Sunday, December 18, 2022

Holiday Memories

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 2020, when the whole world seemed to pause, the annual Elmira Downtown Holiday parade was canceled. Without a parade, CCHS shared 170 images from our collection for a virtual walk down memory lane. You can still see that album on our Facebook page. Eighteen of the images are from a Corning parade, and two are missing dates because we couldn’t confirm when the pictures were taken. Of the 150 remaining images, we thought you might enjoy seeing the top 5 ‘liked’ photos. In order of popularity, here they are.

1958 (64)1958

This image got the most attention. Since we posted photographs in chronological order, it was also the oldest confirmed photo in the album. It was taken in 1958, and shows a crowd of people surrounding a horse drawn sleigh in front of Iszard’s Department store. Best guess is it was the end of that year’s parade. On the sleigh, Santa is joined by two official-looking men wearing winter coats. Most of the crowd are wearing coats and hats and many women are wearing scarves on their heads. One observer commented he remembered watching Santa get off the train and climb down for the parade. Others remembered shopping on crowded streets. While a few remembered specific food they ate at Iszard’s. Cream cheese and olive sandwiches anyone?

Second in popularity was this crowd scene from 1966. Here the image includes mostly children intently watching something just out of the picture frame. A few children are waving. One observer recognized himself in the crowd. It must have been warmer that year, because fewer people are wearing hats and there are no winter boots in sight.

The third photograph was also taken in 1966. You can see a group of Southside High School baton twirlers high-stepping down the street followed closely by a marching band. Onlookers line the side of the street, and a partial view of the viaduct span can be seen. One observer recognized her mother performing with a baton.

The fourth photograph was also from 1966. It shows two men dressed in Batman and Robin costumes astride motorcycles. They both look off to the side at something out of the photograph’s frame, and have their feet on the ground, indicating they are paused. A crowd of children and adults watch. While no one left any comments on this image, it clearly sparked nostalgia.

The fifth most popular photograph was taken in 1969. The image shows two young women carrying a banner for Southside’s High School Band which follows behind. Behind the banner are two processional flags. Both sides of the street are lined with onlookers. Commenters on this image recognized themselves or other band members.

Winter holidays often inspire us to look back at the past, whether fifty years ago, twenty-five years ago or the year about to pass. We hope you enjoy seeing these again. Whatever traditions you celebrate, we hope you share them with friends and family, and maybe a cream cheese and olive sandwich on the side.

Monday, December 12, 2022

So You Want To Be An Oral Historian

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


The majority of the human experience will be lost to time.  The most pivotal moments in people’s lives rarely make the newspapers, let alone the history books. Once someone dies, their memories die with them, but you can do your part to preserve them through Oral History and the Holidays are the ideal time to learn how.

At its core, oral history is about capturing, preserving, and sharing the lived experiences of individuals whose stories might otherwise be lost. In the late 1800s, American anthropologists began recording Native American folklore in phonographic cylinders.  The oral history movement began in earnest in the United States in the 1930s with the Federal Writers’ Project under the New Deal. Out-of-work writers were hired by the Federal government to listen to and record the stories of everyday Americans. The Slave Narrative Collection, for example, recorded the recollections of over 2,300 formerly enslaved individuals. Many of those narratives are available online for free via the Library of Congress website and have proved vital to researchers.

The oral history movement picked up steam in the 1960s and ‘70s as recording equipment became cheaper and more portable.  Here at the Chemung County Historical Society, we began collecting oral histories on audio cassette back in the 1980s. Currently, we have over 300 oral histories on a variety of mediums including audio cassettes, VHS, and mp3s. Some of our projects include the Veterans’ Oral History Project, the Black Oral History Project, the Recollections of the 1972 Flood Project, and the COVID Memory Project. Several of these projects are still on-going if you would like to participate. Our Black Oral History Project and COVID Memory Project are available on our YouTube page. All other interviews are indexed on our website and can be listened to at our offices. 


Drawer one of our Oral History collection

Of course, you don’t have to be a professional historian, anthropologists, or folklorist to be an oral historian and capture the stories of your own family and community. These days, in fact, it’s easier than ever to get involved. Here are seven steps for conducting your own oral histories:

STEP 1: Selecting your equipment

Here at CCHS, we currently use a high-end Yeti microphone paired with a computer running Audacity, a free, open-source audio recording software. When I first started here, we were using a mini-DV camcorder. You can use what you have, but the easiest is probably going to be your cellphone. StoryCorps, a non-profit dedicating to preserving and sharing humanity’s stories, has a free app you can download to help you record your oral histories. All stories recorded through their app get saved to their servers. If you and your interviewees would prefer to keep the interview private, simply use the audio recording function on most smartphones. You can also conduct and record interviews on the computer via Zoom. 

