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


Monday, October 17, 2022

The History of Hitching Your Horse

by Monica Groth, Curator

Hitching Post Collection by Talitha Botsford

During the 19th century, horse-drawn transportation ruled the roads of Chemung County and the United States. The Chemung County Historical Society has a collection of varied horse-drawn transportation, including a 1936 milk cart from L.J. Houck and Sons Dairy and a beautifully restored c. 1860 ladies basket phaeton with a fringed shade believed to have belonged to Elmira's Foster family.

Ladies Basket Phaeton c. 1860, restored in 2010 and displayed in CCHS's
2019-2020 Transportation exhibit

The common use of carriages necessitated the invention of two interesting objects still seen along streets today: the hitching post and the carriage step. A hitching post was a post to which a rider or carriage driver could tie their horse. A carriage step, often a block of stone or a cast-iron step, provided a raised spot from which a person could climb into a carriage. Ubiquitous in the 1800s, hitching posts and carriage steps slowly disappeared from cities as automobiles replaced horse-drawn carriages. 

In the mid-late 19th century, Morgan Dyer manufactured cast-iron farming tools, fences, and hitching posts at a foundry at what is now East Market St. and Clemens Center Parkway. Cast-iron can be easily molded into decorative shapes and was in high demand as a material for hitching posts. In 1871, Dyer designed and patented a cast-iron hitching post and carriage step combination. This creation would have been deeply buried in the ground beside a road. It has both a post to which a horse can be tied and a set of steps from which a passenger can alight into or from a carriage. 

Thanks to the excellent research of Elmira History Forge, one of Dyer’s hitching post/carriage steps located in New Jersey was made known to the Historical Society. The step was subsequently donated by its finder to CCHS and recently returned to Elmira. It's seven feet tall and roughly 250 lbs. 

Hitching Post/Carriage Step 
Manufactured by M. Dyer, Elmira, NY

Local artist Talitha Botsford, whose watercolor paintings are on display in a current exhibit Talitha’s Brush, painted a collection of local hitching posts, including one of the Dyer design (then in Wellsburg on Front St.). Botsford, who lived from 1901-2002, was a prolific artist, composer, poet, and musician who loved capturing historic sites throughout the area. Take a closer look at a few hitching posts as painted by Talitha. 

Three hitching posts by Talitha Botsford

Botsford also included a parking meter in her collection – because meters were used as hitching posts in the 20th century. Modernizing our streets doesn’t always change our ways. 

Hitching one's horse to a parking meter on Water St. c. 1930

It is interesting to think about how historic practices persist - sometimes simply out of personal habit or necessity, and sometimes out of intentional choices to preserve treasured aspects of the past. 

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Take a Look: New in the Galleries

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Everyone who has been to the museum has a favorite artifact or document that they remember long after they’ve visited. One of my personal favorites is not currently on display, but it's something I often share with groups. It is a connected series of iron links that make up an unassuming Victorian pot scrubber. Because it's function is not immediately obvious, it can spark people's curiosity to look a little longer and look a little closer in order to discover more.

The object was used during the early 20th century to scrub pots clean, and I use it to prompt questions like these: Who used it? How did they use it? Why was it used? What was the user’s position in society? What limitations did the user have or not have when using it? Each question has the potential to reveal new information. The stories behind the answers can help us understand history in new ways.

A new resource is now available to help visitors connect with our museum objects and the stories behind them. Inspired by a comment from our office manager, Samantha Sallade, and a suggestion from our archivist Rachel Dworkin, our curator, Monica Groth, recently created the first of what will be many self-guided tours available for free at our front desk. These tours take you through the galleries on a scavenger hunt to discover new connections to the artifacts and documents on display. 

This is one way to check assumptions and appreciate the object for what it is while we consider its place in history. Of course many of our exhibits change throughout the year, and not everything we have is on view at all times. We have thousands of artifacts and documents in the collection that are available for research, but are not on display due to their condition, conservation concerns, or the fact that we simply do not have space for everything. It doesn’t mean that we value the items any less.

We share stories of Chemung County events, people, and places through our exhibits and frequently add to and update them in order to tell these stories more completely based on what we verify.  Sometimes visitors share information and sometimes we uncover new information that helps us reframe those stories. Our volunteers working on HistoryForge have put in many hours collecting and entering data to tell more complete stories of Chemung County’s past. They meet twice monthly, and if you'd like to get involved, contact coordinator Andrea Renshaw at for more information.

Self-guided tours that are currently available are "Black Stories of Chemung County" and "Women's Lives in Chemung County." We plan to update these pamphlets periodically and to create more based on different topics, as we work to keep our collections fresh, relevant, and inclusive of the history of Chemung County residents.

Tours like these can help visitors see documents and objects from different points of view. For example, in the "Women's Lives in Chemung County" self-guided tour, we highlight this photo of Jenny Dunmeyer on display in the Bank Gallery. Jenny was part of the Women's Ambulance Defense Corps (WADC) , a volunteer group of young women ages 18-45 who helped out during World War II.
Jenny Dunmeyer (center) wearing her WADC uniform

The WADC admitted women of every race and background except Japanese. What privileges did they have that Japanese women did not? As a Black woman, Jenny was included in this group during the war, but what were her experiences post-war? You can read more about her life in a previous blog on the Reid family, You can also view Jenny's story from another point of view since she is also included in the self-guided tour "Black Stories of Chemung County."

If you have a suggestion for a tour, mention it to our receptionists or write to me directly at And the next time you’re in the museum, pick up one of our self-guided tours for yourself. It’s a chance to see Chemung County history through different lenses, and the museum through fresh eyes.