Monday, September 18, 2023

Introducing EmpireADC

 By Rachel Dworkin


We recently joined EmpireADC, or the Empire Archival Discovery Cooperative. EmpireADC is run by the New York State Library Network, which provides technical services to libraries and archives across the state. In the early 2000s, NYSLN surveyed archivists from across New York (me included) and found that what we all really wanted was a site that could bring together finding aids from New York’s vast and varied archival, historical, and special collections to make them more discoverable by researchers. After years of planning and coding, EmpireADC was created to be that site! It currently hosts finding aids from over 75 institutions, large and small, and it’s growing all the time. 


The platform is pretty neat. It is searchable by keyword, subject, or surname. Researchers can narrow their results by institution, or they can see what’s available on a topic across the entire state. For example, if I were researching the history of the NAACP in New York State, I would see that not only does the Chemung County Historical Society have the records of the Elmira-Corning Branch, the State University of New York at Albany has the records of the Albany and Schenectady branches, and Syracuse University has the records of the Syracuse branch. Being on EmpireADC will hopefully help people who’ve never even heard of our institution before become aware of all we have to offer. 

 EmpireADC offers a lot of benefits to a small repository like us. For a one-time fee of $50, we get a place to share our finding aids that we don’t have to maintain. We also get skilled tech support for assistance with uploading and maintaining the finding aids. And that’s on top of the free advertising we get just from being on the site!

In the month-and-a-half we’ve been members, I have uploaded at least one finding aid a day. A finding aid is an index for an archival collection which provides additional context about the creator(s) of the collection and the circumstances under which the collection was created, as well as the collection’s size and organization. As of this past Friday, 46 finding aids are live. Only 265 to go! Unfortunately, there’s a bit of work to convert our old finding aids into the format required by EmpireADC. Still, by this time next year I hope to have all our old collections posted and get started sharing the finding aids for our newest acquisitions. If you like data entry, please consider volunteering to help with the process. Check out our current finding aids here:

Some of my favorite recently uploaded finding aids include the Ganung Real Estate Collection, the United Baptist Church Collection, and the Philip Burnham Research Papers.

 The Ganung Real Estate Collection contains photographs, listing details, and other documents associated with properties sold by the Ganung Realty Company from 1936-1960. It is a veritable gold mine for anyone searching the history of their home. (

The United Baptist Church Collection contains the combined records of the First Baptist Church and Southside Baptist Church of Elmira. This includes membership records dating back to the 1820s, making it a valuable resource for genealogists. (

The Philip Burnham Research Papers contain Mr. Burnham’s research notes and source material for his book So Far From Dixie about the Elmira Prison Camp. This is actually one of our newest collections. (

Monday, September 4, 2023

Fire Truck

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 1923, the clang of a brass bell and the wail of a hand-pumped siren alerted people that a fire truck was on the way. Our current exhibit, “It’s About Time: 100 years of Chemung County Historical Society” features a 1923 American LaFrance Brockway Torpedo Fire Truck which could have been seen on the streets in the early 20th century. After being beautifully restored, it was donated to the historical society in 2011. It has become a popular artifact. For this exhibit, the fire truck is displayed in the gallery against a large picture of East Water Street from the 1920s. You can almost imagine it racing through the city streets to the scene of a fire.

Back in the 19
th century, the city had speed restrictions. When responding to a fire, engines were limited to no more than 6 miles per hour in order to prevent accidents. The city also ordered fire companies not to compete with each other, which was harder to enforce.

Competition seems to have been part of firefighting culture. Fires were always a constant danger when many buildings were still being constructed out of wood. In the mid-19th century, a fire on Water Street burned down 18 wooden buildings. It destroyed property, homes, businesses and livelihoods. Another fire in 1866, called the Lake Street fire, burned most of the buildings between Water and Carroll Streets. The fire companies did their best to contain them.

During much of the 19th century, firefighting was the responsibility of individual volunteer fire companies. They sprang up all around the city and had spirited names like Ours 4, Neptune, Goodell, and Young American. Not far from today’s museum was the Red Rover fire company, situated just across the street..

It was prestigious to be appointed a firefighter and the volunteer work attracted young men looking for adventure. The men were also drawn to the pageantry, parades, social affairs, and dances associated with the culture of firefighting. When a fire broke out, companies competed to be first to respond.

