Monday, March 1, 2021

Women Drivers

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

While living in Vienna, Austria, German born Siegfried Marcus invented the first successful gasoline-powered car in the late 1880s. Not long after, the wife of another automotive inventor took it upon herself to prove that her husband's vehicles were equally worthy. In August of 1888, Bertha Benz, set out on a long drive with her two teenage sons. Stories about her journey include her resourcefulness when it came to making necessary repairs. Hatpins, garters and shoemaker’s leather soles came in handy when dealing with clogged valves, rapidly worn engine parts and wooden brake fatigue. Bertha Benz’s 120-mile journey blazed a trail for other women drivers.

Early 20th century women who were lucky enough to have the means eagerly learned to drive and some even owned their own cars. Automobiles offered a new freedom and promised adventure.

unknown driver, Circa 1909

The first successful transcontinental US drive was made by Dr. Horatio Jackson in 1903 in a Winton touring car. The first successful cross-country drive by a woman followed six years later by Mrs. Alice Huyler Ramsey. She drove a Maxwell DA. At the time, the Maxwell-Briscoe Company of Tarrytown, NY was the nation’s largest automobile company, and would go on to become the Chrysler Corporation in 1925. The company recognized the growing number and interest of women drivers and saw a cross-country drive as a good publicity tool. In 1909, they sponsored Ramsey, a twenty-two year old wife and mother from New Jersey, to drive from coast to coast.

Ramsey was accompanied by three other women, none of whom knew how to drive. It took them 59 days to complete their adventure. Inspired, Ramsey would make a second trip six months later, this time by herself and over the next seven decades made dozens of cross-country drives. The attention that the Maxwell company received prompted them to align with the women’s rights movement and the company pledged to hire equal numbers of men and women in its sales force. At a promotional reception in NYC they featured a woman assembling and disassembling a Maxwell engine, and the event was attended by well-known suffragettes including Elmira’s Crystal Eastman. (See a blog on Eastman here.)

Elmira featured heavily in the second woman’s quest to drive coast to coast. In 1910, twenty-six year old Miss Blanche Stuart Scott from Rochester, NY was sponsored by the Willys-Overland company to drive an Overland automobile nicknamed the Lady Overland. The Willys-Overland company was owned and operated by John Willys, a businessman from Elmira.

John North Willys had moved to Elmira from his hometown of Canandaigua and had been running a bicycle building and repair business. Seeing changes ahead, he opened a dealership called Southern Tier Motor Company, and one of the line of cars he sold was the Overland.

The Southern Tier Motor Company, Elmira. Cars are Willys-Overland,1916-1917

In 1908 supply issues interfered with Overland distribution, and Willys solved this problem by purchasing the struggling Indiana company. Over the next four years, Willys would lead the company to become second only to the Ford Motor Company in annual sales.

For Scott's 1910 drive from New York City to San Francisco, CA. she was accompanied by reporter Miss Gertrude Buffington Phillips who documented the tour, and the drive took sixty-eight days to complete. They arrived in San Francisco to great fanfare.

Clearly there was a viable market for selling cars to women. Willys-Overland advertising from the mid-teens through the mid-twenties targeted women drivers with images of independent women driving with other women or children as passengers. However, as it was for women’s voting rights, equality was hard fought and less than complete.

1919 Willy-Overland advertisement

Scott went on to operate other early machinery. Publicity from her drive across the country caught the eye of Hammondsport’s Glenn Curtiss. A pioneer in American motorcycling and aviation, Curtiss was looking to increase public awareness of the viability of powered flight. He agreed to give Scott flying lessons and there’s some question as to whether he really intended for her to fly.

Curtiss rigged up a plane for her to practice taxiing back and forth, but when the rigging slipped, she took off. On September 6th, 1910 her plane lifted forty feet off the ground briefly before making a gentle landing. Today Scott is known for being the first US woman to fly a plane. To think that driving could lead to such adventures, I’m just glad that I don’t have to repair my own car, especially with hairpins and garters.

