Monday, November 30, 2020

Esther Baker Steele: A Woman of her Word

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In the 19th century, the Reverend Gardner Baker and his wife Esther, and daughter also named Esther, lived in Lysander, a village located in Onondaga County, New York. Reverend Baker was a well-known minister and prominent member of the Northern New York Methodist Episcopal Conference. Members of this group were known as early advocates for progressive issues like anti-elitism, anti-slavery, and women’s education. Growing up in this environment shaped their daughter's intellectual and philanthropic life, and Elmira ultimately benefited.

Esther Baker Steele 1835 - 1911

Esther was born on August 4, 1835, and she studied at Mexico Academy and Falley Seminary. A good student, Esther became known for her outstanding writing skills and musical talents. She graduated in 1858 and was hired to be Mexico Academy's music teacher. Another teacher hired that year was Joel Dorman Steele, the institution's new teacher of natural sciences.

Joel Dorman Steele 1836 - 1886

Steele had been on his own since he was seventeen, supporting himself as a teacher. In addition to his position at Mexico Academy he earned a degree from Genesee College, now a part of Syracuse University. The two new teachers hit it off and Joel and Esther were married less than a year later. They moved to Oswego County where Steele was appointed school principal. Three years later, the Civil War broke out and Steele enlisted and took command of a Union company. Unfortunately, he was badly wounded in the battle of Fair Oaks and endured a long recovery in which he suffered a terrible bout with typhus. This disease compromised his health for the rest of his life. After he was discharged he returned to Esther and was employed as principal in Newark and then in Elmira. The couple enjoyed working with young people, though the couple never had children of their own. They did a foster son named Allen D. Steele, who comes up briefly later.

As an educator, J. Dorman Steele saw a need for new scientific textbooks. He wrote his first textbook in 1869, which was so well-received, that by 1872 he gave up teaching all together. With Esther's help, he went on to write textbooks on astronomy, chemistry, philosophy, and history. 

To conduct research on a variety of subjects, the Steeles traveled to Europe four times. Together they produced 15 textbooks. Unusual for the time, Steele insisted that his name be attached only to the scientific texts, but that Esther be given credit to the rest. He said that “My wife came at once into full accord with all my plans; she aided me by her service, cheered me by her hopefulness and merged her life in mine. Looking back upon the past, I hardly know where her work ended and mine began, so perfectly have they blended.” Their publisher recognized this too, once writing to Steele "We really think you will find Mrs. Steele better adapted to present it than yourself." 

On May 25, 1886 at 50 years old, Joel Dorman Steele died from a heart condition.  One of his last requests to Esther was that she manage his extensive book collection numbering in the tens of thousands. Also to pursue the dream of establishing a library for the citizens of Elmira. 

Esther kept her promise, and she lived on another twelve years. She continued to revise and update the various textbooks. She became a generous benefactor and regularly gave away two thirds of her yearly income. In 1892, she received an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Syracuse University, and three years later was elected to the university's Board of Trustees. In 1898 the university named the Esther Baker Steele Hall of Science in her honor. Finally in 1899, Chemung County’s first free public library opened to the public, its core collection contained the books the Steeles had collected over the years. 

The Original Steele Memorial Library

The couple's foster son's name appears in a 1895 lawsuit against Syracuse University. According to Steele's will, their foster son was to receive a yearly allowance of $1,200 (about $33,000 in today's funds) which would be managed by the university. This sum was paid for a few years before the lawsuit was filed, then ceased. Esther died in 1911 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery next to her husband. Allen D. Steele is buried in Kentucky.

Esther's word and promise to her husband to establish a library in his memory lives on. During COVID, the Steele Memorial Library has been able to offer the community virtual activities and services, things its benefactor Esther Baker Steele could only have dreamed about.

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Iroquois Confederacy: The Original American Federalism

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that Chemung County is on Seneca land. The Seneca are one of the five original members of the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy.  Haudenosaunee is the name they gave themselves which means “People of the Longhouse,” while Iroquois is a name given them by the French which has no clear etymology. The Confederacy is the oldest continuous democratic republic in the history of the world. They served as a model for the Founding Fathers when crafting the United States Constitution.