In the spring of 1878, the city council voted to establish a professional fire department, calling it the Elmira Fire Department (EFD.) The various volunteer companies would not be recognized. Reluctantly, the volunteer fire companies participated in one final parade to celebrate their hard work before they handed over their engines, hoses, hooks, ladders and other equipment to city authorities. Some fire company members ended up taking jobs with EFD and were now paid $100 a year. The department’s new headquarters were located on Market Street in a brick building which no longer exists.

The American LaFrance Company, manufacturer of our Fire Truck on display, began in the mid-19th century. The young fire equipment company attracted local investors like Alexander Diven, his sons, Judge Brooks, Charles J. Langdon, John T. Rathbun, and Colonel William Falck who saw potential in the young company. American LaFrance soon became known as one of the largest manufacturers and suppliers of fire engines and apparatus in the country.

Apparently not just the country, but the world. Early American LaFrance fire trucks were built using chassis from the Brockway Truck Company, located in Cortland, New York. There’s a great story about a 1925 American LaFrance fire truck from Argentina. In 1960, Buenos Aires Fire Department volunteers decided it was time to trade in their fire truck and drove it from South America to North American ending up in New York City. The volunteer firefighters, who were a butcher, locksmith, building engineer, and chauffeur, didn’t realize that Cortland was still miles away. Volunteer fire companies along their way provided them with shelter, food, and gasoline. When the news got to the Brockway Truck Company, they drove down to the City and escorted the firefighters to Cortland before shipping them back to Argentina along with a new fire truck.

Headline, The Morning Call, May 15, 1960

This year CCHS installed exhibits on fire fighters in four of the local public schools. Along with borrowed items (not in use) kindly lent to us by the Elmira Fire Department, these displays highlight some firefighting equipment and clothing.

Drop by to see our red shiny 1923 fire truck on display. You can hear its siren and bell by accessing a QR code in the exhibit and imagine yourself scurrying out of the way as it makes its way to a fire.

Other blogs on fire fighters include a profile of Elmira’s first Black Firefighter.

And a blog on the earlier bucket brigades.


Monday, August 21, 2023

A Woman in Uniform

 By Curator, Monica Groth 

During World War II, some 16 million Americans served in the military, over 350,000 of whom were women. Chemung County is home to a number of remarkable female veterans. An upcoming exhibit features the uniforms of 4 local women who served their country in different ways during WWII, the single deadliest conflict history had yet witnessed. 

U.S. Marine Capt. Marie Snow (1921-2016) was born on a farm in Norfolk, New York. She was living with her sister in Syracuse when the Women’s Reserve of the Marine Corps was established in 1942. The Women’s Reserve placed women in stateside positions within the Marine Corps, freeing men for combat duty. When Marie’s brother-in-law, a veteran of WWI, teased her that she couldn’t make it as a Marine, she enlisted to prove him wrong. 

U.S. Marine Capt. Marie Snow, c. 1945

In 1943, Marie reported for boot camp at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. She then studied accounting, or store-keeping, at Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, Georgia and was promoted to sergeant. 

Marie, known to her friends as “Sergeant Snowy,” was posted to California, where she helped organize supplies and wages for troops shipping off to the Pacific Theatre until the end of the war. She also occasionally appeared as an extra in Hollywood morale films. 

Marie met her first husband Marine Sergeant Raymond Doyle on the train home, when she sought his protection from a drunken airman giving her trouble. Marie attended Syracuse University on the GI Bill before moving with Raymond to Elmira in 1948, where she lived until her death. 


Army Nurse 1st Lt. Clara Peckham (1917-1996) grew up on Laurel Street in Elmira. She graduated from the Arnot-Ogden Hospital School of Nursing in 1938 and worked at the Veterans Facilities at Bath and Batavia. 

Determined to serve when war broke out, she concealed a heart murmur when enlisting. As the story goes, Clara would shift her position when the stethoscope neared her heart, attempting to disguise its irregular rhythm. It worked and in 1943, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force, leaving that summer for training at Mitchel Field in Long Island. When Clara later fainted from over-taxing her heart during her time in Long Island, the doctor who had examined her when she enlisted reportedly asked, “who let you in?” To which she replied, “you did!”

1st Lt. Clara Peckham, c . 1944
Image courtesy of the Star Gazette 

By December of that year, Clara had been assigned to active duty abroad providing medical care to wounded soldiers and civilians. As of February 1944, Clara was one of 19 Elmira nurses serving overseas. She worked in the contagious diseases unit at Kuakini Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. Following training which included learning how to shoot a carbine and swim with her boots and helmet on, she was sent to a field hospital near Okinawa, Japan. She served in Japan until the war ended and was discharged in November of 1945. After returning home, Clara worked as a nurse at Arnot-Ogden Medical Center, St. Joseph’s Hospital, and the Chemung County Nursing Facility, retiring in 1982.