Recent interviewee with our Yeti microphone

 STEP 2: Select a theme or topic

Most people have a lot of stories. To keep yourself from being overwhelmed, you’re going to want to pick one topic, theme, or subject to focus on. Some recent topics we’ve explored here at CCHS include: growing up on Elmira’s Eastside, the impact of the COVID pandemic, and the flood of 1972.

STEP 3: Obtain the consent of potential interviewee(s)

Oral history is a collaborative act. You’re going to want to make sure the participants are 100% on board with the project. Tell them exactly what you are doing and why before you start recording. Make sure they know they can stop at any time should they become upset or uncomfortable. Be sure to stop if they ask to.

STEP 4: Press record

STEP 5: The Interview

When beginning an interview, I usually do a quick introduction: my name, the date, the name of the project, and the name of the interviewee. You should do something similar.

You’re going to want to ask a mix of specific and open-ended questions. Specific questions like what high school did you go to? when did you enlist? and how long have you worked for [company]? are vital for providing context for the story the person will tell. Once you’ve established the basics, you can ask the more open-ended questions like what was high school like back then? what do you remember about the army? and what was it like working for [company]?  These more open-ended questions allow the interviewee to really share their story. From there, you can ask additional questions to follow up on or clarify things they brought up.

The last question should always be to ask if there’s anything else they’d like to say related to the topic.

Be sure to thank the interviewee for participating.

STEP 6: Save and label the recording

Back in the day, we’d literally labeled the cassette tape with the name of the interviewee and date of the recording. These days, I save the digital file with the name and date as the tittle. For example, Rachel Dworkin.12.12.2022.mp3. You’re going to want to do the same. Be sure to save it more than one place.

STEP 7: Transcribe?

Here at CCHS, we transcribe all our interviews. This involves listening to the interview and writing down literally ever single word. It is a highly labor-intensive process which we could not manage without our dedicated volunteers. A 30-minute interview can take over 4 hours to transcribe! We do this to help future researchers and people who are hard of hearing. It’s up to you whether you want to do something similar.

Now that you know how, get out there and record some history!


Monday, November 28, 2022

Faces of Chemung County

by Monica Groth, Curator

The display surrounding Julia Stancliff Reynolds,
one of nine individuals featured in our newest exhibit

The Museum’s upcoming exhibit Faces of Chemung County features the portraits of nine distinct individuals. Each face has a unique past and story, and this exhibit invites you to step into the frame. A deeper look into the lives of those depicted reveals that in addition to great differences, our characters also share similarities across time and space. Viewing them side by side helps the visitor compare their contexts and contemplate the lives they lived in relation to each other – human lives filled with the same heartbreak, sacrifice, and perseverance present throughout all of history.

Julia Renolds (left) and Rachel Gleason (right):
notice their difference in dress as well as frame

Julia Reynolds (1836-1916) and Rachel Gleason (1820-1905) both led long lives. As women born in the early nineteenth century, they were subjected to many societal expectations –including the expectation to marry. Julia, born an Eldridge, married twice, experiencing a heartbreaking widowhood followed by a bitter separation from her second husband. She then lived independently abroad and in New York City for the last twenty-five years of her life. Julia was a wealthy woman and readers may remember that her mansion, nicknamed "Fascination" was mentioned in a previous blog of mine.  

Rachel’s husband, Silas, supported her desire to become a physician and encouraged her interest in medicine. Rachel became one of the first women in the United States to receive a medical degree, graduating from Central Medical College in Rochester, NY in 1851. Rachel knew that women not only experienced discrimination in what careers were open to them, but were also deprived of sound medical care. At the time, male doctors dismissed women as hysteric patients and many considered it “indecorous” to discuss female health problems. Rachel therefore specialized in treating women and educating them about their health. She lectured often and promoted her book Talks to my Patients, in which she wrote candidly about women’s health topics. She worked with Silas at Elmira’s Water Cure, established on the city’s East Hill in 1852, and even delivered Samuel Clemens’ (Mark Twain’s) daughters, being Livy Clemens’ personal physician. Both Julia and Rachel lived through Elmira’s Gilded Age, Rachel defying expectations on the city’s East Hill in order to reach success, and Julia fulfilling the responsibilities of a wealthy hostess downtown only to find it very lonely indeed.

