Monday, August 31, 2020

Wrong Side of History: The Anti-Suffragists

 By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote. Since I’ve already written about the suffrage movement here, here, and here, I thought I’d write about the movement’s dark sister: the anti-suffragists. 

It probably comes as no surprise to hear that there were many men opposed to women’s suffrage, but I was shocked (shocked!) to learn there were women opposed to gaining the vote. The Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association of Chemung County was founded by Mrs. Grace Alden Gregg for the express purpose of ensuring that the 1917 referendum to gain New York women the vote failed.  Gregg was the wife of attorney William W. Gregg, and, while she didn’t work, she was heavily involved in charity and social work through the First Presbyterian Church and the Y.W.C.A. She was joined in her fight against women’s suffrage by Mrs. M.H. Murphy, Mrs. H.H. Hallock, Mrs. W.W. Cole, Miss Helen McCann, Miss Flora Gannett, and Miss Mary Potter. Like Gregg, Murphy, Hallock, and Cole were the wives of well-to-do men and actively involved charity and social clubs.  Potter had been a schoolteacher and principal from 1873 to 1913, and regularly wrote educational articles for the Star-Gazette on various cultural and historical topics.

When the first women’s suffrage initiative appeared on the ballot in 1915, the majority of Chemung County voters were in favor, even though the referendum ultimately failed statewide. Throughout 1917, the anti-suffragists worked hard to change their minds. They took out advertisements in the local papers asking people to vote No. Mary Potter wrote a series of op-eds. They brought the famous anti-suffragist Miss Lucy Price to Elmira to speak to various men’s clubs and organizations. Every time the suffragists held a rally, the anti-suffragists held a counter rally. When the suffragists opened a booth at the Chemung County Fair, the anti-suffragists got a booth directly across from them. They even challenged suffragist leaders to a public debate which was politely declined. The Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association of Chemung County enjoyed community support, receiving $264 in donations, plus free space for meetings, free advertising on streetcars, and the use of 5 cars lent by local businessmen.

So, what were their main arguments against suffrage? Part of it was timing. In her op-eds, Potter specifically argued that the nation’s efforts should be focused on the war and that suffragists were an unpatriotic distraction. A lot of the argument against suffrage focused on traditional gender roles and a deep seated fear of change. Women, the anti-suffragists argued, were domestic angels who would be sullied by the nastiness of politics. Encouraging them to enter the public sphere could lead to the destruction of social norms which protected respectable women from rape and prostitution. Moreover, demanding the vote was tantamount to saying that the men in women’s lives were unable to properly represent women’s interests. Several anti-suffragists also claimed it was undemocratic to force the vote on those women who did not want it.  

As silly as some of those arguments seem now, the Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association of Chemung County’s campaign actually worked. On Election day, November 6, 1917, Chemung County voted No on women’s suffrage, even as the rest of the state voted yes. Despite having lost the battle, some of the local anti-suffragists refused to give up on the war. Gregg, Murphy, and Gannett represented Chemung County at the national meeting of the Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage in December 1917 in Washington, D.C. and continued to work against the national suffrage amendment. It wasn’t until the 1920s, after the passage of the 19th Amendment, that Mrs. Grace Gregg finally bowed to the force of history and registered to vote.

Monday, August 24, 2020

The Wellsburg Fire of 1912

by Erin Doane, Curator

The locomotive sped down the tracks, casting up sparks as it passed. Usually, the tiny glowing embers cooled and blinked out as they drifted through the air and settled to the ground as harmless dust. On April 27, 1912, however, one of the sparks landed on the shed roof at Lockwood’s coal and lumber yard. It still retained enough heat to catch hold of the dry wood and a flame burst to life. The fire crept across the roof, growing stronger and brighter on a path that would lead to the destruction of much of downtown Wellsburg.

After the Wellsburg Fire of 1912

Charles J. Stringer saw the flicker of flames on Lockwood’s shed and sounded the alarm. Volunteer firefighters from throughout the village rushed to the scene. They reeled out their hoses and hooked them to the water supply. Throwing the valves open, they waited for the torrent of water to rush forth and beat back the flames. The weak flow that trickled through the hoses brought with it surprise and dread. Far up on the hill overlooking Wellsburg, a crew labored at cleaning the drained reservoir. No one could have known that the scheduled, periodic maintenance of the water supply would coincided with the greatest fire the village had ever seen. 

Fire at Wellsburg, N.Y., Apr. 27, 1912

As the firefighters struggled, wind blew over the blaze, lifting hot embers into the sky. The miniature firebrands floated across Main Street, down Front Street, and dropped onto the roof of an unoccupied blacksmith shop on Terrace Street that was owned by another member of the Stringer family.

Now split between two flaming fronts, the firefighters could not prevent the first fire from jumping to H.W. Young’s General Store just across the street from Lockwood’s yard. From there the blaze moved down the block to R.R. Welch’s ice cream and confectionery shop, to Robert’s general store, to H.O. Cole’s barber shop, to the Robert’s homestead, and even further to the Baldwin Hotel. The flames could not be stopped as they spread to more and more businesses and homes. Flying embers even set Mrs. Young’s barn ablaze on the hillside nearly a quarter of a mile away. By 4 o’clock in the afternoon, much of the village was a raging inferno.