Although no one is sure of the exact dates of its founding, the Iroquois Confederacy is well over 500 years old and pre-dates the European conquest by generations. The time prior to the creation of the Confederacy is known as the Dark Times, when the five nations of the Iroquois were almost continuously at war. Along came a man known simply as the Peacemaker who helped to unite the warring nations along with his allies, the great Chief Hiawatha and Jigöhsahsë, the Mother of Nations. Together, they created an entirely new system of government with an oral constitution known as The Great Law.

Under The Great Law, the original five nations of the Haudenosaunee (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca) agreed to make collective decisions regarding war, diplomacy, and trade, all while each nation retained autonomy over their own region. The members of each clan of each tribe selected a chief to represent them at the regular meetings held in Onondaga territory near what is now Syracuse. The Haudenosaunee are matriarchal and the women of the clan retain the ultimate power to nominate or remove a chief from office. The representatives from the tribes were divided into two groups, the Elder Brothers (Mohawk and Seneca) and the Younger Brothers (Oneida and Cayuga) with the Onondaga serving as serving as a sort of negotiator between them. When the Tuscarora joined the Haudenosaunee as refugees in 1722, they joined the Younger Brothers. In order for any decision to be made or law to be passed, it first had to be approved by the Elder Brothers, then the Younger Brothers, before being confirmed by the Onondaga. If any parties disagreed on the decision, the proposal would not pass. Although I used the past tense, it should be noted that this is still exactly how the Haudenosaunee government works to this day.


Prior to the Revolution, the colonies really did not get on, despite all being offshoots of the same British government. Whenever the Haudenosaunee wanted to make a treaty or trade agreement with the colonials, they had to do it with each individual colony. At one such treaty meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1744, Onondaga chief Canasatego decided to point out how silly this was saying:

"We heartily recommend Union and a good Agreement between you, our Brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become the stronger. Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out one with another."


Canasatego’s words lit a fire in Benjamin Franklin’s brain. He cited the Confederacy as inspiration for his 1754 Albany Plan for a unified colonial government. The idea initially failed to gain traction, but he brought it up again in 1777 when the Articles of Confederation were drafted, and again in 1781 during the Constitutional Convention. In 1988, Congress passed a resolution specifically recognizing the contributions of the Haudenosaunee in the creation of the US Constitution. 

Haudenosaunee Flag


Some ideas in the US Constitution shares with the Haudenosaunee Confederacy include:

·         The centralized government handles issues of war, diplomacy, and trade while individual states retain autonomy over daily affairs

·         Political leaders are chosen by and from the people

·         Political leaders can only hold a single office at a time

·         There is a mechanism for the review and removal of corrupt, incompetent, or otherwise unpalatable leaders

·         A system of checks and balances prevents any one party from having unilateral control

Monday, November 16, 2020

Carrying On During the Flood of 1902

 by Erin Doane, Curator

What would you do if you saw flood waters rapidly rising in the street in front of your downtown business? Would you barricade the door and hope it was enough to keep the deluge out? Would you rush to carry as many things as possible to higher ground? Or would you organize a flotilla of boats to keep patrons coming and going even as the water washed into the building? The last one is what Jerry Collins, owner of Jerry’s Sideboard on Water Street in Elmira, did on March 1, 1902.  

Men in boats in front of Elmira Saddlery Co. and Jerry’s Sideboard, East Water Street, March 1, 1902

The great flood of 1902 began innocuously enough on the evening of February 27 when it began raining. The steady rainfall continued overnight and through the next day. In addition to the rain, temperatures were getting warmer and melting the large buildup of snow and ice left by a cold, stormy winter. By the afternoon of February 28, the Hoffman Creek had overflowed its banks and the newspaper was warning that more flooding was likely.

100 block, East Water Street, Flood of 1902

At 8 0’clock the next morning, water started flowing into the basements of buildings on the north side of Water Street. Just a few hours later, the street was covered in nearly a foot of water. The flood waters continued to rise at nearly two feet an hour until the river finally crested at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The southside of the city was entirely flooded, as was everything on the northside east of Madison Avenue. Hundreds of homes and businesses were under water. The city’s gas mains were shut off, electric plants had failed, and trolley and train service was suspended. Household furniture, clothing, dead chickens, and live rats clinging to cakes of ice flowed down the river.

