Monday, December 28, 2020

Your Favorite Things

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Whitman Mission on the Oregon Trail

What does the Oregon Trail, a member of the inaugural Girls Professional Baseball League, and souvenirs from a doomed arctic expedition have in common? Each was a Chemung County Historical Society Blog post in 2020.

Since February 2012, we’ve published a new blog almost every week. This year despite various disruptions, we continued and were able to add 53 new blog posts. This brings our blogs-to-date total to 468: that’s four hundred sixty eight different topics!

For the last nine years, these blogs have been written by a staff member or invited guest, with all topics connecting to Chemung County’s history. They may be stories of people, or events, information on artifacts and documents, or explore a story behind another story. Despite posting weekly, we still can't predict which topics will resonate with our readers.

Taking stock of 2020 - and in case you missed any - here are this year’s five most popular blog posts in descending order. See if you find any thread of commonality.

1. On May 11th we published Chemung County's First Fatal Automobile Accident a blog which tells the story of the Voorhees family from Elmira whose 1914 summer afternoon drive resulted in tragic death and loss.

2. Back in January 17th Lost in the Mail profiled a mishap that occurred one snowy day in Wellsburg, March 195, and mail that was never delivered.

3. On March 23rd, shortly after the 2020 pandemic ground things to a halt, the blog titled The First Quarantine shared how the county shutdown for 19 days in response to the 1918 pandemic.

4. Less than a month later on April 17th, another blog titled Typhoid and Thatcher GlassManufacturing Company highlighted local contributions to public health. (Note we have an upcoming exhibit highlighting the Thatcher Glass Manufacturing Company going up in early 2021.)

5. On August 24th a blog shared the story of The Wellsburg Fire of 1912, a devastating fire that wiped out much of the town of Wellsburg in one single afternoon.

Up to this point, statistics show the blogs with the fewest visitors are some of our most recent. We never take blogs down, so it’s likely they’ll pick up additional viewers in 2021. In case you’re curious, the blogs with the fewest views to date are:

1. December 7th’s A Fall Tradition goes Virtual publicized our necessary switch from our usual in-person fund raiser event to one that was virtual.

2. December 14th’s blog Souvenirs from a Doomed Voyage shared objects in our collection from Ross Marvin, a local arctic explorer and The Greely expedition, an expedition that took place in 1881-1884.

3. Esther B. Steele: A Woman of Her Word, on November 30th profiled a well-known philanthropist who still makes an impact on the county today.

4. Our November 9th blog The Bachelor Governor highlighted the life of the 29th governor of New York State and the political connections he had.

5. Win with Wilkie, the blog published on November 2nd just before the presidential election was a little bit of lost history about a 1940 presidential campaign visit to Elmira.

Our continually growing collection of CCHS blogs is a great resource we encourage everyone to share, just be sure to give us credit if you do.

Researching facts and information on objects, people and events from the county gives us an opportunity to look at things in new ways. It also comes in handy. We used a series of blogs ourselves this past summer to create a unique walking tour of Elmira’s Heritage District that wove together over fifteen relevant blogs.

For fun, see our quiz posted on our Facebook page to see what facts from this year that you remember, the reader with the most correct answers will win a complimentary year's membership.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Delivering Christmas with the Arctic League

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

 This year, despite the pandemic, the Arctic League will deliver Christmas to the poor children of Chemung County, just as they have done every year since 1912, come hell or (literal) high water. Interestingly, the Arctic League didn’t start out as a charity. The League began as an amateur baseball league and social club which played nearly year-round and hung out at the Lagonegro cigar shop at 157 Lake Street. The men of the League were best known around town for playing in all types of weather and holding satirical political campaigns for club president.

 All that changed around the Christmas of 1912. League member Danny Sullivan encountered a homeless young orphan on his way to the Lagonegro cigar shop and decided to bring him along. Sullivan and his friends dubbed the boy Friday (owning to the day of the week) and pooled everything they had on them to treat him to dinner, new clothes, and medical attention. They even ended up helping him find a job and place to stay. The men found helping out so satisfying that they decided to do it again the following year. While the first few Christmases were funded entirely by League members, by 1917 they were receiving $733 from the public at large to put towards presents for the needy. Young Friday, whose real name was Jimmy Loftus, donated religiously to the cause under his pseudonym until his death in 1955.

