Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Bricks and Mortar

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Like many organizations, our small and vibrant Chemung Valley History Museum, run by the Chemung County Historical Society, has been on #NYPause since mid-March. We're eager to reopen when safely allowed to do so and are working hard to make that happen. We want to hear your concerns, and if you haven’t taken our survey yet, we encourage you to do so. 

While we pivoted to answer questions and post exhibits, talks and videos online, we believe in the power of original artifacts, documents and stories. The experience of seeing a physical object’s size, color, and material cannot compare to anything online, and we can’t wait to see you back in the brick building.

The distinctive building opened in 1833 as the Chemung Canal Bank, one of the area’s first banks. Brick buildings weren't common at the time, as most other buildings were made of wood, a cheaper and more plentiful material.

Making bricks is labor-intensive and the hand-crafted process can still be found in use throughout the world today. Technological advancements in the mid-
19th century changed the industry. 

Investing in machines allowed large-scale brick manufacturing to improve the brickmaking process. Workers used various machines to help mine, mix and knead the raw materials, to press the mixture into molds, and to move the new bricks into high-intensity ovens to dry. Machines helped increase brick production and regulate brick quality. Producing more bricks meant building with bricks became a more affordable option. They also became more fashionable. Architects came up with ways to use bricks in decorative ways, softening the look of the ever taller and larger buildings.

Cowles Hall, Elmira College

Fire resistance was another good reason building with bricks became popular. Cities were growing in size and population, and closely built wooden buildings and structures were prone to fire. There were no official city Fire Departments, building codes and safety inspections yet. Sadly looking through old newspapers, it is common to see reports of devastating fires that wiped out entire city blocks, even into the 20th century. 

Lyceum Theater fire, March 1904

In 1830, to save lives and property Elmira established its first fire company. It was an all-volunteer crew. The city's first professional fire department was adopted fifty-eight years later in 1878. Building codes for fire safety and inspection didn't show up until 1905. This was when the National Board of Fire Underwriters, a group of US insurance companies got together to come up with a National Building Code model to help minimize fire risk. Today model building safety codes are adopted by state or local jurisdiction and enforced by municipal fire departments. While brick buildings didn't prevent devastating fires, they were fire resistant. Building with brick was a good investment.

Mr. Albright established The Horseheads Consolidated Brick Co. in 1840. It  was one of the area's largest brickmakers. Considered one of the oldest industries in Horseheads, it churned out bricks for more than a century.
Early on, the Horseheads plant adopted the latest technological advances. They operated five molding machines which allowed them to produce up to 6 million bricks per year. The nearby Chemung Canal, opened the same year as the bank building, became critical in the company's growth. They used the canal to bring in raw materials and later to ship out the finished bricks. After the canal closed, railroads and trucks extended the company’s ability to ship bricks across the nation. Early 20th century production peaked to two million bricks a month, and the company employed seventy-five workers. Things slowed down and company changed ownership many times. It finally closed down operations in 1961.

Horseheads Consolidated bricks came in five different sizes: Standard, Jumbo, Roman, Norman and SCRSM sizes. The bricks were stamped with one of four different markings: H, H-H, HHDS, or the word Horse over Heads. This brick is on display in our museum:

Brick color depends on which blend of materials are used. Horseheads Consolidated offered four different colors with different blends of clay, shale, sand and oxides. Today we think of red bricks as standard, but red oxide bricks only became popular during Victorian times in England. They were reported to be the best color visible through London’s thick fog.

When we reopen, we invite you to come look at the Horseheads Consolidated Brick example on display, and to discover more in our historic brick building. For another look at Horsehead bricks, visit the Horsehead Historical Society when it reopens, or view J.D. Iles’s Hidden Landmarks episode filmed 5/15/20.  