Elmira Gazette and Free Press headlines, March 1, 1902

One would think that at this point in the middle of catastrophic flooding, all businesses would be shut down, but that was not the case on the afternoon of March 1. While it was true that very few merchants were up and running in the flood zone, boot and shoe stores and hardware stores, in particular, were open and doing brisk business. From as early as 9 o’clock that morning, pedestrians filled any downtown street that remained dry and boats carried people over submerged streets even though members of the police and fire departments had stretched safety lines to keep people out of the flooded areas. Downtown Elmira was said to have resembled a circus day or a gala holiday with so many people out and about. Camera fiends were out in force as well taking hundreds of photographs (of which CCHS has a few dozen).

East Water Street, Elmira, March 1, 1902

Jerry Collins saw the sudden influx of people during the flood as a business opportunity. He established a ferry line to bring patrons to his bar, Jerry’s Sideboard, at 204 East Water Street. There were several inches of water covering the bar’s floor, but that didn’t seem to bother those seeking refreshment. Collins, the “Adonis” of local bartenders, had worked at the Hotel Rathbun for years and had just opened his own bar in 1901. His popularity as a bartender may have been why people decided to continue patronizing his establishment despite the natural disaster taking place all around them.

Jerry Collins (circled) with a group of men in front of his bar, March 1, 1902

It does seem like bars and taverns in general were particularly popular gathering spots on March 1 and 2. The Elmira police reported receiving 28 calls on those days during the height of the flooding and its immediate aftermath. Some of the calls were seeking relief for flood sufferers, but the majority were reports of intoxicated people who needed to be taken home or to police headquarters.

Men with high boots having great sport in the water during the flood of 1902

While the flood of 1902 was a major disaster that destroyed countless homes and businesses, it did not take any lives. Everyone directly involved in the flooding survived to recover and rebuild, including Jerry Collins. He continued to run his bar for another year before moving out of the area in 1903.


Monday, November 9, 2020

The Bachelor Governor

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Back in the day when our building housed the Chemung Canal Bank, there were apartments for rent on the top floor. A quick look around reveals about 5 rooms and a common bathroom. These rooms haven’t been rented for years, they now store documents, publications and educational items for the Historical Society. If the walls could talk they would surely share some great stories. One I tried to track down is the story of one of the building’s more famous renters. The story of two-time elected New York governor David Bennett Hill.

David Bennett Hill 1843 - 1910

David B. Hill was born in the village of Havana in Schuyler County in 1843. The settlement was known as Catherine’s Landing until the mid-19th century, when the name changed to Havana. It changed names a third time at the end of the century to what we now know as Montour Falls. David was the youngest of five children born to Caleb and Eunice Hill. His father had been captain on a canal boat and now ran a carpentry and joinery business. His mother managed the family household. David showed an early intellect and attended nearby Havana Academy. At seventeen he left to take a clerking job with a law office in the village. His employer was so impressed that he was encouraged to pursue law as a career. At twenty, Hill moved to Elmira to work for lawyer Erastus P. Hart and to pursue his legal studies. He passed the law exams in 1864 and was admitted to the bar, opening a law office in downtown Elmira. Later that year, Hill was appointed Elmira’s city attorney and became known as a successful and charismatic lawyer.

David Hill never married, but his life was full. Besides his law work, he was an active member of the Democratic Party. In 1871 and 1872 he was elected to the New York Assembly to represent Chemung County.  In the mid-1870s, to further his political agenda, Hill along with other associates purchased the Elmira Gazette newspaper. Begun in 1828, the paper was first published weekly before becoming an everyday paper. While John Arnot Sr., one of his associates, sold off his interests before 1880, it wasn't until 1906 that Hill finally sold the newspaper to Frank E. Gannett.

In 1877 and 1881 Hill was appointed president of the Democratic state conventions. In 1882 Hill was elected mayor of Elmira by a wide majority of voters. At just thirty-nine years old, 1882 also brought another opportunity his way. Hill was nominated as running mate to Buffalo’s mayor Grover Cleveland in his bid for governor. The 1882 election saw an unprecedented number of votes cast and the ticket of Cleveland and Hill won by plurality. Hill left Elmira and moved to Albany to be lieutenant-governor. Our collection contains a printed speech Hill gave which includes a copy of a note Cleveland wrote congratulating Hill:

After two years, Grover Cleveland ran for higher office and was elected 22nd president of the United States of America. Seeing his chance, Hill then ran for state office and won. He was elected the 29th Governor of New York and served from 1892 to 1897.

In New York the Democratic party of the 19th century was heavily controlled by Tammany Hall, a political pressure group out of New York City. This group had a big influence on politics in the city and the state, and while it advocated for social reform, it also became known for rampant greed and corruption. 

