Monday, August 30, 2021

Our Mammoth Tusk

by Erin Doane, Curator

Visitors love the mammoth tusk we have on display here at the Chemung County Historical Society. Multiple people have told me it’s the one thing they remember from a visit to the museum when they were kids. But how did it get here?

Mammoth tusk on display at CCHS, August 2021

Both mammoths and mastodons roamed the prehistoric Chemung Valley. Mastodons lived all around the world. They first appeared in the early Miocene (23 million to 2.6 million years ago) and continued to live in various evolutionary forms through the Pleistocene (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). Mammoths lived on every continent except for South America and Australia. Fossil remains found in North America date from the Pleistocene and the very early Holocene (11,700 years ago to the present). Both mammoths and mastodons share an ancient ancestor with modern elephants. While mammoths were about the same size of elephants, mastodons were shorter and more heavily built.

Mammoth (left) and mastodon (right) from Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the years, mammoth and mastodon tusks, teeth, and other remains have been found through our area. In 1933, a mammoth tooth was found in Elmira; in 1940, a mastodon skeleton including tusks was found in Big Flats; and in 1999, two mastodons and parts of a mammoth were found in Millport. Early Native Americans in the valley were said to have found a tusk near the river bank and named it “Chemung” which has been translated as “place of the big horn.”

In 1778, Judge Caleb Baker and two other men discovered a tusk sticking out of the water of the Chemung River near the narrows west of Chemung Village. In order the preserve the artifact and keep it from splitting, Judge Baker took it to a local blacksmith to have it banded in iron. Unfortunately, when the judge returned to pick up the tusk, he found that the blacksmith had sold it to a peddler who had taken it off to New England.

In the 1950s, when members of the Chemung County Historical Society were in the process of creating their first independent museum (they had been tenants of the Steele Library before that), they decided they wanted to include a mammoth tusk in their new displays. The Historical Society board made attempts to track down Judge Baker’s tusk but came up empty-handed after contacting the American Museum of Philadelphia, the Stockbridge Massachusetts Library Association, the Springfield Museum of Natural History, Williams College, the Smithsonian Institution, the New York State Museum, the Canadian Department of Resources and Development in Ottawa, and the British Museum (in hope that when the British lost control of North American territories the tusk might have been removed to London).

Since finding Judge Baker’s original tusk proved impossible, the board turned to having a model made for display. They contacted the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to inquire if they could create such a model. In response, the folks at the Natural History Museum offered an actual mammoth tusk from their collection that had been found in Alaska. All the Historical Society board had to do was pay for the tusk’s preservation treatment, which totaled $9 ($3 an hour for three hours’ labor), and the tusk was theirs. The board readily agreed and a member of the Natural History Museum and his wife loaded the tusk into their station wagon and drove it up to Elmira.

In my imagination, our mammoth tusk was brought to Elmira
in something like this 1950 Willys station wagon.

The mammoth tusk went on display in the Chemung County’s Historical Society’s new museum on William Street and then came over here to 415 East Water Street in the 1980s when CCHS moved into the old Chemung Canal Bank building. Today, you can still come and visit the ~11,000-year-old artifact prominently display in our Bank Gallery.


Monday, August 23, 2021

Up, Up, and Away

 By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

For two days in July 1911, thousands of people flocked to Elmira’s Maple Avenue Park. What was it they paid .50 cents to attend, and an additional .25 cents to sit in the grandstands to watch?

The event was The Curtiss-Beachy Aviation Meet organized by the Star-Gazette newspaper. The meet brought together the latest in aviation technology with the daring and flashy flying of a 24-year old pilot, named Lincoln Beachey, whom the paper called the “greatest living birdman.” It was a combination few could resist.

Airplanes were then in their infancy and the public was fascinated with flying machines. Although the Wright brothers of Ohio gained early fame for their aeronautical experiments, New York State was also a hub of flying activity. Glenn Curtiss, or nearby Hammondsport, NY, was an aviation pioneer and inventor, having successfully flown a plane of his own design in 1908. At the 1911 Elmira meet, the Glenn Curtiss exhibition team – which included young men and at least one woman - showcased what Curtiss’s planes could do. The team pushed limits by performing exhilarating airborne acrobatics.

At 24 years old, Curtiss pilot Lincoln Beachey was already considered one of the best.

