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: 

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