Monday, April 26, 2021

How Grocer Girl Caused a Dictionary Shortage

by Erin Doane, Curator

On February 2, 1933, WESG aired the first in a series of weekly musical radio programs sponsored by Standard Food Stores. Just nine weeks later, on April 7, an article in the Star-Gazette reported that dictionaries were suddenly in high demand at the Steele Memorial Library.  “Legitimate” students were being crowded away from the library’s few available dictionaries as a direct result of this new radio show. How did this strange turn of events happen?

Postcard showing the Steele Memorial Library, c. 1940s
The perpetrator of the unexpected dictionary shortage was Standard Food Stores. In 1929, grocers in Elmira, under the guidance of C.M. and R. Thompkins, came together to form a group under the name “Standard Food Stores.” Each member business in the group remained independent but they worked together to give customers “better quality, better service, and better prices.” Initially, it was just grocers within the city of Elmira who were members of this group but it quickly grew to include stores throughout Chemung County and northern Pennsylvania.

Standard Food Stores Advertisement from the Star-Gazette, May 23, 1929
As part of its promotional efforts, Standard Food Stores started sponsoring a musical program on local radio station WESG in February 1933. For 15 minutes every Thursday morning starting at 11:30, listeners were treated to the sounds of the Standard Food Stores Orchestra under the direction of Don Huber. Also featured were Grocer Boy with his flowing tenor and Grocer Girl with her pleasing voice who would sing old time tunes. The duo was credited with much of the show’s popularity. Fans said they made the program one of the best broadcasts of its kind on the local station.

Many listeners wanted to know who Grocer Boy and Grocer Girl actually were. The pairs’ identities remained a secret until early May when their names were finally revealed. Grocer Boy was Paul Huber, brother of the orchestra leader. He was a regular performer on WESG throughout the early 1930s and also involved in local minstrel shows.

Grocer Girl was 31-year-old Florence Rohan. Florence was a musical prodigy who started playing the piano before she was three years old. Around 1925 she started touring with her two young daughters Jacqueline and Marilynn as the vocal group the Lullaby Trio. The group’s heyday was in the late 1930s and early 1940s when they performed on several national radio program including NBC’s Children’s Hour, the Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour on CBS, and Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. The Trio also performed numerous times in Florida and once on a cruise ship to Bermuda.

Florence had moved with her family to Elmira from Hornell in 1932 and quickly became a regular on WESG. She was particularly active on the Arctic League programs. She ended up being the first woman announcer on Elmira radio, writing and presenting her own programs as “the Rosenbaum Stylist.” At the time of her unexpected death in 1962, she was one of the region’s best known musicians and performers.

But what does all this have to do with the shortage of dictionaries? Well, I’m getting there. On March 30, 1933, a word-building contest was announced on Standard Food Stores’ weekly musical radio program. During the 1930s, word games and contests became quite popular. In one particular type of word-building game, a song title was given and people tried to make as many words from the letters in the title as possible. Those with the most words could win prizes. A large dictionary was a great tool for such a challenge. I don’t know the particular details of the WESG contest, but because of the large audience brought in by the song stylings of Grocer Girl and Grocer Boy, many people heard about the contest and got working on word-building.

Headline from the Star-Gazette, April 7, 1933

Within a week, the three dictionaries at the Steele Memorial Library were in high demand. Librarian Kate Deane Andrew reported seeing people stand in front of their newest dictionary, which was tied to a table, for up to an hour at a time. “It is obvious that many of them are contest workers who hope to make some money by sending in the solutions to the word puzzles,” she told a reporter from the Star-Gazette. She seemed perturbed that the contesters were keeping those with more studious inquiries away from the dictionaries. The library did make efforts to accommodate these new patrons; they got a small booklet containing all of the three-letter words in the English language.

By mid-summer, the run on dictionaries at the Steele Memorial Library slowed down. The series of entertainments on WESG featuring Grocer Girl, Grocer Boy, and the orchestra with the associated word contests came to an end on August 3, and a whole series of novelty broadcasts commenced under the sponsorship of Standard Food Stores.