Friday, May 15, 2020

The Sisters of St. Joseph

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In spring 1907, Mother Agnes of the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester knelt in the chapel of the Nazareth Convent waiting for a sign from god. J. John Hassett and Dr. John A. Westlake of Elmira had approached Bishop McQuaid of Rochester about opening a Catholic hospital in Elmira in the old Academy of Our Lady of the Angels school. The Sisters of St. Joseph were selected to run it and Mother Agnes was praying for guidance on who to send when Sister Alice Rose Conway walked in. She would serve as St. Joseph’s Hospital administrator until her death in 1939.

Sister Alice Rose Conway

The Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph was founded in Le Puy, France in 1650. They established their American chapter in upstate New York in 1836 and have served the Diocese of Rochester, which includes Chemung County, since 1868. Prior to establishing St. Joseph’s Hospital, the sisters were strictly a teaching order. Sister Alice Rose was a French and math teacher at Nazareth Academy. Of the seven sisters who helped to establish the hospital, only two, Sister St. Ann and Sister Jerome, had any previous hospital experience. The former teachers had a lot of learning to do.

St. Joseph’s Hospital opened for patients on September 24, 1908 after extensive renovations. The first few years were incredibly hard and the hours were brutal. The sisters rose at 3am to do laundry in the kitchen before seeing to their nursing duties. At the end of their shifts, they ironed before dinner and then attended classes on nursing after. Money was tight. While the sisters made sure the patients had food, they, on several occasions, had nothing more than soup made from potato skins. Gas and electric service was spotty and wards were often lit by candles stuck in potatoes.

Original St. Joseph's Hospital and adjacent convent

The hospital grew rapidly under the guidance of Sister Alice Rose. Despite her limited experience, she was an able administrator and skilled fundraiser. In 1909, they held their first fundraiser, a baseball game between Elmira and Wilkes-Barre. The following year they built a laundry building and almost immediately launched into a campaign to fund construction of an annex. By the time Sister Alice Rose died in 1939, the hospital had expanded from a tiny converted school with 26 beds to a goodly-sized hospital complex with 5 buildings, 245 beds, and a dedicated nursing school with dormitory.

Care at St. Joseph’s had a uniquely Catholic flavor. The sisters believed it was crucial to heal patients both physically and spiritually. Patients could pray with the sisters, receive sacraments, and attend mass. At the tail end of the 20th century, they could even watch an in-house religious channel on their room’s TV. The nursing school was decidedly Catholic too. Each floor of the dormitory was overseen by a resident nun who kept the girls from sinful behaviors like dating. Students not only took classes on nursing and health, but also on the Catholic faith. Everyone, Catholic or not, was required to attend chapel at 6:50 am and Mass twice a week. It’s no surprise, really, that over the years, upwards of 40 students ended up as nuns themselves.

Sisters of St. Joseph on hospital steps, ca. 1930s

Sister Ruth Schicker, the last of the founding sisters, died at age 81 in 1967, but there where still plenty of nuns at St. Joseph’s Hospital. At the Order’s peak in 1947, there were 40 sisters working as nurses, administrators, and clerks. As the 20th century progressed, however, the number of nuns across the nation as a whole began to decline from a peak of 180,000 in 1965 to 92,107 in 1996. By the turn of the 21st century, there were only four sisters still working at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Sister Marie Castagnaro was the last, finally stepping down as administrator in 2010, shortly before St. Joseph’s merged with the Arnot Health System. 

An interesting side note: in 1942, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester established a mission in Selma, Alabama and founded Good Samaritan Hospital for the treatment of impoverished blacks who could not be admitted to the local white hospital. Sisters from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elmira and the mother house in Rochester took turns working there. On March 7, 1965, Civil Rights activists lead a march for voting rights which was supposed to be from Selma to Montgomery. Instead, the marchers were brutally beaten by state troopers and white supremacists at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Four sisters from St. Joseph’s were working at Good Samaritan at the time and helped to care for the wounded from the march. Within six hours, the hospital treated over 100 patients and admitted 15. Martin Luther King later visited the hospital to thank the sisters personally. In 1989, Margaret Hanley, formerly Sister Michael Ann Hanley, gave an interview about her time in Selma. Thanks to a grant from the South Central Regional Library Council, we were able to digitize the interview and make it available on YouTube. A quick warning before watching: it’s an hour long, so maybe grab some popcorn first.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Chemung County’s First Fatal Automobile Accident

