Monday, February 12, 2024

100 Years of History

By Erin Doane, Senior Curator

On November 7, 1923, the Elmira chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution held a meeting. At that meeting, the organization’s president Dr. Arthur W. Booth proposed the creation of a historical society to preserve historic objects, documents, and stories. The first official meeting of the Chemung County Historical Society took place two weeks later with 75 people in attendance.

The Historical Society’s first home was in two rooms on the upper floor of the Steele Memorial Library on the corner of Lake and Church Streets (now the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce). The rooms quickly filled with donations from the community. Members of the society presented talks about local history and created displays of historic objects in the library for the public to enjoy.

Chemung County Historian Clark Wilcox stands in one of the
Historical Society’s rooms in the Steele Memorial Library, 1947
The Historical Society received its charter from New York State in 1947. Shortly after, they began searching for a stand-alone building to house the collections and provide more space for displays. In 1953, the Historical Society moved into 425 East Market Street and Frances Brayton was appointed as its first professional curator.

The Chemung County Historical Center on Market Street, 1950s
It was around this time that Historical Society also began searching for the mammoth tusk that had been found by Judge Caleb Baker along the Chemung River in 1778. (Read all about that tusk and the Historical Society’s search for it here) While they were not able to find the original, they were able to get a similar mammoth tusk from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Mammoth tusk on display at the Historical Society, 1950s
 The Historical Society relocated again in 1965 to 304 William Street.

The Chemung County Historical Center on William Street, 1976

The mammoth tusk and all the other historic objects, documents, and photographs that had been donated over the previous 40+ years were moved into their new home. Many of the objects were used in new exhibits focused on topics we still explore in the museum today - life here in the 1800s, the Civil War, local organizations and schools, and, of course, Mark Twain. Materials that didn’t go on display went into storage. Unfortunately, one of the main storage spaces in the building was the basement, which proved disastrous during the 1972 Flood. (click here to read how the Historical Society reacted to the flooding)

The mammoth tusk on display on William Street, 1976

The Chemung County Historical Society moved one more time to its current location at 415 E. Water Street. The building was originally home to the Chemung Canal Bank starting in 1833. After the bank moved into new headquarters, the building housed law offices and apartments. It underwent major renovations in the late 1970s and opened to the public as the Chemung County Historical Society in 1982. In 1986, the Historical Society received accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). It was reaccredited most recently in 2021. Less than 5% of museum in the United States are accredited by the AAM. In 1992, further renovations to the building took place. An addition that includes the Howell Gallery, the Frances Brayton Education Room, and the Barn Gallery, as well as a new entranceway, was added to the main building.

415 E. Water Street, late 1970s
The Chemung County Historical Society currently operates the Chemung Valley History Museum and the Booth Research Library. Our mission is to deepen our understanding of history and to provide an appreciation of our community’s place in state and national history. We’ve done this over the last 100 years by collecting, preserving, interpreting, and presenting the history of our community and we plan to continue this mission for the next 100 years.

And, yes, the mammoth tusk is still on display.

The mammoth tusk at E. Water Street, 2014

Monday, January 29, 2024

The Great Move

 by Phoenix Andrews, Curatorial Assistant

How do you move over 500 objects? 12 weeks ago, I joined CCHS to work on a project we nicknamed “The Great Move." The project, the relocation of items from an offsite collections facility, has involved time, access, and information. 

The first visit to the collections facility was a bit overwhelming. Seeing the physical objects in person was a very different experience than just reading a list of them. My role was to help determine which items would go where. It would take multiple trips to the facility, each carefully arranged ahead of time. While some trips allowed us to pack up small objects and bring them back to the museum, other trips resulted in setting items aside to be relocated later that would need a moving truck.

First glance at off-site storage

When determining whether an object should be kept here at the museum or can be moved off-site there are various factors to consider, but they can be simplified into a few categories, like material, condition, and amount.

There are two big questions to consider when it comes to evaluating object material. First, is the object fragile and/or likely to deteriorate? Second, does the object contain hazardous materials? If an object is fragile or likely to deteriorate, such as fabrics, unprotected wood, and rusting metals, it means they are more sensitive to deterioration. They require close observation to make sure they are in the exact climates needed to preserve them. In that same vein, if an object is made of a hazardous material such as mercury, lead, or arsenic, it is important that it is in an environment that doesn’t cause any adverse reactions or cause any deterioration.

