Monday, September 28, 2020

The Chemung Speedrome

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 1950, while visiting an auto mechanic in Ithaca for repair work on his car, a Chemung County farmer was asked, “Do you have any land on your farm where a small quarter-mile dirt track could be built?” The auto mechanic, Karl “Blue Eyes” Beilou, was a driver and member of the Finger Lakes Racing Association, and his group was looking for a new place to race. The farmer he asked was Eli H. Bodine, a fan of auto races, operator of one of the largest poultry farms in New York State, and future grandfather to a trio of NASCAR Drivers. Bodine’s ‘yes’ answer was the green light the group was looking for.
The Bodine family moved from Wisconsin to the town of Chemung in the 1890s. Their son Milton was the first dairy farmer in Chemung, and other family members went into the poultry, dairy and beef cattle breeding business. Milton had nine children, including Eli. Eli attended Cornell University to study Agriculture and had a side hobby of watching car races. One of Eli’s ten children was Eli H. Bodine, Jr. known as “Junie.”

At twenty-two years old, after studying at Cornell University and just before he left to fight in WWII, Junie married eighteen-year-old Carol June Sechrist of Elmira. After his war service, he returned to his hometown.

In Chemung, Junie and Carol June ran the Pedigreed Leghorn Farm and the popular Dairy Bar. The young couple had two small children, a daughter Denise and son Geoffrey.

The day after Eli, Sr. answered Beilou’s question, eight or more members of the Finger Lakes Racing Association showed up at the Bodine farm, ready to roll. Using machines, they set to work laying out stones to mark and prepare a quarter-mile oval track. The location came with a nearby pond making it helpful to keep track dust down, and a hill where spectators could gather. They rigged lighting using poles from the woods and surplus generators. They named the track the Chemung Speedway and later called it the Chemung Speedrome. It opened for business in May 1951.
The quarter mile long dirt track had two nearby competitors: the Shangri-La Speedway had opened in 1946 in Owego, and there was a track at the Troy Fair Grounds, in Troy, PA. Each weekend from late spring to early fall, spectators gathered to watch auto races and cheer on their favorite drivers. By the 1960s, the Speedrome attracted close to 2,000 spectators each weekend. In 1969, the track lengthened to three-eighths of a mile and its surface was paved over.

In the US, dirt track racing is the most common form of auto racing held. Early stock cars have connections to Prohibition (1920-1933) when bootlegging drivers would modify small cars to make them faster and better handling. As a spectator sport, it caught on quickly, especially in the rural south. 

Racing stock cars on dirt tracks began just before WWI, and quickly gained popularity after the war. NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, and is a privately-owned company founded in 1948. Their inaugural season began the following year, known as NASCAR Strictly Stock division. Factory cars with no modifications were eligible, and all races took place on dirt tracks. The only exception was Daytona’s Beach and Road Course, a paved four and a quarter mile track. Today’s Daytona International Speedway is two and half miles long.

In a 1967 race program, Eli Bodine, Sr. wrote that early days at the Speedrome welcomed “anything with four wheels,” and the whole thing often looked like “one, big demolition race.” Apparently, cars on the dusty track traveled every which way, with some ending up upside down, running backwards, or moving on only two or three wheels. It was not uncommon to have cars end up on the infield or over the banks.

It was a family business: Eli Sr. attended all Speedrome races; Junie was part-owner and promoter; his brother Earl raced, and his brother Milton was a top mechanic. Earl set early track records for the most consecutive wins at the Speedrome.

As they grew up, Junie’s children worked at the Speedrome too. They picked up trash or rode the grader to keep the dirt track in shape. When he was five, Geoffrey discovered the thrill of racing, finally allowed to race when he was eighteen. Known as Geoff on the motorsports circuit, he become a successful driver achieving many career highlights. His younger brothers Brett and Todd followed in his footsteps, and today the next generation of Bodines continue the tradition.

While proud of the Bodine achievements, the town had mixed feelings about the racetrack. There were complaints of crowd behavior, fights and bad language. In a May 28, 2002 Star-Gazette article, Geoffrey Bodine acknowledged this.

There were also at least two driver strikes at the track, taking place in 1963 and 1968. Both strikes temporarily halted the evening’s planned races. They seem to be “solved” by hasty negotiations with the striking drivers allowing the races to go on. Later, track management sent these same drivers suspension notices by mail. Other reports of financial and managerial problems surfaced in local papers and by the late 1970s the track was struggling. The Bodine family sold the Speedrome in 1978 and was it taken over by Chemung County a year later for back taxes.

