Monday, November 27, 2023


by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

At 5 am on November 7, 2023, our executive director arrived at work to unlock the museum’s doors. It was New York State’s General Election Day, and the Chemung County Historical Society welcomed voters from county districts 09-05/11-04, and 11-05. Poll workers arrived, set up, and were open for voters at 6 am. Polls closed at 9 pm. Before the end of the day, more than 200 people walked through the doors and our archivist stayed until 10 pm to lock up.

Many voters had never been in our building before. After voting, they took advantage of the museum’s free admission for the day to explore. Others took a quick look around, vowing to come back to see more. We even had a few tell us they wanted to donate items to our collection.

It was the first time CCHS was a polling site. In the United States, the majority of polling places are located in public schools. This makes sense because they are situated throughout the community. Most school buildings have good accessibility features, and are designed with large rooms, like gymnasiums or cafeterias, which can accommodate polling equipment and poll workers. Schools also have sufficient parking to handle the flow of traffic.

Unfortunately, what makes less sense, is the disruption Election Day can bring to schools and student routines. Concerns about safety make it more problematic.

We thought we could help and in the fall of 2022, we contacted the Chemung County Board of Elections. We have ample parking, a good-sized education room, and our museum is all on one level. Local Election Board officials visited then sent an independent inspector to evaluate voter accessibility. There were a few things that needed to be addressed, but overall, the officials agreed CCHS would be a good site and we were granted the right to host an election in the spring.

The New York State Board of Elections is responsible for defining all New York State election laws and rules for each of the state’s 62 counties. The Board mandates what the national, state, county, city, and town elections look like on the local level tasking local administration to the Chemung County Board of Elections. Local boards also provide election supplies to villages, fire districts, and school districts that conduct their own elections. They register eligible citizens to vote, and they perform various public education services including providing information to candidates seeking elective office. Local boards also accept and rule on voter petitions.


The Chemung County Board of Elections consists of two Election Commissioners. The commissioners are elected by county committees of their same political party and must be approved by the county legislature. Each are supported by two Deputy Commissioners and office staff.


According to the Chemung County Board of Elections, as of May 2023, the county has 55,480 registered voters. The unofficial results from November 7th, indicate that only 9,063 voters or 16% of eligible voters cast their vote. The election results aren’t official until after the required recount on November 22nd since races in Districts 1, 2, and 4 remained too close to call.

Voting, or having a voice in their government, is a key part of democracy. The United States is founded on the idea of freedom, and our nation’s history contains the struggle of different groups of Americans fighting to secure their vote. Voting reflects how engaged the public is.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy and law institute inspired on the work of United States Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., more states, about 19, have recently passed legislation making it harder to vote. Some of these laws require people to present IDs, or they take away the vote from anyone previously convicted of a felony. Others severely restrict early and absentee voting, and remove voters’ names from lists if they haven’t recently voted. Since 2020, only 17 US states have passed legislation making it easier to vote. Is voting important? In reference to the 16% of Chemung County voters who voted on November 7th, Chemung County’s Democratic Committee Chair Jamal Malik recently said, “The future of the city council is in the hands of a very few people. I think it was like 17% of the eligible voters came out and voted. So, every vote counts, and it's important that people get engaged, civically get engaged, not just be registered to vote, but actually go out and vote and that's the message that needs to be crystal clear to everyone.”

We hope that county voter engagement grows. Since the Chemung County Historical Society collects history through artifacts and documents of the County, we have items from elections more than 100 years old. We’ve been sharing some of these online in our weekly posts. This past fall, we were also pleased to be selected by the Smithsonian Institution’s Museums on Main Street program to be one of twelve sites to host a traveling exhibit called Voices and Votes. We won’t be getting the exhibition until fall of 2025, but have started planning for an accompanying display and programs to highlight voting in Chemung County. We’ll be sharing more details about this exciting project in the future.

Granted, 5 am was a pretty early start to the day, but well worth it to participate in local democracy. 

To see more about voting in Chemung County's past, check out our online exhibit Vote! Chemung County  

 Voting machine used from 1962 - 1982, CCHS Collection

Monday, November 13, 2023

Reclaiming Her Art: Francis S. Sinnett

 by Monica Groth, Curator

Too often the work of women is overlooked or dismissed. In some cases, a woman's accomplishments are even erroneously attributed to a man. 

I came across an example of the latter case recently. Coincidence brought about its discovery and the correcting of a decades old mistake. County Historian Kelsey Jones was researching the lives of two county artists - a couple, John Townsend and Francis Smith Sinnett - when I ran into him at the office. John Townsend Sinnett (1807-1891) was born in Dublin, Ireland and immigrated to the U.S., making painting his profession. His wife Francis, was born closer by, in Tioga County, and she too developed skills as an artist. We know that the couple lived at Southport Corners in the town of Southport by 1850, and had eight children by 1865. 

Kelsey showed me a painting attributed to John Townsend Sinnett held by the Arnot Art Museum. This painting, included below with permission of the Arnot, is entitled Demon Rum Versus Water. It depicts the moral hazard of the alcoholic carafe, encircled by a serpent, by contrasting it with the purity of water, complemented by a white pitcher and a waterfall to the far right. I was impressed by the quality of the painting and the obvious skill of the artist, but was unfamiliar with their name. According to our database, there were no Sinnett paintings in our collection. 

