Monday, October 30, 2017

Playing for the Company Team

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Lately a number of Silicon Valley tech companies have made a name for themselves offering gaming opportunities as one of the perks of working for them. When companies have to compete for talented labor, offering fun perks like gyms and athletic opportunities is a relatively cheap way to attract or keep employees. It’s certainly cheaper than better pay or health insurance. Google offers their employees swimming pools, volleyball courts, a gym, and fitness classes. Drobox has ping pong, DDR, and gaming tournaments. All of this may sound wonderfully innovative, but it’s really nothing new.

In the early twentieth century, there were dozens of local manufacturers competing for skilled laborers and machinists. As in modern day Silicon Valley, these local companies offered recreational facilities as a way of attracting and keeping workers. During the 1910s and 20s, the Willys-Morrow Company was Elmira’s largest employer with approximately 1,600 men when demand was low, and 2,500 when it was high.  Their 74-acre plant included a number of little perks like a cafeteria for employees, as well as recreation grounds located near the Miller Street entrance. Recreational facilities included a baseball diamond, basketball court, and bowling alley. All of this helped to make Willys-Morrow a relatively appealing employer.
Willys-Morrow bowling alley, ca. 1920

The company also helped to sponsor employee basketball and bowling teams in local tournaments. From the 1920s through the 1960s, Elmira was home to industrial leagues for baseball, softball, basketball, and bowling. Participating manufacturers including American Bridge Co., American Sales Book Co., Bendix-Eclipse, Hardinge Bros. Inc., Schweizer Aircraft Corp., and Remington Rand among others. Both Bendix and Hardinge also had intra-plant bowling leagues which pitted different divisions and shifts against each other.

Willys-Morrow champion ladies' basketball team, "Willys Knights," 1920
Company sports teams and intra-plant bowling leagues helped to build comradery among co-workers. They were especially important in larger factories where employees rarely had a chance to interact with people from outside their particular division. Locally, the Industrial League hit its peek sometime in the 1950s and slowly declined along with manufacturing. The Silicon Valley Sports League, on the other hand, is on the rise. 

Eclipse News, the Bendix-Eclipse newsletter, featuring articles about company sports teams, 1954

Monday, October 23, 2017

Just Passing Through: Eddie Bald in Elmira

by Erin Doane, Curator

Usually, we tell stories here of people who lived in the county or had some significant influence on the area. Every once in a while, however, we tell about those who just passed through here (for example: That Time Theodore Roosevelt was Assaulted in Elmira). Eddie Bald came to Elmira twice for very different reasons – to race a bicycle and to star in a play so bad that the author sued for injuries to her reputation. 
Eddie Bald was known as the “White Flyer” for his white cycling outfit.
Eddie “Cannon” Bald was born in Buffalo in 1874 and made a name for himself in the 1890s as a professional short distance bicycle racer. He rode and promoted Colombia Bicycles and was considered one of the great racers of the 1890s. He came to Elmira in June 1897 to compete in a State Circuit cycling meet sponsored by the Elmira Athletic Club. The Club hosted Bald and the other cyclists at the Pine Cliff Club in Bohemia on the Chemung River. At the meet, Bald set a new track record for one mile in 2:16 3-5.

Elmira Star-Gazette, June 16, 1897
Eddie Bald returned to Elmira a year and a half later in a completely different capacity as the star of the play A Twig of Laurel. In June 1898, Bald announced that he would be leaving the cycling tour circuit in October of that year to try his hand at acting for the first time. His announcement was printed in newspapers all over the country from the Washington Times and the Pittsburg Press to the Racine Journal-Times in Racine, Wisconsin and the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. Editors joked that there was much debate about whether to run the story in the sports or arts section of the papers. Most lauded his change of vocation and were interested in seeing “the Adonis of the wheel” take to the stage.

Headline from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 4, 1898
Bald was not at all modest about his prospects for the play and his role in it. In an interview in the Buffalo Enquirer on July 11, 1898, he is quoted as saying: “Everybody is talking about the play and it’s going to be the greatest card in a long time. The title, ‘A Twig of Laurel,’ is a good one. Of course, I will be the drawing card. My name is expected to properly head the list, though there will be better actors, at least at the start. But I have no fear for the finish.”