The Glenn Curtiss Museum displays a 1915 Willys-Overland owned by Blanche Stuart Scott. 


Monday, February 22, 2021

Elmira Pioneers: What’s in a Name?

 By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

 

Since professional baseball first began in Elmira in 1888, the local team has gone through a lot of names. They were the Babies, the Gladiators, the Jags, the Colonels, the Red Jackets, and the Red Wings. Most of the names didn’t last more than a few years. Only the Pioneers have stood the test of time.

1935 was quite the year for Elmira baseball. Since 1931, Elmira had been home to the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm team, the Elmira Red Wings, but, after a rough 1934 season, the Cardinals decided to sell. Desperate to keep professional baseball in the area, a group of local businessmen formed the Elmira Community Baseball Club to buy the team. Throughout the first quarter of the year, the club held a series of fundraisers including a bowling contest and ticketed dinners in order to pay the rent on Dunn Field and buy things like uniforms. Before they could buy new uniforms though, they would need a new team name.

On March 1, 1935, the Elmira Star-Gazette and Elmira Advertiser launched a naming contest which would run through March 15th. Participants could clip a contest coupon from the paper and send it in along with their name, address, and suggested team name. The names would be reviewed by the sports editors of the Star-Gazette and Advertiser, Edward Van Dyke and Glenn O. Sherwood, and the president of the Elmira Community Baseball Club, Arthur L. Hoffman. The winner would receive free season tickets. If anyone back in 1935 had been familiar with the Boaty McBoatface public naming fiasco of 2016, they would have known just how terrible an idea asking the public for names can be. 

Name contest coupon from Elmira Star-Gazette

 The naming process was contentious from the jump. The leaders behind the Elmira Community Baseball Club were also the folks behind the Arctic League charity. Quite a few people wanted to name the new team the Arctics in their honor, but the contest rules explicitly stated that anyone suggesting that name would be automatically disqualified. So many people wrote in to the papers complaining about it that finally Harry Lagonegro, treasurer of both the Elmira Community Baseball Club and the Arctic League, had to do an interview where he explained why. Apparently they didn’t want people mixing the two of them up. It was probably a good call.

The contest ended on March 15th and, on March 18th, the three-man naming committee made their fateful decision. For nearly 5 hours, Van Dyke, Sherwood, and Hoffman chain smoked their way through 8 cigars and 3 packs of cigarettes as they read through 632 letters with 977 name contest coupons.  Despite the Arctics having been disqualified as a name from the get-go, it was suggested by 972 different people. There were two votes for the Pioneers, and one fan suggested they name the team after Hoffman, Sherwood, and Van Dyke. Needless to say, they went with Pioneers. The name was announced the following evening at a celebratory banquet. 

Elmira Pioneers in the original team uniform, 1936

 Not everyone was happy about it. Almost immediately, a flame war erupted in the sports page editorial sections. Matt Richardson said the name sounded like a volunteer fire company. George McCann thought it was juvenile and insipid and lacked punch. According to him, more than a few of the attendees at the banquet where the name was revealed were just as dissatisfied. The editors of the sports pages fired back trying to justify their choice. Regardless of what the name’s opponents thought, the club directors had approved it and the uniforms had been ordered. The team would be the Elmira Pioneers and that was final.

And they have been since 1935, but there was a brief moment in 1995 when it looked like they might not. Clyde Smoll, then owner of the team, planned to move the team to Lowell, Massachusetts and take the Pioneers name with him. Bill Cummings, owner of new in-coming team, wanted to keep the name. Their lawyers went back and forth, trying to reach an arrangement. In the end, the county stepped in reaching an eleventh-hour deal in January 1996. The county would waive the $8,000 contract buy-out clause in the Dunn Field lease agreement if Smoll would just let the Pioneers name stay in Elmira. 

Now, 86 years after the name was chosen, the Pioneers are an Elmira institution.
Pandemic willing, we may even get to see them play again this year!

