Monday, July 6, 2020

Play On!

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Today July 6th, the Museum and Booth Library are opening doors after more than one hundred days of closure due to the COVID19 pandemic. To protect our visitors and staff, we’ve adapted safety rules and best practices. We’ve installed new exhibits and are eager to see visitors, members, volunteers and researchers drop by again. If you have questions, we’ve posted expectations near our entryway, and on our website or you can call us at 607-734-4167.
Chamber of Commerce Parade, July 4, 1919
One hundred days feels like a long time and being in the middle of something, it’s hard to get any perspective on a bigger picture. We just don’t know when our pandemic situation will change. With the advantage of time, and a 21st century lens, looking back at history can give us a different perspective.

Travel back to Elmira in 1920 by first looking at the front page of the Elmira Star-Gazette for July 6th.
 The page is full of articles on the upcoming presidential election in November. There’s no mention of the global trauma of World War I which had claimed 16 million lives. There’s also no mention of the recent chaos of the flu pandemic of 1918. It had lasted fifteen months and caused 50 million deaths worldwide. It’s easy to think that the past was a rosier time, but in fact in the 1920s, the US was experiencing upheaval. There were meat packing and steel industry labor strikes, huge and terrifying race riots, an economic depression, conflicts over prohibition, disagreements about nationalism and waves of anti-immigration.

The 1920s experienced a lot of change. Increasing industrialization brought down prices on radios, automobiles, and telephones, items once only available to the well-to-do. Each, in different ways, changed people’s ability to connect with the world around them. As a city, Elmira was experiencing prosperity. In 1920, the county’s population was 65,000. Today, that number hovers around 83,000 people. 1920 was the year the Mark Twain Hotel, the Steel (Carnegie) Memorial Library, and the Keeney Theater buildings opened their doors. 

The newspaper articles are all about the future. On July 6th, 1920, the City of Elmira and Chemung County celebrated in a way that one writer wrote: 
The event to celebrate the fourth of July, was a parade.

It’s hard to verify how large the parade was, or if it really was the, up to then, greatest of its kind in Elmira’s history. The article appears on page four of the paper and is five columns long. In a flourishing descriptive style, it mentions thousands of people attending and crowds up to five deep watching along the sidelines. Participating organizations represented military, history, civil service, and education. There were floats, marching bands, costumed performers and dancers. The parade stretched eight divisions long in addition to a finale, and hundreds of people participated. The parade is a sincere and earnest celebration of our national holiday. Unfortunately, the Historical Society has no picture of the ‘greatest’ parade.

We do have information on at least one of the bands that participated. Following just behind local dignitaries, Hager’s Band marched along playing “a catchy march as only Hager’s can give it.”
To learn more about Arnold Hager and his band, read our blogpost. To see him and his band, we’ve just installed an exhibit “The Band Played On” which we hope you will drop by to visit. In it, we tell the history of local musicians, composers and musical organizations in the area.

The “greatest” parade was not the only parade mentioned in that evening’s edition. Page thirteen lists another parade taking place in Elmira Heights the day before. It was held to observe both Independence Day and a War Memorial. It only received four and a half paragraphs of description. 

It might seem frivolous to look back at this kind of history. Like the article on the parade, our exhibits show different aspects of life in the past. Reflecting on history helps us pause and look at what’s going on today, and can be hopeful. Newspaper readers from one hundred years ago didn’t see the depression, looming WWII, Civil Rights struggle and cold war on the horizon. They celebrated that day with pomp and circumstance and were hopeful. History relies heavily on who tells it, it’s not always pretty or simple. Our exhibits offer you the chance to look at different people and events from Chemung County to find meaningful connections to your own story.

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