Army Cpt. Rita Eisenberg was born in Binghamton, where she taught high school history classes before deciding to make history herself. As a first-generation American in a family with no sons, Rita believed it was her duty to join the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1942. A year later, the WAAC was made an official part of the US Army and became known as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). 

Rita was assigned to the Air Force. Following training at Officer Candidate School at Fort Des Moines, she worked suppling the WAC base in Orlando, FL. After further schooling at Fort Leavenworth, she prepared to go overseas as a member of the general staff. However, a friend feared for her safety and used his influence as an army chaplain to have her orders rescinded. Rita was extremely angry about this. She served in Orlando until the war ended and recalls traveling to the Pentagon to finalize supply reports for her area’s bases. 

Following the war, she settled in Elmira, where she and her husband Jess Shapiro were in business on Water Street.

Rita Eisenberg Shapiro at 90, 2006
Image courtesy of the Star Gazette


Jennie Reid (1919-2006) grew up on Elmira’s Eastside. During WWII, she took her civil service exam so she could work at City Hall, where she got a job operating the elevator. Jennie also joined the Women’s Ambulance Defense Corps (WADC).

The Elmira chapter of the WADC was organized in January of 1942, when 300 women assembled at the Elmira College gymnasium. Women of every race and ethnicity, excluding Japanese, were accepted. 

Jennie Reid, c. 1943

The WADC served many roles in civilian defense and preparedness. They trained in first aid; conducted air-raid and blackout drills; and practiced blackout driving and field maneuvers. Members also studied rifle and pistol use and radio communication. The WADC operated canteens for service men at the Erie and DL&W Railroad stations in Elmira.

Jennie was a member of the AME Zion Church, the Eastern Star, Neighborhood House, and the NAACP. 

Numerous women in the county also served in other areas of civil defense, working as air raid wardens or volunteers. Women helped the war effort on the homefront by selling war bonds, planting victory gardens, and organizing scrap metal drives. Many also worked in factories making war critical technologies, and took on jobs previously held by men then serving overseas.

Stop by and take a closer look at these women's uniforms to appreciate the many ways that women assisted their country during WWII.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Elmira Rolling Mills

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

There’s something neat about shows like How It’s Made. If you, like me, have never worked in manufacturing, industrial processes can feel like something of a mystery. Over the years, Elmirans have made everything from aluminum cans to woolen cloth. From 1861 to 1883, the Elmira Rolling Mill Co. made iron.

The Elmira Rolling Mill Co. was founded in 1860. On May 16, 1861, the plant, located on Hatch Street between East 5th and East Washington Streets, began operation. The original structure was 180’ by 80’ and had five furnaces and three steam engines. The plant grew substantially during the 1860s with the addition of two new buildings. By 1865, the mill consisted of three buildings housing the original rolling mill, plus two pudding mills, and a merchant bar mill. The equipment included 24 furnaces, 8 steam engines, 5 trains of rolls, two roll lathes, and one Burden squeezer. The company was using all this equipment to manufacture 22,000 tons of iron each year.

Here’s how it all worked.

Step 1 – Arrival of Raw Materials

In order to make their iron, the Elmira Rolling Mills needed massive amounts of raw iron and coal. These materials arrived at the plant on canal boats and on the dedicated rail spurs which ran to the factory. 

Canal boats unloading in front of Elmira Rolling Mills, ca. 1870

 Step 2 – Heating the Materials

The raw iron needed to be heated in order to burn off any impurities and to make it malleable. It was usually heated to somewhere above 462 degrees Fahrenheit. This is iron’s recrystallization temperature, or the point at which the iron’s previous crystalline structure is broken down and reformed anew but not yet melted.

At the Elmira Rolling Mills, this was done in coal-fired pudding furnaces. Pudding is the process of converting raw iron into usable wrought iron by heating it in a special furnace where the metal and the fuel were not in direct contact. The process was first developed in England in the 1780s. I have no idea why it’s called pudding. Heated iron can absorb chemical impurities given off by the burning fuel. Coal, for example, gives off sulfur which can make the metal brittle. By using a pudding mill, the Elmira Rolling Mills could heat their iron using coal without having to worry about introducing sulfur to their iron.

