Monday, May 29, 2023

The First Four Decades of Milling in Chemung County

by Monica Groth, Curator 

Arnot Mill on Newtown Creek, painted by Mabel Shoemaker, 1973

Living alongside creeks, rivers, and waterways has its many advantages. A river is not only a source of food and a means of transportation. Its power can also be harnessed to perform work for millers.

Almost as soon as the area which was to become Chemung County was settled by Revolutionary War veterans in the late 18th century, it became home to a number of sawmills – that is, mills which process lumber into wood for building homes. As past curator Frances Brayton writes, “even before a church or courthouse is built, the mill, by a rushing stream is set up and in operation.”

The first sawmill in the area was built on Seeley Creek by Abraham Miller in 1798. If his surname is any indication, Abraham might have descended from a family of English millers. He served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and was captured by the Haudenosaunee. Escaping around Seneca Lake on his captors’ route to Canada, Miller settled in New York. Historian Ausburn Towner names Miller “one of the most active, foremost and enterprising of the earliest settlers of the valley”.

Many equally enterprising settlers followed Miller’s example. In 1800, the first sawmills were built in Ashland and Van Etten. In 1805, Nathan Teall erected two mills, one in Horseheads and another in Millport. In the early years of the 19th century, sawmills sprang up throughout the townships, as the plentiful lumber of the surrounding hills was harvested to supply the needs of the growing population.

Thirty years after Abraham Miller built the first sawmill, there were no less than 19 mills in Southport on Seeley Creek alone.

That year, Big Flats boasted 5 sawmills,

Catlin: 18

Chemung: 21

Elmira: 13

Erin: 4

Veteran: 36

This was before the Chemung Canal opened in 1833. Once completed, the canal greatly increased the efficiency with which lumber could be transported and greatly expanded the markets which it could reach. Trade increased and more mills were constructed to capitalize on this economic opportunity.

Lumber outside Rodbourn Sawmill in Erin, NY. Sawmills continued to thrive into the 20th century.

By 1836, when author Solomon Southwick published the pamphlet “Views of Elmira”, the area’s mills had modernized and were extremely productive. Southwick writes that the 6 mill complexes closest to Elmira produced nearly 20,000 feet of lumber daily.

You’ll notice I wrote of mill complexes – meaning buildings harnessing water power to perform a variety of different tasks. Sawmills used that energy the operate saws to cut wood. Grist mills used that energy to grind grain between heavy millstones. Some millers did both tasks, while other specialized in one mill type.

A mill pick like this one in our collection is used to "dress" or re-carve
the furrows on mill grinding stones
A millstone - most grist mills will contain two stones arranged horizontally atop one another. One, the bedstone, remains stationary while the other, the runner stone, rotates on top of it. Grain its poured through the center whole and moves outwards through the channels as it is ground into fine flour, which emerges at its edge.

Grist mills appeared in our county sometime after our earliest sawmills and were extremely important to the area’s first families. Though a matter of some historic debate, the first grist mill is believed to have been built by Daniel Carpenter on Newtown Creek around 1800. Prior to its construction, families would transport their grain south to a mill on Tioga Point to be ground into flour. Towner writes that grain was transported on horseback or more often, by boat, and it was “a tedious process in bringing it home up river”. “When the mill was built at the mouth of Newtown Creek,” Towner writes, “it was an enterprise of more necessity… than the completion of the Chemung Canal.”

Soon after Carpenter’s Mill was built, another early grist mill was opened by the Webb family in Southport (in the vicinity of the district which now bears its name).

Scale model of Webbs Mill, originally on Seeley Creek in Southport.
Webbs Mill was among the first grist mills in Chemung County

By Southwick’s observation, in 1836, the aforementioned mills nearest the city of Elmira were grinding approximately 800 bushels of grain a day.

However, there were still far fewer grist mills in the area than sawmills, and grist mills, performing a great percentage of their work to serve the local community rather than more distant markets, remained very important to Chemung County residents. When a fire destroyed the grist mill Sullivan's Mill (also known as the Tuttle or Arnot Mill) in 1836, The Elmira Gazette wrote that the loss of the mill and over 650 bushels of wheat would be “severely felt by the community, as there are few such establishments in the neighborhood.” The mill was immediately rebuilt the following season.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Call the Midwife: Rose Spadaccino

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Between 1915 and 1935, Elmira midwife Rose Spadaccino delivered 551 babies, including five of her own grandchildren. Most of her patients were members of the city’s Italian and Polish immigrant communities. In her notebook, she recorded each birth she attended, writing down the names of the parents and children, as well as details like the parent’s ages, place of birth, and address. The notebook is a veritable genealogical gold mine. 


Rose Spadaccino, ca. 1900

Rose Spadaccino (1873-1950) was born in Macchia Valfortore, Italy to Dominico Spadaccino and Josephine Callucci. Sometime in the early 1890s, she married Donato Muccigrosso (1875-1943). In 1898, the two immigrated to Elmira along with their young son, Anthony (1896-1979). They went on to have three more children Lena (1902-1988), Thomas (1903-1989), and Joseph (1905-1987). Note that, despite being married, she continued to use her maiden name. That’s because, in Italy, women don’t take their husband’s names and instead use their own surname their entire lives. 