Demon Rum Versus Water, c. 1860
Image courtesy of the Arnot Art Museum

However, only the next day, I was researching 19th century art to include in an upcoming exhibit and was struck by this painting, a colorful tableau filled with exotic fruits:

Still Life painted by Mrs. Francis S. Sinnett, 1863

Notice anything? The pitcher looked nearly identical to the one in Demon Rum Versus Water! The painting style is also similar - could the paintings be by the same artist? Or artists in the same household and studio using the same still life props?

Our painting, an untitled still life, was anonymously donated to the Museum in memory of Robert L and Mary Cain many decades ago. It is attributed to W.J.R. Sinnott, an artist seemingly unconnected to Francis or John. So who was W.J.R. Sinnott? History draws a blank. No one by that name appears to have lived in the area during the 1860s. W.J.R. Sinnott doesn't appear to exist. 

Any record of a W.J.R. Sinnott, elsewhere spelled Sinnett, seems to equate him with John Townsend Sinnett. But we know J.T. Sinnett would have no reason to invent new initials for himself. A newspaper clipping advertising his services as a painter is signed J.T. Sinnett. Perhaps this is simply a case of mislabeling or misreading? A spelling mistake could be easily made due to the similarities of the last name. Check out this close up on the painting's signature. Could this painting have been painted by a Sinnett...could it have been painted by the other Sinnett?

Close-up of signature on Still Life Painting

We believe that this signature does not read "WJR Sinnott" but rather "Mrs. F. Sinnett".

Francis S. Sinnett was an artist in her own right. Indeed, in the 1857 Elmira City Directory it is she, not her husband,  who is listed, her profession clearly delineated as "artist". The entry even includes an address at 48 Water St, perhaps a art business? Kelsey Jones has done a lot of excellent research on the Sinnetts. He discovered a newspaper account rhapsodizing about Francis' award of first prize at an art exhibition. The excerpt declares that her "fruits and flowers" in particular were "very fine" and that there was really "no competition" between her and the other female applicants.

I theorize that "Mrs" was repeatedly misread by art sellers and even historians as "WJR". This isn't actually that surprising. There weren't many women acknowledged as professional painters in 19th century America, and few of them were signing their paintings in a way which openly advertised their femininity.  "Mrs" was not something an art lover would expect to see in a florid signature; so they didn't.

Francis had to distinguish her art from her husband's, but it is interesting the she chose to do so by including the address of "Mrs" rather than simply including her first initial. Indeed, in another painting attributed to Francis, she signs it simply "F. Sinnett". Many other women of this period, especially authors, choose to hide their sex from readers and buyers, preferring the anonymity of gender-neutral initials. They were more likely to be published and purchased if their publishers and readers thought them male. 

Perhaps the art world was different. Perhaps Mrs. Sinnett was proud of her success and wanted the world to acknowledge her womanhood as well as her talent. We may never know what she intended, but there's a little welcome feminist vindication in applauding her work today and reclaiming her talent. Her painting will be on display in our upcoming exhibition. 

Monday, October 30, 2023


 By Rachel Dworkin

As a kid, I loved trick-or-treating. Who doesn’t love costumes and free candy? Most Americans agree with me. In 2022, there were 40.9 million trick-or-treaters between the ages of 5 and 14. Americans spent $3.1 billion on candy for them. I know I certainly spent my share. The tradition loomed so large in my childhood, it’s hard to believe it’s barely 100 years old.

In Europe, people have been dressing up in costume and visiting homes for food around Halloween since at least the 15th century. Despite the tradition being wide-spread across the British Isles, it wasn’t until the 1910s that it caught on in the Americas. Prior to that, Halloween, if it was celebrated at all, was marked by private parties, public dances, and petty acts of vandalism. The first record of costumed children going door-to-door in North America is from a newspaper account in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1910. It was described in a Boston suburb in 1919 and Chicago in 1920. The phrase “Trick-or-treat” also originates from Canada and appeared in the 1920s. The phrase wasn’t used in the United States until 1932 and wasn’t widespread until around 1940. The practice as a whole didn’t really catch on across the country until the 1950s. 

Halloween postcard, ca. 1910s

It’s hard to say when trick-or-treating came to Elmira and Chemung County. None of the diaries we have from the 1910s or 1920s mention it, nor do the newspapers. Halloween parties and dances were common, as was trouble-making. Throughout the 1930s, Police Officer James Hennessey describes combating roving Halloween gangs of teenage boys who smashed windows and set fires throughout the last weeks of October. In 1934, the Elmira Heights Police Department issued a warning in the newspaper promising to crack down on holiday mischief-makers. Hendy Avenue School began holding an annual costume party and bonfire to keep kids off the streets. 

