Thursday, March 23, 2023

Poles Dancing

 by Monica Groth, Curator

Polish Dolls
Courtesy of Jackie Droleski

In 1983, the Chemung Valley History Museum's Bank Gallery was filled with dancers costumed in bright boots, flower crowns, and intricately embroidered vests.

The Tatra Dancers at CVHM, 1983

That day, the Tatra Dancers, a Polish folk dancing group, performed at the Museum before an excited audience. 

The Tatra Dancers at CVHM, 1983

The Tatra Dancers had been established as a club just seven years earlier with the encouragement of two local Polish cultural organizations: the White Eagle Society and the Polish Arts Club. These organizations were on a mission to revive interest in and appreciation for Polish art and culture among second and third generation Polish-Americans who were losing knowledge of their heritage. 

Polish immigration to Chemung County peaked in the late 19th century. Many immigrants had settled in the coal mining districts of northern Pennsylvania in the decades prior to 1900, but came to Chemung County when jobs in industrializing Elmira and Elmira Heights offered better economic opportunities. Organizations were immediately created to keep Polish culture alive. The earliest Polish organizations were founded through St. Casimir's Church, established in 1890 as the center of the Polish Catholic community. The St. Casimir's Society was founded in 1895, and the White Eagle's Society (which still thrives today and is part of the Polish National Alliance) was established in 1907. The societies generated income for members' sick/death benefits and hosted events within the community. Through the decades, Polish music and language were promoted at St. Casimir's church services and Polish-language classes were taught at St. Casimir's parochial school, run by the Polish-speaking Sisters of St. Joseph. 

St. Casimir's Church, c. 1890.
Image Courtesy of Jackie Droleski. 

St. Casimir's Church, 2002.
A large brick structure was built to replace
the original wood-frame church in 1912.
 The Church stands at 1000 Davis St., Elmira today.  

Over time, however, as Polish-Americans increasingly assimilated into multicultural America, the use of Polish language in church, school, and clubs decreased, nearly disappearing by the early 1950s. 

Minutes of Council 104 of the Polish National Alliance taken in Elmira, NY 1954-1955.
The book is open to the entry where records switch from Polish to English. 

In the early 1970's, the community experienced a cultural Renaissance, as parishioners of St. Casimir's reinitiated Polish music and language in Masses. A new Polish Choir was assembled and the Polish Arts Club was formed in 1973. The Club hosted language and crafts classes as well as lecture and film series on Polish culture. 

As part of this Renaissance, the Tatra Dancers were established in 1976. The name Tatra comes from the name of the Western Carpathian mountain region of Poland where many folk dances originated. 

The Tatra Dancers
Image from Elmira's Poles by Ray Winieski

The group learned and performed traditional Polish folk dances and were dedicated to authenticity. Group instructor George Bacmanski supplied the group with traditional costumes directly from Poland. In 1979, his daughter Rose Bacmanski studied at Poland's Koscuiszko Foundation, and in 1980, the group traveled to Poland to perform in the Rzeszow Folk Festival. 

Embroidered woolen vest made in Poland and
believed to have been worn by a Tatra dancer
Loaned courtesy of Marge Cowulich

There are many different styles of Polish folk dance, each deriving from the distinct culture of the region in which it originated. However, the so-called "national" dances spread throughout the country from their original regions and were danced by all classes. 

The five national dances of Poland include:

The Krakowiak: a fast paced exhibition dance featuring several couples following a lead pair. It hails from the Krakow region of Poland.
The Kujawiak: a slow, smooth dance from the Mazovian plains region of Kujawy. The dance is usually paired with the faster Oberek. 
The Oberek: a dance from the Mazowsze villages of Central Poland. Like many styles, the Oberek originated amongst peasants and spread to the nobility. It's name comes from the Polish word "to spin" or rotate and it is known for its jumps and spins. 
The Mazur: another dance from the Mazovian plains, the mazur has a popular if irregular rhythm and much foot-stomping and heel-clicking.
The Polonez: the aristocratic waltz-like "walking" dance is a slow promenading ballroom dance 

Popular regional dances from the Tatra region of Poland include the Goralski and the Zbojnicki, both known as highland dances. Both dances showcase the acrobatic talents of dancers and can use the ciupaga, or shepherd's axe, though the axe is more popular in the Zbojnicki, an all-male dance modeled after the exploits of the "zbojnik", or mythical robber, of the region.

