Friday, December 27, 2019

A Tale of Two Motorcycle Clubs

by Erin Doane, Curator
“There is no sport that is more thrilling than motorcycling. The powerful little vehicles will give a man all the excitement he is able to meet.” – Elmira Star-Gazette, December 5, 1910

Henderson motorcycle, early 1910s
In 1867, Ernest Michaux of Paris, France fitted a small steam engine to a velocipede and people have been in love with motorcycles ever since. Motorcycling became widely popular in the United States after Indian Motorcycle and Harley Davison began producing vehicles in the early 1900s.

Elmira Motorcycle Club
By 1910, the Elmira Motorcycle Club was actively hosting events like winter rides for its members. At its annual meeting in January 1911, the club received 31 new applications for membership. The club was officially incorporated that year.

J. M. Enyedy, Bertha Enyedy, Oscar Enyedy, and unknown woman with their Indian motorcycles, 1910s
In 1911, the club also received the sanction of the Federation of American Motorcyclists (which went on to become the American Motorcyclist Association) to hold races on Decoration Day at the Maple Avenue Driving Park. The event drew record crowds with motorcycle clubs from Rochester, Syracuse, Auburn, Cortland, and Binghamton attending the event. 18 professional riders competed in seven different races. The grand prize was $50 in cash. The races became an annual event. In 1912, the purse grew to $250 and the grand prize was a side car attachment for the winner’s motorcycle.

Motorcyclists gathered by the Madison Avenue Bridge in Elmira
The club was very active from 1911 through 1915. It kept clubrooms on West Water Street where it held monthly meetings. It organized motorcycle outings, endurance runs, and races. It also hosted non-motorcycling activities for its members like dances and trap shoots. The first annual New York State convention of the Federation of American Motorcyclists was held in Elmira under the auspices of the Elmira Motorcycle Club July 4-6, 1913.

Motorcycle outing, 1910s
Suddenly, in 1915, everything fell apart for the Elmira Motorcycle Club. On September 28, members met to discuss plans to purchase a new clubhouse as the clubrooms on West Water Street were inadequate for its growing needs. But then on October 23, the club announced that it was disbanding. Membership had fallen from around 100 to 39, and the organization was no longer able to survive financially.

I’m sure there is more to that story, but nothing else was reported about the club in the newspaper until 1920 when local motorcycle enthusiasts revived it. The magazine Motorcycle Enthusiast in Action reported that “riders of all makes of machines in the Elmira, N.Y. district are urged to join the Elmira Motorcycle Club just organized.” The rejuvenated club held races, hill climbs, secret time runs, fox chases, outings, and motoring tours until it disappeared from local newspapers again after 1927.

Gathering of motorcyclists, early 1920s

Chemung County Motorcycle Club
The constitution and bylaws of the Chemung County Motorcycle Club were first adopted January 1, 1930. Perhaps members of the Elmira Motorcycle Club rolled into the new county-wide club. The activities of the club were not well publicized in local newspapers until 1944. It hosted round and square dances in Elmira Heights and Breesport where members were encouraged to wear riding outfits. It also held corn and wiener roasts. And of course, it was involved in all types of motorcycle outings and races.

Members of the Chemung County Motorcycle Club, c. 1940s
Beyond promoting the sport of motorcycling and sponsoring motorcycle meets and races, one of the other goals of the Chemung County Motorcycle Club was to help promote the safe driving of the vehicles. To that end, club members led by example. The club won the American Motorcycle Association’s safety award banner three years in a row from 1945 to 1947. Its 23 members maintained an accident-free record of 225,145 miles over that three-year period.

Presentation of the American Motorcycle Association’s safety award banner to the Chemung County Motorcycle Club, 1948
Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, the club sponsored motorcycle races at the county fairgrounds in Horseheads. The races usually took place in late August or early September, sometimes as part of fair activities and sometimes as stand-alone events. In 1952, the club got permission to hang a banner across North Main Street in Elmira at Wisner Park to promote that year’s races.

View of motorcycle racing from the grandstand at the fairgrounds, 1948
Professional motorcycle racers from all around the Northeast and Canada competed in the races, drawn by up to $900 in prize money. Newspaper articles were quick to point out that these drivers were exclusively piloting racing cycles, not street bikes. The big racing machines had no brakes and drivers used a skid plate on their left foot to help make turns. The races held events in three classes – novice, amateur and expert – but locals usually did not participate because they did not have racing bikes to run. 

Professional motorcycle racing at the fairgrounds, late 1940s
The Chemung County Motorcycle Club became the Chemung County Motorcycle Club, Inc. in August 1955 when it filed incorporation papers at the county clerk’s office. Six years later, in July 1961, it seems to have disbanded. It transferred property on Upper Hoffman street, which had served as their clubhouse, to an independent buyer, and the club name never appeared in the Star-Gazette again.

