Monday, August 27, 2012

Alsace S. Blandford: Painter by Trade and for Art

By Erin Doane, Curator 

I had never heard of local Elmira folk artist Alsace S. Blandford until recently which is not surprising.  The ex-slave painted during most of his life but few of his works seem to have survived.  The museum has three paintings donated by his son in 1966.  Our own archives only has a slim folder of information about him.  The few sources available provided just a tiny glimpse into his long life.

Alsace S. Blandford was born a slave on March 17, 1858 in Maryland.  He and his family lived on a plantation of 1,000 acres with more than 120 slaves in Prince George County, Maryland which was just 12 miles from Washington D.C.  When the Civil War broke out, Alsace’s father, Thomas Blandford, learned that they could become freedmen if they escaped Maryland.  This information set a plan in motion.  Thomas was the foreman at the plantation and was responsible for driving produce to Washington for sale.  He created a false bottom on the produce wagon under which he hid his wife and six children.  Alsace was just three years old at time.  Thomas placed a full load of potatoes in the wagon and left the plantation as he always did.  Since he was a common sight on the route Thomas was never challenged.  This time instead of going to market he took his family to freedom.

The story of the potato wagon is common among the few sources I found but after that some accounts differ.  A 1938 newspaper article reports that the family stayed in Washington until 1867 when they moved to Sherwood, NY and then to Poplar Ridge, NY a year later.  Alsace is said to have remembered the family’s former master coming to visit them in Washington after the war.  He asked Thomas to come back to work for him and offered the family 100 acres of land.  Thomas declined the offer.  Another source states that Thomas drove the wagon to the Northern part of Maryland where they made contact with some Quakers who were members of the Underground Railroad.  The family was passed from one station to another to Philadelphia before finally ending up at last in Poplar Ridge, NY.

It is known for certain that Alsace Blandford, himself, came to Elmira in 1879 at the age of 22.  He married an Elmiran named Helen Abigail Condol and they had six children together.  He made his living as a house painter and paperhanger even though he was told when he started that no one would hire an African American for such work.  He continued to support himself with that trade well into his 80s.  His real love, though, was painting landscapes and rural scenes.  He had always enjoyed painting pictures from an early age and his works show great skill even though he was never formally trained as an artist.  The walls of his home on Madison Avenue in Elmira were said to have been covered in oil paintings, pastel drawing and watercolors that he had created.  Alsace died on April 13, 1948 at the age of 91.

Monday, August 20, 2012

One Story, Many Voices: The Battle of Newtown

By Kerry Lippincott, Education Coordinator

Good, bad or ugly, it’s my responsibility to tell the stories of Chemung County.  It’s not just about telling a story, but as much as possible presenting a full and complete story.  In many cases this means having multiple voices tell a single story.  Take for example the Battle of Newtown.

At the beginning of the American Revolution, the Iroquois were split in their loyalties.   As the war progressed with attacks on their villages by the Continental Army and the persuasion of British loyalists, most Iroquois nations sided with the British.   In 1778 British and loyalists troops with their Iroquois allies attacked frontier settlements in Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania and Cherry Valley, New York.  When settlers demanded protection, General George Washington formulated a plan to break the British and Iroquois alliance in New York State.  The plan called for the immediate destruction of Iroquois villages which would cut of supply lines to the British Army and their Iroquois allies.    Once cut off from their resources the aim was to push the Iroquois back to British-held Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario in hopes that they would become a burden to the British army thus ending the alliance. 

General John Sullivan was chosen to lead the campaign through northern Pennsylvania and New York.  Joined by General James Clinton, the campaign included over 4,000 Continental soldiers.  Starting from Tioga, (present day Athens) Pennsylvania in August 1779, Sullivan and his men moved toward New York seizing what food they could use from Iroquois villages and destroying the rest.  For the Iroquois and British the arrival of Sullivan was not a surprise.  In fact, they expected there would be retaliation for attacks in the Wyoming Valley and Cherry Valley.  However, they did not expect the magnitude of Sullivan’s army (over 4,000 Continental soldiers compared to their 600).  To divert the campaign, small parties periodically attacked the Continental soldiers with little or any success.  The British and Iroquois then chose a site near the Iroquois village of Newtown to ambush Sullivan’s men as it was right on the trail the Continental soldiers were using.  On August 29, 1779 the Battle of Newtown occurred and the Continental soldiers forced the British and Iroquois to retreat.  Ensuring that the British and Iroquois would not return to the area, Sullivan ordered his soldiers to destroy Iroquois villages and crops.  

Two days after the battle Sullivan and his men continued their march north to Geneseo and came back through the area in September. The Battle of Newtown was the only significant engagement with the British and Iroquois during the campaign, which became known as the Sullivan-Clinton Campaign.

When the peace treaty between England and the United States was signed in 1783, the British ceded Iroquois lands (including portions of New York State) to the United States.  Believing that they were an independent nation the Iroquois were shocked to see their own land being given away.    The parcels of land in New York were given to Continental soldiers which opened up the Southern Tier to white settlement.

Though the British, American and Iroquois viewpoints of the battle and its aftermath are all extremely different they are still part of the Battle of Newtown’s story.  This weekend you can experience these stories at the Revolutionary War Event at the Newtown Battlefield State Park.  The event is sponsored by the Chemung Valley Living History Center and for more information visit

Monday, August 13, 2012

Chemung County Melting Pot: Asian Edition

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

According to the 2010 census, approximately 1.3% of Chemung County residents are of Asian descent.  While the majority of that population came here after 1943, there were a handful of Chinese immigrants living in the county as early as 1900.