Halloween postcard, ca. 1910s

The first mention of kids asking for treats in Elmira appears on October 28, 1939 when columnist Matt Richardson railed against kids these days saying:

  “The youth of today doesn’t wait until October 31, the eve of All Saints' Day or Halloween, to celebrate. It lays aside a week for it, but not with tick-tack, jack-o’-lantern, and purse-tied-to-a-string capers. Instead the boys of today walk right up to neighbors’ homes boldly, ringing the doorbell and inquire: “Have you got a hand-out for us?”

1942 was the first time I found the practice of trick-or-treating mentioned in a local diary, although not by name. Jennie L. Hall of Elmira, wrote “Had nineteen here for Halloween handouts. Glad to do it.” She wrote about it again in 1945, 1946, and 1947, mentioning children coming to her door and her own grandchildren going around to the neighbors.

It had certainly caught on here by 1948. That was the first year the phrase trick-or-treat appeared in an Elmira paper. It was also the first year Ira Heyward ever participated. In an oral history in 2013, he described his first Halloween in Elmira after moving here from rural South Carolina:

“I remember the Charrons who lived kitty-corner from us on Washington Street.  They took me one time, my very first year here, Halloween-ing and I had never done that before.  So, what happened was, I got back home and I had all this candy and stuff.  My mom thought I had robbed somebody or went down to Cary’s and ripped them off.  It was a little candy store about two blocks from our house where they sold penny candy.  And my mother was very upset about that because she thought I had stolen it.  But it wasn’t.  We had gone house to house, pretty much what the kids do today.  So, she took me across the street to Mrs. Charron and she explained to mom that no, we kids do this every year.  And the kids go out and collect candies and come back and eat it.”

Over time, Halloween trick-or-treating has changed. While fruits, nuts, and homemade cookies were once common treats, people these days prefer prepackaged candies. In the late 1960s, there were widespread reports of people inserting razors, pins, or drugs into homemade treats. In 1969, an unnamed Elmira woman reported finding one in a cookie. The newspapers advised parents to check over their children’s hauls. Mine certainly did when I was growing up. According to surveys, 88% of parents do. Since 1950, children have also been collecting money for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). What started as a one-time fundraiser in Bridesburg, Pennsylvania quickly became a movement. In 1953, trick-or-treaters from the Westminster Fellowship of Horseheads Presbyterian Church raise $77.75. By 1960, 3 million American kids across 11,000 communities raised $1.75 million.

Robot costume, 1966. Image courtesy of Elmira Star-Gazette.

The Elmira Heights Police Department first began setting trick-or-treating hours in 1962. The City of Elmira followed suit in 1971, although not without some push-back. This year, trick-or-treating is scheduled to run from 5-8pm in the Town of Catlin, 5:30-8pm to in the City of Elmira, and 6-8pm in the Village of Elmira Heights. Make sure to have plenty of candy ready to go.


Note: In the course of writing this blog, I realized that we don’t have any trick-or-treating photos. If you have some you’d like to share, please consider donating.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Part of the Heller Family Story

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

For two dark nights, and one late afternoon, Woodlawn Cemetery was visited by hundreds of visitors who strolled the paths and listened to the stories of four of the cemetery’s permanent residents. It was the 17th annual Ghost Walk, offering a unique glimpse into our area’s past and some of its most interesting inhabitants.

Guided by Friends of Woodlawn volunteers, visitors explored the cemetery, pausing to hear the four ghosts tell their tales. The stories, based on fact and researched by our staff, were brought to life by actors from Elmira Little Theatre. Over the years we’ve been able to share stories of 69 different people buried at Woodlawn.

One story not widely known is that of the Heller family, previous owners of the land that would become Woodlawn Cemetery.

In the early 19th century, Michael and Nancy Ann Heller arrived in the county to settle and raise a family. They were German immigrants who had first moved to Pennsylvania to pursue farming. Looking further, they were attracted to the Chemung Valley’s rich agricultural opportunities, and they relocated and purchased land on the outskirts of Elmira. Like many farmers of the day, they had a large family. Charles, the youngest of their eight children, followed his father into farming. In 1851, Charles married Mary Neish of Elmira and they raised two girls, named Frances and Harriet, and twin boys, named David and Michael.

L to R: Michael, Frances, David, and Harriet Heller
Not long after Charles had set up his farm, the City of Elmira was looking for land to build a new cemetery. For that purpose, Charles and Mary Heller sold the city a piece of their land for $10,000. The cemetery was chartered in 1858 and designed by architect Howard Daniels, who was active in the rural cemetery and garden cemetery movements, which emphasized natural elements. Today, Woodlawn encompasses 184 acres, and its natural elements include winding pathways and green space to inspire visitors and promote reflection.

Charles and Mary Heller valued education and had the means to pay for it. They sent daughters Frances and Harriet to study at the newly opened Elmira College, while sons David and Michael attended nearby Cornell University.

During his studies at Cornell, David was active in sports and also became editor of the student newspaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. Both boys graduated in 1888, and David stayed an additional year to study law before returning to Elmira. In 1890, he was admitted to the bar. He was elected County Clerk a few years later, serving in this position for four years. In 1898, he was elected to the State Assembly, to represent Chemung County as the youngest Assembly member at the time. Elected City Judge in 1907, he served for close to twenty years, lasting through five four-year terms. In 1911, David married Julie Weyer; the couple had no children.