Monday, April 19, 2021

Education in Pandemic Times

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Lately I’ve been asked what’s going on in Education this year since current pandemic conditions have affected everything. I usually get busy in January when the first of my 120 classroom visits to Elmira City School District (ECSD) elementary schools begin.

History in the classroom, January 2020
In many ways I’m busier than before. This year schools are operating on a hybrid model with those that want to be back in the classroom attending either Monday and Tuesday, or Thursday and Friday. All students are virtual on Wednesday while they clean the buildings. Not able to accommodate 240 class visits, and knowing schools were restricting outside visitors, it was time for plan “B.”

Briefly, this beloved program has been operating for more than five years, established well before my time here. In those years, the program has easily reached close to 14,000 students. Frequently parents chaperoning school groups, mention they remember visiting the museum when they were students. Teachers tell me how much they enjoy the Chemung County Historical Society’s visits, and hugs are often how many second-grade students share what a field trip to the museum in June means to them.

The program is designed to support teachers and share local history with students. By the time ECSD students leave their K-2 schools, they’ve had six visits by a history educator: two in kindergarten, one in first grade, and three in second grade. We cover the Haudenosaunee, Colonial Life, the beginning of the United States, Westward Expansion, the Civil War, and Immigration. Second graders visit the museum with their classes in June.

Sharing age-appropriate information on serious topics can be challenging but helping kids see that history is dynamic, sets the groundwork for students to learn about themselves and understand that history is not just a bunch of boring dates.

Students hear local stories, handle objects from the museum and in doing so learn about themselves and their communities. Being able to handle artifacts like a cannonball or cow horn rattle helps bring history alive.

Classroom visits last about 40 minutes long. Students hear a brief presentation and put on curator gloves to handle objects from the museum. Imagine being a first grader and holding a real cannonball. The class sits in a circle and carefully passes a medium-sized cannonball around, students are asked to share one thing they notice about the object: maybe its size, weight, color, smell, or texture. All comments are taken seriously, and what six- or seven-year-olds notice range from the silly to the sublime. It’s a great way for students to discover and explore objects while making connections with what they’ve been learning.

Kindergarteners, January 2020

Aware how different their school days have been this year, adapting to Plan B meant many of the artifacts the students usually handle and explore have been installed in locked display cases at each school. While missing the whole experience of putting on curator gloves to learn more about these objects, students and teachers can still see the objects this year.

School Display of Colonial objects

In place of class visits, I’ve been making short movies for each of the six topics. Our director secured grant money for the museum to invest in new audio-visual equipment and I’ve learned how to create short movies for the teachers to use in the classroom or share with students working remotely. Each history movie has ended up being close to 12 minutes long, covering the topic I usually present in class. One advantage of this format is flexibility. They can watch it over and over or teachers can pause it to ask or answer questions. One disadvantage, as many of us have discovered, is this is a sterile way of teaching lacking the feedback and enthusiasm of an audience. I’m really looking forward to being back in the classrooms next year. While each of the movies seems better than the last one, I have no delusions of Hollywood calling.


To go along with each lesson, I’ve designed and put together individual activity bags teachers can distribute to their students. While not as exciting as being able to handle real objects, at least there’s a hands-on part to create something connected to each topic. 

For the Civil War unit, second graders got a bag with a needle, thread, button and piece of felt. Just as soldiers learned to sew, ECSD second graders had the chance to learn this skill too.

425 Civil War Activity bags

As I write this, I’m half-way through these sessions. Only three topic movies left and 1,200 activity bags to go. We don’t know yet if any of the 500 students will be visiting in June. If you know of any students in ECSD kindergarten through second grade classes bring them down to discover the museum and maybe they can share a thing or two.


Monday, April 12, 2021

A Private Woman: The Lucy Diven Diaries

 By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

As an avid diarist, I would be horrified if someone read my diary without my permission. As a historian and archivist, I really love reading other people’s diaries. Luckily, the Chemung County Historical Society has dozens to choose from. They range in date from the 1830s through the 1990s. Their authors are school children, soldiers, farmers, housewives, railroad workers, police officers, secretaries, carpenters, and laborers. Some are rich with detail and some are, well, rather terse.

