Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Kings of Drag

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

On the night of November 21, 2004, a group of talented drag kings and queens strutted their stuff at the annual Mr. & Miss Angles Pageant at Angles Ultimate Dance Club on Railroad Avenue. Contestants competed in the categories of evening wear and performance. While most people are familiar with the concept of drag queens, few are aware of the long history of drag kings, or male impersonators. 

The history of men dressing as women for theatrical purposes dates back centuries. The history of women impersonating men is nearly as old. Male impersonators have played an important role in Chinese opera dating as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) where The Butterfly Lovers, an ancient folktale of two star-crossed crossdressing lovers, was hugely popular. The golden age of Chinese male impersonators came during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1369 C.E.). In 1364, author and theater enthusiast Xia Tingzhi wrote 117 biographies of some of the most prominent performers. They played a wide range of roles from military figures and brigands (complete with martial arts choreography) to tender young lovers. In the West, most male impersonators played teenage boys or women disguising themselves as men. The trend largely dated back to the early-1700s. By the mid-1800s, male impersonation for comedic purposes in vaudeville sketches had also become popular. 

Male impersonator Zelma Rawlston, 1894

 Locally, women performed male roles throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1894, Miss Virginia Earl drew praise from the Star-Gazette’s theater critic for her role as the young prince of Siam in the operetta Wang. Several vaudeville performers including Ida LePage and Zelma Rawlston played men in comedic sketches or musical numbers. In 1935, there were two male impersonators working the Elmira bar scene: Buddie Warren and Buddie Brown. Warren was the M.C. and host of the Wonder Bar, 160 Lake Street, where she introduced various acts. Brown, meanwhile, was a singer at the Annex Grill, 62 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Ad for the Wonder Bar, September 6, 1935

The use of the phrase “drag king” to refer to male impersonators first became popular in the mid-20th century. Much like drag queens, modern day drag kings tend to be members of the LGBTQ community. While historically that was not always the case, several prominent male impersonators have, in fact, been very queer. Julie D’Aubigny (1673-1707), was a French opera star and duelist who regularly played male roles and had lovers of both sexes. Annie Hindle (1840s-1897), the most well-known American male impersonator of her day, married her dresser Annie Ryan in 1886 under an assumed name.    

Modern drag kings often perform dance numbers and comedy routines which play up certain male stereotypes. They often take punny stage names like Mo B. Dick and Freddie Prinze Charming. Locally, there are a few places where you can catch a show including Angles Ultimate Dance Club, the Starlight Room, and the Clemens Center.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Lost in the Mail

by Erin Doane, Curator

On March 3, 1951, a heavy snowstorm was raging as Erie Railroad Train #7 from New York City sped through Wellsburg at 8:15 in the morning. In those days, mail was delivered by non-stop dispatch to the village. That meant that the train did not stop or even slow down to drop off the mail. The railway postal clerk on the train simply threw the locked canvas mail pouch from the train as it passed by. Train #7 always delivered the heaviest mail of the day, usually around 300 individual pieces of all kinds except for parcel post. On the morning of March 3, because of poor visibility caused by the snowstorm, the clerk threw the pouch a little too soon and it went right into the Chemung River.

The problem of mail thrown from trains being damaged or lost was not new. Less than two years earlier, the Erie Railroad had discontinued direct mail service to the area precisely because of the loss and damage. Earlier in the century, locomotives had run on steam, but by 1949 all of Erie’s engines were diesel. The mechanical change meant that trains ran 15 to 20mph faster than they had before. This was great for the railroad companies but not so good for the communities who had mail delivered by the direct, non-stop method. Pouches that were not thrown clear enough of the tracks sometimes got sucked under the train and the mail was cut up or scattered for miles down the tracks.