Pair of local motorcyclists

Monday, December 23, 2019

West Hill Community Cabin

by Andrea Renshaw, Volunteer

Anyone driving up West Hill might notice the empty space next to the fire department where the West Hill Community Cabin once stood.  The cabin was torn down recently in a state of bad repair.  But for over 80 years the Community Cabin served the residents of West Hill and the surrounding community.  During its time it served as a dance hall, meeting place, theater, and all-around event venue.

The cabin was built by The West Hill Community Council, who decided to rectify the structure based on the necessity of a permanent meeting place.  The West Hill Community had previously hosted their events at the Carr’s Corner School or private homes.  In 1932, it was decided their new clubhouse would be a simple log cabin.  It’s said the Community Cabin was inspired by a log cabin built by Ralph Crain on Halderman Hollow Road.  With books loaned to them by attorney Richard Heller, the council began to design.  A single story 30’ by 60’ design was decided on.  When finished the cabin would provide a kitchen and dining room in the walkout basement, and a large open meeting room on the main floor.  The stage was added later in 1953 to main floor to accommodate school plays.

Supplies and labor were donated by local farmers.  Logs for the structure were donated by several farmers, rough cut wood was supplied by Fred Storch’s mill, and Ernest Stowe donated the land at a mere one dollar for a ninety nine year lease.  Electricity during construction was supplied via extension from William Storch’s farm approximately 300 yards down the road, until Willis Bennett installed permanent wiring.  For items that could not be donated, the ladies of West Hill hosted fundraising suppers at the German Church in Elmira.  The basement was dug by teams of horses with scrapers, where they also dug the first well near the kitchen.  Logs were prepared with axes, saws and drawknives.  Work progressed through the winter of 1932-1933, until its official opening on July 4, 1933.  The official opening of the Community Cabin was marked by an Independence Day picnic and square dance, complete with a patriotic fireworks display.

Card table used by the West Home Bureau, listing many local businesses

Expense journal showing family expenses including cabin fees of West Hill family

In the earlier years, dances were one of the biggest attractions.  Live music from the Green Mountain Boys and Woodhull’s Olde Tyme Masters was popular for many years.  Later the DJ, Ronnie Ruckles, was a weekly hit with dance-goers.  Regular dances brought crowds every Friday night from 9pm-1am.  Many of these dances were hosted by local groups for fundraising efforts.  Funds went to their own reserves, as well as worthy causes such as the Red Cross and relief societies.

Community organizations such as the Grange, Carr’s Corner 4-H, the Home Bureau Federation, Elmira Dairyman’s League, and other agriculture based clubs enjoyed the cabin as a meeting place central to the farming community.  Speakers were invited to lecture on subjects such as how to improve agricultural sales profits.  The Home Bureau hosted lessons on domestic skills for local women such as caning chairs, breakfast breads, and organizing kitchens. Carr’s Corner and Thomas Edison students produced their school plays on their specially built stage.  The Cabin Council also supported many of the events, such as a yearly Harvest Supper, and regular picnics and suppers.  Private rentals made it a popular location for reunions, anniversaries, and receptions.   The community cabin was a convenient place to host parties, with facilities for cooking, dining and dancing.  

Dale Storch and Fred Buck in dining room

After a fire claimed Doug Dalrymples’ horse barn in 1960, the citizens of West Hill decided they needed a local fire district to protect their homes and property.  By 1961, the West Hill Volunteer Fire Department had been established, and the firehouse was to share the same piece of land with the Community Cabin.  The original twenty-two volunteers, and president Ray DeLamarter happened to be many of the same group that were involved in the West Hill Community Council.  The fire department is also a thing of the past now, unfortunately having closed its doors in 2008.

View of former Fire Department
Unfortunately, as the years have passed the clubs and community that had supported the need for a clubhouse dissolved.  It is sad to lose what was such an important hub of a community, but hopefully we can preserve its memory.  In my research for this article I found that our Historical Society has no information about the Community Cabin.  Please feel free to share any of your memories or additional information in the comments below.

Original members of the West Hill Community Council: Albert & Myrtle Storch, Ralph & Goldie Crain, Ernest & Alice Stowe, William G. & Elizabeth Storch, Carl & Maude Steffen, Thomas & Irene Rhodes, Charles &Eva Mansfield, Welling & Grace Storch, Ralph & Carol Reynolds, Willis & Ruth Bennett, Erie & Marie Vaughn, Fritz & Lucy Storch, Byron & Ina Vanderhoff, Milton & Virginia Vanderhoff, Henry & Lena Hartman, Harry & Louise Ketchum, Raymond & Pricilla Fish, Charles & Grace Rutty, Raymond & Muriel Rhinebold, Murray & Waitie Watts, Raymond & Lillian DeLamarter, Grant & Emma Tolbert, Charles & Bessie Smejkal, Harry & Emily Stowe, Francis & Stella Brittenbaker, Joseph Hartman, and Mrs. Grace VanValkner.

I would like to thank, Dianne Storch, David Storch, Melissa Rozengota for helping to recall some of this information.
(A special note from CCHS staff to Andrea and her family, who recently lost their grandfather Dale Storch mentioned in this blog. A little of his history is preserved here.)

