Monday, December 28, 2020

Your Favorite Things

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Whitman Mission on the Oregon Trail

What does the Oregon Trail, a member of the inaugural Girls Professional Baseball League, and souvenirs from a doomed arctic expedition have in common? Each was a Chemung County Historical Society Blog post in 2020.

Since February 2012, we’ve published a new blog almost every week. This year despite various disruptions, we continued and were able to add 53 new blog posts. This brings our blogs-to-date total to 468: that’s four hundred sixty eight different topics!

For the last nine years, these blogs have been written by a staff member or invited guest, with all topics connecting to Chemung County’s history. They may be stories of people, or events, information on artifacts and documents, or explore a story behind another story. Despite posting weekly, we still can't predict which topics will resonate with our readers.

Taking stock of 2020 - and in case you missed any - here are this year’s five most popular blog posts in descending order. See if you find any thread of commonality.

1. On May 11th we published Chemung County's First Fatal Automobile Accident a blog which tells the story of the Voorhees family from Elmira whose 1914 summer afternoon drive resulted in tragic death and loss.

2. Back in January 17th Lost in the Mail profiled a mishap that occurred one snowy day in Wellsburg, March 195, and mail that was never delivered.

3. On March 23rd, shortly after the 2020 pandemic ground things to a halt, the blog titled The First Quarantine shared how the county shutdown for 19 days in response to the 1918 pandemic.

4. Less than a month later on April 17th, another blog titled Typhoid and Thatcher GlassManufacturing Company highlighted local contributions to public health. (Note we have an upcoming exhibit highlighting the Thatcher Glass Manufacturing Company going up in early 2021.)

5. On August 24th a blog shared the story of The Wellsburg Fire of 1912, a devastating fire that wiped out much of the town of Wellsburg in one single afternoon.

Up to this point, statistics show the blogs with the fewest visitors are some of our most recent. We never take blogs down, so it’s likely they’ll pick up additional viewers in 2021. In case you’re curious, the blogs with the fewest views to date are:

1. December 7th’s A Fall Tradition goes Virtual publicized our necessary switch from our usual in-person fund raiser event to one that was virtual.

2. December 14th’s blog Souvenirs from a Doomed Voyage shared objects in our collection from Ross Marvin, a local arctic explorer and The Greely expedition, an expedition that took place in 1881-1884.

3. Esther B. Steele: A Woman of Her Word, on November 30th profiled a well-known philanthropist who still makes an impact on the county today.

4. Our November 9th blog The Bachelor Governor highlighted the life of the 29th governor of New York State and the political connections he had.

5. Win with Wilkie, the blog published on November 2nd just before the presidential election was a little bit of lost history about a 1940 presidential campaign visit to Elmira.

Our continually growing collection of CCHS blogs is a great resource we encourage everyone to share, just be sure to give us credit if you do.

Researching facts and information on objects, people and events from the county gives us an opportunity to look at things in new ways. It also comes in handy. We used a series of blogs ourselves this past summer to create a unique walking tour of Elmira’s Heritage District that wove together over fifteen relevant blogs.

For fun, see our quiz posted on our Facebook page to see what facts from this year that you remember, the reader with the most correct answers will win a complimentary year's membership.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Delivering Christmas with the Arctic League

 By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

 This year, despite the pandemic, the Arctic League will deliver Christmas to the poor children of Chemung County, just as they have done every year since 1912, come hell or (literal) high water. Interestingly, the Arctic League didn’t start out as a charity. The League began as an amateur baseball league and social club which played nearly year-round and hung out at the Lagonegro cigar shop at 157 Lake Street. The men of the League were best known around town for playing in all types of weather and holding satirical political campaigns for club president.

 All that changed around the Christmas of 1912. League member Danny Sullivan encountered a homeless young orphan on his way to the Lagonegro cigar shop and decided to bring him along. Sullivan and his friends dubbed the boy Friday (owning to the day of the week) and pooled everything they had on them to treat him to dinner, new clothes, and medical attention. They even ended up helping him find a job and place to stay. The men found helping out so satisfying that they decided to do it again the following year. While the first few Christmases were funded entirely by League members, by 1917 they were receiving $733 from the public at large to put towards presents for the needy. Young Friday, whose real name was Jimmy Loftus, donated religiously to the cause under his pseudonym until his death in 1955.

 The pandemic isn’t the first challenge the Arctic League has faced. In the wee hours of December 20, 1921, the warehouse where the League’s presents were stored burned, destroying $5,000 worth of toys, clothes, and candy. The morning papers called for aid and, by the time the Lagonegro cigar shop opened at 8am, people were lining up to donate. Within 48 hours, they received $10,608, more than twice what they’d ever raised before. After a mad scramble to buy and pack up toys, the Arctic League was able to successfully deliver Christmas while still having money left over for the following year.