 The pandemic isn’t the first challenge the Arctic League has faced. In the wee hours of December 20, 1921, the warehouse where the League’s presents were stored burned, destroying $5,000 worth of toys, clothes, and candy. The morning papers called for aid and, by the time the Lagonegro cigar shop opened at 8am, people were lining up to donate. Within 48 hours, they received $10,608, more than twice what they’d ever raised before. After a mad scramble to buy and pack up toys, the Arctic League was able to successfully deliver Christmas while still having money left over for the following year.

 In 1941, the League’s fundraising radio broadcast was interrupted by the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Begun in 1932, the annual broadcast featured performances by local musicians interspersed with pleas for money. At 2:30 pm on December 7, 1941, master of ceremonies Frank Tripp was handed the announcement of the attack by WENY station manager Dale L. Taylor, whose brother was stationed at Pearl Harbor. Tripp halted the music to read the news to the listening audience. He read off further updates as they became available throughout the rest of the show. 

Annual Arctic League broadcast with MC Frank Tripp, ca. 1940s

World War II presented some unique challenges for the Arctic League. Normally, individual volunteers would pick up packages at the League’s Elmira headquarters and deliver them to homes all over the county. Gas rationing, however, meant that volunteers didn’t have the fuel to get from Elmira to the outlying communities. Instead, Col. Geoffrey Galwey, the commander at the Holding and Reconsignment Point in Horseheads, volunteered his officers for the job. League board members rode with the soldiers to act as native guides and navigators. None of the soldiers were familiar with the Arctic League or their mission, and some were quite skeptical about using military resources to deliver presents. One particular lieutenant protested right up until he saw the reaction of a gold star family when he delivered their package. 


Arctic League volunteers delivering presents, ca. 1950s

 The flood of 1972 hit the Arctic League hard. Approximately $10,000 in clothes and toys were destroyed when their 114 West Second Street headquarters were inundated by 4 feet of water. Every year, the League ordered a thousand naked dolls which would be dressed in unique outfits made by community members. That year’s dolls had arrived the Wednesday before the storm and were lost to the water. An additional $1,000 worth of equipment was destroyed as well. A collection of clothes survived the flood, but the League chose to distribute them at the relocation centers rather than hold it back until Christmas. Although the building was cleaned out fairly quickly, League gave up their headquarters for a year so the Elmira Health Department could use it as a temporary infirmary.

Despite, or perhaps because of the community-wide devastation caused by the flood, the Arctic League exceeded that year’s collecting goal by $1,501.18, bringing that year’s total to $21,009.18. The extra funds certainly came in handy. Families who had never needed help before now found themselves without jobs or homes, let alone funds for Christmas presents. In the end, 200 volunteers delivered parcels containing 2 toys, cookies, and candy to 1,450 children on Christmas morning. An additional 2,000 children received free clothing and shoes at a 2-day distribution event on December 27th and 28th at the Arctic League headquarters. 

Doll given by the Arctic League, December 1972

 This year too, there is a greater need in our community as people have lost jobs to the shutdown. Instead of waiting until their usual mid-November for the usual start of their collection campaign, the Arctic League began their annual holiday appeal in early October. That wasn’t the only changes they were forced to make. Normally, every evening in December volunteers form assembly lines to pack parcels. This year, the packing routine had to be modified so volunteers could maintain proper social distance. The annual fundraising broadcast, normally held before a live audience at the Clemens Center, was instead broadcast from an empty WETM news station and featured pre-recorded performances rather than live music. Despite the changes, the Arctic League was able to raise $133,658.28 or 107% of their goal of $125,000. They are still looking for volunteers to deliver packages, but that will be different too this year. Instead of having people line up to collect packages early Christmas morning, volunteers should arrive on Christmas Eve Day, no earlier than 9am. See their website for details: 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Souvenirs from a Doomed Voyage

by Erin Doane, Curator

The purpose of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition from 1881 to 1884 was to establish a polar research station near Lady Franklin Bay on Canada’s Nares Strait north of Greenland. The expedition was funded by the U.S. Congress, managed by the U.S. Army Signal Corps., and led by Lieutenant Adolphus Greely. Twenty-five men began the voyage into the Arctic in 1881, but only seven,* including Greely, survived. Uncooperative weather, poor planning, unsuccessful resupply attempts, interpersonal conflicts, and all around bad luck led to disaster. (You can read about it in more detail here.)

No one in the expedition had strong connections to Chemung County (that I am aware of), so why am I writing about it? Well, the museum has a collection of 19 items that are labeled “Greely Expedition 1881-1884.” Later Arctic explorers collected these souvenirs from the doomed voyage. The items include tobacco tins, a pipe, a lid to a brandy keg, various size ammunition, pieces of rope and chain, and fur mittens purportedly used during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition and abandoned at Fort Conger in the northeast of Ellesmere Island where Greely had set up his basecamp in 1881.