Monday, February 15, 2021

The Neighborhood House and EOP

by Erin Doane, curator 

The Neighborhood House, 1925
In 1878, the Ladies Temperance and Benevolent Union of Elmira started the Industrial School “to help the poor to help themselves.” There, women and girls learned to sew. They then sold what they made to earn an income. The school also hosted weekly meetings with Bible lessons.

Industrial School, c. 1900
The school began in rooms on the corner of Lake and Carroll Streets. By the 1920s, it had grown into a complex that occupied the entire block of East Fifth Street from Dickinson to Baldwin Streets. It had also been officially renamed the Neighborhood House. The organization was strictly non-sectarian and was open to all regardless of race, creed, culture, or national origin. It provided job training and classes for adults and offered athletic and craft activities for children.

Children at the Neighborhood House, 1930s
(photo courtesy of EOP)
During the middle of the 20th century, the Neighborhood House became a center of information, counseling, vocational guidance, and recreation for the community. It sponsored basketball teams and other group sports. The building had two gymnasiums and in the 1950s, the smaller gym was used for dances and roller skating on the weekends.
Roller skating at the Neighborhood House, 1950s
In the 1960s, as the African American community was embroiled in the fight for equal rights, the Neighborhood House took on a more active role in advocating for social justice. A new philosophical approach known as “New Directions” was adopted that focused on striving to eliminate all forms of racism and solving community problems rather than simply providing neighborhood services. In November 1971, the Neighborhood House moved into a newly-built facility at East Fifth and Lake Streets.
Neighborhood House Girl Scout troop, 1950s
(photo courtesy of EOP)
In the 1980s, rising inflation and a weakening economy strained the Neighborhood House’s finances. The organization refocused its attention on two areas: human services and youth services. It provided drug education and drug counseling, computer courses, and sports programs. Despite efforts to rebuild membership numbers, raise funds, and develop new programs to serve the community, the Neighborhood House was forced to close on January 16, 1987. Three years later, in 1990, it reopened as the Ernie Davis Community Center. The center’s work focused on recreational and educational programs for children.
Carole Coleman instructing Natalie Jones in basic
computer techniques at the Neighborhood House,

Star-Gazette, April 21, 1981, photo by Jeff Richards
The Equal Opportunity Program or EOP stared in 1965 with the mission to eliminate poverty. Its early focus was on issues advocacy, including welfare and housing rights. After a few years, it shifted its approach to directly helping underprivileged individuals. It offered daycare and Head Start, alcohol rehabilitation, home weatherization programs, nutrition education, and home heating emergency assistance programs. While it suffered through a financial crunch in the 1980s when community organizations were forced to compete for limited funding, by the mid-1990s EOP had grown to an organization with a budget of $5.6 million that served approximately 10,000 people a year.
Economic Opportunity Program, Inc. of
Chemung and Schuyler Counties, 2019
In 1996, EOP, the Ernie Davis Community Center, and the Eastside Community Center merged under the EOP name. The organization continued operating out of the Lagonegro Building at 318 Madison Avenue until 2002, when the new Ernie Davis Family Center opened on Baldwin Street. Today, the Economic Opportunity Program, Inc. of Chemung and Schuyler Counties continues to operate as a community action organization dedicated to helping the people of the Southern Tier.

Did you want to learn more about what EOP is doing now and see more old photos from the Neighborhood House? Visit https://www.cseop.org/ and https://www.cseop.org/neighborhood-house.

 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Elmira's First Black Firefighter

 By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 2007, Thomas J. Reid, Jr. was interviewed about his status as Elmira’s first Black firefighter. His reply that “I suppose I was a trailblazer…” reflects only part of his story. He was born in 1923 to Viola and Thomas J. Reid Sr. The family had two daughters and would add a second son a few years later.

Reid Sr. was a World War I veteran, and the family lived on Elmira’s Eastside. After returning from the war, he worked driving trucks for Remington Rand. Reid Jr. attended Elmira Free Academy, where in addition to his studies he lettered in varsity football, basketball and track. He graduated from EFA in 1941. His standout sports achievements earned him an athletic scholarship to Lincoln University, the nation’s first historically Black college and university, located in Pennsylvania. At Lincoln he played both football and basketball and majored in physical education.