Diagram of a pudding furnace

 Step 3 – Squeezing

Once the iron was removed from the pudding furnace, it needed to be forced into a useable shape. Traditionally, this was done by teams of strong men with big hammers. In 1840, Henry Burden of Troy, New York, invented his rotary concentric squeezer which performed the same task with a lot less time and effort. The Elmira Rolling Mills had a Burden squeezer they used to force their heated iron into shape.

Step 4 – Rolling

Rolling is a metalworking process where heated metal stock is forced through one or more pairs of rollers to reduce thickness or give it a more uniform shape. A series of multiple rollers is known as a train. The first roll produces a plate of metal. A slitting, latte, or bar roller is used to slice the metal up into bars of various widths, shapes, and thicknesses. 

 The Elmira Rolling Mills had five trains of rolls which could produce square bars, round bars, oval bars, half-round bars, and half-oval bars in various thicknesses.  The company used coal-fired steam engines to power their rollers. 

Step 5 – Sale

Initially, the Elmira Rolling Mill’s main clients were railroads for whom they made rails. In 1863, the company added a merchant bar mill so they could offer iron bars in more shapes and sizes to a wide variety of clients.


At its peak, the Elmira Rolling Mills employed around 400 people and was one of the city’s largest employers. By the 1880s, the railroad industry had switched to using steel for their rails. The company was not equipped for steel manufacturing and found it could not keep up with the manufacturing centers of Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. In 1883, the workers went on strike for higher wages. In response, the company permanently shut their doors. Although iron is no longer made in Elmira, the process used at the Elmira Rolling Mills is largely still used today, abet with different power sources.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Paved Streets

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Street grader in Chemung County

Driving during the summer can often be frustrating. Sometimes it feels like every road you come across is in the process of being built, or badly needs to be repaired. To add to the frustration, drivers navigating construction zones, summer weather, and road conditions often have a short supply of patience. It’s as if the smell of asphalt goes along with hot air and hot tempers.

In its purest form, asphalt is the hardened form of petroleum. Currently, the United States leads in petroleum production, and it was in our region that one of the world's first petroleum deposits, located in what is now western Pennsylvania, was used by the Seneca. As far back as the 15th century, the indigenous group was known to use the sticky substance for healing lotions and in ceremonial fires.

Road construction in Chemung County
Using asphalt for paving road surfaces starts to show up in the late 19th century. At first, Elmira’s busier streets were covered with either vitrified (a heating process to harden) bricks over sand or Medina stone, a material discovered during construction of the Erie Canal. For a while, these surfaces stood up to ever increasing traffic. But when the area’s population passed 30,000 people, it became clear that the city’s roads needed more attention. Local officials turned to newer technologies.

Engineers had been using petroleum in liquid form as a road cover for gravel-covered streets. They found it helpful in keeping the road surface intact and reducing the dust kicked up by traffic. Then Edward Joseph de Smedt, a Belgian immigrant, chemist, and professor at Columbia University, came up with another idea for using petroleum. Using the material in hardened form, he developed what he called asphalt concrete.

De Smedt’s process mixed crude petroleum with construction materials, like sand and gravel, then dried the mixture into sheets that were laid down on a gravel road. The sheets were applied in layers, with each layer compacted to create a flexible and stronger surface. Through trial and error, de Smedt was convinced that the new layered pavement was successful. In July 1870, the first asphalt road was paved in Newark, NJ. Much to the chagrin of another man, de Smedt went on to be called the inventor of asphalt paving.

General Averell
That other man was General William W. Averell from Bath, NY. During his Civil War service, Averell had come across naturally dried petroleum or asphalt in the Carolinas. Seeing its potential, he formed the Grahamite Asphalt Pavement Company, and set himself up as its president. In 1870, while observing de Smedt’s approach, Averell saw problems. He went on to experiment on his own and in 1878, Averell filed a patent, “Improvement in Asphaltic Pavement” staking his claim to fame.

Amzi Barber: The King of Asphalt
Other investors and entrepreneurs swarmed to get in on the new financial opportunities. An American businessman, Amzi L. Barber, decided the best way to make money in the asphalt business was to control the source of petroleum. He set about buying mineral rights. Barber, later known as the Asphalt King, already held financial interests in real estate and the Locomobile Company of America, one of the first American automobile manufacturers. Barber believed that both of these benefited from having paved streets. Barber bought some of de Smedt’s patents and went into business with his brother-in-law, Buffalo industrialist John J. Albright, establishing the Barber Asphalt Company.