 In 1941, the League’s fundraising radio broadcast was interrupted by the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Begun in 1932, the annual broadcast featured performances by local musicians interspersed with pleas for money. At 2:30 pm on December 7, 1941, master of ceremonies Frank Tripp was handed the announcement of the attack by WENY station manager Dale L. Taylor, whose brother was stationed at Pearl Harbor. Tripp halted the music to read the news to the listening audience. He read off further updates as they became available throughout the rest of the show. 

Annual Arctic League broadcast with MC Frank Tripp, ca. 1940s

World War II presented some unique challenges for the Arctic League. Normally, individual volunteers would pick up packages at the League’s Elmira headquarters and deliver them to homes all over the county. Gas rationing, however, meant that volunteers didn’t have the fuel to get from Elmira to the outlying communities. Instead, Col. Geoffrey Galwey, the commander at the Holding and Reconsignment Point in Horseheads, volunteered his officers for the job. League board members rode with the soldiers to act as native guides and navigators. None of the soldiers were familiar with the Arctic League or their mission, and some were quite skeptical about using military resources to deliver presents. One particular lieutenant protested right up until he saw the reaction of a gold star family when he delivered their package. 


Arctic League volunteers delivering presents, ca. 1950s

 The flood of 1972 hit the Arctic League hard. Approximately $10,000 in clothes and toys were destroyed when their 114 West Second Street headquarters were inundated by 4 feet of water. Every year, the League ordered a thousand naked dolls which would be dressed in unique outfits made by community members. That year’s dolls had arrived the Wednesday before the storm and were lost to the water. An additional $1,000 worth of equipment was destroyed as well. A collection of clothes survived the flood, but the League chose to distribute them at the relocation centers rather than hold it back until Christmas. Although the building was cleaned out fairly quickly, League gave up their headquarters for a year so the Elmira Health Department could use it as a temporary infirmary.

Despite, or perhaps because of the community-wide devastation caused by the flood, the Arctic League exceeded that year’s collecting goal by $1,501.18, bringing that year’s total to $21,009.18. The extra funds certainly came in handy. Families who had never needed help before now found themselves without jobs or homes, let alone funds for Christmas presents. In the end, 200 volunteers delivered parcels containing 2 toys, cookies, and candy to 1,450 children on Christmas morning. An additional 2,000 children received free clothing and shoes at a 2-day distribution event on December 27th and 28th at the Arctic League headquarters. 

Doll given by the Arctic League, December 1972

 This year too, there is a greater need in our community as people have lost jobs to the shutdown. Instead of waiting until their usual mid-November for the usual start of their collection campaign, the Arctic League began their annual holiday appeal in early October. That wasn’t the only changes they were forced to make. Normally, every evening in December volunteers form assembly lines to pack parcels. This year, the packing routine had to be modified so volunteers could maintain proper social distance. The annual fundraising broadcast, normally held before a live audience at the Clemens Center, was instead broadcast from an empty WETM news station and featured pre-recorded performances rather than live music. Despite the changes, the Arctic League was able to raise $133,658.28 or 107% of their goal of $125,000. They are still looking for volunteers to deliver packages, but that will be different too this year. Instead of having people line up to collect packages early Christmas morning, volunteers should arrive on Christmas Eve Day, no earlier than 9am. See their website for details: 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Souvenirs from a Doomed Voyage

by Erin Doane, Curator

The purpose of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition from 1881 to 1884 was to establish a polar research station near Lady Franklin Bay on Canada’s Nares Strait north of Greenland. The expedition was funded by the U.S. Congress, managed by the U.S. Army Signal Corps., and led by Lieutenant Adolphus Greely. Twenty-five men began the voyage into the Arctic in 1881, but only seven,* including Greely, survived. Uncooperative weather, poor planning, unsuccessful resupply attempts, interpersonal conflicts, and all around bad luck led to disaster. (You can read about it in more detail here.)

No one in the expedition had strong connections to Chemung County (that I am aware of), so why am I writing about it? Well, the museum has a collection of 19 items that are labeled “Greely Expedition 1881-1884.” Later Arctic explorers collected these souvenirs from the doomed voyage. The items include tobacco tins, a pipe, a lid to a brandy keg, various size ammunition, pieces of rope and chain, and fur mittens purportedly used during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition and abandoned at Fort Conger in the northeast of Ellesmere Island where Greely had set up his basecamp in 1881.

Selection of items in the collection marked "Greely Expedition 1881-1884"

So, how did these items get to CCHS? One of the pieces, the brandy keg lid, has this description in the database:

Brought back by Ross Marvin while on his 1905-1906 Arctic expedition with Admiral Robert E. Peary. This lid from a brandy keg is from the HMS Alert, a British Navy ship that was part of an 1875-1876 British Arctic Expedition. They reached Ellesmere Island. Then the Greely Expedition in 1881 reached the same spot on Ellesmere Island, but the expedition became infamous because only 6 of 24 members survived.* In 1905-06, Admiral Peary's expedition stopped at the same spot and found the site where Greely had been. Ross Marvin brought back relics from the site.