The earliest Chinese immigrants to the United States came in the 1820s as part of the Trans-Pacific trade.  By the mid-1840s, there were several hundred Chinese living in the United States, mostly on the West Coast.  With the discovery of gold in California in 1849, that number jumped into the hundreds of thousands as immigrants came to seek their fortune.  Most of these immigrants were young men from Guangdong province, aka Canton, on China’s southeast coast.  Once in the United States, many of them worked in California’s mining camps or fisheries, labored on the transcontinental railroad or provided cheap labor on southern plantations.

In 1868, Congress ratified the Burlingame Treaty with China which, while granting China favored trade status and encouraging immigration, also denied Chinese immigrants the chance to become naturalized citizens.   A series of laws including the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely restricted Chinese immigrantion to the United States.  These laws made it harder for unmarried women and laborers to enter the country.  Over time, more and more restrictive laws were passed until 1924 when all Chinese immigrants were excluded from the United States.  It wasn’t until the Magnuson Act of 1943 that Chinese nationals in the United States were granted the right to become naturalized citizens and immigration was allowed once again, abet at only 105 a year.  In 1965 the quota was dropped with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act allowing Chinese immigration to begin in earnest.

Most of the pre-1943 Chinese immigrants who settled in Chemung County were not laborers, but businessmen.  The first I've been able to find was a Mr. Yee Lee of 325 Carroll Street who appeared in the 1884 city directory as the owner of Elmira’s first Chinese laundry.  In 1885, he was joined by Gee Lee of 221 West Water Street.  By 1901 there were five laundries owned and operated by Chinese immigrants.  There continued to be Chinese laundries in Elmira well into the 1930s.    

Interestingly enough, I would never have even known about any of this if it wasn’t for the photograph above.  The photograph is part of our unidentified cabinet card collection and was taken by the Chemung County photographer Charles Tomlinson sometime between 1874 and 1891.  I stumbled across it while scanning images for an upcoming exhibit.  While I still don’t know who the man is, I now know a lot more about how an Asian man might have ended up in Elmira in the late-1800s. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Working Vacation: Mark Twain's Summers at Quarry Farm

By Kerry Lippincott, Education Coordinator

I wish you were here, to spend the summer with us. 
We are perched on a hill-top that overlooks a little world - 
of green valleys, shining rivers, sumptuous forests and billowy 
uplands veiled in the haze of distance. We have no neighbors. 
It is the quietest of all quiet places, and we are hermits that eschew 
caves and live in the sun. Doctor, if you'd only come!
Mark Twain to Dr. John Brown, June, 22, 1876

Purchased as the Langdon summer home, Susan and Theodore Crane inherited Quarry Farm in 1870.  The couple expanded the property from seven acres to 250 and converted the cottage into their year around home.  For nearly twenty years summers meant Quarry Farm for Susan’s younger sister Livy, her three daughters (Susy, Clara and Jean) and her husband Mark Twain.

While at Quarry Farm, Livy conducted lessons with her daughters, rested, read, and visited with family and friends.  The girls spent their days exploring the farm, going on picnics, reading, visiting with their Langdon cousins, and playing in their playhouse “Ellerslie.”   Twain described a typical day at Quarry Farm to his sister-in-law Mollie - The Cranes are reading and loafing in the canvas-curtained summer-house 50 yards away on a higher (the highest) point; the cats are loafing over at "Ellerslie" which is the children's estate and dwelling house in their own private grounds (by deed from Susie Crane) a hundred yards from the study, amongst the clover and young oaks and willows. Livy is down at the house, but I shall now go and bring her up to the Cranes to help us occupy the lounges and hammocks--whence a great panorama of distant hill and valley and city is seeable. The children have gone on a lark through the neighboring hills and woods. It is a perfect day indeed.

Free from interruptions and the demanding social life of Hartford, Twain spent his days writing.  Twain would write - I can write ten chapters in Elmira where I can write one here [Hartford]... I work at work here but I don't accomplish anything worth speaking of... I can't succeed except by getting clean out of the world on top of the mountain in Elmira.

During the summer of 1874, Susan presented Twain with a study in the shape of a steam boat pilot’s house.  Twain wrote about the study to his friends Joe and Harmony Twitchell - Susie Crane has built the loveliest study for me you ever saw.  It is octagonal, with a peaked roof, each octagon filled with a spacious window, and it sits perched in complete isolation on top of an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant hills. It is cozy nest, with just room in it  for a sofa and a table and three or four chairs and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the lightening flashes above the hills beyond, and the rain beats on the roof over my head, imagine the luxury of it!  It stands 500 feet above the valley and 2 ½ miles from it. Having this place to work provided Twain some privacy and quiet while it provided the rest of the Clemens and Crane families relief from his ever-present cigar smoke.
His summers at Quarry Farm were very productive for Twain.  He wrote to William Dean Howell - I haven't piled up MS so in years as I have done since we came here to the farm three weeks and a half ago. Why, it's like old times, to step right into the study, damp from the breakfast table, and sail right in and sail right on, the whole day long, without thought of running short of stuff or words.

 I wrote 4000 words to-day and I touch 3000 and upwards pretty often, 
and don't fall below 1600 any working day. And when I get fagged out, 
I lay abed a couple of days and read and smoke, and then go it again for 
6 or 7 days. I have finished one small book, and am away along in a big
433 one that I half-finished two or three years ago. I expect to complete it 
in a month or six weeks or two months more. And I shall like it, whether 
anybody else does or not.  It's a kind of companion to Tom Sawyer. 
There's a raft episode from it in second or third chapter of life on the 

While at Quarry Farm Twain would write Roughing It, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, A Tramp Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, A Connecticut Yankee at Kings Arthur’s Court and several short stories.

No matter what Twain was working on days at Quarry Farm ended the same.  After dinner everyone gathered on the porch to hear what he had written that day.