Watch Polish dances being performed on this YouTube Playlist:
Cup featuring the Kujawiak 
Courtesy of Christina Markiewicz
Cup featuring the Mazur
Courtesy of Christina Markiewicz
Cup featuring the Polonez
Courtesy of Christina Markiewicz

Today, the exhibit Polonia in Chemung County is on display just off the gallery where the Tatra dancers performed fifty years ago. The exhibit showcases many items having to do with Polish dancing. Christina Markiewicz kindly loaned the Museum a series of porcelain cups displaying multiple dance styles and Bettyann Bubacz donated a ciupaga (dancing axe) to the Museum. Come check it out!

Polish Dancing Case in the exhibit Polonia in Chemung County
 On Display Now at the Chemung Valley History Museum
Objects loaned to the Museum courtesy of Bettyann Bubacz,
Jackie Droleski, Christina Markiewicz, and Jane Stalica 

Monday, March 20, 2023

Death of a Salesman: John N. Willys

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

 John North Willys

When an automotive tycoon and multi-millionaire died unexpectedly, leaving a highly unorthodox will, the stage was set for a scandal that would fascinate the public. In many national newspapers coverage would take up full pages, not so in Elmira. It was 1935, and the tycoon was John North Willys, a beloved former Elmiran, who had started his empire in Elmira before moving away. His will left 65 percent of his fortune to Florence, his bride of just one year, and the rest to his daughter, Virginia.  Virginia, a 24-years-old, socialite who had been married twice by this time, had expected to inherit her father's millions. Not a penny was left for his first wife, to whom he had been married for 37 years. Not a penny was left for his sister and their families, or any other relatives or business associates.

Moreover, his will had been revised only recently to exclude these relatives, while Willys lay in a hospital bed, recovering from a heart attack.

The scandal that erupted, lasted throughout the fall and into the spring. The first lawsuit challenging the will was filed by Willys's former secretary and was followed by others from his daughter, one of his sisters, a nephew, and finally a niece. Newspapers across the nation picked up on the story and covered the legal proceedings in great detail. Papers posted headlines like “Two Strong-Willed Women,” “War Over Willys’ Will,” and “Why the Barber’s Daughter Must Fight for her Cinderella Millions,” and filled entire pages with text and photographs of the family’s lavish lifestyle. It was the height of the Great Depression.

In addition to his business investments, Willys’s fortune included a notable collection of priceless paintings, tapestries, expensive jewelry, and properties in a variety of locations, including Toledo, OH, New York, NY, and Palm Beach, FL.

Casa Florencia, Palm Beach. House is no longer standing

It was a long way from where the fledgling bicycle shop owner from Canandaigua, NY, had begun his career.

The skill that guided John North Willys throughout life was his sharpened ability to see opportunities and make sales. He married his hometown sweetheart Isabel and the two moved to 311 Grove Street, in Elmira. At 19, after seeing how popular bicycles were, he started a sales and repair shop.

Willys soon realized that automobiles, not bikes, were the future, and he took over a car dealership. Frustrated when he couldn’t get automotive parts fast enough, he convinced others to help finance his purchase of the struggling Overland car division of the Standard Wheel Company. Once that was secured, he rebuilt the company, increased production, and renamed it the Willys-Overland Company. 