It was wartime and just a year into his college career he was inducted into the Army. He left for boot camp, however due to a previous sports injury, he was honorably discharged one month later and returned to Lincoln University. Sometime before 1945 he married Wilhelmina Woods, a nursing student from Tennessee. She went on to pursue graduate studies in nursing at Syracuse University. The couple had a daughter and settled in Elmira. Over the next few years, they had two more children.

In 1950 Thomas J. Reid, Jr. joined the Elmira Fire Department, he was the first African American firefighter hired by the department. Wilhelmina worked for the County Health Department as a public health nurse. She also taught health classes and served on the Board at the Neighborhood House. In the fall of 1963 Wilhelmina died leaving her widowed husband with three young children to raise. Reid remarried in 1965 to Marjorie, a widow with three young children of her own. Marjorie worked at Iszard’s Department Store.

While he was with the Fire Department, Reid received two commendations. In 1961 he was credited with saving a woman’s life, carrying her out of a burning building. During the rescue he suffered smoke inhalation and was hospitalized. In 1965 he was named Fireman of the Year for rescuing an elderly man who had fallen asleep while smoking. This rescue was intense, and he and another firefighter suffered severe smoke inhalation.

Star Gazette photo
After 35 years of service, Reid retired from the Elmira Fire Department in 1985. It would be fifteen years before the second African American firefighter was hired.

Whether or not he was influenced by his father’s work driving trucks for a living, Reid was always interested in anything with wheels. That fascination was part of the reason that in addition to firefighting, he was a successful inventor. He enjoyed creating things with wheels.

One of his early inventions was for a sled wagon with front and rear steering capable of turning 360 degrees. He received US and Canadian patents for this vehicle he called the Cen Ten Ion 200.

Another invention he received a patent for was an inline skate:

Patent drawing for inline skate

The skate had front and back wheels in addition to two center wheels.

After he retired from the Fire Department, he invented a scooter bicycle, seen here and modeled by his wife Marjorie. It was produced for many years by a bicycle manufacturer in Pennsylvania.

Star Gazette photo
One of the last inventions Reid came up with, he built himself in the early 2000s. It was a one-of-a-kind bike designed to accommodate riders of two different heights. He and Marjorie often rode it around town.

Thomas and Marjorie were married for forty-six years before he died in 2012 at the age of 89.  Marjorie died six years later in late 2018.

Thomas J. Reid, Jr. was a man with various talents: an elected member of Elmira’s Sports Hall of Fame, the first Black Fire Fighter in Elmira, and a successful inventor holding multiple patents.

For more about the family read our blog The Reids of Elmira, and listen to Wilbur Reid’s interview archived as part of our Black Oral History project.

 


Monday, February 1, 2021

Bob Mack and the Rooster

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

It was 1882 and Haverly’s Colored Minstrels were playing Her Majesty’s Theatre in London, England. Up on the stage was Bob Mack of Elmira dressed as a giant Shanghai rooster, complete with vibrant green tail. Clucking and cawing, he faced off against a more conventionally sized bantam rooster called Little Dick. After several minutes of play fighting, Little Dick drove him from the stage and the crowd went wild. Up in the royal box, the Prince of Wales laughed himself silly. He was so delighted with the show that he later presented Mack with a gold medallion engraved with a rooster and set with diamonds valued at £20, quite a princely sum for the time.

Bert Williams in reproduction costume, 1910


Born into slavery in Kentucky around 1850, it was a long, strange road which brought Bob Mack before royalty. At a young age, he was set to minding the plantation’s poultry. It was there that he perfected the art of bird calls and mimicry. When the Civil War broke out, his master became an officer in the Confederate Army and dragged young Mack along as a body servant. In short order however, Mack found his way to freedom in the Union Army and amassed a small fortune entertaining the troops. After the war, he eventually found his way to Elmira were he fell for and married a local girl, Lucinda Washington, the daughter of the city’s first Black policeman.