As governor, Hill was known for his interest in labor issues and working conditions. He introduced legislation to deal with child labor age limitations and working hour reforms for women and those under 18.

He also signed a bill in 1885 that established 715,000 acres of wild Forest Preserve which later became known as New York’s Adirondack Park.

New York's Adirondack Parks

Looking to run for higher office, Hill sought the 1892 democratic presidential nomination. His platform supported bimetallism, a monetary standard looking at two metals, typically gold and silver, instead of the singular gold standard which was eventually adopted. However, Cleveland soundly defeated Hall on the first convention ballot. The two were now polarizing figures in the party, each with their own set of loyal followers. Hill's group went by the name The David B. Hill club. Denied the nomination, Hill ran for the US Senate. He was elected and held this office from 1892 to 1897. Not content, he ran again for NY governor and this time was not successful. This political cartoon plays up the unlikely possibility of any partnership of Grover and Hill.

"The Funniest Thing Out - Dave and Grover on the same platform."

Though Hill never ran for public office again he was considered for the 1900 Democratic ticket's Vice Presidential position. In the end, the party nominated Adlai Stevenson.

Hill never returned to live in Elmira. In 1910, he died of a kidney condition at his country home Wolfert's Roost outside of Albany. He was buried in Montour Cemetery nearby family members.

Governor Hill's Wolfert's Roost

Checking City Directories for the years Hill lived in Elmira I found no evidence that he lived on the third floor at 415 East Water Street. He did rent a room at 93 Lake Street around the corner. 

We are still looking for who might have rented rooms in the building.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Win with Willkie

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Can anyone remember the last time a presidential candidate visited Chemung County? It wasn’t in my lifetime, that’s for sure. There have been a few vice-presidential candidate visits including Richard Nixon in 1952 and Spiro Agnew in 1972, but we haven’t merited top billing in a while.

The last presidential candidate to visit our fair county was Wendell Willkie (1892-1944). In 1940, he ran on the Republican ticket against the Democratic incumbent Franklin Roosevelt. Willkie was a corporate lawyer and life-long Democrat who had helped on various political campaigns, but had never run for office himself. Due to his corporate leanings, he became increasingly displeased with Roosevelt’s New Deal and was actually involved in a lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1938, several of his friends began urging him to run for president on the Democratic ticket. Once it became clear that Roosevelt intended to run for a third time, Willkie registered as a Republican and put himself forward as a candidate in that party instead. 

Wendell Willkie, 1940

 Wendell Willkie was unexpected as far as Republican presidential candidates go. Not only was he, as mentioned, a lifelong Democrat, he was a political outsider who had never run for nor held political office. He didn’t even bother to run in the primaries, he just put his name forward at the Republican convention and won the nomination mostly based on his image as a pro-business moderate who could bring over disillusioned Democrats. He ran on a platform of keeping some of the more popular New Deal programs, while simultaneously instituting pro-business reforms to get the economy rolling. Although he initially came out in support of the US getting involved in the war in Europe, he took an increasingly isolationist tack once it became clear that polled better.

On September 12, Willkie launched a whistle-stop tour by train. Between then and November 2, he reached 31 of 48 states. On October 25, he hit Elmira. At the Erie Railroad station, he was met by a reception committee comprised of Senator Chauncey B. Hammond, Mayor J. Maxwell Beers, and City Manager Ralph Kebles, as well as local Republican Party officials Charles Perry and Alexander Falck. A crowd of some 200 people awaited Willkie as he exited the station and got into a car accompanied by his wife, Edith. 

Wendell Willkie and the Elmira welcoming committee

Wendell & Edith Willkie in the car from the station

Willkie’s motorcade took him to a raised platform with a canopy at the corner of Church and Main Streets. Somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 people braved the damp to listen to him speak. According to the paper, he mostly focused on his economic platform designed to unleash the country’s full economic potential and on the dangers of the national debt and fascism. After speaking, he signed autographs for a bit before hopping back on the train. 


The crowd gathers to hear Willkie speak

In the end, Willkie lost his presidential bid by about 5 million votes. His supporters, mostly white, affluent, and suburban, were no match for Roosevelt’s working class, multi-ethnic coalition. Gracious in defeat, Willkie accepted a position as Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Great Britain at a White House party on the eve of the president’s third swearing-in. He ran for president again in 1944, but failed to clinch the party’s nomination and died not long after.