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 fiancĂ©, 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

Monday, May 6, 2024

May Day at Elmira College

by Erin Doane, Senior Curator

May Day is an ancient spring festival that originated in Europe to rejoice in the coming of summer. In 1902, Dean M. Anstice Harris started what would become a 65-year tradition of celebrating May Day at Elmira College. 

The very first May Day at Elmira College took place on May 2, 1902. The freshmen students were in charge of organizing the festivities. The event began at 4:30 in the afternoon with the campus population gathering on the green lawn next to the pond. First, the freshmen voted for a May Queen from among the sophomore students. After the queen’s name was announced, she was whisked away to be dressed in her ceremonial gown and robes. Once appropriately dressed, she returned with her court to be officially crowned. She took her place on the throne and the freshmen performed a May pole dance. This was followed by a general promenade and social hour before a picnic supper. The evening ended with a lecture by special guest Dr. A.F. Schauffler who presented “Ruin and Rescue” about his mission work in New York City.

Elmira College May Day, 1910s

The celebration was so well received that the second annual May Day festival followed the next year. The event grew more elaborate each year as the new freshman class worked to outdo the previous one. In 1907, there was a dragon and the personification of Winter terrorizing Earth and her followers. The May pole dance was performed by ten young women dressed as milk maids carrying bright tin pails. In 1908, the students had a luncheon at Watkins Glen to celebrate May Day. Watkins Glen became the preferred location of the event from the early 1910s through the 1950s.

May Day dancers, photographed by Fred Loomis, 1926

Each year the freshmen organizers chose a theme. Many celebrations focused on ancient Greek and Roman myths including the stories of Persephone, Diana, Orpheus and Eurydice, and Cupid and Psyche. Olde England was also a popular theme with traditional folk dances and music. Later, the themes became more diverse. In 1935, the students built their May Day around the story of Alice in Wonderland. The dancing and dramatic performances became quite elaborate. Faculty in the physical education department coached the dancers while those in the art department supervised the production of costumes and props.

Elmira College May Day, c. 1930, photographed by Fred Loomis

Music and dancing were always major parts of the May Day celebrations. In 1939, the organizers decided to try something new. Rather than using classic springtime songs paired with traditional choreography, they created modern dances based on Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” A newspaper report at the time called the performance “well received if untraditional.” In 1940, modern dance was paired with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Before the event, miss Catherine Finter, head of Elmira College’s physical education department, went on WENY radio to explain the meaning of the dances. A reporter with the Star-Gazette who attended the festivities reported the “most colorful of the abstract interpretations was that of the third movement –‘a succession of capricious arabesques which pass through the mind when one has drunk wine and feels the first touch of intoxication.’”

A preview of the dance program for Elmira College May Day, Star-Gazette, May 16, 1940

At the peak of its popularity, May Day was attended by upwards of 800 students, faculty members, friends, family, and community members. The arrival of the second World War, however, put a damper on festivities. Less ostentatious celebrations were held on campus throughout the 1940s. During the war years, more traditional American music and patriotic songs were added to the program. Post-war saw the celebration’s return to Watkins Glen and when Elmira College acquired Strathmont in 1961, May Day moved there.

May pole dance at Strathmont, Star-Gazette, May 13, 1965

By the mid-1960s the tradition was winding down. Rather than a major stand-alone event, May Day became part of Class Day. The last May Queen was crowned at Elmira College on May 10, 1967, thus ending 65 years of tradition.

The college replaced May Day with Spring Weekend, an outdoor festival with live rock music and alcoholic beverages. I myself participated in the very last Spring Weekend celebration in 1997. The following year, a new May Days event was created which had no connection to the earlier May Day traditions. The reinvented May Days is still celebrated today with a carnival on campus complete with food, games, and music. 