Selection of items in the collection marked "Greely Expedition 1881-1884"

So, how did these items get to CCHS? One of the pieces, the brandy keg lid, has this description in the database:

Brought back by Ross Marvin while on his 1905-1906 Arctic expedition with Admiral Robert E. Peary. This lid from a brandy keg is from the HMS Alert, a British Navy ship that was part of an 1875-1876 British Arctic Expedition. They reached Ellesmere Island. Then the Greely Expedition in 1881 reached the same spot on Ellesmere Island, but the expedition became infamous because only 6 of 24 members survived.* In 1905-06, Admiral Peary's expedition stopped at the same spot and found the site where Greely had been. Ross Marvin brought back relics from the site.

Wooden keg lid with the words “HMS Alert” and “Brandy” just discernible

Elmiran Ross Marvin was a member of Robert Peary’s 1905-1906 and 1908-1909 Arctic expeditions. (You can read more about him here.) Marvin kept journals during both voyages and wrote about finding the keg lid on September 2, 1905:

…Found the remains of a cache made by English Party, H.M.S. Alert, on northern shore of bay. Contents were used later by sledge trips of the Greely Party. Found one box containing 9 tins of boiled beef, frozen and well preserved. Secured head of an old cask…. 

Ross Marvin’s journal, September 2, 1905

I feel confident that the “head of an old cask” he found among the remains of the HMS Alert’s cache is indeed the wooden keg lid in the collection. While the lid did not originate with the Greely Expedition, it was among the other items found at Fort Conger. Marvin’s journal entry from September 5, 1905 mentions that he “found a souvenir for myself,” but does not go into detail. There is no way of knowing if he was referring to any of the other items we have here at the museum.

The other items in the collection may not have been collected by Ross Marvin at all. A general note on the collection reads:

Professor Donald MacMillan of Peary's expedition found the remnants of Greely's base camp at Fort Conger. The items here were brought back from Peary's expedition by Donald MacMillan.

This note made me wonder. I have done quite a lot of personal research on Ross Marvin, his two expeditions into the Arctic with Peary, and his untimely death there in 1909. I had never read anything indicating that MacMillan ever came to Elmira, let alone donated a collection of objects to the Historical Society. Donald MacMillan (who later became a significant Arctic explorer and researcher in his own right) was on Peary’s 1908-1909 Arctic expedition with Ross Marvin. He certainly would have had the opportunity to collected souvenirs that had been left behind on previous voyages as Marvin had done three years prior. But how did those items end up here?

I found a clue to this mystery when I learned that MacMillan was a longtime friend of James Vinton Stowell. Stowell was an Elmira artist, archaeologist, and explorer. He traveled into the Arctic four times, including once with MacMillan in 1946 to Northern Labrador. In 1967, Stowell donated his extensive collection of Native American and Arctic artifacts to the Chemung County Historical Society.

The Seal Hunters, oil on canvas by James Vinton Stowell, 1958

Since Stowell donated one collection of items to the museum, was it possible that sometime along the way he made another donation of items that had been collected by MacMillan during his voyage with Peary in 1908-1909, then given to Stowell as a gift to a fellow polar explorer and friend? Maybe. Maybe not. There is no proof of such a thing, but it is fun to speculate about how such an interesting collection got here. 


* I have found sources that say six men survived and others that say seven. Naval History Magazine; International Journal of Naval History, and the New England Historical Society all have articles that indicate seven men survived; PBS, the National Museum of American History, Nature Magazine have articles indicating six survived. I’m not sure which is correct. Similarly, some sources report that there were 24 men on the voyage, others 25.


Monday, December 7, 2020

A Fall Tradition goes Virtual

Reds, Whites, Blues and Brews: Making Spirits Bright

During this unusual time, we have all had to make adjustments. Here at CCHS we were closed for several months when the Covid-19 outbreak first began, reopening in early July. Even then it was at reduced capacity and we had to cancel both our spring fundraiser, The Great Car Thing, and the Trolley into Mark Twain Country. We also did not get our usual spring rush of second graders in the museum.

This is not to say that the staff has not been busy. Programming has moved online and we were able to hold our annual Ghost Walk in person, in a safely modified form. 

Jim Hare at GhostWalk 2020

We continue to plan for next year, both online programming and in person again, while we work to finish out this year.