The thing I like best about diaries is the way they open a window into the daily lives of the past. It’s especially important when the writers weren’t ‘important’ enough to make the papers or the history books. Take Lucy Diven (1833-1888), for example. We recently received a collection of 22 of her diaries dating from 1866 to 1888. She was the wife of lawyer and prominent local businessman, George M. Diven. There’s a local school named after him, but, when I looked her up, all I could find were her birth, death, and marriage dates. Thanks to her diaries, we know so much more. 

Lucy Diven, ca. 1870s

 Lucy Brown Diven was born to Alden and Minerva Brown of Clinton, New York on June 8, 1833. She married George M. Diven of Elmira on June 3, 1863 and the two of them lived in a stately mansion at 957 Lake Street. They had six children: Eugene, Josephine, George, Alexander, Louis, and Clarence. Two of them, Josephine and Clarence, died young and each time Lucy was grief-stricken. The day after baby Clarence died in 1878, Lucy was unable to get out of bed and could not bring herself to face any of the mourners at his funeral. Despite her grief and whatever else was going on in her life, Lucy wrote in her diary nearly every day until the summer before her death when she became too ill to do so. 

some of Lucy's diaries

 Her diaries reveal a busy woman. The Divens employed servants to handle the day-to-day cleaning and cooking, but homemaking was still a full-time job for Lucy. She directed the staff in their work, did all the shopping and fancy baking, and managed the household accounts. Lucy also made all her children’s clothes and most of her own, and did all the family’s mending. Except when her children were ill, it’s rare to find an entry which doesn’t mention one sewing project or another. When her six children were still small, she spent much of her time entertaining them, reading to them, taking them on outings, and caring for them when they were sick. She also had a fairly active social life, frequently paying calls to friends and her in-laws, and hosting them in turn. She liked to read, both for herself and aloud for family and friends. She was a member of a sewing/reading circle where one lady of the group would read aloud while the other ladies worked.

Lucy’s writing style tended to be terse and the amount of detail she put into her entries varied based on the space constraints of the diary itself. Her handwriting was tiny and neat, although it got noticeable harder to read as her health declined in the last few years of her life. Here are some examples:

Lucy's diary, April 10-15, 1866


April 12, 1866

Quicksilver and glue—30 cents

Scissor grinder—15 cents

Received Libbie’s package containing the drawers and sacques.  Wrote to acknowledge it this evening.

April 12, 1870

Hemming the coverlet for William’s bed while taking care of Baby. Freddy Palmer commenced playing with the children. Mrs. Palmer in.

April 12, 1876

Trimmed a pair of drawers and cut out and partially made a new pair for Alden. Julia called to borrow my hat and veil to wear at Mrs. Lowman’s funeral.

April 12, 1880

Wrote mother. Hemmed a night dress. Put the attic in order. Nellie swept it. Commenced finishing up the boys shirtwaists. Played solitaire until Geo. came, then read newspaper stories to him while he played.

April 12, 1886

Sprinkled the plants and did some mending. Afternoon went to see Miss Hunt, then to call on Mrs. Evans, Mrs. Thurston, and Mrs. G___. Missed a call from Mrs. D___. Alden and Louis began school again. Geo. went to N. York on evening train.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Beer Returns to Chemung County

by Erin Doane, Curator

It was 88 years ago this week that people in Elmira and surrounding towns tasted beer again after years of Prohibition. Nationally, Prohibition began on January 17, 1920 but Elmira had gone dry 15 months earlier on October 1, 1918. Between then and April 7, 1933, not a single drop of alcohol passed the lips of anyone in the county.

A group of men eating, drinking, and being merry in 1886

Okay, that’s not true at all. Throughout the entirety of Prohibition, illegal beer and hard liquor had been available (clickhere to read about the Briggs Brewery operation) and some low-alcohol beverages were legal to sell and consume (click here to learn about “near beer” and cereal beverages). For law-abiding beer lovers, however, the years had been quite dry. So, many people were excited when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act on March 22, 1933 which legalized beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent. Previously under the Volstead Act, all beverages with an alcohol content of over 0.5 percent were illegal. On April 7, 1933, 3.2 percent beer became legal to sell and consume in 19 states, including New York, that did not have state prohibition laws that would supersede the federal legislation.

