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.