Monday, April 22, 2024

Stand up for Safety: Aviator Leon "Windy" Smith

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

    “It is mighty easy Mr. Praeger for you to sit in your swivel chair in Washington and tell the flyers when they can fly…”

Windy Smith in the cockpit

When Leon D. Smith sent this message, it ended up getting him fired from his job and blacklisted from the post office air service. It also set off the first ever pilots’ strike.

Born in Millerton, PA, in 1889, Leon D. Smith was the youngest son of Dr. Frank W. Smith and Mary Anne Miller Smith. His father was a dentist who opened a practice in Elmira at 328 East Water Street. Leon Smith had been called “Windy” since he was a child, because he talked a lot. In school, he was known as an athlete and excelled in football. 

His two older brothers went into farming, but Windy was looking for something different. It wasn't until he met and became friends with aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss in nearby Hammondsport, that he discovered his lifelong passion for flying. In 1913, Smith graduated from the Curtiss Aviation School, and immediately became a flight instructor. He was 24 years old. The country had a growing need for more pilots. Less than one year later, World War I broke out, and the demand for skilled pilots increased even more.

Teaching flying in Alabama

Flying was new and people were looking for what aviation could offer including moving the mail farther and faster. The first mail flights were in 1911, but regular service didn’t begin until May 15, 1918. The first issued airmail stamp cost 24 cents. The early routes used government-operated planes, and pilots logged valuable long-distance flying time and aerial navigation experience. Establishing regular service meant the mail could be more reliable. The first flight of scheduled service consisted of six U.S. Army “Jenny” biplanes, piloted by military officers. President Woodrow Wilson and U.S. Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson were two of the dignitaries that attended to witness their take-off. Each of the six planes carried over a hundred pounds of mail from Washington, D.C., to Belmont Park, New York City. The flight was 218 miles, necessitating a brief stopover in Philadelphia. Of these six planes, one didn’t make it. The pilot became disoriented soon after take-off, and he needed to return to earth. Upon landing, the plane was badly damaged, so his payload of mail was loaded on a truck and driven back to Washington.

After four months, the Aerial Mail Service of the U.S. Post Office Department was established and took over mail delivery. Now, the department had a fleet of purpose-built biplanes staffed by a crew of civilian pilots. In December 1918, 28-year-old Leon D. “Windy” Smith was hired as one of those pilots.

Six months later, on June 22, 1919, the weather turned to heavy fog and the pilots complained to each other. Smith took it farther and wrote directly to Second Assistant Postmaster General Otto Praeger with his objections. He pointed out that only a week earlier, Charles Lamborn, whom he called one of the best flyers in the United States, had lost his life while attempting to deliver the mail.

Praeger immediately fired pilots Smith and E. Hamilton Lee for refusing to fly. This motivated all the pilots to go on strike and for weeks, airmail service stopped completely. When it was over, all pilots, except Smith, were rehired. Praeger held fast to his grudge against Smith.

Praeger had been appointed to his position by Postmaster General Burleson, his one qualification being that he was Burleson’s fishing and hunting buddy. Praeger was ambitious but lacked experience and understanding of the new kind of transportation. Between 1918 and 1926, thirty-five pilots lost their lives in service to the U.S. Postal Service. Being denied his job with the Post Office didn’t stop Smith from flying. 

Posing with his stunt woman

He went back to teaching pilots to fly, and he started “Windy Smith’s Air Circus,” an aerial acrobatics and stunt business. One of those daring stunts was covered in another one of our blogs titled FallingWomen: Elmira’s Lady Parachutists.

Leon D. “Windy” Smith, always known as a safe pilot, died in 1960 at the age of 70. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.


Monday, April 8, 2024

True Crime Reporting

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


On March 15, 1964, 12-year-old Mary Theresa Simpson went missing after heading home from her cousin’s house. After a few hours of waiting, her father called the police. For the next few days, the police combed the city looking for her. On March 19th, a trio of hikers stumbled across her body in a wooded area just off of Combs Hill Road in Southport. 