Bob Mack worked as a barber, but his true passion lay in entertaining. Sometime around 1873, he performed his bird calls for the manager of Callender's Georgia Minstrels while they were in town and was hired on the spot. For the next ten years, he toured the United States and Europe, first with Callender's Georgia Minstrels and later with Haverly’s Colored Minstrels. Mack performed bird imitations, staged mock fights with Little Dick, and also kept a small flock of trained chickens who performed various tricks. In 1883, at age 2, Mack’s son Bob Jr. joined the act, often stealing the show with raw cuteness. 


 Minstrel shows developed in Northern states in the 1830s and 1840s with white actors in blackface portraying racist caricatures. The shows tended to follow a three act structure. First, a crowd-gathering parade would draw the audience to the theater. Bob Mack, evidentially a skilled horseman, often lead the parade for Callender's Georgia Minstrels. The show itself would open with a musical number featuring the entire cast followed by a group comedy routine and dance number. The second act was more like a variety show with a series of short, individual acts including music, dancing, acrobatics, etc. The second act was usually capped by a long stump speech delivered in dialect and filled with jokes, malapropisms, and puns.  The third act consisted of a short play, often times a plantation scene or sometimes a parody of a classic or popular contemporary play.

The shows were hugely popular throughout the 1840s and 50s, but were also considered controversial. Minstrelsy both played into and created negative stereotypes about Blacks and many African Americans were rightly appalled by it. Abolitionists worried that the shows’ sanitized depictions of plantation life and slavery undermined their cause. At the same time, many Southern cities barred minstrel acts due to their Northern origins. Interest in minstrel shows declined sharply during the Civil War and continued to do so throughout the rest of the 19th century. Blackface musical acts persisted until well into the 1960s, but the whole three act structure was lost. Still, a lot of the songs and racist tropes and stereotypes linger in our popular culture today.

Black minstrel troupes first started appearing in 1855. Callender's Georgia Minstrels was established in 1872 and was eventually acquired by J.H. Haverly in 1878. It was bought out again, this time by the Frohman brothers in the 1880s. Bob Mack worked for all three. The promoters of Black minstrel shows tended to highlight their authenticity, but, in reality, their content tended to be similar to white shows. Still, there were some key differences. Black shows often featured spiritual music and overtly religious themes in a way which the white shows did not and usually ended with a mock military drill and brass band. While many Blacks avoided white minstrel shows, they attended Black minstrel shows in droves and tended to treat the performers as celebrities.


 

For Black entertainers like Bob Mack, Black minstrel shows were pretty much the only large-scale avenue towards show business and fame. As a Black man, Mack made a fraction of what white entertainers made, but it was still more than he ever could have hoped to make as a barber. When he died of tuberculosis in Elmira on January 21, 1885, he was one of the richest, if not the richest Black men in Elmira. He is still regarded as one of the best chicken trainers and his signature rooster outfit was recreated by Bert Williams for the 1910 Ziegfeld Follies and for Barbara Streisand’s TV special The Belle of 14th Street in 1967. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery and his descendants continued to live in Elmira throughout the 20th century.

Monday, January 25, 2021

The Maki Family on Rumsey Hill

by Erin Doane, Curator 

When photographer Jack Delano from the Farm Security Administration came to Rumsey Hill in northern Chemung County in 1940, he photographed nearly a dozen families living there. I wrote about his documentary project here on January 4, 2021. As I mentioned in that post, I wasn’t able to find out much about most of the people he photographed, but I did learn a lot about Urho Maki and his family.

Mr. Urho Maki, September 1940

Urho Maki was a Finnish immigrant and farmer in the area of Rumsey Hill in the Town of Van Etten. He and his wife Aina had three children, George, Ethel, and Bertha. From searching the local newspapers, I learned that their lives were full of struggle, conflict, and tragedy. In 1940, they were photographically document by Jack Delano as a family living in rural poverty. The Makis owned their farm but, like many other people at that time, suffered greatly from the effects of the Great Depression. Their struggles continued for many years.