Donato Muccigrosso and son Anthony, ca. 1900

The family was part of a wave of Italian immigrants arriving in Elmira in the 1890s and early 1900s. They were likely drawn here by the presence of several Muccigrosso siblings and cousins who were already living in the area. Over a dozen other families from Macchia Valfortore also settled in the area including members of the Spadaccino, Gallucci, Santone, Rossi, and Cassetta families. These surnames appear multiple times in Rose’s notebook.

Rose was first licensed as a midwife in 1912, after beginning her studies around the time her youngest started school. Her husband, Donato worked as a shoemaker. He also played the tuba as a member of a member of the Duca D'Abruzzi's Band, a local Italian marching band. The couple were both active members at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Elmira. Donato played the organ and Rose was a member of the Sacred Heart Society and Order of St. Francis.

Rose’s midwifery records were donated to the Chemung County Historical Society in 2022 by some of her descendants along with a collection of family photographs and genealogical notes. In early 2023, we received a grant from the South Central Regional Library Council to digitize the collection. The notebook and a selection of family photos and documents are currently available on the New York Heritage website:


page from Rose's notebook

The grant was part of New York’s Consider the Source program, an initiative through the New York Department of Education to help teachers bring primary sources into the classroom. This round of grants focused on digitizing records related to historically underserved communities including people of color, women, immigrants, and the poor. The Consider the Source NY website ( hosts historical documents and images, along with lesson plans based on the items. In the coming months, Rose Spadaccino’s records might just end up in a classroom near you!


Sunday, April 30, 2023

Reached their Quota: The Short History of Elmira's Quota Club

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Elmira businesswomen were galvanized, back in the spring of 1919, by the news that a woman in Buffalo had founded the International Quota Club—an organization similar to the various men’s business clubs, but solely for women. In hopes of starting an Elmira chapter, a group of local women advertised in the Star-Gazette for potential members. The ad ran in May, and by June, more than 75 women had applied for a Quota Club charter. In August, however, before the charter paperwork had even arrived, the group abruptly disbanded. The Quota Club of 1919 never took hold in Elmira.

Quota International Logo

Clubs have been around a long time, and the first ones were formed primarily around sports or social causes. Two of the earliest examples include the Schuylkill Fishing club in Delaware, which can be traced back to 1732, and the Sheffield football club in England, formed in 1857. Business clubs didn’t show up until the early 20th century, and offered professionals the chance to network and do good deeds.

Three of the earliest business clubs - Rotary, Optimist, and Kiwanis - began near the turn of the century and are still going strong. The oldest of these is the Rotary Club, which was formed in Chicago in 1905. The name comes from the fact that the group rotated official meetings among the members’ different business locations. In 1912, with the addition of clubs in Canada and Europe, the name was changed to the International Rotary Club. Early rules prohibited women from being members, and each chapter allowed only one representative member per job classification. They did not have official restrictions on race, though many early clubs excluded Black members until 1980. The restriction on job classifications was eliminated and women were allowed to join in 1989. Elmira’s International Rotary chapter was started in 1916.

The Optimist Club was formed in 1911 in Buffalo. As the name suggests, members sought to take a positive approach when addressing societal problems. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Optimists accepted women as members. Today there are over 3,000 Optimist clubs with more than 80,000 members. Elmira’s chapter was founded in 1988.

Perhaps most directly influential on the Quota Club was the Kiwanis organization, founded in Detroit in 1915. First known as the Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order Brothers, they soon changed their name to Kiwanis. Early members thought the word was a Native American word that meant to trade or build. It actually is a misunderstanding of an Ojibwa phrase meaning “to fool around.” The organization became Kiwanis International in 1916 when chapters from Canada joined.

Like the two other professional service organizations, Kiwanis was slow to offer membership to Blacks and women. Blacks were officially invited to become members in 1980, and women were invited in 1987. In Elmira, the Kiwanis chapter started in 1974.

These three business clubs became immediately popular and offered businessmen a chance to network, hang out, and work together. Not to be left behind, women wanted their own club. In 1919, Buffalo businesswoman Wanda Frey Joiner established the Quota Club.

Wanda Fry Joiner

Born in Russia, Wanda Frey immigrated to Buffalo with her family as a child. At 28 years old, she married Robert Parks Joiner, who owned a company in the paint and glass industry. He died three years later, leaving her to run his business. She was a guest attending a Kiwanis Christmas party when she was inspired to form a similar professional club exclusively for women.

Women’s rights were in the news. One year earlier, women in New York State had earned the right to vote, and now the United States was poised to give all women that right, having passed the 19th amendment. (However, it would take the adoption of the Voting Rights bill decades later to address voting barriers for Black women.)

News of the newly formed Quota Club spread quickly. As the Star-Gazette pointed out, “Combining social, business and civic activities in the manner of these clubs is a quite modern idea.”