Barber Asphalt was competitive and bid for work all around the country. In 1895, Elmira leaders decided to pave the first roads in asphalt and awarded the contract to Barber over a local firm, Costello & Neagle. West Church Street, west of Main was paved that summer. The Barber Asphalt Company beat Costello & Neagle at least one more time in 1897, underbidding them by only .01 cent per square yard.

By the turn of the century, the Barber Asphalt Company had laid more than 12 million square yards of asphalt pavement in 70 American cities to the amount of $35 million, well over a billion dollars today. Most of Barber’s business ventures seem to have been successful, but they were not without controversy. Numerous reports of international bribes, faulty patent use, and coercion led to lawsuits against the company, including one filed by General Averell, who challenged Barber’s use of patents. Averell won and was awarded nearly $400,000, about $11 million in today’s money. Despite this vindication, Averell was never able to change the narrative of who invented pavement.

Star-Gazette March 6, 1896

Another unsuccessful Barber venture was his attempt to establish The Asphalt Trust by consolidating companies and creating a monopoly. It was ultimately denied by the federal courts and the trust collapsed. Even so, Barber’s wealth seemed to endure. When he died in 1909 of pneumonia at the age of 66, he left his second wife, Julie Louise Langdon, first cousin to Olivia Langdon of Elmira, and five children an inheritance said to be worth millions. However in the spring of 1913, the New York Times reported that six years before he died, he had sold off many of his interests to his brother-in-law for a guaranteed annual income of $12,000.

Today the majority of American roads are paved with asphalt. It continues to be one of the least costly methods to use even though it means that summer also seems like road repair season. 

Monday, July 10, 2023

Behind the Scenes

 By Monica Groth, Curator


This year, the Chemung County Historical Society celebrates its 100th anniversary. To kick off our commemorative year, we’ve opened the exhibit It’s About Time: Celebrating 100 Years of the Chemung County Historical Society.

This exhibit is truly special – it gives you, the viewer, a behind the scenes look into the sort of work the Historical Society does. What is it we’re up to all day? What’s the point of having us around? It also features some great objects, specifically a 1923 American LaFrance Brockway Torpedo Fire Engine, and photos and documents discovered in our institutional archives and displayed for the first time.

The gallery being prepared for installation

The exhibit endeavors to answer questions people might have about the purpose of a historical society:

How do we add new items to the collection?

·        Well, donated items are assigned special numbers, known as accession numbers, when they are accepted into our collection. In the exhibit, you can see examples of how we write that number on different materials – fabric, paper, earrings made of human hair…

How do we take care of the collection?

·        Keeping stuff in good shape for over a hundred years is no mean feat. In this section of the exhibit, we’ll explain how materials break down as they age. Temperature and humidity must be kept in check in all storage areas and galleries to prevent chemical reactions or mold growth from occurring. Check out the equipment we use to monitor the climate in our collections. Look through a microscope at an example of mold that can damage historic items. Check out the magnified verdigris forming on a 150-year-old mechanical pencil, and watch as light causes a modern newspaper to fade over time.

This case highlights how different materials, including wood, metal, glass, and cotton age.

A magnified view of the common mold of the genus Aspergillus seen through a microscope lens. Molds can cause great damage to museum collections if relative humidity (average moisture in the air) is not kept between 30-55%

How do we design exhibits?

·        It’s been a unique experience for me, the curator, to install an exhibit about exhibits. Exhibitions are planned months in advance and require the help of many collaborators. There are always engineering projects that I encounter when installing an exhibition. For example, the image below showcases a stained-glass window lit from behind by an array of lights constructed specifically for this display (many thanks to volunteer Kevin Wechtaluk for assisting me with its creation)!

These three objects simplify the exhibit process from research to completion

How do we recover from disaster?

·        Following the flood of 1972, nearly 60% of the Society’s library was damaged (or outright lost). Volunteers painstakingly worked to rescue items, freezing a lot of archival documents to slow their deterioration. Many items in our collection still bear signs of flood damage. Interestingly, a lot of our donation records were destroyed in the flood. When going through the institutional archives in researching this exhibit, we found far fewer records before that fateful year. On display, you can check out a severely waterlogged and muddy visitor register kept at the Museum (then located at 304 Williams St.) at the time of the flood.

 How do we help researchers?

·        As a society, we want to make our county’s history accessible to anyone interested in learning about it. Our Booth Library, named for our founder Arthur Booth (whose 1928 wool suit is also on display in the gallery), is open to researchers interested in looking through the maps, letters, books, and documents which comprise an archive of over 100,000 items.

Archivist Rachel Dworkin by the Library's shelf of Elmira City Directories

 How do we teach local history?