In 1925, David Heller was elected mayor. He resigned his judgeship, but he remained active in the community. He served as president of the City Club and held memberships in the Elmira Country Club, the Union Lodge, the F. & A.M. (Free and Accepted Masons), Knights of Pythias, the BPO of Elks, and the Park Church. He was president of the Chemung County Bar Association and a member of the NY State and American Bar Associations. The high point of his career came in 1929, when NY Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to fill the unexpired term of State Supreme Court Justice George McCann, who also happened to be Heller’s cousin. He hoped to remain as Supreme Court Justice after his appointed term expired, but ran an unsuccessful campaign. He then returned to private practice.

In 1932, at the age of 66, Judge David Heller suffered an appendicitis attack, and died a few days later. The Star-Gazette called his death a shock to the community. David Heller had been in public service for over 40 years.

His twin was equally dedicated. In 1888, when Michael graduated from Cornell, he returned straightaway to Elmira. He first found work at Gridley Hardware Store, located at 119 East Water Street. Soon after, he left and formed his own hardware store. The Gridley Company bought him out and Michael left business to become City Court clerk. In 1926, he was appointed assistant superintendent of Woodlawn Cemetery, and six months later, he became superintendent. It was a position that Michael Heller served for 14 years.

Not long after he returned to Elmira, Michael married Charlotte Stone and the couple had four sons. Sadly, Charlotte died in 1915.

Like David, Michael was active in public service. He was a member of the Board of Supervisors, secretary of the Chemung County Agricultural Society, alumni secretary of his Cornell class for more than 50 years, and secretary of the Central New York Fairs Association. He was also a member of F. & A.M., of Park Church and a master of Union Lodge. He outlived his brother David by nine years, dying at the age of 75 after an extended illness.

Four years ago, gardens were constructed at Woodlawn to honor the Heller family. Woodlawn Cemetery now offers the Heller Memorial Gardens as an option for those wanting a cremation garden (also called a columbarium). The gardens are located just inside Woodlawn’s Walnut Street entrance.

Consider this an extra cemetery story, and if you want to hear 2023 ghost scripts again, or for the first time, join us at 12:05 pm on Wednesday October 25, 2023. Staff will read scripts, share images, and answer questions. The event is free and open to the public. 

Monday, October 2, 2023

Lethal Leaves: Arsenic Greens

 By Monica Groth, Curator 

Green Bonnet, c. 1880
This bonnet may be colored with arsenic green pigments

In 1775, the young chemist Wilhelm Scheele discovered that copper arsenate (a copper and arsenic compound) made a gorgeously vivid green color. By mixing sodium carbonate, arsenious oxide, and copper sulfate, he produced a vibrant pigment. Immediately desired by customers and cheap to make from mining wastes readily available as the Industrial Revolution took off, Scheele’s Green was adopted by many manufacturers. The compound was used to color wallpaper, book covers, playing cards, and candy wrappers. As the 19th century began, other green pigments with slightly different chemical compositions including Schweinfurt Green and Paris Green also appeared. The beautiful green was attractive –and deadly.  

Arsenic is very poisonous to humans. Early in the Victorian period (1837-1900) it gained a reputation as the poison of choice for murderers and the poison to avoid if you wished to commit suicide (it caused that agonizing of a death). But many arsenic victims weren’t poisoned by another person. Instead, they were unsuspecting consumers – victims of fashion.

Perhaps the most famous case of arsenical green pigments involves Paris Green wallpaper. Glue, damp, and mold would react with the wallpaper, which in addition to flaking off arsenic paint, would off-gas hydrogen cyanide into homes. Multiple people, Napoleon Bonaparte likely among them, died from such poisoning, and Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s popular book The Yellow Wallpaper (arsenical greens were often a lime-ish yellow/green color) was likely inspired by these facts.

However, before doing further research on the topic I was unfamiliar with the knowledge that clothing was also colored with arsenical green pigments and gave off substantial clouds of the lethal stuff. In particular, women’s gowns, hats, and leafy headdresses were dangerous to make and wear. Investigating doctors concluded that a ball gown fashioned from 20 yrds of green fabric might contain 900 grains of arsenic, and that in an evening of dancing, 60 grains might slough off as the wearer spun. With 5 grains enough to kill a person, such a woman, deemed a “killing creature” by the British Medical Journal (this was slang for an attractive woman at that time), could take out a dozen people in one night!

Green Silk Bodice, c. 1832
 Possibly colored with Scheele's Green arsenic pigment

It wasn't often that a beauty left 12 dead in her wake because the full lethal dose of 5 grains would rarely reach a person after one encounter. However, prolonged exposure to the chemical was a death sentence. Workers in factories and shops were very susceptible, developing physical and neurological maladies from constant contact with arsenical dust. The death of artificial flower maker Matilda Scheurer was much publicized in London in 1861. Scheurer, who was only 19 yrs old at the time of her death, dusted artificial flowers with arsenical green powder, daily breathing in the toxic dust and often returning home with it on her hands and clothing. One of the things which makes the pigment so perilous is how loosely its bound to its substrate - it was dusted on and could easily dust off. In addition to painful convulsions, tremors, and vomiting, the whites of Matilda’s eyes turned the verdant shade of Scheele's Green before her death. She reportedly told doctors that everything she saw looked green! Fellow flower workers developed scabs and lesions on their hands and faces, and workers in many different industries using arsenic sickened and died in the 19th century.