Mary Theresa Simpson

 This March, I received multiple research requests about her murder from self-identified true crime enthusiasts.

People’s fascination with true crime is nothing new. Beginning in the 1500s, British publishers began printing thousands of pamphlets and broadsides describing the exploits of various criminals. The publications tended to focus on the gory details of especially violent or unusual crimes and often carried strong moralizing crime-doesn’t-pay messages regarding the criminals’ eventual comeuppance. By the 1700s, America had its own criminals and presses with which to write about them. Newspapers provided readers with minute-by-minute accounts of crimes, manhunts, and trials as they unfolded.

The 21st century is no less interested in true crime than our ancestors, although today the format is a bit different. TV documentaries about crime and criminals first gained popularity in the 1980s. Hits shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted, which presented new, real-life, stories each week, captivated audiences. In 2020, the streaming platform Netflix brought Unsolved Mysteries back. After the success of their documentary series Making a Murderer (2015), Netflix quickly became the king of the true crime docuseries with over 11 shows focusing on different cases.

True crime podcasts got their start in 2014 with Serial, the first season of which focused on the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999. The podcast was an instant hit. Since its release, it has been downloaded 340 million times, making it the most downloaded podcast in the world. Its popularity spawned literally hundreds of copycats.

In US, women make up 73% of consumers of digital true crime media. Studies show that people who listen to true crime are more likely to be afraid of being victimized themselves, although it is unclear if that is a result of consuming true crime or the reason they seek it out. There are numerous complaints against true crime. The genre has been criticized for the way third parties make money off of other people’s trauma, often re-traumatizing them in the process. Some works blend actual facts with fictional elements and rampant speculation in ways that can give audiences distorted views of the case.

The true crime genre isn’t all bad. The first season of Serial, for example, helped shine a light on a miscarriage of justice that lead to a man being released from prison. Shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America’s Most Wanted have actually helped to solve crimes. The original run of Unsolved Mysteries helped spark renewed interest that lead to the solving of 260 cold cases. America’s Most Wanted helped lead to the capture of 1,400 wanted fugitives and the recovery of over 60 missing children.

In 1964, the local press gave extensive coverage to Mary Theresa Simpson’s murder. The day after her body was discovered, 50 men, including an Elmira Star-Gazette reporter, did a sweep of the area where her body was found. They uncovered her glasses, several buttons off her blouse, and an assortment of trash. Every part of the search was documented by the reporter’s camera. The newspaper coverage included interviews with her family, a timeline events, search photos, a map of the crime scene, and a detailed description of the girl’s body. In the days following her murder, the Star-Gazette and WELM Radio offered a reward of $1,000 for any information leading to her killer’s arrest.

Search in the area where Mary's body was found


Patrolman Robert Loomis with button found during search

The police were hard at work on the case. They established a joint special task force consisting of officers from the Elmira PD, state police, and Chemung County Sheriff’s Department. Together, the task force interviewed over 300 people across multiple states including some as far away as Arizona. Seven suspects agreed to submit to a lie detector test, but no one was ever charged. After six months, the task force was dissolved. After a year, the reward money fund was donated to the Arctic League in Mary’s honor.

Eight years later in October 1972, the Star-Gazette re-ran the details of the Simpson murder and offered $5,000 for information leading to an arrest. They created a special system for accepting anonymous tips that could still let people collect the reward. Over the next few months, tips flooded in. The Elmira Police Department briefly re-opened the case, but ultimately, nothing came of it. To this day, Mary Theresa Simpson’s murder remains unsolved. 


Star-Gazette's instructions on submitting tips to the secret witness program, 1972

By all accounts, Mary was a shy girl. Her family moved around a lot and she struggled to make friends. She was wary of strangers and once turned down a ride from an uncle because she didn’t know him well. No one except her killer knows how she ended up dead on Combs Hill. Maybe the renewed interest in her case will lead to justice, or at least answers. We can only hope.