Thursday, June 28, 2018

George Cotton, Jr.: "The Dandy of Them All"

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

“The dandy of them all. Dude. Wears tight pants, and is a politician. Thinks of running for mayor. Is a ladies’ man and a great hand for society. Is keeping one eye on Albany. Good bank account. Got a good appetite, and likes pie. Never took a drink and don’t know the taste of tobacco. Flies never light on him even in the summer time.”- Elmira Telegram, January 1888

This text and the photograph above were my introduction to George H. Cotton, Jr. Needless, to say, I was intrigued. The evidence I had in hand presented a man brimming with personality. I had to know more. 

George Cotton, Jr. was born in Elmira on March 25, 1860. At age 12, he began working in a mill on Fifth Street. After a few years there, the young man found employment in the trucking industry. By 1884, Cotton’s younger brother Samuel joined in on a trucking partnership, G.H. Cotton, Jr., and Brother.

Cotton, as the quote at the start mentions, also had political ambitions. A Democrat, Cotton served as the chair of the Chemung County Democratic committee, representative of the Fifth Ward, and postmaster. 

Cotton was loved by many in the city and was known for his gregarious personality. In 1891, the Daily Gazette and Free Press decided to run a fun little article in which they paired local figures with well-known literary quotes. This was what they chose for Cotton:
“Joking decides great things
Stronglier and better oft than earnest can”

- John Milton

When friends surprised Cotton with a portrait of himself, “Mr. Cotton smiled at first and then turned aside to hide the tears of joy that coursed down his chubby cheeks.”

George Cotton, Jr. standing in front of one of his company's wagons
A permanent bachelor and ladies' man, Cotton attracted lots of admirers. One such incident was humorously recounted in the Elmira Telegram on September 13, 1891. Cotton’s company regularly moved stage pieces and props to and from theaters for traveling shows. Hired to move the belongings of a female snake charmer performing at the Inter-State Fair, Cotton found himself on the receiving end of the lady’s affections. She requested to share the front seat with him and the pair were reportedly quite the sight on their way to the train station.

On March 7, 1897, Cotton died at 72 Pennsylvania Avenue, the family home where he was born almost 37 years earlier. A few days earlier, he came down with what he thought was a cold. That quickly became pneumonia, however, and coupled with his heart troubles, it proved fatal. He never married, but was survived by his mother, brother, and four sisters.   

In my search to better know George Cotton, one story stuck out as representative of the man I see in the photo. In 1892, George Cotton lost his Irish setter, Jack. He ran an ad for the dog’s return and a local boy found and returned the dog. However, people from around the city saw the ad and “Mr. Cotton was besieged all day by all sorts of people with all sorts of dogs.” Clearly, Cotton was a popular guy who people cared about. On the other hand, maybe it was just the promise of the reward he offered…

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Saga of “Chestie”

by Erin Doane, Curator

On the morning of July 25, 1940, a half-grown gray kitten strolled into the offices of the Community Chest, located in the Federation Building in Elmira. Undeterred by the summer heat and humidity, the kitten frisked away the hours. At the end of the day, janitor Thomas Rutzke gave him sleeping quarters in the building’s boiler room. Two days later, Miss Thelma Ewald of the secretarial staff added the newly-dubbed “Chestie” the kitten to the Community Chest rolls. A photographer from the Elmira Star-Gazette was there to capture the momentous event.

Miss Thelma Ewald and “Chestie,” Elmira Star-Gazette, July 27, 1940
Just days later, calamity struck the staff of the Community Chest. A headline on the front page of the second section of the Star-Gazette at the very bottom of the page read: “Anybody Seen ‘Chestie’? He’s Strayed.” By August 8, when the article ran, “Chestie” had been missing for almost a week. He was last seen by Thomas Rutzke when he put the kitten to bed in the boiler room after a long day of sleeping on files in the office and following the janitor around the building on his duties. James Harper of the Community Chest offices conducted a thorough search of the neighboring alley and byways but was unable to find any trace of “Chestie.”

Elmira Star-Gazette, August 21, 1940
On August 19, a half-grown gray kitten strolled into Elmira City Hall. William G. Morrison, manager of the auditing division of the City Welfare Department arrived at his office that morning and found the kitten asleep in Joseph F. Kienzle’s chair. Various staff members at City Hall, including dietician Mrs. Ruby B. Brewin, took to feeding the cat milk, dog food, and ice cream. They called him “Fifi” and “Jerome” but staff at the Community Chest were sure that he was actually their “Chestie.” The secretaries were particularly anxious for the return of their adopted pet. A Star-Gazette reporter went to City Hall to find out the truth and interview the cat but he disappeared into the neighborhood of the Meat Inspecting Department before the reporter arrived.