Lincoln Beachey
Beachey was born in San Francisco in 1887. When he was 17 years old, he joined his older brother to work on dirigibles. In 1910, his brother took up flying, and Beachey followed suit. At a June 1911 air show, Beachey successfully recovered from a nose-diving spin, something no other pilot had survived. This caught the eye of Curtiss, who invited Beachey to join his exhibition team. Another team member was Blanche Stuart Scott, the first woman credited with flying solo. (Scott also appears in our blog on Women Drivers, which recounts her 1910 transcontinental drive in a Willys-Overland sponsored by the John North Willys from Elmira.)

Air shows, stunts and races were an exciting way for the public to see what airplanes could do. Before the Curtiss-Beachey Aviation Meet took place, The Star-Gazette dedicated the entire front page of its evening edition to the aeronautical event. Articles covered how to get to the meet, and what to expect at the event. Spectators were invited to view the Curtiss planes up close, to watch daring aviation exploits, and to observe skilled flying that demonstrated the usefulness of airplanes. The organizers charged a fee to watch, but nothing to park your automobile. Trolley schedules were doubled and ran on the half-minute. Businesses used the opportunity to advertise their products with aviation themes like this ad for pest control. 

Joining the team and getting used to flying the new Curtiss designs, Beachey crashed three times. He wore a business suit while he flew, and was known for his modest and unassuming manner. Though at one time he donned women’s clothing and flew erratically in front of a shocked crowd to mock Miss Scott.

Air shows, stunts and races were an exciting way for the public to see what airplanes could do. Before the Curtiss-Beachey Aviation Meet took place, The Star-Gazette dedicated the entire front page of the evening edition to the aeronautical event. Articles included how to get to the Meet, and what to expect at the event. Spectators were invited to view the Curtiss planes up close, watch daring aviation exploits, and observe skilled flying that demonstrated the usefulness of airplanes. The Meet charged a fee but nothing for parking one’s automobile. Trolley schedules were doubled and ran on the half-minute. As a celebrity, the paper covered every move that Beachey made prior to flying and afterwards. Rorick’s Glen had an Aviator’s evening inviting Beachey to attend. Businesses used the opportunity to advertise their products with aviation themes like this ad for pest control.

As a celebrity, the paper covered every move that Beachey made prior to flying and afterwards. Rorick’s Glen had an Aviator’s evening inviting Beachey to attend.

Beachey did not disappoint. Although he crashed three times while getting use to flying the new Curtiss designs, on the day of the meet he successfully performed loops and flybys. He demonstrated how planes could be useful in war to drop “bombs” onto targets, and he took up the challenge to race another vehicle. Known for his modest and unassuming manner, he wore a business suit while he flew. The exception is the flight later in his career during which he donned women’s clothing and flew erratically in front of a shocked crowd to mock Miss Scott.

The air-ground competition was the anticipated highlight of the evening. Beachey flew a Curtiss Bi-Plane. His competitor, George Saulsman drove a Chalmers 40 sponsored by the American-LaFrance Fire Engine Company. Saulsman reached speeds of 70 mph as he rounded the track, but Beachey won the race. Inspired by the crowd, speed, or lucrative nature of races, Beachey later approached racecar driver Barney Oldfield driver from Ohio to repeat the stunt. The two of them would go on to compete at more than 35 different venues around the country, and together they earned more than $250,000, or over 6 million dollars today.

The evening was a success, even though a heavy rainfall interrupted events causing the crowd to temporarily relocate under the grandstands until it passed.

Beachey would return to Elmira more three times to put on airshows. But, in 1915, his daredevilry caught up with him, and he died in a plane crash. He was 28 years old. Barney Oldfield lived until 1946, when he died of a heart attack at 68. 

Beachey flying in Elmira, 1912

The aerial speed show that flew over Elmira that July must have been thrilling to watch and well worth the .75 cents spent.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Conscientious Objectors

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist


On the morning of Monday, April 8, 1946, internees at the Conscientious Objector camp in Big Flats woke to find a flag reading “U.S. Slave Camp” on the flag pole in where the American flag normally flew. Weather conditions made it impossible to remove the flag until Wednesday. By that time, someone had put up boards baring the words “This Is a Slave Camp” with arrows pointing the way on trees leading to the camp entrance. These acts of protest did not go over well. The Corning American Legion wrote to Washington demanding a full investigation. The local papers were filled with angry letters and op-eds calling the conscientious objectors cowards and provocateurs just asking for trouble.