by Erin Doane, Curator

On July 5, 1914, Dr. Sherman Voorhees, his wife Lilian, and their son Sherman, who was known as “Laddie,” were motoring along what is now Comfort Hill Road in the town of Ashland. Somehow, the doctor lost control of his 1913 Chalmers, and it went careening over an embankment. The vehicle rolled over and over, expelling the three passengers along the way, and came to rest in a field of daisies. Sherman was gravely injured; Laddie suffered from multiple cuts and bruises; and Lilian was killed almost instantly when her neck was broken. This is thought to have been the first fatal automobile accident in the county.

Portrait of Dr. Sherman Voorhees, Lilian Voorhees, and their son
Sherman Persons “Laddie” Voorhees, Star-Gazette, July 6, 1914
Sherman was a medical doctor who came to Elmira in 1897 to open a practice. Lilian was a socialite and philanthropist who was well known throughout the city. Laddie was a care-free 13 years old. It was a lovely, dry summer day when the family decided to take a drive over South Mountain. They could never have imagined how the day would take a tragic turn.

Where the Voorhees’ car toppled over the embankment,  
Star-Gazette, July 6, 1914
Laddie was the first thrown from the tumbling car. He suffered comparatively light injuries, and was able to rush to his mother’s side and then to his father. Unable to help either, he climbed back up the embankment and hurried to the home of William M. Kimball for help. Floyd Kimball and Morris Butman and his mother, who were spending the day at the farm, rushed back to the scene of the accident with him. Someone went to the home of Arthur Millard and more people came to help. Soon, dozens had arrived to offer assistance including several doctors and the motor patrol from the city. Despite all efforts, there was no saving Lilian. 

Dr. Voorhees’ car after the accident, Star-Gazette, July 6, 1914
Many worried that Sherman’s injuries were so severe that he would soon follow his wife, but he slowly and steadily improved over the course of many weeks. By early August he was finally able to move around his home on crutches, and in late August he was taken to the Glen Mary Sanitarium in Owego to speed his recovery. One month into the stay, he was walking about the sanitarium yard and was recovering his physical vigor. On October 9, it was announced that he would finally be returning home.

While Sherman was undergoing his convalescence, Laddie was also recovering physically and emotionally. He joined the newly-formed boy scout troop in Elmira and was chosen as No. 3 patrol leader. On October 10, the day his father returned from his stay at the sanitarium, Laddie and Scoutmaster John G. Addey led a boy scout hike to Daggett’s beyond Bulkhead.

While Sherman’s return home was celebrated, he never did recover from the injuries he suffered in the crash. Shortly after leaving Owego, he went to Atlantic City for three weeks then spent some time in New York City before moving in with his sister Dr. Belle V. Aldridge in Brooklyn. On May 1, 1915, ten months after the accident, Dr. Sherman Voorhees passed away from complications which developed from a fracture at the base of his skull. His body was brought back to Elmira on Erie train No. 7, and he was interred next to Lilian in Woodlawn Cemetery.

After Sherman’s death, John N. Willys of Elmira was formally appointed the guardian of Laddie. The young man went on to be a successful business man and was instrumental in bringing the first soaring and gliding contests to Elmira in the early 1930s. He passed away unexpectedly at his home in Hartford, Connecticut on February 7, 1964 at the age of 63.

Sometime after the accident, a cross was erected on the spot where Lilian died. No one is sure who created the memorial, but it may have been her husband or, more likely, her son. The inscription on the cross reads: This spot is made sacred by the death of Mrs. Sherman Voorhees by accident July 5, 1914.