Orange Blossom Leafy Wreath, c. 1880:
Headdresses like this one often had leaves dusted with arsenic green pigments 

Word certainly spread that arsenic was present in green pigments and that it could kill. But the color remained fashionable through the decade. Artificial flowers or taxidermized birds (preserved with arsenic pesticide soaps) on hats and accessories were particularly in vogue. Today, I handle these items with caution to ensure no arsenic is inhaled or absorbed through the skin. 

By the 1880s, doctors, women’s groups, and reporters were lobbying for alternatives to arsenical greens. The use of the poisonous pigment slowly decreased, but arsenic was seen in a wide range of consumer products well into the 20th century. As you’ll learn if you visit our upcoming exhibition, Your Victorian House is Killing You, there were plenty of other dangers lurking in the 19th century home. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

Introducing EmpireADC

 By Rachel Dworkin


We recently joined EmpireADC, or the Empire Archival Discovery Cooperative. EmpireADC is run by the New York State Library Network, which provides technical services to libraries and archives across the state. In the early 2000s, NYSLN surveyed archivists from across New York (me included) and found that what we all really wanted was a site that could bring together finding aids from New York’s vast and varied archival, historical, and special collections to make them more discoverable by researchers. After years of planning and coding, EmpireADC was created to be that site! It currently hosts finding aids from over 75 institutions, large and small, and it’s growing all the time. 


The platform is pretty neat. It is searchable by keyword, subject, or surname. Researchers can narrow their results by institution, or they can see what’s available on a topic across the entire state. For example, if I were researching the history of the NAACP in New York State, I would see that not only does the Chemung County Historical Society have the records of the Elmira-Corning Branch, the State University of New York at Albany has the records of the Albany and Schenectady branches, and Syracuse University has the records of the Syracuse branch. Being on EmpireADC will hopefully help people who’ve never even heard of our institution before become aware of all we have to offer. 

 EmpireADC offers a lot of benefits to a small repository like us. For a one-time fee of $50, we get a place to share our finding aids that we don’t have to maintain. We also get skilled tech support for assistance with uploading and maintaining the finding aids. And that’s on top of the free advertising we get just from being on the site!

In the month-and-a-half we’ve been members, I have uploaded at least one finding aid a day. A finding aid is an index for an archival collection which provides additional context about the creator(s) of the collection and the circumstances under which the collection was created, as well as the collection’s size and organization. As of this past Friday, 46 finding aids are live. Only 265 to go! Unfortunately, there’s a bit of work to convert our old finding aids into the format required by EmpireADC. Still, by this time next year I hope to have all our old collections posted and get started sharing the finding aids for our newest acquisitions. If you like data entry, please consider volunteering to help with the process. Check out our current finding aids here:

Some of my favorite recently uploaded finding aids include the Ganung Real Estate Collection, the United Baptist Church Collection, and the Philip Burnham Research Papers.

 The Ganung Real Estate Collection contains photographs, listing details, and other documents associated with properties sold by the Ganung Realty Company from 1936-1960. It is a veritable gold mine for anyone searching the history of their home. (

The United Baptist Church Collection contains the combined records of the First Baptist Church and Southside Baptist Church of Elmira. This includes membership records dating back to the 1820s, making it a valuable resource for genealogists. (

The Philip Burnham Research Papers contain Mr. Burnham’s research notes and source material for his book So Far From Dixie about the Elmira Prison Camp. This is actually one of our newest collections. (

Monday, September 4, 2023

Fire Truck

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 1923, the clang of a brass bell and the wail of a hand-pumped siren alerted people that a fire truck was on the way. Our current exhibit, “It’s About Time: 100 years of Chemung County Historical Society” features a 1923 American LaFrance Brockway Torpedo Fire Truck which could have been seen on the streets in the early 20th century. After being beautifully restored, it was donated to the historical society in 2011. It has become a popular artifact. For this exhibit, the fire truck is displayed in the gallery against a large picture of East Water Street from the 1920s. You can almost imagine it racing through the city streets to the scene of a fire.

Back in the 19
th century, the city had speed restrictions. When responding to a fire, engines were limited to no more than 6 miles per hour in order to prevent accidents. The city also ordered fire companies not to compete with each other, which was harder to enforce.

Competition seems to have been part of firefighting culture. Fires were always a constant danger when many buildings were still being constructed out of wood. In the mid-19th century, a fire on Water Street burned down 18 wooden buildings. It destroyed property, homes, businesses and livelihoods. Another fire in 1866, called the Lake Street fire, burned most of the buildings between Water and Carroll Streets. The fire companies did their best to contain them.

During much of the 19th century, firefighting was the responsibility of individual volunteer fire companies. They sprang up all around the city and had spirited names like Ours 4, Neptune, Goodell, and Young American. Not far from today’s museum was the Red Rover fire company, situated just across the street..