·        Since the society opened its first public museum in 1954, students have been welcomed into the Museum. Many county residents will recall their elementary school trips inside our doors to this day. Be sure to see our Educator Susan Zehnder’s June 12th blog featuring our most recent visitors. Beyond school programs, we’ve hosted excursions to historic sites around the country (including up the Mississippi River), created escape rooms, and organized antique shows. Of course, our ever-popular GhostWalk remains a favorite October event. This year, we’ve invited you all to our Birthday Party on August 26, 2023!

 How else do we share stories?

·        How do we reach out to people who can’t visit the Museum? Well…this blog is one example of our growing reach! Since our first Journal was published in 1955, we’ve created a lot of literature from which people can learn. The internet allows us to reach a worldwide audience today and we hope you continue to keep up with us here on our blog and across our social medias!

 Whose history do we tell?

·        As a society which preserves our county’s history, it’s important to ensure we are including the stories of all. For example, our Black Oral History Project highlights black voices in Chemung County, our new gallery guide pamphlet series leads visitors through the museum by focusing on different perspectives, and our Heritage Exhibit Series focuses on the history of a different immigrant community every 6 months.


We also include Native American perspectives; this pair of beaded moccasins on display was made by the Seneca

Friday, June 23, 2023

Elmira’s Gay Bars

 By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


Since the 1600s, there have been bars and clubs catering to LGBTQ clientele in most major European cities. Today, such establishments are generally known as gay bars, even though they cater to more than just gay men.  In the United States, there are a number of bars all claiming to be the first gay bar, most of which date back to Prohibition and the 1920s or 30s. They are predominantly located in major East and West Coast cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Elmira’s first known gay bar was Mary’s Grill at 112 Lake Street. It was owned by Mrs. Marion Stumpf and opened on November 2, 1967. The bar didn’t exclusively cater to the LGBTQ community, but it was welcoming of them. I recently interviewed two gay gentlemen who specifically mentioned Mary’s as their entry into the gay bar scene. Mary’s Grill remained in operation until around 1980.

Star-Gazette, September 29, 1972


The David, owned by John “Jack” Westervelt from 1972 to 1998, catered exclusively to the gay community. It was first located at 203 1/2 Railroad Avenue before moving down the street to 511-513 Railroad Avenue in 1975. Westervelt himself was gay and wanted to create a space where people could come and be themselves. One of the former patrons recalled it as a fun place to meet other members of the LGBTQ community. In addition to offering drinks and some food, The David hosted drag shows by the Legendary Children, a local troupe of drag performers.  The bar closed in 1998 when Westervelt retired.

Historically, gay bars across the nation were heavily involved in the gay rights movement. When the gay rights movement began in the late 1960s, homosexual acts were criminalized in every state except Illinois. Gay bars were frequently raided by police. In fact, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, is the event which inspired the Gay Pride movement. Gay bars became a place, not just to drink and meet people, but to organize and resist. As the AIDS epidemic worsened in the 1980s and ‘90s, many bars became involved in fundraising and safe-sex education.

I haven’t been able to uncover any information about the extent to which The David or its clientele were involved in the gay rights movement. Bar owner John Westervelt was himself part of the movement. During the 1970s, he participated in a series of panel discussions about homosexuality and the gay rights movement at Elmira College.

In 1999, Steven West and Barry Johnson opened a new gay bar, Angles at 511-513 Railroad Avenue. It billed itself as an “alternative dance club” welcome to all and regularly hosted events like trivia and karaoke. It was huge in the drag scene, regularly hosting shows as well as the annual Mr. & Miss Southern Tier contests. It closed in 2008.

Angles bar, exterior, courtesy Star-Gazette

Angles bar, interior, courtesy Star-Gazette


Elmira’s last gay bar was Club Chill, owned by Clinton “Billy” Lewis from 2004 until his death in 2011. The club offered dancing, drinks, and regular drag shows. It took over the Mr. and Miss Southern Tier drag contest after Angles closed.  Club Chill management was invested AIDS relief, hosting charity benefits for the Chemung County AIDS Task Force. The club regularly participated in local Pride events as well.

Star-Gazette, September 24, 2004

 LGBTQ history is seriously under-documented. Everything in this article is based on a pair of oral history interviews and what I could glean from the newspapers. If you have stories you would like to tell about any of the above-mentioned bars or have images or artifacts associated with the local gay community, I would love to hear from you. You can reach me via e-mail at or phone at (607) 734-4167 ex 207. I look forward to hearing from you.