We are closing the year with one last hurrah, Reds, Whites, Blues and Brews: Making Spirits Bright. This is an online fundraising event coming this Thursday, December 10. We usually hold this event on the last Friday in September but we had to adjust and moved online for this year. You can find more details, purchase tickets and chances to win baskets here and we hope you will join us on Facebook Live Thursday, December 10 from 5:30 to 6:30 pm for music, history and a bit of fun.

J.D. Iles, event Guest Master of Ceremonies

Our fundraising events, including this one, help us keep our doors open, pay staff and create great programs for school kids and families alike. Our sponsors have returned to support this event and we are now asking you to do the same. Buy a ticket, enter a basket drawing and join us on Thursday. Your support will help keep us going for another year and we hope to see you in person the next time we hold Reds, Whites, Blues & Brews!

Basket G: In the (gift) Cards

All of us at CCHS hope your holidays are bright and we thank you for your support throughout the year.

The museum is open!

Bruce Whitmarsh, 

Monday, November 30, 2020

Esther Baker Steele: A Woman of her Word

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In the 19th century, the Reverend Gardner Baker and his wife Esther, and daughter also named Esther, lived in Lysander, a village located in Onondaga County, New York. Reverend Baker was a well-known minister and prominent member of the Northern New York Methodist Episcopal Conference. Members of this group were known as early advocates for progressive issues like anti-elitism, anti-slavery, and women’s education. Growing up in this environment shaped their daughter's intellectual and philanthropic life, and Elmira ultimately benefited.

Esther Baker Steele 1835 - 1911

Esther was born on August 4, 1835, and she studied at Mexico Academy and Falley Seminary. A good student, Esther became known for her outstanding writing skills and musical talents. She graduated in 1858 and was hired to be Mexico Academy's music teacher. Another teacher hired that year was Joel Dorman Steele, the institution's new teacher of natural sciences.

Joel Dorman Steele 1836 - 1886

Steele had been on his own since he was seventeen, supporting himself as a teacher. In addition to his position at Mexico Academy he earned a degree from Genesee College, now a part of Syracuse University. The two new teachers hit it off and Joel and Esther were married less than a year later. They moved to Oswego County where Steele was appointed school principal. Three years later, the Civil War broke out and Steele enlisted and took command of a Union company. Unfortunately, he was badly wounded in the battle of Fair Oaks and endured a long recovery in which he suffered a terrible bout with typhus. This disease compromised his health for the rest of his life. After he was discharged he returned to Esther and was employed as principal in Newark and then in Elmira. The couple enjoyed working with young people, though the couple never had children of their own. They did a foster son named Allen D. Steele, who comes up briefly later.

As an educator, J. Dorman Steele saw a need for new scientific textbooks. He wrote his first textbook in 1869, which was so well-received, that by 1872 he gave up teaching all together. With Esther's help, he went on to write textbooks on astronomy, chemistry, philosophy, and history. 

To conduct research on a variety of subjects, the Steeles traveled to Europe four times. Together they produced 15 textbooks. Unusual for the time, Steele insisted that his name be attached only to the scientific texts, but that Esther be given credit to the rest. He said that “My wife came at once into full accord with all my plans; she aided me by her service, cheered me by her hopefulness and merged her life in mine. Looking back upon the past, I hardly know where her work ended and mine began, so perfectly have they blended.” Their publisher recognized this too, once writing to Steele "We really think you will find Mrs. Steele better adapted to present it than yourself." 

On May 25, 1886 at 50 years old, Joel Dorman Steele died from a heart condition.  One of his last requests to Esther was that she manage his extensive book collection numbering in the tens of thousands. Also to pursue the dream of establishing a library for the citizens of Elmira. 

Esther kept her promise, and she lived on another twelve years. She continued to revise and update the various textbooks. She became a generous benefactor and regularly gave away two thirds of her yearly income. In 1892, she received an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Syracuse University, and three years later was elected to the university's Board of Trustees. In 1898 the university named the Esther Baker Steele Hall of Science in her honor. Finally in 1899, Chemung County’s first free public library opened to the public, its core collection contained the books the Steeles had collected over the years. 

The Original Steele Memorial Library

The couple's foster son's name appears in a 1895 lawsuit against Syracuse University. According to Steele's will, their foster son was to receive a yearly allowance of $1,200 (about $33,000 in today's funds) which would be managed by the university. This sum was paid for a few years before the lawsuit was filed, then ceased. Esther died in 1911 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery next to her husband. Allen D. Steele is buried in Kentucky.

Esther's word and promise to her husband to establish a library in his memory lives on. During COVID, the Steele Memorial Library has been able to offer the community virtual activities and services, things its benefactor Esther Baker Steele could only have dreamed about.