The Elmira group elected a board of directors and waited for their chapter to be officially recognized. They elected officers and held planning luncheons. To celebrate their upcoming formation, they scheduled their first “annual” event for July. They had originally planned to meet at Sullivan’s Monument, but changed locations when a heavy rainstorm came through the area. They went instead to Brand Park, where 60 members participated in pie-eating contests, footraces, and skilled sports competitions like baseball throwing and unnamed “stunts.” Apparently, some of the footraces created a ruckus; according to the newspaper, a few of the heftier racers insisted on entering footraces for slim or lightweight women, though everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Events finished with an excursion to Rorick’s Glen to attend an opera that evening.

Less than one month later, the Star-Gazette reported that one of the local organizers had said the “reputation and character of the national organizer of the club has been assailed,” and the local group refused to accept official recognition. They would be returning all paperwork when it arrived.

Whatever specific disagreements the Elmira group had aren’t clear, but the seeds were sown for discontent and soon the group broke apart. Some women moved away, while others reorganized into the Elmira Business Women’s Club. In December 1919, this group joined Zonta International and formed a chapter in Elmira. Zonta International was a businesswomen’s club formed in Buffalo, and the Elmira chapter was one of its first five chapters. It is the only Zonta chapter that owns its own house, and it is still going strong today, though I don’t know if they have any footraces scheduled.

Elmira's Zonta House
Author's note: Corning Painted Post had a Quota chapter for years though Quota International disbanded operations in 2020 due to dwindling membership. 


Monday, April 17, 2023

Sadie Belton or Millport’s Fairy Queen

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

Everywhere she performed, Millport native Sarah “Sadie” Belton received rave reviews. In 1881, the Columbus Daily Evening Republic wrote, “The singing of Miss Sadie Belton is especially good, and her dramatic ability would do credit to any star actress.” The Cuba Evening Review described her as “The wonder and admiration of all.” Yet, it wasn’t her prodigious talent that made her famous. No, what Sadie Belton was most famous for was her height.

Sadie Belton, ca. 1880s

 At just 33 inches tall, Belton was one of the so-called midget performers who took the world by storm in the mid-1800s. Today, the word midget is considered highly offensive and the preferred terms are Little Person or dwarf. Born in Millport in 1842, she first took to the stage sometime in the 1860s touring under the stage name of “Fairy Queen.” In her early days, she mostly worked in traveling freak shows. In 1868, she was working at one called Miss Belton’s Museum of Wonders, although it was actually run by a man named Professor Carruthers. Around 1877, she joined Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. The company was different from the freak shows. They put on actual plays like Jack the Giant-Killer and Gulliver’s Travels. Most of the cast were fellow dwarfs with just a couple of conventionally-sized folk to play Gulliver or the giant. She worked with them until 1891 when she helped form the Royal Midgets before retiring from the stage by the end of the decade. 

Flier for Deakin's Lilliputian Comedic Opera Co.

At the time, dwarf performers were hugely popular. Like Belton, most of them got their start in freak shows as objects of curiosity. In 1842, showmen P.T. Barnum and Charles Stratton (better known as General Tom Thumb) changed things up by adding impersonations, musical numbers, and actual acting. By the time Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. was touring, dwarf entertainers had moved from carnival tents into respectable theaters. The actors were no longer “freaks,” but legitimate actors. And yet said actors’ size remained the main draw and source of the audience’s amusement. “The little folks show a keen appreciation of the humor of the situation in which they find themselves, and sustain their parts with a self-possession which is laughter-provoking,” the Swanton Courier wrote of Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. on January 3, 1879. More than a few reviewers marveled at just like real actors Belton and her co-stars were.

There are over 200 medical conditions which can result in dwarfism. Belton was a pituitary dwarf whose stature was likely the result of a growth hormone deficiency. Most of her co-stars had similar issues. Today, there is a debate among the Little Person community as to whether or not dwarfism is a disability. It’s certainly not for me to decide that, but their dwarfism certainly had a profound impact on the lives of Belton and her associates.

Display of Belton's clothing at the Schuyler County Historical Society, 1976

 Life for such performers wasn’t easy and they were often exploited. P.T. Barnum purchased Stratton from his parents when he was just five-years-old and his situation was in no way unique. Sadie Belton was at least an adult when she began touring, and even she ran into difficulties. It apparently wasn’t unusual for strangers to just pick her up and cuddle her. In 1868, she secretly married fellow freak-show performer George Luther Saxe (stage name Brother Joseph) in an attempt to protect herself from the abuses of her employer, Professor Carruthers. When Carruthers found out, a fight broke out and Saxe was arrested on the grounds the marriage must be somehow illegal owing to her childlike stature. In the end, the marriage was annulled without charges and Belton left the show in the company of her mother.

Deakin’s Lilliputian Comic Opera Co. turned out to be a much better fit for Belton. By the 1870s, she was raking it in. In 1878, she temporarily misplaced a diamond necklace at a Massachusetts hotel. The Elmira paper which reported the incident noted “It is unusual for Chemung County girls to have diamonds.” After retiring from the stage, she purchased a home in Harrisville, Rhode Island where she lived until her death on April 14, 1915 at age 73. She is buried in a family plot in Millport.