Not all objects the museum receives are in good or original condition. Conditions determine whether the object needs frequent monitoring, something that staying in the museum can offer. Any objects affected by erosion or with broken or missing pieces are going to be more susceptible to further damage. Some objects have what is called an ‘inherent fault.’ An object in this condition is at heightened risk of deterioration and can fall into one or more of the following categories: short-lived materials, structural nature, and history. Short-lived materials are anything that was not created with long-term stability in mind; Cellulose acetate film is a good example of this. If cellulose acetate film starts to deteriorate it releases acetic acid, which not only accelerates its own deterioration but also can start deterioration in surrounding film and metals. Structural nature refers to objects that were either poorly constructed or objects that have conflicting materials that may adversely affect each other. An example of this would be a piece of furniture that has leather touching a metal component. The leather has the potential to cause and accelerate erosion to the metal. History of an object, refers to how it was used or how it was stored before coming into our collection. This can include things such as a wooden bowl that was used to store oils and is now saturated, or an object that had been stored in someone's basement. Inherent fault is certainly one of the largest factors we have to take into account, as it is not always easy to determine if an object has inherent faults. However, the more you work with these objects the easier it is to recognize potential issues. 

The simplest factor by far has to be the amount of an object we have. For example, if we only have one of an object, we are more likely to keep it at the museum due to its uniqueness in our collection. On the other hand, if there are numerous duplicates of an object, like hammers, we consider relocating offsite or possibly deaccessioning some objects. 

With this information in mind, I got to work digging through our database and started making a list of potential objects to relocate. When I started, I was doing very specific searches. I was looking at things I already knew we had multiples of or would have no issue being off-site. The further I got into the project the more broad I opened my search terms to eventually just skimming through the different categories we can classify our objects into. In the end, I had gathered nearly 900 objects that could be relocated offsite.

A side project that blossomed from the first part of this project was the creation of an exhibit at the museum. Named after the project “The Great Move” it shows off a few of my favorite objects that we discovered and is an example of the variety of objects in the museum’s collection. 

Objects in the Great Move exhibit

During this project, I learned a lot about the inner workings of museum collections and how, even with standard practices in place about recording information regarding our collections, each person who works within it will add their own unique twist on it. In viewing the collection’s entire non-textile objects in our database at least twice, I’ve been able to see the notes of those who were here before me. I could see what they determined as important information and the different ways notes on objects at CCHS have been entered. One of my favorite aspects of history is to be able to feel connected to others through their own writing. Doing this project I feel like I have gotten to know many of those who work in the collections before me. 

In the coming days my project will be reaching its end. The final objects will be moved, and with that, my time here will be coming to a close.

Phoenix at work

In the summer of 2022 I had the amazing opportunity to intern here at the Chemung County Historical Society and to have been asked back to lead this project is something I will always be grateful for. In both instances of my time here, the staff here took me under their wing and I have grown as a person because of it. I will never be able to fully express my gratitude to everyone I have worked with during my time here. I cannot wait to see what comes next.


Monday, January 15, 2024

A Tale of Two Brothers: Catch Him if you Can

by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

This is a story about two brothers who made a name for themselves. One became a well-regarded member of the local community, while the other went on to make national headlines for fraud, larceny, and deception.

J. Bernard and J. Francis Toomey were born three years apart and grew up in Elmira around the turn of the 20th century. Their parents were Margaret and John Toomey and their father worked as a trainman for the railroad. The family lived at East Fifth Street in Elmira. In 1906, another brother, J. Florence, was born.

The oldest son, Bernard, was full of ambition. When he graduated from Elmira Free Academy in 1915 his senior yearbook declared him to be one of the school’s most popular boys. In addition to his studies, he participated in class entertainments also known as school productions;

managed the baseball team for three years; and dated many girls one of whom was Marjorie Shaffer. 

Bernard attended the University of Buffalo to study dentistry. It was World War I and when the United States joined the war effort, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After the war, he returned to Elmira and opened his own dental practice at 243 Lake Street. A year later, Bernard married Marjorie Shaffer and the couple had a daughter, Judith.