The fire getting a nice start.

Just as hope was failing, help arrived. Another locomotive sped down the tracks; this time delivering salvation rather than destruction. It pulled a flat car upon which rode Elmira’s fire engine no. 4. Chief John Espey and his firefighters had arrived to reinforce Wellsburg’s exhausted crews. Together they were able to stop the blaze at the Exchange Hotel, keeping it from spreading into the mostly residential area of the village. By 7:00 p.m., they had beaten the flames into submission. 

All that was left of the Exchange Hotel after the fire of 1912

As the brave firefighters and volunteers struggled and sweated, hordes of spectators gathered to watch the dangerous show. They came by trolley, by wagon, and by automobile, clogging the streets to find entertainment in others’ heartbreak. Some read a special edition of the Elmira Star-Gazette that had been published that very afternoon describing the fire that still smoldered before them.

The fire drew this crowd.

Some of those arriving in Wellsburg late in the day were actually residents. Many of the local women had taken the opportunity that fine Saturday to ride the trolley up to Elmira to do some shopping. They returned to find their village ravaged by the extraordinary conflagration. Some even found themselves suddenly homeless.

General view of the fire at night Wellsburg, N.Y.

Twenty-three buildings were partially or completely destroyed by the fire including two hotels, three general stores, two feed mills, the carriage factory, the opera house, and five residences. By some miracle, though, not a single person was seriously hurt.

After the fire, Baldwin's Mill, Wellsburg, N.Y.


Monday, August 10, 2020

Black Out

Black Out

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist


On January 3, 1942 at 9:35pm, every factory whistle and siren in the greater Elmira metro area began to sound the alarm. An attack was imminent. Within minutes, the entire city went dark. Well, dark-ish.

Less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was on edge, bracing for the sorts of nighttime bombings that England had been living with for years. Throughout the first months of 1942, cities across the country began preparing for air raids. Chemung County, which had over a dozen factories involved in war production, not to mention the Horseheads Holding Point, could be considered a prime target. The January 3rd blackout drill was just the first of what would be a regular occurrence throughout the duration of the war.

In the days and weeks leading up to the first drill, instructions were published in the local paper and broadcast over the radio. Residents were to draw the curtains, turn off the lights, and shelter in place. Motorists were instructed to pull over and switch off their headlights. Businesses were to shut off their lights and factories, unless they had blacked out their windows, were to halt production until the all clear.  Teams of auxiliary police and air raid wardens were in charge of inspecting neighborhoods to ensure that everyone was following the rules. 


In addition to making sure everyone was following the rules, Civil Defense workers also used the blackout drills as a chance to practice for emergencies. In a drill on the night of June 16th, for example, 110 auxiliary firemen were driven to the site of 12 fake “incidents” by the women of the Women’s Ambulance Defense Corps where they put out fake fires and rescued trapped actors from amidst rubble. In November, rescue workers used a recently burned building for the drill, only to run into trouble when the stairway to the second floor unexpectedly collapsed.

Women's Ambulance Defense Corps members and Auxiliary Firemen "rescue" a victim during the June 16, 1942 blackout

Blackout drills rarely went seamlessly. During the drill on the night of June 16th, Mrs. Carolyn Watson of 512 W. Hudson had to be taken to the hospital after falling in the dark. Compliance with the rules was also an issue.  A number of downtown businesses frequently failed to extinguish the lights in their display windows. In June 1942, Ralph Klebes, the head of the local Office of Civil Defense, considered ordering that all store display window lights be turned off every night, since business owners seemed to have such a hard time making sure they were off during scheduled blackout drills. People in residential areas weren’t particularly good about blacking out either. Some of the problem was that not everyone lived where they could hear the sirens. Other people just didn’t take the drills seriously. Beginning in November, people who willfully or repeatedly failed to comply with blackout orders were fined.

Blackout as seen from Mt. Zoar, June 16, 1942
Blackout viewed from Mt. Zoar, June 16, 1942

Some Elmirans might not have taken them seriously, but blackouts on the coast were a matter of life and death. Starting on the night of January 11, 1942, German U-boats began attacking commercial shipping along the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico. Ships silhouetted against the lights from the coast made tempting targets. Although some smaller municipalities instituted nighttime blackouts, cities like New York and Atlantic City resisted implementing them, fearing their impact on tourism. The results were disastrous.  Between January and July of 1942, U-boats sank 233 ships, taking out 22% of the US tanker fleet, and killing upwards of 5,000 sailors along the stretch of coastline from Maine to Florida. It wasn’t until the Navy, Coast Guard, and Civil Air Patrol began working together to craft a coordinated defense in the summer of 1942 that there was an end to the carnage.

