harrison, 1882-1884

C. Wilbur, 1898-1900

G.H. Wright, 1890-1891