Cross erected in memory of Lilian Voorhees off Comfort Hill Road, 
 photo taken March 5, 2020
In 1959, a sign was placed at the edge of the road to bring attention to and provide an explanation for the cross down below. The sign lasted about 14 years before it disappeared. In 1989, John F. McDonald, who lived next door to the monument, decided to recreate the original sign. He and his son Chad built the sign and holder, and he had Arden May of Millport paint it.

John F. and Chad McDonald beside the new sign, 
Star-Gazette, September 21, 1989
Over time, the sign weathered and became unreadable, so the town of Ashland stepped in. In 2001, a new metal sign was unveiled. You can still visit the site today on Comfort Hill Road, about halfway between Rogers and Walsh Roads, and see both the sign and the memorial cross.

Dedication of the new commemorative sign, 2001,
Photo courtesy of the Ashland Historical Society

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Posters Spread the Word

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

The Chemung County Historical Society is sponsoring a COVID19 Awareness Poster Contest for area students. Posters are due online by June 1st and more details can be found on our Facebook page or this link at Poster Contest.

Our contest is open to all Chemung County students enrolled in public, private or homeschooled classes ranging from Kindergarten through 12th grade. We’ve lined up a committee of local celebrities to judge the entries, and the posters they select will be put together as part of a CCHS online exhibit everyone can see. The overall winning poster will be professionally printed and distributed to schools and public buildings for display, and to remind us of good health practices. Our project is supported by a grant from the Arts Council and we thank them. Please share this contest information with any students you know.

Why Posters? Throughout history, posters have been an effective and eye-catching way for people to get their messages out. Early posters in America can be traced back to the late 18th century and were mainly used for advertising. Most were lithographic prints created with a printing technique that uses a flat treated surface, often a stone. To make a print, the surface is treated to attract or repel ink in order to create the desired image. The word Lithography is derived from two ancient Greek words - stone or lithos and writing or graphy. This process was a big improvement over earlier printing practices, however it remained slow and labor-intensive because each image color required a new surface. By the end of the 19th century printers had improved the process and could now create a rainbow of colors by only using three printing surfaces. Large-format printing became easier, cheaper, and more reliable.

Artists quickly adopted the process to create memorable posters. Design became more important and artists like Henri de Toulouse Lautrec used lithography to create distinctive posters we still recognize today.

His poster of dancer Jane Avril plays up her dramatic flair using that great swooping hat and ribbon snaking down her dress.

Posters were often bold, colorful and used image as much as text to get their message across. Not only used in advertising, they were often used to influence public opinion. As life moved faster and the 20th century world headed towards war, posters advertised or promoted specific issues like this example from our collection. 

Dressed in an American flag, this farmer spreads victory across the land. While some posters promoted greater public knowledge and were based on facts, others were biased sharing very narrow viewpoints. These functioned as propaganda attempting to push false information or ideas. Either way, posters were an effective way using both image and text to spread messages to as many people as possible.

Poster contests don't span the same history. Locally, they show up in the Star-Gazette mid-20th century. In 1949 the Montour Falls School advertised a contest for 5th through 8th grade students to create posters on the Bill of Rights. Other contests and topics over the years were sponsored by the Civil Defense auxiliary guild, Family Doctors Preventative Health, Muscular Dystrophy, Red Cross preparedness, an anniversary of women's voting, fire safety, and racial equity.  

Posters can be serious, clever, funny, subtle or bold. Humor has made its inevitable dent in the COVID19 situation, with posters from the so-named ‘Coronavirus Tourism Bureau’ a clever hack by talented California graphic designer Jennifer Baer. She's made staying at home look exotic.

The world as we knew it before COVID19 has changed. The lives of our students have been changed forever. We want to see what Chemung County students have to say, we believe their voices are important for us to hear.

Encourage any students you know to participate and spread the word!
(For another blog on posters, see our blog Selling the War )