It was prestigious to be appointed a firefighter and the volunteer work attracted young men looking for adventure. The men were also drawn to the pageantry, parades, social affairs, and dances associated with the culture of firefighting. When a fire broke out, companies competed to be first to respond.

In the spring of 1878, the city council voted to establish a professional fire department, calling it the Elmira Fire Department (EFD.) The various volunteer companies would not be recognized. Reluctantly, the volunteer fire companies participated in one final parade to celebrate their hard work before they handed over their engines, hoses, hooks, ladders and other equipment to city authorities. Some fire company members ended up taking jobs with EFD and were now paid $100 a year. The department’s new headquarters were located on Market Street in a brick building which no longer exists.

The American LaFrance Company, manufacturer of our Fire Truck on display, began in the mid-19th century. The young fire equipment company attracted local investors like Alexander Diven, his sons, Judge Brooks, Charles J. Langdon, John T. Rathbun, and Colonel William Falck who saw potential in the young company. American LaFrance soon became known as one of the largest manufacturers and suppliers of fire engines and apparatus in the country.

Apparently not just the country, but the world. Early American LaFrance fire trucks were built using chassis from the Brockway Truck Company, located in Cortland, New York. There’s a great story about a 1925 American LaFrance fire truck from Argentina. In 1960, Buenos Aires Fire Department volunteers decided it was time to trade in their fire truck and drove it from South America to North American ending up in New York City. The volunteer firefighters, who were a butcher, locksmith, building engineer, and chauffeur, didn’t realize that Cortland was still miles away. Volunteer fire companies along their way provided them with shelter, food, and gasoline. When the news got to the Brockway Truck Company, they drove down to the City and escorted the firefighters to Cortland before shipping them back to Argentina along with a new fire truck.

Headline, The Morning Call, May 15, 1960

This year CCHS installed exhibits on fire fighters in four of the local public schools. Along with borrowed items (not in use) kindly lent to us by the Elmira Fire Department, these displays highlight some firefighting equipment and clothing.

Drop by to see our red shiny 1923 fire truck on display. You can hear its siren and bell by accessing a QR code in the exhibit and imagine yourself scurrying out of the way as it makes its way to a fire.

Other blogs on fire fighters include a profile of Elmira’s first Black Firefighter.

And a blog on the earlier bucket brigades.


Monday, August 21, 2023

A Woman in Uniform

 By Curator, Monica Groth 

During World War II, some 16 million Americans served in the military, over 350,000 of whom were women. Chemung County is home to a number of remarkable female veterans. An upcoming exhibit features the uniforms of 4 local women who served their country in different ways during WWII, the single deadliest conflict history had yet witnessed. 

U.S. Marine Capt. Marie Snow (1921-2016) was born on a farm in Norfolk, New York. She was living with her sister in Syracuse when the Women’s Reserve of the Marine Corps was established in 1942. The Women’s Reserve placed women in stateside positions within the Marine Corps, freeing men for combat duty. When Marie’s brother-in-law, a veteran of WWI, teased her that she couldn’t make it as a Marine, she enlisted to prove him wrong. 

U.S. Marine Capt. Marie Snow, c. 1945

In 1943, Marie reported for boot camp at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. She then studied accounting, or store-keeping, at Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville, Georgia and was promoted to sergeant. 

Marie, known to her friends as “Sergeant Snowy,” was posted to California, where she helped organize supplies and wages for troops shipping off to the Pacific Theatre until the end of the war. She also occasionally appeared as an extra in Hollywood morale films. 

Marie met her first husband Marine Sergeant Raymond Doyle on the train home, when she sought his protection from a drunken airman giving her trouble. Marie attended Syracuse University on the GI Bill before moving with Raymond to Elmira in 1948, where she lived until her death. 


Army Nurse 1st Lt. Clara Peckham (1917-1996) grew up on Laurel Street in Elmira. She graduated from the Arnot-Ogden Hospital School of Nursing in 1938 and worked at the Veterans Facilities at Bath and Batavia. 

Determined to serve when war broke out, she concealed a heart murmur when enlisting. As the story goes, Clara would shift her position when the stethoscope neared her heart, attempting to disguise its irregular rhythm. It worked and in 1943, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force, leaving that summer for training at Mitchel Field in Long Island. When Clara later fainted from over-taxing her heart during her time in Long Island, the doctor who had examined her when she enlisted reportedly asked, “who let you in?” To which she replied, “you did!”

1st Lt. Clara Peckham, c . 1944
Image courtesy of the Star Gazette 

By December of that year, Clara had been assigned to active duty abroad providing medical care to wounded soldiers and civilians. As of February 1944, Clara was one of 19 Elmira nurses serving overseas. She worked in the contagious diseases unit at Kuakini Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. Following training which included learning how to shoot a carbine and swim with her boots and helmet on, she was sent to a field hospital near Okinawa, Japan. She served in Japan until the war ended and was discharged in November of 1945. After returning home, Clara worked as a nurse at Arnot-Ogden Medical Center, St. Joseph’s Hospital, and the Chemung County Nursing Facility, retiring in 1982.