Isaac Baldwin (left), Thomas Kane (middle), Colonel Liscum (right)

Beside each other in the exhibit are a young lad and an old gentleman – a 150 year old rocking horse, bedecked in a fine small saddle and bridle, within a few feet of a saddle blanket actually used in combat. Colonel Emerson Liscum (1841-1900), the owner of that saddle, died whilst leading a charge on the walled city of Tien-Tsin, China during the Boxer Rebellion. A career soldier who enlisted in the Union Army at only 19 years old, Emerson married Elmiran May Diven after the Civil War ended. May received a sorrowful letter accompanying the saddle blanket now in the Historical Society’s collection, expressing condolences over the loss of her husband. Known as Old White Whiskers, Liscum’s last words “Keep up the fire” became the motto of the 9th US Infantry he commanded, and a monument and ornate silver bowl were commissioned in his honor. 

Young Isaac Baldwin (1869-1949), likely the proud rider of a rocking horse similar to that one on display, is only nine years old in his portrait. His childhood was comfortable, as his father was a wealthy real-estate mogul, and it is memorialized in the exhibit through toys from the 1870s-1880s. Among Baldwin’s associated objects are a toy cannon and game pieces from a political board game, reminding viewers of the irony of children playing at war and politics when soldiers like Liscum were in the midst of very real conflicts. 

Another veteran in this exhibit enlisted eighty years after Liscum at nearly the same age. Elmiran Pvt. Thomas Kane (1923-1978) was 20 years old when he joined up in WWII. USO artist Freda Reiter captured his likeness in a sketch while he was convalescing in a French military hospital a year later. His portrait, in between the innocent youth and the battle-hardened soldier, gives one a look into the eyes of a young man experiencing the trials of a very different war. Happily, Pvt. Kane survived his wounds and went on to a very successful career in the Postal Service.

Reverend Henry Hubbard (left); Harry York Iszard (right)

Kane may have known two figures who now make their entrances – Harry York Iszard (1893-1971) and Reverend Hubbard (1873-1957). The portraits of these two men were painted within two years of each other, the Reverend’s in 1953 and Harry’s in 1955. The 50’s were a time of great post-war growth in Chemung County, as citizens across the country recovered from the war. Harry Iszard inherited S.F. Iszard’s Department store upon his father’s death. He opened a new branch in the Arnot Mall and sponsored the annual holiday parade to increase business, a tradition which continues to this day. Hubbard served as rector of Trinity Episcopal Church from 1917-1953, retiring the year this portrait was painted. Archival documents reveal his congregation was very grateful for his leadership during both World Wars, and that he was a champion of programs for young people. Though one served the material needs of the community and the other its spiritual, these two be-speckled gentlemen had a great impact on their community.

Native American Woman tentatively identified as Sha-ko-ka of the Mandan tribe (left);
Black Woman tentatively identified as a member of the Williams and Underwood families (right)

It is equally important to draw attention to those individuals who are not always remembered by history – those who do not come from privileged backgrounds and are marginalized due to gender and race. The identities of two individuals in this exhibit have been lost to history. The first portrait is of a Native American Woman. Her portrait is thought to have been painted by the prolific western artist George Catlin. From 1830-1838 Catlin toured the native tribes of the American West, creating a portrait gallery.  In traveling up the Missouri River around his final years of work, he encountered the Mandan tribe of the Heart River area of North Dakota. There he painted a young woman named “Mint”, or Sha-ko-ka in her native language. This young woman bears some resemblance to the subject of the portrait we are now displaying and may be a rendition of her in different dress. Sha-ko-ka, like many Native Americans in the early 19th century, were wrongly viewed as exotic people part of a romanticized past rather than as individuals with rights. Continued Westward Expansion, of which Colonel Liscum was later a part, pushed Mandan people from their ancestral lands and afflicted many with smallpox and disease. 