Looking to increase sales, Willys reconnected with Alexander P. Morrow, a friend from his Elmira bicycle days. Morrow agreed to his company helping produce additional parts for cars. In 1916, the Morrow Company became the Willys-Morrow Company and was churning out car parts that would make Willys-Overland the nation’s second largest producer of automobiles during the early twentieth century. When the Willys-Morrow company went into receivership, Willys took over as chairman of the board, and despite ups and downs, Willys’s personal wealth grew into millions of dollars.

Isabel van Wie Willys

In 1911, the couple had Virginia, their only child. Growing up, she wanted for nothing, and her parents doted on her. When it came time for Virginia to be presented in society, not content with the ordinary, her father arranged for her debut before the Queen of England at the Court of St. James. It was 1929.

Virginia Willys

En route by boat, Virginia fell in love with Luis Marcelino De Aguirre, a recently divorced, older, and very wealthy Argentinian rancher. Over her parents’ objections, the two made plans to marry in England. Back in the states, her parents booked passage to England on the next boat. It was during this crossing, that Willys started a friendship with 32-year-old Florence Dingler Dolan, a socialite from New York City. Looking for a fresh start, Florence was heading to Europe to escape an abusive husband.

Florence Dingler Dolan

That same spring, in 1929, Willys sold his Willys-Overland shares and retired from business. Selling months before the stock market crashed, he made a substantial amount of money and now looked for something new to do. He gave generously to the Republican Party, and in 1930, President Herbert Hoover appointed him as the first US ambassador to Poland. He would hold the post for two years, and during this time, he took the opportunity to set up and maintain a house in Paris for his young mistress.

In 1932, Willys announced that he was going back into business. He resigned his ambassadorship and returned to the states. By now, Florence, had divorced her husband.

In January 1935, stockholders elected Willys President of Willys-Overland. He was tasked with reorganizing the company, which had experienced financial difficulties.

After 37 years of an outwardly pleasant marriage, his wife Isabel filed for divorce under Florida’s 90-day quickie divorce law, blaming Willys for extreme cruelty. Her divorce was granted July 30th. Two hours after the divorce was finalized, Willys married his now 37-year-old mistress and they promptly left for an extended European honeymoon. They returned to the States the following May.

Florence, who had a passion for horse racing, insisted they leave immediately to attend the Kentucky Derby. During the races, Willys experienced a major heart attack. While recovering in a Kentucky hospital, Willys changed his last will and testament to exclude his ex-wife and limit his daughter’s inheritance, and deny anyone who contested it.

The couple returned to New York where Willys suffered an embolism and died on August 26, 1935.

The multiple lawsuits contesting his will took up much of the next nine months until the disputed will went to probate. In May 1936, all challenges were denied.

In his obituary, The New York Times listed three maxims that guided the businessman:

1.       Profits are in goods delivered—not in orders.

2.    . Tell the truth to your banker—and make him believe in you.

3.      Let your men know that you work harder than they do.

Seventy-three years after he died, salesman John North Willys was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan, for having one of the most acute business minds of his time.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Hired Girls and Domestic Servants

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

In 1847, Miriam Whitcher, wife of the Reverand Benjamin Whitcher of Elmira’s Trinity Episcopal Church, was struggling to find a hired girl. She wanted one who could make bread, wash, and iron and was good natured, but knew her place. In May, she hired Martha and soon became depended on her, but by September she was fed up with how overly familiar Martha was. She fired her and tried to do without for a while, before breaking down and hiring fourteen-year-old Ellen, the daughter of poor Irish immigrants who “had no ideas of equality and does not seem to think of coming to the table with us.” She couldn’t do the work, however, and was soon replaced by Jane, a twenty-five-year-old Black woman, who could both do the work and know her place. Jane worked for the Whitchers for nearly a year. (See this blog post for more on Whitcher)

The Whitcher situation was not unique. During the mid-19th century, the entire concept of domestic labor was in flux. In the early 1800s, the nation was predominantly rural and the average farmwife was responsible not only for cooking, cleaning, and childcare, but also gardening, tending livestock, making cheese, spinning, weaving, making the family’s clothing, and often making extra products to sell. A family might temporarily hire a neighbor’s teenage daughter to help the wife out during the planting or harvest or after childbirth. These hired girls would work alongside and supplement the work of the farmwife for brief periods and were generally not regarded as servants. They were part employee, part guest, living under their employer’s roof and eating with them at the table. They also did not make a career out of it, but rather ‘helped’ during their teen years to gain funds and experience before marriage.