In late October 1942, fire broke out in the Makis’ barn and quickly spread to their house. Despite the efforts of the Van Etten Fire Department, both buildings were destroyed. Neighbors gave the family shelter in the immediate aftermath and the Lioness Club offered them assistance in the longer term.

Three years later, tragedy struck the family again. On September 10, 1945, nine-year-old George went swimming in Shepard’s Creek with his younger sister Ethel and another youngster. George got into deep water and disappeared. Ethel ran home to get help, but by the time they returned George had drowned. For some reason Urho and Aina believed that a neighbor with a grudge against them was responsible for their son’s death. They went to court multiple times attempting to press charges against the person they believed to be guilty, but repeated investigations yielded no supporting evidence.

Daughter of Urho Maki (likely Ethel), September 1940

Urho and Aina were in the news again starting in 1950 when the County began the process of rerouting County Road 3 in the Town of Van Etten. The construction plan included the appropriation of land from the Maki farm. When Urho lodged a complaint about the plan, it was modified to take less of their land than originally proposed. Despite that, the Makis continued to fight against the project. Eventually, the courts ordered that portion of their land condemned and Chemung County issued the Makis two checks as payment for the property (though they never cashed them). When highway officials and workers arrived to begin construction, they were greeted by members of the Maki family armed with shotguns.

It appears that the road construction did go ahead even as the Makis continued to protest. In April 1953, Urho, Aina, and their two daughters went to Albany in order to see Governor Dewey regarding the County appropriating part of their land for the highway rebuild. After waiting for two hours at the Executive Chambers of the State Capitol they were asked to leave as the building was closing for the day. Aina apparently caused a disturbance and shouted at the State Police that arrived to calm her down. She was ordered to leave Albany or be jailed. She was later given a 30-day suspended sentence after admitting a disorderly conduct charge.

Star-Gazette, April 29, 1953

In November of the same year, both Urho and Aina were arrested on charges of stealing fencing from the Lehigh Valley Railroad. The railroad company had a right-of-way near the Makis’ farm, but they claimed the fence had been put up on their property. The couple tore the fence down and were arrested for it. On November 27, they appeared in County Court. While they were arraigned separately, Aina kept breaking in to comment about the proceeding and yell questions across the court. Urho repeatedly tossed a map across the papers on the judge’s bench to support his claim that the fence had been put up on their property. Both husband and wife made it loudly known that they wanted their case taken to the highest court in the land. 

Star-Gazette, November 28, 1953

Bail was set at $1,000 cash or $2,000 property for each. They refused to pay and were ordered to jail. Urho refused to get up and was half-dragged out of the courtroom by two state troopers as Aina continued to vociferously protest. As all this was going on, their seven-year-old daughter Bertha wailed and 15-year-old Ethel stared stolidly across the room.

Language may have been the cause of much of the confusion in the courtroom. The Makis’ first language was Finnish. While they spoke some English, they also relied on their nephew Neil Lehto to help interpret for them. Their second appearance in court a week later, this time with a lawyer, went more smoothly. Cash bail was posted and both were released from jail. Urho admitted a charge of malicious mischief and received a suspended sentence and probation with the condition that he return the fence he tore down to the Lehigh Valley Railroad. The indictment against Aina was dismissed.

It would be nice to report that this was the end of property conflicts for the Maki family, but it wasn’t. In August 1956, Aina threatened a state trooper with a potato digger after she had prevented workmen from placing markers along Route 223 in preparation for road reconstruction. She was not arrested that time. After that, the Maki name only appeared in newspapers in less sensational, personal notices.

Urho Maki, September 1940
Urho Maki passed away on April 5, 1958. In February 1960, Ethel married George Raymond Madigan and moved out of the family home. By September of that year, Aina’s health had declined and she ran an ad in the Star-Gazette seeking a lady to care for her in exchange for room, board, and wages. She passed away two weeks later, leaving behind her youngest daughter Bertha at home.

 

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!