Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Big Game

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

In the fall of 1920, Elmira Free Academy principal Francis Parker traveled to Binghamton for the annual EFA-Binghamton football game. He would have been better off staying home. Binghamton trounced EFA 70 to 0. When he got back to Elmira, Parker told his fellow school officials “I don’t ever want us to be humiliated on the football field like that again.”

Of course, to make that happen, he was going to need to change a few things. For one, the team was going to need the best coach he could find and that was Arthur Hirst. Hirst had been coaching the Binghamton team for a few years by then, but Parker was able to tempt him away by offering him actual money. Up until that point, all of Elmira’s football coaches had been strictly volunteer. Hirst knew what he was doing and for the next 20 years, he managed to make EFA one of the best teams around.  From 1935 to 1937, they lost to no one and had five undefeated seasons over all under his leadership.

Coach Arthur Hirst

Right away Hirst whipped them into shape, but there was one team which always gave them trouble. Their dreaded rival: Binghamton.

In 1921, they faced Binghamton and lost, 49 to 0. In 1923, they lost again, 13 to 10. In 1924, they didn’t even manage to score a single point, losing 7 to 0. In 1925, they almost managed to win, almost, tying 6-6 with Binghamton in control of the ball. In 1926, Binghamton was their lone defeat at 14 to 13. Same in 1927, when they lost 9 to 0.

Naturally, when Elmira faced off against Binghamton on October 27, 1928, tensions were running high. By that point, Elmira had already gone up against and beaten Athens, Corning, and Buffalo, and they were hoping to continue their winning streak. The game had been originally scheduled at Binghamton, but a problem with their field meant that they’d be playing in Elmira. The annual Elmira-Binghamton game always drew the largest crowd, and there were over 6,000 people in the stands at the Harper Street Athletic Field. 

Elmira High School football team, 1928 season
Elmira came on strong in the first quarter. They scored six points in a savage fight in front of Binghamton’s goal posts. Then half-back Don Greene got the ball. As a freshman three years earlier, he’d tried and failed to make the team. Coach Hirst thought he just wasn’t football material, but boy was he wrong. Don got the ball and he ran, and he ran, for an 81-yard touchdown that ended the quarter with Elmira on top 13-0. 

The second quarter was brutal. Neither team managed to score, but it wasn’t from lack of trying. Team Captain George Vetter was injured in a tackle and had to sit out the rest of the game. Halftime came as a relief for everyone.
Elmira started off the third quarter right. Don Greene got the ball in the first play and ran his second touchdown, bumping the score to 19-0. It was the first time since 1913 that Elmira managed to get that many points over Binghamton. Unfortunately, Binghamton was quick to even the score, managing a touchdown of their own towards the end of the quarter. 

At the start of the fourth quarter, the score was 19-7 in Elmira’s favor. Binghamton soon scored a second touchdown. Elmira fans watched with baited breath as it looked like Binghamton was going to score a third and tie the game, but Elmira’s defense was made of stronger stuff. Elmira regained control of the ball just before the end of the quarter and Don Greene scored his third and final touchdown for the game, ending it 27-13. It was Elmira’s first victory against Binghamton since 1922.

Cartoon of the game from the Elmira Star-Gazette, October 29, 1928

After Binghamton, the season was smooth sailing. Elmira was undefeated for the 1928 season and went on to win the State Championship. Binghamton remained Elmira’s main rival until the district split into the North and Central High Schools and Elmira’s own inter-city rivalry heated up.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Bank Night at the Keeney

by Erin Doane, Curator

In February 1936, the Keeney Theater in Elmira held its first Bank Night. Coloradan Charles U. Yaeger, a former booking agent from 20th Century Fox, invented the lottery-type game in 1931 and leased it to theaters. Other than to make money for Yaeger, the purpose of the game was to get people back into movie theaters during the Great Depression. By 1936, Bank Night was being played in 5,000 theaters across the U.S.

Here is how Bank Night worked. The theater owner would pay to run the event and would get a registration book and equipment to draw the names of winners. The registration book sat at the theater box office and anyone could write their name down for a chance to win, even if they did not buy a ticket to go into the theater. On a Bank Night, a person’s name would be announced from the stage. That person then had a certain amount of time – 5 minutes at the Keeney – to get to the stage. If they got to the stage in time, they claimed a cash prize. If they did not, the money would roll over to the next Bank Might.

The Keeney Theater held its Bank Nights on Thursday evenings and the drawings took place around 9pm. Things started out slowly with a few people winning now and then but there were no really large banks, or cash prizes. Three months into the game, however, things started to pick up. More people began to participate because the banks grew as people failed to make it to the stage in time when their name was called. The Star-Gazette started printing weekly updates of the drawings.

On June 4, friends of Robert Goodwin heard his name called at the theater and rushed out to a nearby business to tell him. He raced to the theater and was on stage within the 5-minute window but his friends had misheard. The name called was actually that of his uncle.

Star-Gazette, June 5, 1936
Miss Margaret Liddy had been present at every single Bank Night except for the one on June 25. She had spent that day at a picnic for the Delta Alpha sorority at a cottage on the Chemung River. She intended to leave the cottage in time to make it to the theater but she could not get a ride back to town and had to wait for the trolley. She arrived too long after her name was called and missed out on a $595 bank (which was just over $10,500 today).