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Iroquois Confederacy: The Original American Federalism

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that Chemung County is on Seneca land. The Seneca are one of the five original members of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy.  Haudenosaunee is the name they gave themselves which means “People of the Longhouse,” while Iroquois is a name given them by the French which has no clear etymology. The Confederacy is the oldest continuous democratic republic in the history of the world. They served as a model for the Founding Fathers when crafting the United States Constitution.


Although no one is sure of the exact dates of its founding, the Iroquois Confederacy is well over 500 years old and pre-dates the European conquest by generations. The time prior to the creation of the Confederacy is known as the Dark Times, when the five nations of the Iroquois were almost continuously at war. Along came a man known simply as the Peacemaker who helped to unite the warring nations along with his allies, the great Chief Hiawatha and Jigöhsahsë, the Mother of Nations. Together, they created an entirely new system of government with an oral constitution known as The Great Law.

Under The Great Law, the original five nations of the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca) agreed to make collective decisions regarding war, diplomacy, and trade, all while each nation retained autonomy over their own region. The members of each clan of each tribe selected a chief to represent them at the regular meetings held in Onondaga territory near what is now Syracuse. The Haudenosaunee are matriarchal and the women of the clan retain the ultimate power to nominate or remove a chief from office. The representatives from the tribes were divided into two groups, the Elder Brothers (Mohawk and Seneca) and the Younger Brothers (Oneida and Cayuga) with the Onondaga serving as serving as a sort of negotiator between them. When the Tuscarora joined the Haudenosaunee as refugees in 1722, they joined the Younger Brothers. In order for any decision to be made or law to be passed, it first had to be approved by the Elder Brothers, then the Younger Brothers, before being confirmed by the Onondaga. If any parties disagreed on the decision, the proposal would not pass. Although I used the past tense, it should be noted that this is still exactly how the Haudenosaunee government works to this day.


Prior to the Revolution, the colonies really did not get on, despite all being offshoots of the same British government. Whenever the Haudenosaunee wanted to make a treaty or trade agreement with the colonials, they had to do it with each individual colony. At one such treaty meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1744, Onondaga chief Canasatego decided to point out how silly this was saying:

"We heartily recommend Union and a good Agreement between you, our Brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become the stronger. Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out one with another."


Canasatego’s words lit a fire in Benjamin Franklin’s brain. He cited the Confederacy as inspiration for his 1754 Albany Plan for a unified colonial government. The idea initially failed to gain traction, but he brought it up again in 1777 when the Articles of Confederation were drafted, and again in 1781 during the Constitutional Convention. In 1988, Congress passed a resolution specifically recognizing the contributions of the Haudenosaunee in the creation of the US Constitution. 

Haudenosaunee Flag


Some ideas in the US Constitution shares with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy include:

·         The centralized government handles issues of war, diplomacy, and trade while individual states retain autonomy over daily affairs

·         Political leaders are chosen by and from the people

·         Political leaders can only hold a single office at a time

·         There is a mechanism for the review and removal of corrupt, incompetent, or otherwise unpalatable leaders

·         A system of checks and balances prevents any one party from having unilateral control

Monday, November 16, 2020

Carrying On During the Flood of 1902

 by Erin Doane, Curator

What would you do if you saw flood waters rapidly rising in the street in front of your downtown business? Would you barricade the door and hope it was enough to keep the deluge out? Would you rush to carry as many things as possible to higher ground? Or would you organize a flotilla of boats to keep patrons coming and going even as the water washed into the building? The last one is what Jerry Collins, owner of Jerry’s Sideboard on Water Street in Elmira, did on March 1, 1902.  

Men in boats in front of Elmira Saddlery Co. and Jerry’s Sideboard, East Water Street, March 1, 1902

The great flood of 1902 began innocuously enough on the evening of February 27 when it began raining. The steady rainfall continued overnight and through the next day. In addition to the rain, temperatures were getting warmer and melting the large buildup of snow and ice left by a cold, stormy winter. By the afternoon of February 28, the Hoffman Creek had overflowed its banks and the newspaper was warning that more flooding was likely.

100 block, East Water Street, Flood of 1902

At 8 0’clock the next morning, water started flowing into the basements of buildings on the north side of Water Street. Just a few hours later, the street was covered in nearly a foot of water. The flood waters continued to rise at nearly two feet an hour until the river finally crested at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The southside of the city was entirely flooded, as was everything on the northside east of Madison Avenue. Hundreds of homes and businesses were under water. The city’s gas mains were shut off, electric plants had failed, and trolley and train service was suspended. Household furniture, clothing, dead chickens, and live rats clinging to cakes of ice flowed down the river.