Another unidentified portrait in our collection is that of an African American woman, tentatively identified as Elmer Underwood’s mother and a member of the Williams extended family. The Black community in Chemung County faced much discrimination in housing, education, and employment throughout the late 1800s, the approximate date of this portrait. Yet, many political action groups fought against this injustice, including Colored Citizens of Elmira and the Elmira chapter of the NAACP. Five members of the Williams family were founding members of the city’s chapter of the NAACP, created in 1942, and worked to advance the status of the county's Black community. 

History is filled with unrecorded stories and the circumstances and biases which prioritize some lives whilst relegating others to footnotes. Both of these women’s portraits reveal unrecorded lives we must recognize in telling the county’s story and highlight our mission to turn historical omissions into learning experiences.

Faces of Chemung County is currently being installed. Visit the Museum to view the objects which accompany these portraits and see if you can identify more similarities and differences among them.

Monday, November 14, 2022

Mr. Bookmobile: Thompson Ellsworth Williams

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Known affectionately as Mr. Bookmobile for over thirty years, Thompson E. Williams not only drove the county’s first bookmobile, he shared his love of learning with generations of readers.

Thomas E. Williams, Chemung County's first bookmobile clerk and driver

Born in 1918 in Elmira to George and Helen Williams, Thompson came from a family who worked hard. His mother, Helen, raised the couple’s five children, worked at the department store Sheehan Dean & Co., and was active in many clubs and community organizations. His father, George, was a professional boxer who fought throughout the northeast under the name “Cyclone” Williams, competing in the lightweight division. Despite being recognized for his speed in the ring, he attributed to a higher power the fact that he had avoided visible scars or scrapes.

In the 1920s, George gave up boxing to pursue a different path. He threw himself into his studies, working odd jobs to support himself. He studied at Elmira Free Academy, Cook Academy in Montour Falls, and Berkley Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. One job he had was running a shoe shine business. It was located under the viaduct near Lake Street, and he often told people that his business had a million-dollar overhead. In 1929, he was ordained and became an AME Zion minister. Over the next few years he was appointed pastor at churches in Corning, Wellsville, and Waverly, NY, Meriden, CT, and Pittsburgh, PA.

Growing up, Thompson Williams was active in the Boy Scouts. He graduated from Elmira Free Academy in 1937, and next to his senior picture, the yearbook lists Howard University, where he intended to study.

EFA, Class of 1937

He didn’t end up going to Howard. After high school, he joined his mother to work at Sheehan Dean & Co. In 1944 he was drafted into the United States Army to fight in World War II.

Thompson trained at Fort Myers gunnery school and graduated in 1945. It was at a time when options were limited for Blacks in the military. Seeking better opportunities, Thompson joined the newly formed Tuskegee Airmen. The airmen were an elite all-Black squadron established in 1941 and the nation’s first Black military aviators. The airmen offered one of the few chances for Black soldiers to excel during harshly segregated times. Thompson did excel and achieved the rank of Corporal. Collectively, the Tuskegee airmen were awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 in recognition of their efforts during the war and leadership in integrating other branches of the U.S. military.

Honorably discharged, Thompson returned to Elmira. He coached the X-Cel Oilers basketball team from the Neighborhood House

Manager Williams at left
through an unbeaten season, and he worked for the Elmira Foundry Company. He also fell in love with the girl across the street, whose last name was the same as his first - Eva M. Thompson. They married in 1948.

Eva M. Thompson
1950 was a big year for Thompson and Eva Williams. They welcomed their first of seven children, and in December, Thompson was hired to be clerk and driver for Steele Memorial’s brand new $9,000 Bookmobile. He would hold the position he held for the next thirty-one years.

Mr. Bookmobile in action 
Chemung County had qualified for the first bookmobile under the State Aid for Libraries Law passed in June 1950. When it began, the bookmobile carried close to 3,000 books and delivered around 500 weekly. It served 21 rural communities, 65 schools, and 5 village stations.

In 1974, Thompson’s health forced him to scale back and he switched to driving a van for the library. Six years later, he died unexpectedly at 62 years old. It was one week before he had planned to retire.

In 1990, the Historical Society started collecting Black oral histories from people of Chemung County. We are fortunate that Thompson’s wife Eva Williams, was one who shared her story. (link to interview here) In her interview she talks about her husband, mentioning that he encouraged her to return to school to further her own studies, which she did. She talks about how he believed in education and sought out scholarships for his own children to go to college. He also encouraged Eva to vote, telling her that "it makes a difference in your job and in your community."