Buying the Speedrome, one of the owners, Robert Stapleton, hoped to reopen it by the mid-1980s. His plans were blocked when the city of Chemung denied zoning changes. The city hearing brought out 400 people, and after heated debate, all changes were denied.

Twenty years later the track reopened in 2001. It continues to grow in popularity.
The Speedrome has just opened again. See their website for detailed information and racing schedules.

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Last Video Store

by Rachel Dworkin 

The Family Video on College Avenue is closing. The other weekend, I stopped by to pick up some of their old stock on the cheap. Is it streaming, I asked the manager, or the pandemic? It’s both, he said. It’s a lot of things.


Family Video, September 2020

 Video stores and I grew up together, so it’s a little sad to be writing their obituary. The first home video store opened in 1975 in Germany with a guy renting out his personal collection of Super 8 films before video cassettes were even invented. Two years later, the first American video store opened in Los Angeles, California after 20th Century Fox began licensing their films for video cassette. From there, the phenomenon exploded. The first video store in Elmira was Rent-a-Flick at Diven Plaza, opened in 1982. Within just three years, there were dozens of places to rent videos around the county. By 1985, there were 15,000 dedicated video rental stories in America with several thousand record, drug, and grocery stores also renting tapes.

My parents were members of a rental club run by a home electronics store near our house. The membership model was a popular one, especially if you didn’t own a VCR. Rent-a-Flick, Little Joe’s, T & C World of Video gave club members discounts on video and machine rentals. In 1985, local membership rates ranged between $19.95 and $39.95 a year. Elmira Home Theatre in West Elmira, however, specifically marketed itself as a non-membership store that charged a flat rate to everyone.


Courtesy of Elmira Star-Gazette, June 25, 1985

Area residents could get videos at a number of other places outside of video stores. The Super Duper in Elmira, Minier’s in Big Flats, and, oddly enough, the U-Haul in the Heights all had videos. In September 1985, Gerow’s Dairy on Ithaca Road in Horseheads installed the county’s first video tape dispensing machine as a way to draw in customers. Most of these side-business rental outfits were a lot cheaper than the dedicated video stores. The Rite Aid on Main Street, for example, initially rented tapes for just 49 cents, while Elmira Home Theatre charged $1.87. The basic idea was to lure renters in and get them to buy other stuff.

The 1980s were the golden age of the video store. Chemung County went from 1 in 1982 to 14 by the end of the decade. Nationally, there were over 25,000 dedicated video stores and 45,000 places with rental side businesses. In 1989, the revenue from rentals surpassed that of theaters for the first time. It’s no surprise really. The average price for a movie ticket at the time was $4. Paying just $1.87 instead of $16 to entertain a family of four was a no-brainer, especially when you had the power to pause for pee breaks. While renting was cheap, actually owning your own video tape was prohibitively expensive. They cost anywhere between $50 and $75, which meant that no one was starting their own video libraries. During the first decade of their existence, VCRs cost anywhere between $1,400 and $500, hence why people rented them as well.

Video King Super Store, Horesheads, courtesy Elmira Star-Gazette, April 25, 1992

 Prices fell rapidly for both during the 1990s. It was around that time that my family started to build our own little library of favorites. Video stores didn’t decline during this period, exactly, but they did sort of consolidate and plateau. A lot of the small grocery and drug stores got out of the rental business, while a lot of the small, independent stores got bought out by large chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. In Chemung County, there went from being 13 video stores in 1990 to 8 in 2000. Video Loft, the last of the Elmira independents, consolidated its locations in 2003 before going out of business in 2007.

