Friday, June 23, 2023

Elmira’s Gay Bars

 By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


Since the 1600s, there have been bars and clubs catering to LGBTQ clientele in most major European cities. Today, such establishments are generally known as gay bars, even though they cater to more than just gay men.  In the United States, there are a number of bars all claiming to be the first gay bar, most of which date back to Prohibition and the 1920s or 30s. They are predominantly located in major East and West Coast cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Elmira’s first known gay bar was Mary’s Grill at 112 Lake Street. It was owned by Mrs. Marion Stumpf and opened on November 2, 1967. The bar didn’t exclusively cater to the LGBTQ community, but it was welcoming of them. I recently interviewed two gay gentlemen who specifically mentioned Mary’s as their entry into the gay bar scene. Mary’s Grill remained in operation until around 1980.

Star-Gazette, September 29, 1972


The David, owned by John “Jack” Westervelt from 1972 to 1998, catered exclusively to the gay community. It was first located at 203 1/2 Railroad Avenue before moving down the street to 511-513 Railroad Avenue in 1975. Westervelt himself was gay and wanted to create a space where people could come and be themselves. One of the former patrons recalled it as a fun place to meet other members of the LGBTQ community. In addition to offering drinks and some food, The David hosted drag shows by the Legendary Children, a local troupe of drag performers.  The bar closed in 1998 when Westervelt retired.

Historically, gay bars across the nation were heavily involved in the gay rights movement. When the gay rights movement began in the late 1960s, homosexual acts were criminalized in every state except Illinois. Gay bars were frequently raided by police. In fact, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, New York, is the event which inspired the Gay Pride movement. Gay bars became a place, not just to drink and meet people, but to organize and resist. As the AIDS epidemic worsened in the 1980s and ‘90s, many bars became involved in fundraising and safe-sex education.

I haven’t been able to uncover any information about the extent to which The David or its clientele were involved in the gay rights movement. Bar owner John Westervelt was himself part of the movement. During the 1970s, he participated in a series of panel discussions about homosexuality and the gay rights movement at Elmira College.

In 1999, Steven West and Barry Johnson opened a new gay bar, Angles at 511-513 Railroad Avenue. It billed itself as an “alternative dance club” welcome to all and regularly hosted events like trivia and karaoke. It was huge in the drag scene, regularly hosting shows as well as the annual Mr. & Miss Southern Tier contests. It closed in 2008.

Angles bar, exterior, courtesy Star-Gazette

Angles bar, interior, courtesy Star-Gazette


Elmira’s last gay bar was Club Chill, owned by Clinton “Billy” Lewis from 2004 until his death in 2011. The club offered dancing, drinks, and regular drag shows. It took over the Mr. and Miss Southern Tier drag contest after Angles closed.  Club Chill management was invested AIDS relief, hosting charity benefits for the Chemung County AIDS Task Force. The club regularly participated in local Pride events as well.

Star-Gazette, September 24, 2004

 LGBTQ history is seriously under-documented. Everything in this article is based on a pair of oral history interviews and what I could glean from the newspapers. If you have stories you would like to tell about any of the above-mentioned bars or have images or artifacts associated with the local gay community, I would love to hear from you. You can reach me via e-mail at or phone at (607) 734-4167 ex 207. I look forward to hearing from you.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Young Historians at the Museum

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

As a child on a field trip to a history museum, I remember being awestruck as I walked around a dugout canoe. It looked so different from any pictures I’d seen in books. It seemed larger than canoes floating in a nearby lake, and the texture of axe marks almost looked like a pattern with a secret message. I wondered who made it, why they made it, and where they might have traveled with it. It was a mystery and I wanted to learn more. The Historical Society seeks to ignite that same kind of awe and curiosity in Elmira’s children today.

As this year’s public-school calendar nears the finishing line, the Historical Society has recently hosted close to 400 Elmira City School District (ECSD) second graders and their teachers. Each 90-minute visit to the museum means that our small staff of five, including the Executive Director, Archivist, Curator, and Office Manager drop everything and join me to help out.  We want students to feel welcome, that they belong here at the museum, and we want them to see themselves connecting to local history. Knowing that for many students it will be their first time visiting a museum, we give them the tools to understand what museums are and what a history museum holds.

We’ve designed these end-of-year visits to reinforce their school lessons and connect to the six topics we cover when we visit their classrooms. Visiting each class multiple times helps to build trust in the students and teachers who work so hard. The six visits culminate at the end of their second grade with a field trip to the museum. This program connecting students to a deeper understanding of history and a sense of place was piloted in 2015, starting with just one school in the district. Today the program includes 120 in-class visits with 60 classrooms in four schools. When the second graders finally visit the Chemung Valley History Museum, they see for themselves the actual size of artifacts they’ve only seen pictures of in the classroom. They also see the enormous number of items on display in the galleries, part of a collection that is constantly growing in size and variety. The range of items almost guarantees that each student will see something that interests them. Overall, it can make a powerful impression on them, and their excitement often inspires us to look at history and the items that we hold in new ways.  

Often hosting 60 students at a time, we rotate them through three stations. To make sure they move around the museum, students go on a scavenger hunt in the Bank gallery looking for artifacts and documents that span the Devonian age to the Space age.

Scavenger hunt
Next, after seeing the building’s original bank vaults, they play bingo by solving simple math problems.  

Bank Bingo

nd lastly, students capture something they’ve seen in the galleries by creating drawings which they take home.

Riverside 2nd graders with their artwork

Ninety minutes pass quickly, and we encourage them to come back and teach others about what they’ve learned. For the museum staff, comments like ‘this is the best day ever,’ ‘I’m definitely coming back,’ and ‘I didn’t know the mammoth tusk was so big’ can be the best reward ever.

Young Historians with drawings of Bike, Tusk, and Radio

Throughout the year, we host other school groups visiting for programs on natural disasters, the Underground Railroad, notable Elmirans, and writing like Mark Twain. But this ECSD program is unique for its multiple visits and topics. Statistics show that if children visit museums while young, they are more likely to feel welcomed and more likely to visit museums, any museum, as adults. The Chemung County Historical Society is marking its 100th year of operations*, and while the museum collections we hold are from the past, sharing artifacts and documents from history, they are really here for future generations.  We invite you all to visit the museum this summer and bring a young historian along.

And maybe discover a little awe for yourself.

*On August 26, 2023, from 1 pm to 5 pm we are hosting a birthday party featuring the Excelsior Cornet Brass Band, history talks, open galleries, and cake. Free admission for all.