Elmira Gazette and Free Press headlines, March 1, 1902

One would think that at this point in the middle of catastrophic flooding, all businesses would be shut down, but that was not the case on the afternoon of March 1. While it was true that very few merchants were up and running in the flood zone, boot and shoe stores and hardware stores, in particular, were open and doing brisk business. From as early as 9 o’clock that morning, pedestrians filled any downtown street that remained dry and boats carried people over submerged streets even though members of the police and fire departments had stretched safety lines to keep people out of the flooded areas. Downtown Elmira was said to have resembled a circus day or a gala holiday with so many people out and about. Camera fiends were out in force as well taking hundreds of photographs (of which CCHS has a few dozen).

East Water Street, Elmira, March 1, 1902

Jerry Collins saw the sudden influx of people during the flood as a business opportunity. He established a ferry line to bring patrons to his bar, Jerry’s Sideboard, at 204 East Water Street. There were several inches of water covering the bar’s floor, but that didn’t seem to bother those seeking refreshment. Collins, the “Adonis” of local bartenders, had worked at the Hotel Rathbun for years and had just opened his own bar in 1901. His popularity as a bartender may have been why people decided to continue patronizing his establishment despite the natural disaster taking place all around them.

Jerry Collins (circled) with a group of men in front of his bar, March 1, 1902

It does seem like bars and taverns in general were particularly popular gathering spots on March 1 and 2. The Elmira police reported receiving 28 calls on those days during the height of the flooding and its immediate aftermath. Some of the calls were seeking relief for flood sufferers, but the majority were reports of intoxicated people who needed to be taken home or to police headquarters.

Men with high boots having great sport in the water during the flood of 1902

While the flood of 1902 was a major disaster that destroyed countless homes and businesses, it did not take any lives. Everyone directly involved in the flooding survived to recover and rebuild, including Jerry Collins. He continued to run his bar for another year before moving out of the area in 1903.


Monday, November 9, 2020

The Bachelor Governor

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Back in the day when our building housed the Chemung Canal Bank, there were apartments for rent on the top floor. A quick look around reveals about 5 rooms and a common bathroom. These rooms haven’t been rented for years, they now store documents, publications and educational items for the Historical Society. If the walls could talk they would surely share some great stories. One I tried to track down is the story of one of the building’s more famous renters. The story of two-time elected New York governor David Bennett Hill.

David Bennett Hill 1843 - 1910

David B. Hill was born in the village of Havana in Schuyler County in 1843. The settlement was known as Catherine’s Landing until the mid-19th century, when the name changed to Havana. It changed names a third time at the end of the century to what we now know as Montour Falls. David was the youngest of five children born to Caleb and Eunice Hill. His father had been captain on a canal boat and now ran a carpentry and joinery business. His mother managed the family household. David showed an early intellect and attended nearby Havana Academy. At seventeen he left to take a clerking job with a law office in the village. His employer was so impressed that he was encouraged to pursue law as a career. At twenty, Hill moved to Elmira to work for lawyer Erastus P. Hart and to pursue his legal studies. He passed the law exams in 1864 and was admitted to the bar, opening a law office in downtown Elmira. Later that year, Hill was appointed Elmira’s city attorney and became known as a successful and charismatic lawyer.

David Hill never married, but his life was full. Besides his law work, he was an active member of the Democratic Party. In 1871 and 1872 he was elected to the New York Assembly to represent Chemung County.  In the mid-1870s, to further his political agenda, Hill along with other associates purchased the Elmira Gazette newspaper. Begun in 1828, the paper was first published weekly before becoming an everyday paper. While John Arnot Sr., one of his associates, sold off his interests before 1880, it wasn't until 1906 that Hill finally sold the newspaper to Frank E. Gannett.

In 1877 and 1881 Hill was appointed president of the Democratic state conventions. In 1882 Hill was elected mayor of Elmira by a wide majority of voters. At just thirty-nine years old, 1882 also brought another opportunity his way. Hill was nominated as running mate to Buffalo’s mayor Grover Cleveland in his bid for governor. The 1882 election saw an unprecedented number of votes cast and the ticket of Cleveland and Hill won by plurality. Hill left Elmira and moved to Albany to be lieutenant-governor. Our collection contains a printed speech Hill gave which includes a copy of a note Cleveland wrote congratulating Hill:

After two years, Grover Cleveland ran for higher office and was elected 22nd president of the United States of America. Seeing his chance, Hill then ran for state office and won. He was elected the 29th Governor of New York and served from 1892 to 1897.

