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

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