Thompson and Eva’s oldest child, Holly, who went on to be an educator, school administrator, and minister, remembers her father loved reading and always had a book with him. When asked what kinds of books her father read, Holly remembered that he liked books on early African civilizations and would share what he learned with his family.

Chemung County's first bookmobile, 1950s

Today the bookmobile continues to deliver books around the county. You can find current stops and times at

Monday, October 31, 2022

Capabilities and Disabilities

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month, but, for disabled workers, employment can be complicated. When the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established the country’s first minimum wage, it included exceptions for tipped workers, prisoners, agricultural workers, and “persons who by reason of illness or age or something else are not up to normal production,” i.e. disabled workers. The law radically altered the employment prospects of disabled workers, and not always in good ways.

In October 1955, the Chemung County Committee for Help for Retarded Children decided to open a sheltered workshop to provide employment for disabled workers. They called their new workshop Capabilities, Inc. The sheltered workshop movement began shortly after the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and really picked up steam in the post-war 1940s as a way for disabled workers to learn or, in the case of wounded veterans, re-learn the skills necessary for gainful employment. Like the proposed Chemung County workshop, they were often run by charitable organizations.  All of them paid their workers subminimum wages.

Capabilities, Inc. struggled in the early years. Grants and charitable donations kept them more or less afloat, but they struggled to find paying clients or steady work for their employees. They also struggled to find good employees. They went through four managers in two years and were forced to implement an employee screening process as it soon became apparent that some people were simply not physically or intellectually capable of industrial labor. Finding the right workspace and equipment also proved to be an issue.

In 1960, the Elmira Rotary Club became involved. They donated land for a new facility at 1149 Sullivan Street. A local architect associated with the club donated his time to design a new building free of charge. Two area foundries donated over ten thousand yards of fill needed to level the ground, while the City of Elmira provided power shovels and graders to do the work. The last load of fill was delivered on Christmas Eve. Construction began on February 27, 1961 with various business and labor organizations providing either free labor or building supplies. Once the building was complete, several local manufacturers donated gently-used machines and equipment. In May 1961, Capabilities moved into their new workspace and business quickly grew. 

1149 Sullivan Street

 Despite being originally proposed to help those with intellectual disabilities, by the 1960s, Capabilities only hired those with physical disabilities. New hires were evaluated on their existing skills and were set to perform different tasks to see which department they were best suited for. By that time, Capabilities had a wood-working department, small machine shop, electrical and mechanical assembly departments, secretarial department, and sewing shop. In 1963, New York State selected Capabilities as a pre-vocational evaluation unit and training site. Under this new system, workers who performed well enough would be encouraged to find regular employment within the wider community after a 16- to 26-week period of personal adjustment training. 

Electronics assembly shop, ca. 1960s

In May 1975, a group of 46 disabled workers at Capabilities signed a petition objecting to the working conditions associated with the training program. They argued that the training was a “joke” and that they were not being hired for outside positions. Workshop officials, they claimed, treated them poorly and were often rude and demeaning and they called for several of them to be fired. The biggest issue though was the pay. In 1975, regular hourly minimum wage as $2.10. For disabled workers, it was 35 cents. For workers being paid by the piece, their wages were calculated as a percentage of what a non-disabled worker could make which meant that they could make just pennies a day. No wonder they were upset! Although some of these issues were resolved, one former employee reported receiving subminimum wages when she worked there in the 1990s.

Sewing shop, ca. 1960s

The sad fact is that Federal law still allows employers to pay disabled workers subminimum wages. Currently, the regular Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but the disabled minimum wage is just $3.34. Training programs at sheltered workshops are common, but a 2001 study by the Government Accountability Office found that only 5% of disabled workers actually graduate from sheltered workshops to full-pay employment in the wider world. This is especially true for those with intellectual disabilities.  Within the last decade, New York State has taken steps to improve conditions for disabled workers. Under state law, disabled workers must be paid at least minimum wage and the state offers a Workers (with Disabilities) Employers Tax Credit to business which hire disabled workers.

Meanwhile, Capabilities is still going strong. They continue to offer pre-vocational training to people with both physical and intellectual disabilities. In addition to these services, Capabilities also runs several businesses including a print shop, an upholstery shop, and a machine shop located at 1149 Sullivan Street, plus Elmira Tea and Coffee House cafe on Water Street, and a custodial service. The workers are all paid at or above minimum wage. 

ETCH menu, 2020