Monday, March 15, 2021

The Fabulous Derby Sisters

by Erin Doane, Curator

left to right: Cora, unidentified, Annie, and Eva Derby, 1895

Sisters Cora, Eva, and Annie Derby were avid cyclists, entrepreneurs, and life-long residents of Elmira. They all had strong independent streaks which were likely fostered by their parents. Their father Alden was a veteran of the Civil War and worked for over thirty years as a carpenter at the T. Briggs Brewing Company. Their mother Sarah was a longtime editor of the Young Women’s Banner magazine and was involved in efforts to improve the lives of young working women in the city.

At about 5 feet tall each, the Derby sisters were not to be underestimated. Cora was the oldest, born in 1871; Eva was the middle sister, born in 1873; and Annie was the youngest, born in 1876. All three attended School #2 then went on to EFA. As young women, the three were known to go off on long-distance bicycle rides to places like Rochester and Buffalo. They would ride until they were tired, rest overnight, then get on their bicycles again to finish the trip. They would then return to Elmira by train.

Annie in front of the American Girl Statue in Eldridge Park, 1899

Cora and Eva continued their educations by going to business school. Cora attended Elmira Business College while Eva was a student at Warner’s Business School. Eva was also a fan of informal education. In 1892, she kept a notebook entitled “Learn Something New Everyday.” Her new daily knowledge ranged from discovering “that ice cream isn’t quite as good in winter as summer” on January 20 to finding out “that Judd would rather hug me than any other girl he knows” on June 18. 

In the 1890’s, Cora and Eva worked as clerks at Fitch & Billings’ bookstore at 112 Baldwin Street. (The aforementioned Judd also worked there doing odd jobs.) When Hosmer Billings retired in 1914, the sisters purchased the business and renamed it the Derby Book Shop. Annie invested in the store as a silent partner and Eva did most of the bookkeeping. They sold books, stationery, writing implements, bridge sets, holiday cards, and gifts for over thirty years until 1946 when the Langdon building which housed the store was sold. Rather than reestablish the businesses at a different location, they decided to retire from the book business.

Inside the Derby Book Shop, 1910s

Each of the sisters had rich lives beyond work. Cora had a very active social life as a young woman. Her name appeared often in the newspaper when she visited friends and family throughout the northeast. In 1905, she reportedly caught the bride’s bouquet at the wedding of Grace M. Wilcox and Charles S. Colby. The superstition of her being the next to marry did not come to pass. In fact, none of the three sisters ever got married. Cora was an active member Zonta and represented the local club at the national convention in St. Paul Minnesota in 1928. She also served in the American Red Cross during World War II. She passed away in 1959.

While Annie was a silent partner in the bookstore, she made a name for herself as a talented milliner in Elmira. She worked for several years at the Cornish Millinery Shop at 180 North Main Street. She was also an active supporter of the Elmira Association for the Blind. She passed away at the Arnot-Ogden Hospital on May 5, 1947 after an extended illness.

Eva and Cora at Rorick’s Glen with their father Alden and their uncle Warren Newell, 1898

Middle sister Eva was the longest lived of the Derby sisters. She was a resident of the Elcor Nursing Home in Horseheads when she passed away on October 3, 1973 at the age of 100. Eva was a nature enthusiast who loved birds and flowers in particular. She was a member of the Audubon Society and the Elmira Garden Club. She taught Sunday school at the Park Church and at Lake Street Presbyterian Church. Upon her death, she left a fairly substantial estate that included bequests to several local organizations including the Elmira Zonta Club, the American Cancer Society, the Elmira Association for the Blind, and the Order of the Eastern Star.

The three sisters share a single headstone with their mother in Woodlawn Cemetery.

Cora, Annie, and Eva, October 3, 1909

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