On October 1, 1949, direct mail service from the Erie Railroad ended in Wellsburg in favor of a star route. The government contracted out star routes to private companies and individuals who delivered the mail through means other than by steamboat and railroad. Elmer Peck of Lowman got the contract for the new local star route. Peck’s son-in-law Ralph Jilson picked up mail and parcels from a central office at the Waverly railway station and drove them to the post offices in Wellsburg, Lowman, Chemung, and Wilawana early each morning and late each afternoon. 

The new system of mail delivery kept letters safe from being accidentally destroyed by speeding trains, but postal customers almost immediately protested the change. Delivery slowed down considerably, and there was soon a large number of vigorous complaints demanding that the old non-stop service was restored. Customers got their way, and by February 1, 1950 mail pouches were again being launched from trains.

Sarah Wilcox was postmaster in Wellsburg in 1951. When she got word that snowy March morning that the mail pouch had been flung into the river, she sent a team into action. Her husband Lester Wilcox, office clerk Leroy Miller, mail messenger Norman Dallas, and school teacher James Underwood launched a boat and searched the river. They came up empty handed. The river was unusually high at the time with a swift current. The next day, Sunday, volunteers spread out along the river banks, looking for the lost mail. On Monday, auxiliary mail carrier Eldon Hughes and Edward Burt took a boat as far as Nine Mile Point looking for the mail pouch. Ten days later, the postmaster was still appealing to fishermen and people living along the river to help in the search, but it was becoming clear that the mail would never be found.

In 1970, Sarah Wilcox announced her retirement from the Wellsburg post office. She had served as postmaster for 25 years and worked as a postal clerk 6 years before that. A Star-Gazette reporter interviewed her on this momentous occasion, and the story of the mail that went missing in the river came up. At the time of the accident, it must have been distressing for those who never got letters, bills, or cards they were expecting, but, nearly 20 years later, it made for an amusing little story.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Elmira Garden Club

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Every season planters in front of our museum are creatively arranged by members of the Elmira Garden Club. We always appreciate their work.

While our museum has been located on East Water Street for close to thirty-nine years, the Elmira Garden Club has been going strong and part of the community for ninety-two years. The idea of a club began as an inspiration of a local high school senior. James H. Draper, Jr. later said he always enjoyed flowers and gardening, and wanted to start a club similar to garden clubs popping up in other cities.
Garden Club founder James H. Draper, Jr. 1928

In early 1928, James placed an ad in the paper hoping to find other like-minded people. Fifteen people responded, and convinced he could find more, James placed a second ad. When another fifteen people showed up, the group had thirty members and the club began. The group met at Steele Memorial Library and elected James Draper as the club’s first president. He held this position for the next four years, during which time membership grew to more than sixty-five people. Soon after it began, the club affiliated with the Federal Garden Clubs of New York, broadening its scope.

Founded to promote, instruct, and assist area gardeners, its members also strived to conserve and protect forests and waterways for wildlife and recreation. At one early meeting, Chemung County 4-H leader Frank Essick spoke in favor of Elmira’s new club. He let them all know they could count on the endorsement and resources of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture.

Early club activities included an annual flower show, and garden workshops for novice and experienced gardeners.
Dahlia show display at Arnot Mall, September, 1969
Meetings often featured speakers, who presented a variety of garden-related topics. In 1935, the club was instrumental in introducing an important conservation organization to the area, the Audubon Society. Formed in 1905, they are a non-profit environmental - and one of the oldest - organizations to use science, education and grassroots advocacy to advance its conservation mission.

The Garden Club was also actively involved in keeping Elmira beautiful, and received national recognition for their outstanding civic beautification projects.

While club meetings continued to be held at Steele Memorial Library, an opportunity arose for them to obtain their own clubhouse, which included available space to garden. The building at Fulton and Pleasant Streets had once housed the hospital for Civil War families and was later used as an orphan asylum. It had been abandoned and vacant since the 1930s.
Elmira Garden Clubhouse
Agreeing to care for the building and grounds, the Elmira Garden Club took it over and nine years later were able to purchase the property. The year was 1943. The USA was involved in WWII, and not surprisingly the featured garden that year celebrated Victory Gardens.