Army Cpt. Rita Eisenberg was born in Binghamton, where she taught high school history classes before deciding to make history herself. As a first-generation American in a family with no sons, Rita believed it was her duty to join the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) in 1942. A year later, the WAAC was made an official part of the US Army and became known as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). 

Rita was assigned to the Air Force. Following training at Officer Candidate School at Fort Des Moines, she worked suppling the WAC base in Orlando, FL. After further schooling at Fort Leavenworth, she prepared to go overseas as a member of the general staff. However, a friend feared for her safety and used his influence as an army chaplain to have her orders rescinded. Rita was extremely angry about this. She served in Orlando until the war ended and recalls traveling to the Pentagon to finalize supply reports for her area’s bases. 

Following the war, she settled in Elmira, where she and her husband Jess Shapiro were in business on Water Street.

Rita Eisenberg Shapiro at 90, 2006
Image courtesy of the Star Gazette


Jennie Reid (1919-2006) grew up on Elmira’s Eastside. During WWII, she took her civil service exam so she could work at City Hall, where she got a job operating the elevator. Jennie also joined the Women’s Ambulance Defense Corps (WADC).

The Elmira chapter of the WADC was organized in January of 1942, when 300 women assembled at the Elmira College gymnasium. Women of every race and ethnicity, excluding Japanese, were accepted. 

Jennie Reid, c. 1943

The WADC served many roles in civilian defense and preparedness. They trained in first aid; conducted air-raid and blackout drills; and practiced blackout driving and field maneuvers. Members also studied rifle and pistol use and radio communication. The WADC operated canteens for service men at the Erie and DL&W Railroad stations in Elmira.

Jennie was a member of the AME Zion Church, the Eastern Star, Neighborhood House, and the NAACP. 

Numerous women in the county also served in other areas of civil defense, working as air raid wardens or volunteers. Women helped the war effort on the homefront by selling war bonds, planting victory gardens, and organizing scrap metal drives. Many also worked in factories making war critical technologies, and took on jobs previously held by men then serving overseas.

Stop by and take a closer look at these women's uniforms to appreciate the many ways that women assisted their country during WWII.

Monday, August 7, 2023

Elmira Rolling Mills

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

There’s something neat about shows like How It’s Made. If you, like me, have never worked in manufacturing, industrial processes can feel like something of a mystery. Over the years, Elmirans have made everything from aluminum cans to woolen cloth. From 1861 to 1883, the Elmira Rolling Mill Co. made iron.

The Elmira Rolling Mill Co. was founded in 1860. On May 16, 1861, the plant, located on Hatch Street between East 5th and East Washington Streets, began operation. The original structure was 180’ by 80’ and had five furnaces and three steam engines. The plant grew substantially during the 1860s with the addition of two new buildings. By 1865, the mill consisted of three buildings housing the original rolling mill, plus two pudding mills, and a merchant bar mill. The equipment included 24 furnaces, 8 steam engines, 5 trains of rolls, two roll lathes, and one Burden squeezer. The company was using all this equipment to manufacture 22,000 tons of iron each year.

Here’s how it all worked.

Step 1 – Arrival of Raw Materials

In order to make their iron, the Elmira Rolling Mills needed massive amounts of raw iron and coal. These materials arrived at the plant on canal boats and on the dedicated rail spurs which ran to the factory. 

Canal boats unloading in front of Elmira Rolling Mills, ca. 1870

 Step 2 – Heating the Materials

The raw iron needed to be heated in order to burn off any impurities and to make it malleable. It was usually heated to somewhere above 462 degrees Fahrenheit. This is iron’s recrystallization temperature, or the point at which the iron’s previous crystalline structure is broken down and reformed anew but not yet melted.

At the Elmira Rolling Mills, this was done in coal-fired pudding furnaces. Pudding is the process of converting raw iron into usable wrought iron by heating it in a special furnace where the metal and the fuel were not in direct contact. The process was first developed in England in the 1780s. I have no idea why it’s called pudding. Heated iron can absorb chemical impurities given off by the burning fuel. Coal, for example, gives off sulfur which can make the metal brittle. By using a pudding mill, the Elmira Rolling Mills could heat their iron using coal without having to worry about introducing sulfur to their iron.

Diagram of a pudding furnace

 Step 3 – Squeezing

Once the iron was removed from the pudding furnace, it needed to be forced into a useable shape. Traditionally, this was done by teams of strong men with big hammers. In 1840, Henry Burden of Troy, New York, invented his rotary concentric squeezer which performed the same task with a lot less time and effort. The Elmira Rolling Mills had a Burden squeezer they used to force their heated iron into shape.

Step 4 – Rolling

Rolling is a metalworking process where heated metal stock is forced through one or more pairs of rollers to reduce thickness or give it a more uniform shape. A series of multiple rollers is known as a train. The first roll produces a plate of metal. A slitting, latte, or bar roller is used to slice the metal up into bars of various widths, shapes, and thicknesses. 

 The Elmira Rolling Mills had five trains of rolls which could produce square bars, round bars, oval bars, half-round bars, and half-oval bars in various thicknesses.  The company used coal-fired steam engines to power their rollers. 