Video Loft on South Main, courtesy Elmira Star-Gazette, June 10, 2003 

 The Family Video dying today first opened in that same year, but the poor thing scarcely stood a chance. Industry experts were already talking about the dangers posed by Netflix’s DVDs-by-mail service. And then came online streaming and cable videos-on-demand.  The Hollywood Video on South Main closed in 2010, as did the Horseheads Blockbuster, leaving Family Video as the last store standing. Then the pandemic came along to shoot it in the head. Sure, they reopened for business soon into the shut down, but no new theatrical releases meant no new video releases. Why get off the couch when there’s nothing new? The Family video may soon be gone, but, if you can still rent new releases at RedBox, not mention old favorites at the library.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Three Generations of Local Fame: Robert, James, and Henry Dumars

 by Erin Doane, Curator

There are different levels of fame. Some people are known within their own town or city, but no one knows who they are outside that community. Some people achieve regional fame with their names and deeds appearing in media across a couple of states. Some become national figures; typically, politicians and performers. And then, there are the international superstars who achieved the type of fame that made them household names. Here at CCHS we like to explore all levels of historic notoriety, but we really focus on those who are locally and regionally famous. That is the case with three members of the Dumars family: Captain Robert R.R. Dumars, James “Jimmie” Dumars, and Henry R. Dumars. Each one attained a bit of fame during their lives, but for very different reasons.

Henry Dumars (left) with Professor Joe Gaulteri in a promotional
photo that appeared in the Elmira Star-Gazette, December 22, 1913
when the pair performed in Elmira during a 3-day Christmas break
from their regular vaudeville circuit

My research began with Henry Dumars. Some time ago, I came across an article in the Star-Gazettefrom September 9, 1907 that included information about the young Elmiran. Henry, who was just 18 years old, was part of a vaudeville performance at Rorick’s Glen. He was billed as a lightning sketch artist who created crayon cartoons and caricatures of celebrities and politician before an enthralled audience.

Elmira Star-Gazette, September 9, 1907

Not only was Henry a visual artist, he was also a talented musician who got his start performing violin solos at the First Methodist Church as a young teen. By 1908, he was touring on local and regional vaudeville circuits as a rapid cartoonist and musician. For the next eight years, Henry performed throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic and won praise as both a musician and a cartoonist. The Marion Star of Marion, Ohio called him “the boy wizard of the violin and crayon.”  The Woonsocket Press of Woonsocket, Massachusetts wrote that he “proved himself a master of the violin and established his right to the title of ‘the little Paganini.’” Locally, The Star-Gazette declared his musical act at the Majestic Theater in 1911 “one of the best numbers ever put on the vaudeville stage in Elmira.” It is clear that Henry gained a fair amount of local and regional fame from his musical and artistic performances.

While reading local news articles about Henry Dumars, I noticed that his father and grandfather were also often mentioned. That made me wonder if either of those gentlemen had also achieved some level of fame. Captain Robert R.R. Dumars, Henry’s grandfather, was indeed locally famous as a Civil War soldier and newspaper man. Robert was the editor of the Elmira Press when he volunteered to serve in the Union army in 1862. He helped organize Company C of the 161st New York Volunteers and was later assigned to the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Elmira.

Captain Robert R.R. Dumars, early 1860s

After the war, Robert was one of the charter members of Elmira’s Baldwin Post No. 6, Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.). Robert went back into the newspaper business as foreman of the Elmira Advertiser’s composing room in 1868, and he later became telegraph editor there. Captain. R.R.R. Dumar’s name was well-known throughout the city because of his military service and his work at the newspaper. 

Captain Dumars’ Civil War sword was donated the CCHS in 1927

James Dumars, Henry’s father and Robert’s son, was also locally famous for his business dealings. After attending EFA, James got into the printing business. He began working in the office of Wheeler and Watts, and then went on to work as a clerk in the Hall Brothers’ bookstore. In 1871, he opened a bookstore in partnership with Arthur S. Fitch and seven years later went out on his own, opening the West End bookstore on West Water Street. James was in the bookselling business for 32 years.

Invoice from Fitch & Dumars, 1876

One would like to think that James’ hard work and dedication to business was enough to secure his local notoriety, but there was another reason that people in Elmira, and perhaps a wider area, knew the name of Jimmie Dumars. In 1864-1865, when young James was known as Jimmie, he would run messages in and out of the Confederate prison camp for his father. The guards were so used to seeing him come and go, he could just yell his name, Dumars, and they’d let him pass. Well, a prisoner named Benni Orcutt bore a striking resemblance to Jimmie. One day when the young messenger didn’t come to the camp, Benni took the opportunity to walk up to the gate, declare “Dumars!” in a loud, clear voice, and was waved on through. The story of the escape never made the papers, that I could find, but I’m sure it was the talk of the town and made Jimmie famous for at least a time.