In addition to annual flower shows, Elmira Garden Club activities have included planting window boxes at the Post Office, assisting City Planners with mini-park landscaping, plantings at Mark Twain’s and Hal Roach’s gravesites, and container gardens at the Arnot Art Museum. Members have been involved in beautifying gardens surrounding the SPCA in Big Flats, and gardens at Riverfront and Wisner Parks.

Over the years, club membership has fluctuated. Numbers have been as high as 150 and as few as 27. Today, according to Garden Club President Karen Coletta, there are eighty-three active members. The group meets at their clubhouse located at 426 Fulton Street, gathering at 6:30 pm on the first Thursday of each month, from April through December. All are welcome to join their hands-on workshops, and hear invited guest speakers. More information can be found on their website

Founder James Draper, Jr. was a member of the Elmira Garden Club until he died in 1967. By then he had served as director of the sixth district of the Federated Garden Clubs of New York State which had jurisdiction over similar garden clubs in Broome, Chemung, Onondaga, Chenango, Cortland, Delaware, Otsego, Schuyler, Tioga, Tompkins and Madison counties. He had also organized the Garden Club Workers of Western New York, and served as its president for two years. Well-known as a gardening expert, he wrote a gardening column for the Sunday Telegram as well as other New York newspapers and various home magazines. Reading the entry in his 1928 senior yearbook we can almost imagine a gardener, though he writes ‘undecided’ for his direction.

In addition to our outdoor planters, the Elmira Garden Club supplies the Chemung County Historical Society with holiday wreaths, and arranges flowers for our annual Great Car Thing fundraiser in early June. We are lucky to benefit from their hard work and grateful for what they continue to do. 
Enjoying the flowers at The Great Car Thing, June 2019

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Black Oral History Digitization Project: Part I

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Remember when I wrote about how I’d applied for a digitization grant from the South Central Regional Library Council? Well, the excited dolphin noises you might have heard emanating from the museum at the end of December were me, learning that I got the grant! Let me tell you a little about the project so you can be this excited too.

From 1989 to 1991, the CCHS collected oral histories from twenty-five leaders within our local Black community. Interviewees included trailblazers, community organizers, and religious leaders like Rev. Leo Hughey Jr., Nellie Jennings, Wilbur Reid, Bessie Berry, Donald Botsford, Charles Bright, and others. Over half of the participants are now dead. In some cases, these tapes are the only recordings of these people that exist. Some of the topics covered in the interviews include the civil rights movement, the Neighborhood House, EOP, NAACP, A.M.E. Zion Church, Glove House, and the personal histories of the participants. The stories captured in these oral histories are invaluable. 

Participant Delmar Rouse at his place of work, 1989
Unfortunately, the audio cassettes on which the interviews were recorded are inherently unstable. Each time an audio cassette is played, there is a risk it may get damaged. As anyone who remembers destroying their favorite tape can attest, audio cassettes can unspool, tear, or become demagnetized.  While digitization is not technically a preservation tool, it does allow users to listen to the recording without risking damaging it. 

Two of the 29 cassettes we'll be digitizing

Later this week, I will be sending off the tapes to a vendor in Maryland. There, the vendor will stabilize and repair the original tapes and then digitize them. He will create a 24-bit 96kHz PCM archival WAV file of each recording along with a 128kbps 44.1kHZ MP3 use file. Why the two file formats? WAV is a much more stable audio format, but it is also incredibly large and unwieldy for things like CDs, while MP3 can be played and shared easily. 

Part of the grant requires that we share the digitized recordings on the New York Heritage website. Since I don’t know how to do that, I’ll be taking some training classes on sharing audio files. We’re also working on plans with the local chapter of the NAACP to hold at least one public listening event where we’ll share and discuss the recordings. I will be posting updates as the process goes along so stay tuned.