In New York the Democratic party of the 19th century was heavily controlled by Tammany Hall, a political pressure group out of New York City. This group had a big influence on politics in the city and the state, and while it advocated for social reform, it also became known for rampant greed and corruption. 

As governor, Hill was known for his interest in labor issues and working conditions. He introduced legislation to deal with child labor age limitations and working hour reforms for women and those under 18.

He also signed a bill in 1885 that established 715,000 acres of wild Forest Preserve which later became known as New York’s Adirondack Park.

New York's Adirondack Parks

Looking to run for higher office, Hill sought the 1892 democratic presidential nomination. His platform supported bimetallism, a monetary standard looking at two metals, typically gold and silver, instead of the singular gold standard which was eventually adopted. However, Cleveland soundly defeated Hall on the first convention ballot. The two were now polarizing figures in the party, each with their own set of loyal followers. Hill's group went by the name The David B. Hill club. Denied the nomination, Hill ran for the US Senate. He was elected and held this office from 1892 to 1897. Not content, he ran again for NY governor and this time was not successful. This political cartoon plays up the unlikely possibility of any partnership of Grover and Hill.

"The Funniest Thing Out - Dave and Grover on the same platform."

Though Hill never ran for public office again he was considered for the 1900 Democratic ticket's Vice Presidential position. In the end, the party nominated Adlai Stevenson.

Hill never returned to live in Elmira. In 1910, he died of a kidney condition at his country home Wolfert's Roost outside of Albany. He was buried in Montour Cemetery nearby family members.

Governor Hill's Wolfert's Roost

Checking City Directories for the years Hill lived in Elmira I found no evidence that he lived on the third floor at 415 East Water Street. He did rent a room at 93 Lake Street around the corner. 

We are still looking for who might have rented rooms in the building.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Win with Willkie

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Can anyone remember the last time a presidential candidate visited Chemung County? It wasn’t in my lifetime, that’s for sure. There have been a few vice-presidential candidate visits including Richard Nixon in 1952 and Spiro Agnew in 1972, but we haven’t merited top billing in a while.

The last presidential candidate to visit our fair county was Wendell Willkie (1892-1944). In 1940, he ran on the Republican ticket against the Democratic incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. Willkie was a corporate lawyer and life-long Democrat who had helped on various political campaigns, but had never run for office himself. Due to his corporate leanings, he became increasingly displeased with Roosevelt’s New Deal and was actually involved in a lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1938, several of his friends began urging him to run for president on the Democratic ticket. Once it became clear that Roosevelt intended to run for a third time, Willkie registered as a Republican and put himself forward as a candidate in that party instead. 

Wendell Willkie, 1940

 Wendell Willkie was unexpected as far as Republican presidential candidates go. Not only was he, as mentioned, a lifelong Democrat, he was a political outsider who had never run for nor held political office. He didn’t even bother to run in the primaries, he just put his name forward at the Republican convention and won the nomination mostly based on his image as a pro-business moderate who could bring over disillusioned Democrats. He ran on a platform of keeping some of the more popular New Deal programs, while simultaneously instituting pro-business reforms to get the economy rolling. Although he initially came out in support of the US getting involved in the war in Europe, he took an increasingly isolationist tack once it became clear that polled better.

On September 12, Willkie launched a whistle-stop tour by train. Between then and November 2, he reached 31 of 48 states. On October 25, he hit Elmira. At the Erie Railroad station, he was met by a reception committee comprised of Senator Chauncey B. Hammond, Mayor J. Maxwell Beers, and City Manager Ralph Kebles, as well as local Republican Party officials Charles Perry and Alexander Falck. A crowd of some 200 people awaited Willkie as he exited the station and got into a car accompanied by his wife, Edith. 

Wendell Willkie and the Elmira welcoming committee

Wendell & Edith Willkie in the car from the station

Willkie’s motorcade took him to a raised platform with a canopy at the corner of Church and Main Streets. Somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 people braved the damp to listen to him speak. According to the paper, he mostly focused on his economic platform designed to unleash the country’s full economic potential and on the dangers of the national debt and fascism. After speaking, he signed autographs for a bit before hopping back on the train. 


