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