Running parallel to this was a system of unfree unpaid domestic labor in the form of slavery. In 1800, there were two households with slaves in Elmira and, by 1810, there were eleven. Enslaved women performed much of the same work as white hired ‘help,’ but these Black women were understood to be inherently inferior. They would certainly never be welcomed at their master’s table. All slaves in New York State were freed as of July 4, 1827, but a system of Black indentured servitude lingered well into the 1830s.  (see this blog post for additional details) For the rest of the 19th century, domestic service was one of the few careers open to Black women both nationally and in Chemung County.

By the 1840s, a number of compounding factors were beginning to change the nature of paid domestic labor. Increased industrialization shifted textile production from the household to the factory, greatly reducing the amount of work a wife was expected to perform. These same factories offered new, better-paying employment opportunities to young women and girls. The end of slavery in the northern states and the Underground Railroad resulted in a new pool of Black workers who lacked the options enjoyed by white women and could not demand the same levels of pay or respect. The Irish potato famine from 1845 to 1852 resulted in a wave of desperately poor Irish immigrants who were largely in the same boat.

By mid-1800s, 15 to 30% of all urban households had at least one domestic servant. Unlike the old ‘help’ previously employed by farmwives, these women were employed full-time and year-round. A small, middle-class household like the Whitchers might have a single maid-of-all-work who would cook, clean, and do laundry alongside their mistress. A larger, more prosperous household might employ a cook, a laundress, and multiple maids, maybe even a nanny or governess as well. In these households, the lady of the house would act as manager overseeing their labor without performing any of it herself. Having a servant became a sort of status symbol. It also freed up upper class women to become involved in charities, clubs, politics, and self-improvement. 


Nanny employed by the Diven family, ca. 1890s

Locally, there are a couple well-known domestic servants, both associated with Mark Twain. One was Mary Ann Cord (1798-1888), the cook at Quarry Farm. Mary Ann had been born into slavery in Maryland. In 1852, she was sold away from her husband and their seven children and brought to New Bern, North Carolina. It was there she found her youngest son, Henry, during the Civil War. He had escaped to freedom years before and found work as a barber in Elmira. She came to Elmira with him and where she met and married Primus Cord. From 1870 until her death, she and Primus worked for the Cranes of Quarry Farm, her as cook and him as groundskeeper. In 1874, Mark Twain wrote A True Story Word for Word as I Heard It based off of her life story (see this blog post for additional details).


Mary Ann Cord. Image courtesy of Elmira College

Katy Leary (1856-1934), meanwhile, was born and raised in Elmira, the daughter of poor Irish immigrants. In 1880, she took a job with the Clemens family sewing baby clothes. She worked for them for the next thirty years serving as a lady’s maid, housekeeper, nurse, chaperone, traveling companion, seamstress, nursemaid, and nanny. After Samuel Clemens died in 1910, Katy left service and opened a boarding house with her pension money. Interviews with Katy were the basis for the book A Lifetime with Mark Twain, published in 1925. 

Katy Leary, ca. 1925

 The life of a domestic servant in the late-1800s was unpleasant. Pay was low, the hours were long, and the work could be grueling. Servants often lived within their employers which left them with little privacy and made them vulnerable to exploitation. Domestic servants tended to either be young and unmarried, or older widows returning to the workforce. While some women, like Mary Ann and Katy, made careers out of it, most domestics preferred to abandon the field in favor of marriage or other employment.