The crowd gathers to hear Willkie speak

In the end, Willkie lost his presidential bid by about 5 million votes. His supporters, mostly white, affluent, and suburban, were no match for Roosevelt’s working class, multi-ethnic coalition. Gracious in defeat, Willkie accepted a position as Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Great Britain at a White House party on the eve of the president’s third swearing-in. He ran for president again in 1944, but failed to clinch the party’s nomination and died not long after.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Spooks in Wellsburg

by Erin Doane, Curator

The death of Miss Mabel Evans in Wellsburg was a great mystery. How did the beautiful young lady die, and why was she quietly buried at midnight? Thomas McGraw was sitting peacefully at home, thinking about Miss Evans when a strange impulse prompted him to rise and go to the door. Outside, he was astonished to see the graceful figure of a shrouded woman, floating through the darkness several feet above the ground. As he watched, she slowly drifted away and vanished into the night.

This was not Mr. McGraw’s first brush with the supernatural. His home just outside the southeast limits of Wellsburg next to the cemetery was a hotbed of paranormal activity in 1894. The two story house had a story-and-a half wing that had been closed up and unoccupied for years. Yet, two or three times a week for over four months, Mr. McGraw heard strange noises in the wing. Between 10pm and 2am, the sounds of distinct, measured knocking, muffled footsteps, and strange whisperings could be heard. Occasionally, there was a cacophony of sound that resembled the falling down stairs of a tray full of beer glasses accompanied by a bass drum and a barrel full of cymbals. Every time Mr. McGraw went to investigate the sounds, he found absolutely nothing amiss; not even the spider webs on the windows had been disturbed. 

Word of the strange occurrences got around the small village, but no one was particularly surprised. Many residents had their own tales of deeds done by those who has long ago shuffled off this mortal coil. The stories managed to reach the ears of a reporter for the Elmira Telegram, and he was determined to investigate. While the reporter was never named in the subsequent article that described his experience, he did make it clear that he was a pronounced skeptic in matters pertaining to the spirit world when he put together the amateur crew of ghost hunters that would spend the night in Mr. McGaw’s haunted house. 

The newspaper man began his report of that night with the following: “Your emissary the other night had an attack of the horrors, felt his flesh creep and then stand in goose pimples, like the excrescences on the countenance of the tranquil cucumber, and all on account of an assignment to look up the story of an alleged haunted house in Wellsburg.” How did the avowed skeptic come to declare that “indisputable proofs of mysterious happenings in the realm of spooks have been furnished” after just one night?

Elmira Telegram, November 18, 1894

The reporter and his committee of four other investigators – Herman Murphy, the druggist and a man of undoubted integrity; Thomas F. Pickley, the station operator; and William J. Dalton and Harold Loomis, both respected young men of the village – arrived at Mr. McGraw’s home late in the evening. The reporter wrote that it was “a gruesome looking place, indeed as viewed…in the grey misty atmosphere.” The night was bitter cold and “the glistening white of the tombstones lent additional chill to the occasion.” Mr. McGraw greeted the men at the door and they joined the goodly company that had already gathered, which included Mr. and Mrs. Broderick Davidson and Frank Robinson. Mr. McGraw, “a most conservative and truthful man,” told his haunting stories to the rapt audience and then they waited. They strained their ears and watched the door leading into the unused wing until 11 o’clock at night, but nothing happened.

Disappointed, but still hopeful, the ghost hunters decided that perhaps they were too early and that it would be best to go downtown for some time (to a pub or tavern, if I had to guess) and return later when the spirits were more likely to be abroad. While the crew and their hosts were at the undisclosed location downtown, those present shared blood-curdling stories about numerous murders, mysterious disappearances, and suicides that had taken place near the old church yard next to Mr. McGraw’s residence.

The investigators returned to the graveyard at midnight and “sat like five ghoulish figures” on headstones near the center of the burial ground. They “huddled shiveringly together, tried to smoke away the feeling of oppression, but in vain.” Suddenly, Mr. Pickley went pale. He slowly lifted his arm and pointed his finger to a spot not more than thirty feet away. The other men’s eyes followed his movement and they all plainly saw “a stately white robed figure…moving majestically along just above the toppling headstones.”

The five men rose from their hard, cold perches as one and gaped at the astonishing apparition. Without thinking, the reporter rushed toward the “beautiful gaseous figure.” Just before reaching it, the female figure turned its face toward him, rooting the hapless man to the spot. An indescribable feeling of oppression inspired by the awful spectral presence came over him and he fell face-first into the dead grass. The spirit turned away and dissolved into the darkness.

That vapory, filmy, relicts [sic] of those who once lived here on earth, do hover about us, and keep tabs on what we do or what we leave undone, is now [my] firm conviction. 

– unnamed Elmira Telegram reporter, November 18, 1894