Wooden keg lid with the words “HMS Alert” and “Brandy” just discernible

Elmiran Ross Marvin was a member of Robert Peary’s 1905-1906 and 1908-1909 Arctic expeditions. (You can read more about him here.) Marvin kept journals during both voyages and wrote about finding the keg lid on September 2, 1905:

…Found the remains of a cache made by English Party, H.M.S. Alert, on northern shore of bay. Contents were used later by sledge trips of the Greely Party. Found one box containing 9 tins of boiled beef, frozen and well preserved. Secured head of an old cask…. 

Ross Marvin’s journal, September 2, 1905

I feel confident that the “head of an old cask” he found among the remains of the HMS Alert’s cache is indeed the wooden keg lid in the collection. While the lid did not originate with the Greely Expedition, it was among the other items found at Fort Conger. Marvin’s journal entry from September 5, 1905 mentions that he “found a souvenir for myself,” but does not go into detail. There is no way of knowing if he was referring to any of the other items we have here at the museum.

The other items in the collection may not have been collected by Ross Marvin at all. A general note on the collection reads:

Professor Donald MacMillan of Peary's expedition found the remnants of Greely's base camp at Fort Conger. The items here were brought back from Peary's expedition by Donald MacMillan.

This note made me wonder. I have done quite a lot of personal research on Ross Marvin, his two expeditions into the Arctic with Peary, and his untimely death there in 1909. I had never read anything indicating that MacMillan ever came to Elmira, let alone donated a collection of objects to the Historical Society. Donald MacMillan (who later became a significant Arctic explorer and researcher in his own right) was on Peary’s 1908-1909 Arctic expedition with Ross Marvin. He certainly would have had the opportunity to collected souvenirs that had been left behind on previous voyages as Marvin had done three years prior. But how did those items end up here?

I found a clue to this mystery when I learned that MacMillan was a longtime friend of James Vinton Stowell. Stowell was an Elmira artist, archaeologist, and explorer. He traveled into the Arctic four times, including once with MacMillan in 1946 to Northern Labrador. In 1967, Stowell donated his extensive collection of Native American and Arctic artifacts to the Chemung County Historical Society.

The Seal Hunters, oil on canvas by James Vinton Stowell, 1958

Since Stowell donated one collection of items to the museum, was it possible that sometime along the way he made another donation of items that had been collected by MacMillan during his voyage with Peary in 1908-1909, then given to Stowell as a gift to a fellow polar explorer and friend? Maybe. Maybe not. There is no proof of such a thing, but it is fun to speculate about how such an interesting collection got here. 


* I have found sources that say six men survived and others that say seven. Naval History Magazine; International Journal of Naval History, and the New England Historical Society all have articles that indicate seven men survived; PBS, the National Museum of American History, Nature Magazine have articles indicating six survived. I’m not sure which is correct. Similarly, some sources report that there were 24 men on the voyage, others 25.


Monday, December 7, 2020

A Fall Tradition goes Virtual

Reds, Whites, Blues and Brews: Making Spirits Bright

During this unusual time, we have all had to make adjustments. Here at CCHS we were closed for several months when the Covid-19 outbreak first began, reopening in early July. Even then it was at reduced capacity and we had to cancel both our spring fundraiser, The Great Car Thing, and the Trolley into Mark Twain Country. We also did not get our usual spring rush of second graders in the museum.

This is not to say that the staff has not been busy. Programming has moved online and we were able to hold our annual Ghost Walk in person, in a safely modified form. 

Jim Hare at GhostWalk 2020

We continue to plan for next year, both online programming and in person again, while we work to finish out this year.

We are closing the year with one last hurrah, Reds, Whites, Blues and Brews: Making Spirits Bright. This is an online fundraising event coming this Thursday, December 10. We usually hold this event on the last Friday in September but we had to adjust and moved online for this year. You can find more details, purchase tickets and chances to win baskets here and we hope you will join us on Facebook Live Thursday, December 10 from 5:30 to 6:30 pm for music, history and a bit of fun.

J.D. Iles, event Guest Master of Ceremonies

Our fundraising events, including this one, help us keep our doors open, pay staff and create great programs for school kids and families alike. Our sponsors have returned to support this event and we are now asking you to do the same. Buy a ticket, enter a basket drawing and join us on Thursday. Your support will help keep us going for another year and we hope to see you in person the next time we hold Reds, Whites, Blues & Brews!

Basket G: In the (gift) Cards

All of us at CCHS hope your holidays are bright and we thank you for your support throughout the year.

The museum is open!

Bruce Whitmarsh,