Elmira Star-Gazette, August 21, 1940
Unfortunately, there was no further articles about the stray kitten’s saga. Did “Cestie” return to the Community Chest? Did he live out his days as a beloved pet at City Hall? Did he move on to another building and collect another set of office parents? The world may never know.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Archives Explained: Part II

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

People often asks me what happens to their things after they donate. I already discussed what happens to collections of papers, but what about one-off donations? I am regularly given one or two random items someone found in their basement or grandma’s attic. As with the larger collections, my job is to find a home for these items and make sure they are accessible to researchers and staff.

Let us take, for example, this mounted flour bag which was recently donated to the museum that I cataloged last week. 
The flour bag in question

Step one is to label the item. Every single item in both our paper and 3D collections has a unique number used to identify it. This flour bag’s number is 2018.0032.0003. The 2018 refers to the year in which it was donated. 0032 indicates that it was given by the 32nd donor of the year. 0003 indicates which of how many items that person donated. In this case, the flour bag was the third item of three, the other two being a photograph and a jug. We use pencil to label our paper-based item and either cloth labels or a special lacquer on our 3D items.  

This is where it bag lives now

 Step two is to find a home for the item. In our archives we have two types of collections: organic collections which were created by a person, business, or organization and given to us by them in their entirety; and artificial collections created by the staff from multiple donations based on a specific topic or format. Some examples of artificial collections include our photograph collection, which contains photographs, and our religion collection, which includes material from various churches and synagogues. Single-item donations are always filed within the artificial collection which best suites either their topic or their format. Based on its size, I chose to file the mounted flour bag in our oversized items collection.

Step three is to create a detailed catalog record of the item. I describe, measure, and photograph it. I do research into the item’s background in order to place the item into its historical context. In this case, I used the Elmira City Directories to figure out when the company which produced the bag, Elmira Steam Mills, was in operation and where it was located. Once I have all this information, I enter it into our museum database along with its location information. Here at the Chemung County Historical Society, we use a program called PastPerfect. We also have a second database linkedto our website which researchers can use to search our collections. 
Catalog record for the flour bag in PastPerfect

Friday, June 8, 2018

Embarrassing Moments

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator
Embarrassing moments: we’ve all had them, and people in the past were no exception to this shame. While I won’t be sharing any of my own personal lowlights, I do really enjoy a regular column that ran in the Elmira Telegram in the 1910s which printed reader-submitted embarrassments for everyone’s enjoyment. If you spend some time reading them, you’ll realize that there are certain situations that are universally embarrassing, regardless of the decade in which they occur. However, some others are a little hard for us to relate to in the 21st century. Below are a selection of some of my favorites:

The most embarrassing moment of my life was when I sat down on a custard pie at a picnic.

My most embarrassing moment was when I attended my first dance. I was not a good dancer and as the music stopped I heard my partner say under his breath, “Well, thank goodness!”

The most embarrassing moment of my life was when I went to a party with a girl. During the party it began to rain pitchforks. Another youth offered to take the girl home under his umbrella. She declined, saying she would rather go under my umbrella. Imagine my embarrassment later when I had to tell her I had no umbrella.

It was late when we arrived at the theatre and the house was dark. Our seats were in the balcony, and as I went down the aisle I laid my hand on what I thought was a post, but lo and behold. It began to move. What was my horror to find that the object was a man’s bald head. In my embarrassment I stammered in an audible tone, “O, pardon me, I thought you were a post.”

While parading down one of the streets in the loop I noticed that everyone looked at me. Being as homely as they make them, but perfectly healthy, I commenced to think I was getting better looking. After several passersby laughed out loud I looked at myself from head to toe and discovered that in my haste I had only one spat on. To make matters worse I had the spat on over a shoe and the top of the shoe was gray and the spat white.

My most painful as well as most embarrassing moment was when I once occupied the speaker’s platform with six men. I being the only woman. I had a new frock for the occasion, an airy-fairy thing that made me feel I was at my best. But not for long . How can I describe my physical torture and mental anguish when I discovered that I was not the only inhabitant of that dress? My right to be therein was being disputed by a flea! Squirm and writhe as I would and pat and smooth with my hands, I could not persuade that flea to leave nor yet to dwell with me in harmony. To leave the platform was out of the question and when in a few minutes my address was called I was frankly and plebeianly scratching!