Monday, December 16, 2019

More to the Story

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

We have a photograph in our Bank Gallery showing two young Elmira men. George Brooks is seated on the left, and his younger brother Edward is on the right. At the bottom of the photo is a handwritten note that both graduated in 1886. Our museum label says that Edward Ulysses Anderson Brooks, the younger brother, is considered the first African American to graduate from Cornell University. Impressive, but there’s more to his story.

Brooks brothers George F. and Edward U.A.

In the late 1860s, the Brooks family left Washington D.C. Born into slavery, the Brooks parents were part of a new wave of hopeful black settlers relocating north to offer their children better lives. When they arrived in Elmira, the family consisted of four people: husband George, his wife Fanny, their daughter Nancy and son George F., the older brother seen in the photograph. 

The family first lived in a boarding house on Dickinson Street, then moved to a house on Clinton Street where they continued to live for many years. Mrs. Brooks contributed to the family income by offering laundry services out of their home. Mr. Brooks, when he could find employment, worked in nearby factories, or for construction companies doing physical labor. In 1872, their second son Edward was born. The couple eventually had eight other children, but we only have evidence that George and Edward survived.

It’s hard to say exactly when the photo was taken. One clue is what Edward was wearing. In the early 1880s, boys commonly wore shorts like these until eight or nine years old. This suggests the handwritten note refers to Edward’s graduation from primary school, at nine. When Edward was fifteen, his father died. George Brooks, aged 54 years old, was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in December 1887. Edward continued his schooling and graduated from Elmira Free Academy two years after his father died.

Edward U.A. Brooks, E.F.A. graduate 1889

In 1890, he won a competitive scholarship to attend nearby Cornell University. With that, Edward became one of a handful of African American Cornellians, among an enrollment of over four hundred students.

Cornell was founded in 1865 to offer students, regardless of religion or race, a coeducational, non-sectarian education. Unlike many universities, it meant Cornell would admit women and people of color. In practice, there were actually few women or students of color at that time. Records show it took eight years before the first woman graduated from Cornell, and five years after that for the first male black Cuban student to graduate. Edward is credited with being the University’s first African American graduate. This was an achievement he earned in just two years. Records identify five African American students attending or graduating from Cornell between the years 1889 and 1892. Who knows what their true college experience was like, they must have had more than Ithaca's steep hills to navigate. However in 1892, Edward completed his undergraduate studies and two years later earned his Master’s in law.

As a law student, Edward U.A. Brooks was one of Cornell’s early graduates. The law college had joined the university in 1887, twenty-two years after the university was founded. Edward was active on campus. He served as a judge for Cornell’s Moot Court to evaluate his fellow law students; was a member of Cornell’s cadet band; founded the Literary Union Club, a club to appeal to ‘young colored people’ in Ithaca; and was a member of the AME Zion church in town. He was an invited honorary member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a prestigious African American Fraternity which originated at Cornell. Today APA has chapters on campuses all around the nation and promotes African American leadership in a variety of fields.

After graduation, Edward returned to Elmira. He set up law practice on Lake Street and also filled in as substitute pastor for the AME Zion church’s Hope Chapel in Utica, NY. Established in 1848 as a place of worship and Sunday school for children, Hope Chapel was the only house of worship in the Utica area open to people of color.

Hope Chapel, Utica, NY

By 1896, Edward's name and law practice aren’t listed in Elmira's City Directory anymore. His life seems to have taken another direction. He returned to Hope Chapel, appointed pastor, and ministered there for the next seven years. During this time, he also earned a theological degree from Auburn Theological Seminary, in Auburn, New York. He moved to Auburn in 1911 to be the AME Zion church's pastor. In this capacity, he was also director of the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, an institution Harriet Tubman had set up to care for aging and indigent colored people. When Harriet Tubman was ninety years old, she became a resident herself. Reverend Brooks wrote to Booker T. Washington looking to raise the $10.00 it cost per week to provide care for ‘Auntie Harriet” in her final days.

Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged

Sometime before 1918, Edward married and took on leadership of the AME Zion church in Saratoga Springs. In 1921 he and a Mrs. Reverend E.U.A. Brooks are listed as charter members of the Saratoga Springs NAACP chapter. By 1923 they returned to Hope Chapel in Utica. He stayed and ministered there for another twenty three years, retiring at the age of seventy-five. 

His legacy includes his financial skills which saved the struggling Hope Chapel, and his advocacy for better housing, especially for African Americans. These were times when many were often barred from renting or owning their own homes. He stepped up to provide food, housing and clothes for folks arriving from the south, who often landed in Utica without adequate winter clothing. And, he officiated at over half-a-dozen mixed marriages, then illegal in twenty nine other states.

Reverend Edward U.A. Brooks died in 1954 at the age of eighty two, and was buried in Utica.

Our photograph shows a very serious looking young man of nine. Uncovering part of his story tells us so much more about his life, and is one reason why we are collecting our area’s Oral Histories.