In the end, Chemung County never fell prey to the air raids the blackout drills were designed to help residents prepare for. Looking back from our vantage in history, it can be easy to dismiss the drills as a pointless waste of time, but they weren’t. Not only did they provide disaster preparedness training to hundreds of people who went on to use those skills in times of actual crisis, they brought comfort to people who were in genuine fear of their lives by giving them tools to protect themselves. Yes, not everyone took them seriously, but the overwhelming majority tried their best to participate in order to protect themselves, their neighbors, and their country despite the inconvenience they caused. In short, WEAR YOUR MASK!

Monday, August 3, 2020

Tales of Woe at 1893 Grand Central Ave.

by Erin Doane, Curator  

The house that once stood at 1893 Grand Central Avenue had served as a hotel, boarding house, tavern, inn, restaurant, and private home throughout its history. It was also a place of misfortune for many who lived, drank, dined, and slept there. Police raids, illnesses, car crashes, battles with city hall, and butcher knife fights befell those who passed through its doors. Perhaps 1893 is an unlucky number.

It is important to note that sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century, houses on many streets were renumbered to comply with the 911 emergency system. The property I’m writing about was physically located on Grand Central Avenue near what is now Eldridge Park Road.

Elmira Star-Gazette, January 18, 1895

In the 1890s, John Thetgee was the proprietor of a hotel at number 1893 Grand Central Avenue. He would regularly hold dances that were attended by some shady characters, including workers from the nearby glass factory and women who didn’t have the best reputations. It was apparently fairly typical for the glass workers to get into arguments about who would be taking said women home at the end of the night.

On January 18, 1895 one such quarrel turned violent. Three young man escaped in a sleigh with several glass blowers in hot pursuit. The two parties met again near the D.L.&W. Railroad tracks where the glass workers attacked the other men with butcher knives. The three young men in the sleigh suffered a number of wounds, but were able to get away with their lives. Two glass workers were arrested for the incident. They pled guilty to charges of intoxication and paid $10 fines, but claimed they knew nothing about the knife assault.

In the 1910s Henry G. Foster became owner of 1893 Grand Central and operated a hotel and saloon there. He was accused of violating the liquor tax law on August 16, 1914. At his trial in October, he was found guilty and was surprised at the stiff sentence that was imposed on him – a $200 fine and three months in county jail. He pleaded with the judge saying he had a wife and children to care for, but the judge replied that he should have considered them before breaking the law.

In 1915, Henry Foster’s wife Myrtle was issue a liquor license for the establishment, so it seems she was now in charge. Her luck at 1893 Grand Central wasn’t much better than his, however. 1918 was a rough year in particular. Myrtle’s father Charles Evans died in the house on July 14. In October, the Spanish flu swept through the family. Henry was gravely ill, as were their two daughters, Bernice and Helen. 20-year-old Bernice was taken to the Arnot Ogden Hospital with influenza and pneumonia on October 10 and died just days later.

Star-Gazette, October 19, 1918

By the 1920s, Myrtle was having a tough time running their boarding house and tavern. The property was listed several years in the newspaper for unpaid taxes. Perhaps that’s why she turned a blind eye, or even encouraged, certain goings on at the Foster Hotel. On April 15, 1926, the establishment was raided by federal agents and state police. Six guests were arrested along with Myrtle, who was charged with violating prohibition laws and conducting a house of ill repute. Two of those arrested, Margaret King and Clarence Huntley, were found together in one of the bedrooms. While they were both married, they were not married to each other. They pled guilty to statutory offenses, paid $25 fines, and Margaret agreed to testify against Myrtle.

Star-Gazette, May 27, 1926

Two days before her trial, Myrtle was riding in an automobile with her husband and daughter at 2 o’clock in the morning when the vehicle was hit by another car. Talk about unlucky. She suffered cuts from flying glass, but was not injured badly enough to have her trial postponed. Even though Margaret King, the star witness for the prosecution, had disappeared and thus could not testify, the jury only took ten minutes to decide Myrtle was guilty as charged. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find what her sentence was.

The hotel stayed open for several more years under the Foster proprietorship and its character seemed unchanged. Henry Foster was charged with violating prohibition law in May 1928 and again that November. On August 1932, the location’s bad luck reared its head again when the Fosters’ barn, workshop, and garage containing three automobiles and a large quantity of tools were destroyed by fire. By 1933 their daughter Helen M. Foster had taken over operations. That year, she was granted a license to sell beer and wine at the newly rebranded Century Inn.

Star-Gazette, May 12, 1934

In the late 1930s, the Fortuna family took ownership of 1893 Grand Central Avenue and ran it as the Fortuna Inn. The bad luck that clung to the place seemed to be mostly held at bay until 1961. That was when Thatcher Glass decided to expand their operations. In order to do so, they needed an easement to a portion of Grand Central Avenue that was held by Katherine Fortuna. After not being able to get their way when dealing directly with her, Thatcher representatives went to the City Planning Commission and had them secure the easement despite Katherine’s objections. Thatcher did construct a new entrance to the property and the Fortuna Inn continued to operate as a restaurant and tavern until the early 1990s.

Misfortune struck one last time on June 10, 2015. The former hotel, boarding house, tavern, and inn had sat abandoned for years when fire broke out. It was heavily damaged and eventually torn down, thus ending its years of woe.