Guard house at the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Elmira, 1864-65

Monday, September 7, 2020

Throw Like a Girl

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

One day while playing ball, thirteen-year-old Clara Cook threw a life changing pitch. Clara was a left-handed pitcher and batter who honed her skills playing with friends and family in after-school pick-up games. She went on to make history as one of the founding members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). During the two years she played professional ball, she was a member of three teams, two of which earned championship titles.
Clara "Babe" Cook

Born in 1921 to John H. and Clara B. Cook in Pine City, Clara was the youngest of eleven children. The family had six boys and five girls. Being the youngest earned her the nickname "Babe," and being just 5' 2" tall, it was a nickname that stuck. The combination of her diminutive height and being the youngest in a large family didn’t hold her back. She proved herself to be a fierce afterschool player against her brothers and friends. That determination is what a Remington Rand employee named Riley observed in 1922 when he came across the kids playing a casual game. Riley was looking for new talent to join the Remington factory softball team and was so impressed with what he saw, he approached Clara's parents. He received permission for her to play ball and promised to be responsible for transporting Clara back and forth from practices and games. At thirteen years old, Clara started playing for Remington's ball team.

John H. Cook, Clara's father, served as school trustee for the Pine City School in the 1920s and for over thirty years he was employed as an interior designer for F. M. Bottcher & Lowman Construction Company.

John H. and Clara B. Cook

Clara's mother taught sewing skills at the YWCA, and the family belonged to the Baptist church. During her school years, Clara moved with her family to Elmira, and graduated from Southside High School. After graduation, she went to work full time for Remington Rand.

In July 1941, when Clara was 20 years old, the Star-Gazette announced that Clara Ruth Cook had become engaged to Henry A. Pickel, but no wedding date had been set. Henry had grown up in Pine City and was a Southside wrestling champion. He had enlisted in the US Army before WWII and was a Sargent in Company L. The month the couple was engaged, he left for military training. The couple never married.

Clara worked for Remington Rand and continued to play ball. In 1942, she was recruited by an AAGPBL scout who was looking to start a new league. Clara tried out and was accepted. She was offered a contract to play with the 1943 Rockford Peaches. Clara signed on the dotted line and left Elmira heading for Rockford, Illinois.

1943 Rockford Peaches. Clara is the player on the far left in the front row

Clara began her season as a Rockford Peach. The team went on to earn the most league titles and had a resurgence of popularity in the 1990s when Gina Davis starred in "A League of One's Own" based on their story.

The AAGPBL had invited two hundred white women to try out for four teams. Sixty women made the cut as the original founding members. Like the men's leagues at the time, teams were segregated. In 1948 seven women of color from Cuba were invited to join the league. In 1951 the first African American woman ball player, Toni Stone, joined the men’s Negro League. It was the only league open to Blacks, and the players weren't too happy to have a woman join them. The AAGPBL players used baseball rules, but played with a 12-inch softball. The league was located entirely in the Midwest and lasted from 1943 – 1954. It grew to have ten teams and audiences in the thousands. Players were selected on their skill and looks and were required to wear lipstick and short skirts while playing ball.

The beginning of Clara's 1943 pitching season didn't go well. Despite her best efforts, she allowed more runs than any other pitcher. After 30 games she held a record of 6 wins to 17 losses. By mid-season, Clara was traded to the Kenosha Comets from Kenosha, Wisconsin. This season ended better for her. The Comets won the league’s Championship title for the year.

1944 Milwaukee Chicks. Clara is the player on the far right in the back row

The next season Clara was traded to the Milwaukee Chicks based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This team won the 1944 Championship title. However, the Chicks struggled financially, and despite being league champions the owners couldn't secure support or additional funding from the city of Milwaukee. The team moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Clara never joined them, leaving just before the 1945 season began to return to Elmira.

Clara returned to work at Remington Rand and she never played professional ball again. Clara's father died in January 1946. In 1955, the Remington Rand plant was bought by the Sperry Corporation. Clara moved to California to work at an aircraft company, returning to Elmira when she retired. She stayed active in local baseball organizing teams and mentoring young women interested in pitching.

In 1975, Clara Cook was inducted into the Metro-Elmira Sports Hall of Fame. She is also part of the Women in Baseball exhibit on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. On display since 1988, it honors the accomplishments of the entire All-American Girls Professional Baseball league and remains one of their most popular exhibits. Clara Ruth "Babe" Cook died in Elmira on July 23, 1996 at the age of 75. She was buried at Webb Mills Cemetery near the Town of Southport.