The play itself was described as a four act “pastoral cycle drama” with a plot that was said to be “pretty, romantic and pleasing.” The third act featured a bicycle race scene in which Bald and other riders would actually race bicycles with the help of patented machinery and a panorama. The play was reportedly written specially for Bald in order to display his dramatic ability but I’m not entirely sure of that. The lawsuit that I mentioned was brought by Mrs. Genevieve Haynes as the author of the play but in the early press it was reported that Rochester newspaperman Warren Forbes wrote the play for Bald. According to Bald himself, the story was heavily re-written upon his request so perhaps the original was by Haynes and the rewrite was done by Forbes.

Buffalo Enquirer, July 11, 1898
A Twig of Laurel premiered in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on October 31, 1898. It played in Canandaigua November 3, Binghamton November 5, Scranton November 8, Elmira November 10, and Syracuse November 11. After that it continued on to Albany and Troy before ending up in Boston on November 28 for a week-long run. The intent was to keep touring until the end of the theatrical season on May 1, 1899 but it didn’t make it past Boston. Poor reviews and low ticket sales forced the production to shut down.

Advertisement for A Twig of Laurel in the Scranton Tribune, November 8, 1898
The Elmira Star-Gazette was fairly kind in its review of the play. It stated that while Bald was lacking in the skills of more experienced actors, his shortcomings could be overlooked because he was new to the stage. “He has had practically no schooling for the stage and is as diffident and shy as a school girl. This handicaps him in his performance,” the review read. “However he reads his lines with precision and made a better impression than might be expected of an actor athlete.” Other regional reviews were much harsher declaring that “in taking the stage [Bald] has placed himself in an embarrassing position to say the least” and predicting (correctly) that “his starring tour is liable to be very brief.”

In December of 1898, the play’s purported author, Genevieve Haynes, filed suit against theatrical managers Luescher & Hefferon, who produced the play. She claimed that her reputation as a playwright had been damaged because of the casting of inferior actors. I wish I knew how the lawsuit was resolved but I could not find anything about it beyond that first report. I do know that Haynes went on to write other plays including Hearts Aflame and Once Upon a Time. Bald had contributed significant amounts of his own funds to finance the production and lost money for his efforts. After his unsuccessful turn on the stage, he returned to bicycle racing and never tried acting again.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Woman Candidate: Chemung County’s First Female Politicians

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
The other day, our curator Erin Doane commented how she always liked the photograph below, which depicts the 1920-1921 Chemung County Board of Supervisors. 

We chatted about it, wondering who the lone woman in the group was. Since this photo was taken just a couple of years after women got the vote, we wondered if she might be the first elected woman in Chemung County politics. I took on the task of tracking her down and I learned that her name was Marie Carr Fraser. Carr Fraser’s own history is interesting and is outlined below, but she was actually just one of several local women who sought to exercise their new political rights by running for office. 

Minnie Clark was Chemung County’s pioneer female politician. In 1911, years before women won the vote in New York, Clark’s name was submitted on a certificate of nomination for the Socialist ticket for supervisor of Elmira’s tenth ward. The nomination proved a “puzzler” for the election commissioners, so they called in County Attorney Thurston. Thurston told Clark that she would not be able to serve even if she was elected. According to his interpretation of the law, “only an ‘elector’ can be elected to office, and the law says that an ‘elector’ must be a member of the male sex.” With this legal blow, Clark’s name was removed from the nomination.

Headline from Elmira Star-Gazette, 7/30/1918
That wasn’t Clark’s last attempt to get into politics. After the successful New York suffrage campaign, Clark was the first Chemung County woman to enroll in a political party. She registered as a Socialist. By mid-June 1918, there were 1,411 Elmira women registered to vote. She also was credited as the first woman to run for office in the county (this wasn’t taking into account her failed 1911 nomination). In 1918, she ran on the Socialist ticket for Chemung County Sheriff.  She never had any real shot at winning, but at least the process wasn’t a financial drain for her; she claimed she spent only $1 on her campaign.

Marie Carr Fraser was an 1895 graduate of Elmira College and was a well-known soprano and voice teacher who gave countless local performances. She was a widowed mother of a young daughter and was very active in the community.
Marie Carr Fraser
In July 1919, Democrats in Elmira’s seventh ward nominated Marie Carr Fraser as their candidate for the upcoming election to represent the ward on the Chemung County Board of Supervisors. Carr Fraser was a Prohibitionist, and her nomination was seen as a way to siphon voters who felt strongly about that issue. 