Map of states (marked in black) where 3.2 percent beer became legal on April 7, 1933, Star-Gazette, March 16, 1933

As soon as the act was signed, breweries jumped into action to get beer legally to their customers. They had two weeks to ramp up production before thirsty men and women could again partake of their beverages. Distributors, wholesalers, and retailers also began scrambling to get the precious brew. For those in Chemung County, the new beer was coming from the American Brewing Company of Rochester, West End Brewing Company of Utica, and from several other breweries in New York or New Jersey. The Nectar Brewery on Tuttle Avenue in Elmira (previously Mander’s Brewery before Prohibition) did not restart its operation until later in April. Briggs Brewery, by the way, did not ever switch to producing the lower-alcohol beer, preferring to continue illegally producing the full-strength stuff. 

The rush between President Roosevelt signing the Cullen-Harrison Act into law and its implementation just 15 days later was not just a challenge for breweries and beer distributors. The new federal law went into effect so quickly that state governments and local municipalities did not have time to make their own regulations. Elmira Police Chief Elvin D. Weaver said that local police had no jurisdiction over the sale of beer until a state law was put into effect as there were no city ordinances governing beer traffic. All that was needed to become a legal beer seller was a retail license, which the federal government was reportedly giving out indiscriminately to anyone who paid the $20 licensing fee. Beer would soon be available at bars, hotels, restaurants, pool halls, grocers, gas stations, and even soft drink stands in parks. 

The intersection of Water and Main Street in Elmira, early 1930s
Some local businesses took polls of their patrons to see if they were interested in buying beer. One unnamed restaurant reported to the Star-Gazette that the vote was 10 to 1 in favor of the sale of beer there. The Mark Twain Hotel manager announced that beer would be offered for sale in the coffee shop and with room services. Other businesses decided to wait and see how the rollout went. There was still considerable opposition to the consumption of alcoholic beverages in Elmira and throughout the entire nation. Frank E. Gannett took a stand against any sort of beer advertisements in his newspapers. Clinton N. Howard of Rochester, one of country’s most militant dry leaders, who had spoken on several occasions in Elmira, sent a message to President Roosevelt that read in part, “with the single exception of the crucifixion of the Son of God by the politicians of Jerusalem, legalization of beer is the crowning infamy of the ages.”

Despite uncertainty and opposition, at the stroke of midnight on Friday, April 7, 1933 barrels and bottles of 3.2 beer were loaded into waiting trucks at the breweries and government seals were broken on railroad cars that had already arrived at distribution hubs. The first shipment arrived in Elmira at 8:00 a.m. with more quickly following. Wholesalers purchased the beer at $2 to $2.50 per case (around $40 to $50 today) then turned around and sold it for 20 cents ($4) a bottle or 10 cents ($2) a glass for draft beer. The demand, however, greatly outpaced the supply and by noon many were left disappointed as they moved from one watering hole to the next searching for the highly-desired beverage. Several restaurants had promised beer with lunch but were not able to deliver. By Saturday morning, the supplies had been replenished and plenty of 3.2 beer was available for the rest of the weekend.

“First Shipment of Legal Beer Arrives This Morning,” Star-Gazette, April 7, 1933
It is estimated that within the first 24 hours, 1.5 million barrels of beer were sold in New York State. Despite not having passed laws yet regulating the new beer trade, Governor Lehman had signed a dollar-a-barrel beer tax in time to collect some substantial revenue for the state. New York City alone made $200,000 in fees from issuing retail permits. Nationally, the stock market rose in the hopes that legal manufacturing and distribution of beer would stimulate business in general.

Locally, the grand rollout of 3.2 beer seemed to have gone smoothly, despite shortages. Elmira police encountered no unusual disturbances that first weekend and reported that it was, in fact, unusually peaceful downtown. By Monday, April 10, “wet hysteria” had died down. In his ‘Round Town column in the Star-Gazette, Matthew Darrin Richardson summed it up by writing, “Beer ought to pretty well recover from its hysteria this week and settle down to regular traffic…By this time Elmirans should have satisfied their curiosity, if not their thirst entirely.”