Step 5 – Sale

Initially, the Elmira Rolling Mill’s main clients were railroads for whom they made rails. In 1863, the company added a merchant bar mill so they could offer iron bars in more shapes and sizes to a wide variety of clients.


At its peak, the Elmira Rolling Mills employed around 400 people and was one of the city’s largest employers. By the 1880s, the railroad industry had switched to using steel for their rails. The company was not equipped for steel manufacturing and found it could not keep up with the manufacturing centers of Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. In 1883, the workers went on strike for higher wages. In response, the company permanently shut their doors. Although iron is no longer made in Elmira, the process used at the Elmira Rolling Mills is largely still used today, abet with different power sources.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Paved Streets

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Street grader in Chemung County

Driving during the summer can often be frustrating. Sometimes it feels like every road you come across is in the process of being built, or badly needs to be repaired. To add to the frustration, drivers navigating construction zones, summer weather, and road conditions often have a short supply of patience. It’s as if the smell of asphalt goes along with hot air and hot tempers.

In its purest form, asphalt is the hardened form of petroleum. Currently, the United States leads in petroleum production, and it was in our region that one of the world's first petroleum deposits, located in what is now western Pennsylvania, was used by the Seneca. As far back as the 15th century, the indigenous group was known to use the sticky substance for healing lotions and in ceremonial fires.

Road construction in Chemung County
Using asphalt for paving road surfaces starts to show up in the late 19th century. At first, Elmira’s busier streets were covered with either vitrified (a heating process to harden) bricks over sand or Medina stone, a material discovered during construction of the Erie Canal. For a while, these surfaces stood up to ever increasing traffic. But when the area’s population passed 30,000 people, it became clear that the city’s roads needed more attention. Local officials turned to newer technologies.

Engineers had been using petroleum in liquid form as a road cover for gravel-covered streets. They found it helpful in keeping the road surface intact and reducing the dust kicked up by traffic. Then Edward Joseph de Smedt, a Belgian immigrant, chemist, and professor at Columbia University, came up with another idea for using petroleum. Using the material in hardened form, he developed what he called asphalt concrete.

De Smedt’s process mixed crude petroleum with construction materials, like sand and gravel, then dried the mixture into sheets that were laid down on a gravel road. The sheets were applied in layers, with each layer compacted to create a flexible and stronger surface. Through trial and error, de Smedt was convinced that the new layered pavement was successful. In July 1870, the first asphalt road was paved in Newark, NJ. Much to the chagrin of another man, de Smedt went on to be called the inventor of asphalt paving.

General Averell
That other man was General William W. Averell from Bath, NY. During his Civil War service, Averell had come across naturally dried petroleum or asphalt in the Carolinas. Seeing its potential, he formed the Grahamite Asphalt Pavement Company, and set himself up as its president. In 1870, while observing de Smedt’s approach, Averell saw problems. He went on to experiment on his own and in 1878, Averell filed a patent, “Improvement in Asphaltic Pavement” staking his claim to fame.

Amzi Barber: The King of Asphalt
Other investors and entrepreneurs swarmed to get in on the new financial opportunities. An American businessman, Amzi L. Barber, decided the best way to make money in the asphalt business was to control the source of petroleum. He set about buying mineral rights. Barber, later known as the Asphalt King, already held financial interests in real estate and the Locomobile Company of America, one of the first American automobile manufacturers. Barber believed that both of these benefited from having paved streets. Barber bought some of de Smedt’s patents and went into business with his brother-in-law, Buffalo industrialist John J. Albright, establishing the Barber Asphalt Company.

Barber Asphalt was competitive and bid for work all around the country. In 1895, Elmira leaders decided to pave the first roads in asphalt and awarded the contract to Barber over a local firm, Costello & Neagle. West Church Street, west of Main was paved that summer. The Barber Asphalt Company beat Costello & Neagle at least one more time in 1897, underbidding them by only .01 cent per square yard.

By the turn of the century, the Barber Asphalt Company had laid more than 12 million square yards of asphalt pavement in 70 American cities to the amount of $35 million, well over a billion dollars today. Most of Barber’s business ventures seem to have been successful, but they were not without controversy. Numerous reports of international bribes, faulty patent use, and coercion led to lawsuits against the company, including one filed by General Averell, who challenged Barber’s use of patents. Averell won and was awarded nearly $400,000, about $11 million in today’s money. Despite this vindication, Averell was never able to change the narrative of who invented pavement.

Star-Gazette March 6, 1896

Another unsuccessful Barber venture was his attempt to establish The Asphalt Trust by consolidating companies and creating a monopoly. It was ultimately denied by the federal courts and the trust collapsed. Even so, Barber’s wealth seemed to endure. When he died in 1909 of pneumonia at the age of 66, he left his second wife, Julie Louise Langdon, first cousin to Olivia Langdon of Elmira, and five children an inheritance said to be worth millions. However in the spring of 1913, the New York Times reported that six years before he died, he had sold off many of his interests to his brother-in-law for a guaranteed annual income of $12,000.

Today the majority of American roads are paved with asphalt. It continues to be one of the least costly methods to use even though it means that summer also seems like road repair season.