By July 2, the bank was up to $635 and about 5,000 people had gathered within calling distance of the Keeney Theater. Automobile traffic jammed the streets for blocks around the theater and the area behind the playhouse was filled with people. East Gray Street from the railroad to State Street and Railroad Avenue between Gray and Market Streets had to be closed to traffic because the crowd was so huge. John Gunderman, whose name was called that night was, unfortunately, not among all the people gathered.

One week later, Edward “Bud” McCauley, a 23-year-old substitute postal delivery officer who lived with his widowed mother, had his name called. While he had arrived late to the theater after having trouble finding a parking space for his car, and was purchasing his theater ticket as his name was called, he did make it to the stage with minutes to spare. He won the $675 bank (or about $12,000 today) that had been accumulating for 16 weeks without a winner. Bud told the Star-Gazette that he would put his winnings into a bank account to be controlled by his mother and denied that the money would go toward a wedding. He said he had the girl but needed a steady job before thinking about marriage.

Star-Gazette, July 10, 1936
The banks never got that high again, though devotees of the game continued to flock to the theater for the next couple of months. In December, the manager of the Keeney announced that the time in which to claim the prize money would be reduced from five minutes to one minute, presumably to make things more exciting. In January 1937, the Keeney partnered with the Strand and Regent Theaters for Bank Night. Together, they offered two prizes a night. By 1937, however, Bank Nights throughout the country were starting to come to an end. People weren’t as enthusiastic about it anymore and movie ticket sales were coming up even without the game. After March 1937, there were no more mentions of Bank Night at the Keeney Theater in the Star-Gazette.

Monday, December 10, 2018

A True Story Word For Word As I Heard It

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist
It was summer-time, and twilight. We were sitting on the porch of the farmhouse, on the summit of the hill, and "Aunt Rachel" was sitting respectfully below our level, on the steps-for she was our Servant, and colored. She was of mighty frame and stature; she was sixty years old, but her eye was undimmed and her strength unabated. She was a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than it is for a bird to sing. She was under fire now, as usual when the day was done. That is to say, she was being chaffed without mercy, and was enjoying it. She would let off peal after of laughter, and then sit with her face in her hands and shake with throes of enjoyment which she could no longer get breath enough to express. It such a moment as this a thought occurred to me, and I said:

"Aunt Rachel, how is it that you've lived sixty years and never had any trouble?"

That’s how the short story “A True Story, Word for Word as I Heard It” by Mark Twain begins. It was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1874 and it really is a true story. Less word-for-word true and more Lifetime-movie true, but true none the less.

Aunt Rachel in The Atlantic Monthly, 1874
The woman Twain called Aunt Rachel was Mary Ann Cord and she had, in fact, known trouble. She was born into slavery in Virginia on a plantation where she eventually served as a cook. She had a husband and seven children, the youngest of whom, Henry, was her favorite. When he was a toddler, he cracked his head open on the corner of a stove and bore the scar for the rest of his life. Now, remember that detail, because it will be very, very important later on.

Mary Ann Cord, image courtesy of Elmira College
In 1852, the family’s mistress went broke and she decided to sell them all. Mary Ann stood helpless as her husband and seven children were auctioned off one by one. As little Henry, only eight years old, was being pulled from her arms, he slipped a simple wire ring on her finger and swore he would escape and find her.  Mary Ann was sold to a plantation in New Bern, North Carolina. She thought she would never see him, or any of the rest of her family, ever again, but she kept that ring on her finger. Henry never forgot his promise and never gave up hope of finding her. 

In 1858, at age 13, Henry escaped and wound up here in Elmira.  It was here that he met Charles Hoppe, the barber at the Brainard House, who gave him a job and a trade he would practice for the rest of his life. During the Civil War, he joined up with a Colored regiment just as soon as he was able and found himself down in New Bern, North Carolina. And that, my friends, is where a miracle happened.

Henry Washington's barber shop

 Mary Ann’s plantation had been liberated by Union troops and pressed into service as a sort of headquarters. The Union officers had asked her to stay on and cook for pay, and she had. One night, a group of colored troops showed up, demanding food and making a mess. Well, Mary Ann wasn’t putting up with that nonsense and threw them right out. If the story ended there, Mark Twain probably wouldn’t have written about it. 

Luckily, it didn’t end there. In Mark Twain’s version of events, she was lighting the stove the next morning when she looked up and saw a young man with a scar and knew it was Henry. What actually happened was a bit more complicated. Henry had been one of the colored troops from the night before and he had been so strongly reminded of his mother, that he had come back. He sat down where the cook was serving breakfast and pushed his hair back off his forehead to see if she’d notice. And boy, did she notice. According to Twain, she started hugging him and crying, but in reality, she took one look at his scar and fainted dead away. It was when he lunged to catch her that he noticed her ring and that was how Mary Ann and Henry, separated by years of slavery and war, found each other. 

As soon as he was discharged, Henry took Mary Ann home with him to Elmira. He went back to his barber shop and she built a life here. She got remarried and ended up working as a cook at Quarry Farm. That was how she came to meet Mark Twain, and how he came to write a version of her story. 

Mary Ann Cord with the Crane-Clemens family on the porch at Quarry Farm