Lowering the flag, Elmira Star-Gazette, April 10, 1946

 The Conscientious Objector camp in Big Flats on Rt. 17 near Bottcher Gardens opened in August 1942 at an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp. During the four years of its operation, some 1,000 men served there, although never more than 200 at a time. They were housed in four large barracks and worked for the Soil Conservation Service on their 250-acre experimental grass and tree nursery. The saplings they grew were used all over the Northeast for reforestation projects. They also helped clear roads in the winter and bring in the harvest on area farms. Some also participated in voluntary medical and nutritional experiments for the U.S. military. Unlike with soldiers, the government did not pay the men or help care for their dependents, so many took outside, part-time work in Elmira as well.

The men who worked there came from all walks of life, united only by their opposition to war. They were religious objectors, mostly Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses, mixed in with artistic types, and anti-tax political activists. Whatever their reasons for doing so, each had been called before their draft board and registered themselves as conscientious objectors. Each objector was required to select one of three church organizations to be affiliated with during their alternate service. The government had contracted with the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, and the Quakers to run the conscientious objector camps. The one in Big Flats was managed by the Quakers.

There were problems at the camp almost immediately after opening. Within weeks, several of the men were complaining about the nursery manager’s hostile attitude. The Soil Conservation Service employees, meanwhile, complained about the underwhelming quality of the men’s work. On October 1, 1942, George Kingsley, Louis Krawczyk, and Stanley Murphy walked out of camp declaring that they could no longer perform such “insignificant work.” The three were subsequently convicted of desertion and sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison. 

Objectors harvesting hay, 1942

 Certain segments of the local community were not happy to have them. In March 1943, the Corning American Legion Post petitioned their congressman, Republican Sterling Cole, to investigate the camp. The Elmira Heights post seconded their call, claiming the objectors were “a stab in the back to our national security.”  After an inspection in August, Congressman Cole erroneously criticized the camp’s management for allowing the wives and girlfriends of the men to visit the camp. About one-third of the men had dependents, and many of whom found lodging in Elmira so they could see their spouses when they came into town between the end of their required workday and their 10:30pm curfew.

Despite the initial friction, the camp soon became part of the larger community. Area companies and farms actively recruited objectors for part-time work. The men’s families came to the area to settle and take work too. Several of the objectors volunteered as orderlies at the Arnot-Ogden Hospital, while others helped to renovate a local youth center. The camp basketball team played in the Elmira city league as “The Big Flats Friends” and music groups from the camp played at local venues. In June 1944, the camp hosted an Institute on International Relations, which drew hundreds of locals.

The war ended in August 1945 and the government began discharging conscientious objectors and closing camps soon after. By the spring of 1946, the Big Flats camp was the last one in New York and the men were getting restless. In addition to the slave camp protest signs, they also wrote to Governor Dewey, asking for his help. In May, 40 men went on strike and kept it up for weeks until all the men involved were discharged. Finally, the camp closed on October 31, 1946. Today, few traces of the camp remain and, with our all-volunteer military, there are even fewer opportunities to grapple with the question of how we treat those who refuse to fight.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Interesting Historical Points in 1922

by Erin Doane, Curator 

When I was researching my last post here about theMcCann Boulder, I came across an article in the Star-Gazette from 1922 presenting the monument as part of a series of articles entitled “Interesting Historical Points Around City Told In Pictures.” From February 14 through March 2, the newspaper highlighted 13 different points – seven historic buildings and six monuments. The buildings featured were the first post office, the home of Thomas Maxwell, Elmira’s first academy, the Young Americans’ Hose House, the Civil War prison camp morgue, the Park Hotel, and John Hendy’s cabin. Unfortunately, those buildings no longer exist, but all six monuments can still be seen today.

American Girl Statue

Star-Gazette, February 14, 1922, Article Text:

     The above statue is American Girl, a famous trotting horse which held many records during Elmira’s early days some fifty years ago. This memorial was erected in Eldridge Park, facing the site of the track where she captured so many triumphs.
American Girl was owned by William Lovell of New Yor. [sic] The beautiful animal was foaled in 1862 and had 150 heats to her credit. Her record time is 2:16 ½. All her races were in 2:30 or less.
     American Girl dropped dead in a free-for-all race staged October 2, 1875, when thousands of racing fans from throughout the East journeyed to see this fastest of all horses race.

American Girl stood in Eldridge park until October 7, 1980, when vandals used a vehicle to pull the statue off its pedestal and broke it into 147 pieces. In 2016, after being skillfully repaired and restored by Tom Beatty, the statue was finally returned to the park. It now stands in its own custom building on the northeast side of the lake next to the miniature golf course.