Carr Fraser ran against Republican Nelson Powell. Each candidate, regardless of party, sought the Prohibition ticket nomination, showing how significant the “dry” issue was in that election. In the September primaries, Carr Fraser won the Prohibition endorsement over Powell, despite the fact that historically, the city’s Prohibitionists had voted Republican.

Carr Fraser wasn’t the only woman in the supervisor race that year. Jane W. Gillett, on the Prohibitionist ticket, and Mary Painton, on the Democratic ticket, opposed incumbent Dana L. Smith in the ninth ward. When the election results were in, Carr Fraser won, earning the distinction of being the first woman ever elected as a member of the Chemung County Board of Supervisors. Gillett and Painton both lost their bids in the ninth ward. Carr Fraser took her seat on the Board and was soon named to the Committee for County Home Improvements. 

Coming off her two-year term as supervisor, Carr Fraser ran for Chemung County Clerk on the Democratic ticket. Her campaign ads, pictured below, highlighted her role as a mother.

She opposed Asaph B. Hall, the Republican candidate, and Robert Weaver, the Socialist candidate. Hall, a popular young World War I veteran, was a tough opponent (Hall also later served as the president of the Chemung County Historical Society). When the election was over, Carr Fraser lost to Hall. Hall secured 14, 177 votes to her 9,727. Weaver came in a distant third, with 304 votes.
This Asaph Hall campaign ad, 1923, provides some contrast to Carr Fraser's. His is focused far more on his accomplishments while hers are mostly about her role as a mother. This is particularly interesting since by this point, she had held elected office while he never had.
Clark and Carr Fraser weren’t the only early female candidates. Decades before, in 1892, Myra L. Daggett made “a lively canvas for office” for the school commissionership of school district No. 2. Mrs. George Pickering lost the election for that same post in 1920, in part due to rumors that she was a Socialist. She denied any affiliation with that party.  In 1919, May Stewart ran for Alderman in Elmira’s first ward, but lost to Fred West. Celia O. Hoke, won the most votes of any candidate in the 1925 primaries in her reelection campaign for the position of County Superintendent of the Poor. These women were just some of the pioneers who paved the way for more Chemung County women to seek elected office in the ensuing decades.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Just Phoning It In

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

“What hath God wrought” were the first words transmitted across American telegraph lines in 1844. Twenty-two years later, the first words clearly transmitted across American phone lines “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you,” were a little less impressive, but no less momentous. The telephone’s inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, gave his first public demonstration at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia a few months later in June 1876. Two years later, the first American public telephone exchange was set up in New Haven, Connecticut. 

Elmira’s first telephone exchange opened in 1880. Most of the 48 original subscribers were area business including six grocers, four railroads, and one newspaper. According to the first list of subscribers published by the Elmira Bell Telephone Exchange on February 1, 1880, they were installing so many new phones that they would have to publish an updated list with 20 additional subscribers on the 15th

List of original subscribers to the Elmira Bell Telephone Exchange, February 1, 1880

Like most early exchanges, subscribers relied on operators to manually connect them to the people they were calling. Callers would tell the operator who they were trying to reach, either by their exchange-assigned number or by name, and then the operator would literally connect them by plugging the caller’s line directly into the recipient’s on the switchboard. Switchboard operators were all women. In the early days, they received on-the-job training. In 1902, New York Telephone Company opened the first operators’ training school in New York City and later opened up regional schools in the 1920s. 

Lady operators at the Elmira Telephone Exchange, 1896

Rural telephone exchanges operated on a slightly different system. While the Elmira exchange provided power to city phones via a central battery, Southport Telephone Company subscribers had to hand crank their phone’s battery in order to reach the operator. Southport subscribers had what was called a party line which they shared with multiple customers. Callers were instructed to keep their calls to five minutes or less so as not to tie up the line. Because anyone on the party line could listen in, eaves dropping by nosy neighbors was a big problem. In some parts of the country, party lines persisted well into the 1990s.

Handcrank telephone, ca. 1900

On May 21, 1932, the Elmira exchange converted to dial service. Now callers could input the recipient’s number directly via a rotary dial phone rather than get an operator to connect them. In the run-up to the conversion, New York Telephone Company replaced each phone in the city and gave each subscriber a new number. But what if customers didn’t know the number of the person they were trying to reach? Well, that’s what phone books were for.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Murder at the Glen

by Erin Doane, Curator

Sometime ago, I came across a tale of murder told by Ausburn Towner in his history, Our County and Its People. While Towner was writing in the early 1890s, the story was from some 50 or 60 years earlier. The incident took place in a pretty glen that was later the site of the Rorick’s Glen amusement park from 1901 to 1918. In the 1830s and 1840s, people would go to the glen for picnics. Brewster Tuthill ran a big flat scow on the river bringing stone from a nearby quarry into the town. He would also transport parties of picnickers to the glen.

Towner tells the story of one of those parties. Rather than retelling it in my own less-lyrical way, I will share what he wrote:
A picnic there one summer day is indelibly impressed on the minds of more than one now elderly person in the city. Just as the scow was ready to start an Italian with his hand-organ and monkey hove in sight, and was instantly engaged to furnish the music for the occasion. Many of those, both young ladies and gentlemen, belonging to the best families in the village were among the picnickers, and everything was conducted in the most decorous manner, but in some way the monkey was shot dead. The exhibition of grief displayed by the Italian was something very pitiable. He moaned and wept, and embraced the dying dumb creature with a display of as much emotion as a mother would manifest over a wounded child. It ruined the picnic, cutting it short by many hours, and although a purse of nearly $50 was made up for the Italian it didn’t soothe nor console him in the least, and he quitted the party with the little dead body in his arms.

This story just brings up so many questions: What happened that someone felt the need to shoot the monkey? Why was a young gentleman, or lady, from one of the best families in the village carrying a gun at a picnic? Did the picnickers honestly think that $50 would take away the man’s grief after they had murdered his pet/business partner?

Stuffed monkey toy, early 20th century
I searched and searched for more information about the story but came up emptyhanded. I have no way of proving if Towner’s story is entirely true or if it is just one of those stories based on a real event that got change and exaggerated over time. I did, however, find some information from the 1890s that might help me try to answer some of the questions the story brought up.

Let’s start with why the man was still upset by the death of the monkey even after being given $50. Well, obviously, his pet had just been shot in front of him and died in his arms. I imagine that would be thoroughly upsetting to anyone and not easy to shrug off. On a more practical level, the monkey was likely not just an animal on a leash; it was his means of earning a living. The man would have spent countless hours training the monkey to dance and do tricks. An article that appeared in the August 27, 1898 Elmira Telegram describes how a fantastically-dressed monkey would dance to hand-organ music, turn summersaults, take coins and put them into its pocket, take off his hat and bow, and shake hands with people. The picnickers’ offer of $50 would have been the equivalent of about $1,400 today. A tame, perfectly docile monkey cost around $15 (or about $390 today) according to an 1890 ad in the Elmira Telegram. The cost of a new monkey (not wild but not trained) plus the time and effort that would go into training it may have been much greater than the money offered.

From the Elmira Telegram, September 28, 1890
Next, why would someone have brought a gun on the picnic? Now, this answer is pure speculation on my part. This story took place sometime in the 1830s or 1840s when Elmira was much smaller. The town’s population was between 3,000 and 5,000 in those years. The glen would have been out in the countryside, in the wilderness. It sort of makes sense that someone might choose to carry a gun in that case.

And finally the big question, why would someone shoot the monkey? Well, monkeys are wild animals. They obviously can be trained to wear cute little outfits and dance around but they have also been known to attack people. I found several newspaper reports of trained monkeys injuring people. On June 30, 1894, the Star-Gazette reported on Leland Smith, a ten-year-old boy whose hand was bitten by such a monkey.  On July 21, 1910, the newspaper reported that an organ grinder’s monkey, while in an ugly mood, leapt at the young daughter of Mrs. Miller of Corning and inflicted painful scratches. The musician and his monkey were ordered out of town. It is entirely possible that the monkey at the picnic in the glen fell into a bad mood and was thus shot. There is no way to know for sure without finding other reports of the incident, but it seems like a reasonable guess.

From the Elmira Star-Gazette, May 5, 1894