American Girl in Eldridge Park, July 16, 2021

Civil War Prison Camp Marker

Star-Gazette, February 15, 1922, Article Text:

     Here is all that remains of the once famous United States Confederate prison camp in 1861 in operation during the Civil War. The marker is a few feet east of Hoffman street. The camp extended west about one half mile from the marker, which is noted by arrow in the above picture. The marker is on the river side of Water street near Hoffman Creek It was erected by the Baldwin Post, No. 6, G.A.R., in 1900. Doubtless there are many patriotic Elmirans who did not know that the marker exists.

You can read about the history of the prison camp by clicking here. The stone marker is still in the same place just east of Hoffman Street. There are hedges growing around the monument but they have been trimmed so that it is visible. Just a block south of Water Street on Winsor Avenue, the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp have reconstructed some of the site and welcome visitors on Saturdays throughout the summer. You can find more information on their website:

Civil War prison camp marker, July 16, 2021

Close-up of the marker, July 16, 2021

Ross Marvin Memorial

Star-Gazette, February 16, 1922, Article Text:

     Elmira has the distinction of being represented in the discovery of the North Pole by Admiral Robert E. Peary. The above memorial to Ross Gilmore Marvin is located at the intersection of Lake and Union place. It was erected by Elmirans in memory of Mr. Marvin who was born on January 28, 1880. He was lost in the Arctic ocean on April 10, 1909, while a member of the Peary Expedition, which discovered the North Pole. Mr. Marvin was a student, teacher and explorer. Mr. Marvin was the son of Mary Marvin, 700 Riverside avenue.

To read more about Ross Marvin, and learn details about his possible murder, click here. Marvin’s memorial is no longer at the intersection of Lake Street and Union Place, though that location was designated as Ross Marvin Park by the Elmira Lions Club in 1957. The monument was moved several times over the years and today rests at the southeast corner of Church and Lake Streets.

Intersection of Lake Street and Union Place, July 16, 2021

Marker in Ross Marvin Park, Lake Street and Union Place, July 16, 2021

Ross Marvin Monument at the corner of Church and Lake Streets, July 16, 2021

Samuel L. Clemens’ Headstone

Star-Gazette, February 20, 1922, Article Text:

     This simple headstone marks the spot in Woodlawn cemetery where rest the remains of Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain), famous American humorist and author, who made is home in the city during his younger days. Mrs. Clemens was one of Elmira’s fairest daughters, Olivia Langdon Clemens. Ostentation had no place in the life of Mr. Clemens, except as a target for many a pinioned shaft of keenest wit – and in death a simple stone bears the name that needs no costly mausoleum to add to its luster.

The Clemens and Langdon families’ gravesite in Woodlawn remained rather modest until 1937 when Sam and Livy’s daughter Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch had a large stele with bronze portraits of her father and her husband installed. Woodlawn Cemetery has made it easy to visit Samuel Clemens’ final resting place. Enter the cemetery through the Walnut Street gate and follow the signs to Mark Twain.

Samuel Clemens’ headstone, Woodlawn Cemetery, July 16, 2021

Clemens/Langdon family plot in Woodlawn Cemetery, July 16, 2021

Shohola Monument

Star-Gazette, February 27, 1922, Article Text:

     The above monument was erected by the United States Government to mark the last resting place of 49 unknown Confederate soldiers, who were killed in a railroad accident near Shohola, Pa., and later moved here.
     The monument stands in the northeast extremity of Woodlawn cemetery near the private cemetery of a large number of Confederate soldiers and entrance may be gained through the upper Davis street gate. The names of the unknown Confederate soldiers are engraved on a tablet. Their graves are unmarked.

The Shohola monument no longer marks the northeast extremity of the Woodlawn National Cemetery. Since its dedication, hundreds of U.S. military veterans have been laid to rest to its north. You can click here to learn more about the National Cemetery. To visit the monument today, enter Woodlawn National Cemetery through its Davis Street gate then walk south.

Shohola Monument, Woodlawn National Cemetery, July 16, 2021

McCann Monument

Star-Gazette, March 1, 1922, Article Text:

     The huge rock near the Davis street side of Woodlawn cemetery marks the final resting place of George and Crete McCann, early settlers of Elmira. The boulder was hauled from the east side of the canal over a specially built bridge. Several teams of oxen were used to draw it to its present position. Mr. McCann was the uncle of Supreme Court Justice George McCann. He was an active Elmiran and in the city’s early history Mr. McCann’s name appears prominently.

To read more about George and Crete McCann, and their monument, click here. While visiting Samuel Clemens and family in Woodlawn Cemetery, it is very easy to find the McCann monument just down the hill.

McCann monument, Woodlawn Cemetery, July 16, 2021

If you would like to read the full series of articles from 1922, including those about the historic buildings, click here.