For the next 38 years, Bernard was an active member of the community. He was president of the City Club, founding member of the Elmira Area University of Buffalo Alumni Association, a member of the Chemung County Dental Society and of the Torch Club, and director of the Chemung Valley Savings and Loan Association. Bernard promoted conservation through his work with Fur, Fin, and Feathers, Inc. He belonged to the Elmira Elks Lodge, the Harry B. Bentley Post of the American Legion. He was also an active congregant of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. In addition to his private dental practice, he was a dental consultant for the County Welfare Department.

In 1959, when he was 64, Bernard suffered an acute heart attack and died. Newspaper obituaries listed among the survivors his mother, his wife, his daughter, and only one brother, Florence.

Why wasn’t his middle brother mentioned? Apparently, Francis had been leading a very different life. The earliest mentions of him in local newspapers are positive, citing various elementary school achievements, like good attendance, or moving on to next grade. A few years later, his name appears as a participant in a public discussion “The Social Club as an Agency of Moral Uplift.” But soon after, Francis’s name started showing up in less flattering ways.

Apparently one evening, he and a couple of buddies broke into George Ells’ Machine and Bicycle Repair Shop on Lake Street, not far from where he lived. The boys ransacked the shop and took a number of electric flashlights, cigar packet lighters and other small items. Their identity must have been known --a year later, the police revealed their names when Francis was caught for another crime. This time he and a buddy had broken into Dr. F.B. Greene’s garage. After rifling through the garage, they stole a motorcar and went on a joyride. When it got stuck on West Church Street, they abandoned it, leaving $50 worth of damage--over $1,500 in today’s dollars. The boys were told to make amends.

That same year, 1912, Francis disappeared for three months. He had been involved in an accidental shooting and feared being arrested. According to the paper, the victim, only identified as an Armenian, “was not seriously hurt.” Regardless, Francis made his way to New York City and took a job with the railroad. He was injured on the job and in order to receive full pay, he was required to get his parents’ signature. Instead he listed J.P. Sullivan in Elmira as his guardian and misaddressed the envelope hoping it would never be delivered. A postal worker caught the “mistake” and the letter made its way to his folks. His father went and collected him.

A year later, he was working at Sullivan’s furniture store on East Water Street in Elmira, when a suspicious fire broke out. The fire was contained on the third floor of the Grand Theater Block and a larger crisis was averted. Damage to the building was estimated to be $15,000. While he was questioned, Francis was never charged.

In 1917, his name showed up more dramatically. Trying to follow in his brother’s footsteps and join the war effort, Francis headed to Fort Niagara Training School to enlist. He was denied because he was underage. Undaunted, he returned to Elmira wearing a military uniform and was greeted like a hero. But when people start to question details of his enlistment, he took off for Cleveland. For a while he passed as a lieutenant and was treated well. He was wined and dined and made himself popular with the ladies. He also cashed fraudulent checks. Again, before he was discovered, he left for Chicago and repeated his impersonation. This time it didn’t end well. When he was caught, nineteen-year-old Francis received a sentence of two-years and eleven months to be served at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. This was eventually reduced to 13 months when a judge felt the sentence was too harsh.

A few years later, he was connected to larcenies committed in Princeton, New Haven, and New York City. Then in 1923, Francis tried to pass himself off as the son of E. M. Statler, a man who had made millions in the hotel business. For a while he was living in luxury until once again he was caught this time in Boston. When arrested, he was wearing a tuxedo, and pennants from various colleges were found in his room. He was fined $25 and sentenced to a year.

In 1935, he was arrested when he tried to enroll in graduate school at the University of Tennessee using a bad check. Things quickly unraveled for him. Authorities discovered he had not received a degree from Tulane University, as he claimed. He admitted to using various aliases including Archie G. Glenn, Justin F. Toomey, Floyd Stranhan, Richard Forgan, Francis Sullivan, Jack Allen, Millard Jones, and F. J. Sullivan. He also admitted to committing felonies in California, Pennsylvania, and Georgia and to having spent time in jail in each of these states including San Quentin. He was sent off to prison again. He was thirty-two.
J. Francis Toomey Photo courtesy of National Archives of Kansas City

Little is known of his whereabouts between 1935 and 1960. In 1960, the newspaper published a notice in the newspaper that he had violated parole and was being held without bail, but no indication of what parole he had violated.

Francis outlived his younger and older brothers by more than a decade. On November 15, 1970, the Star-Gazette printed a death notice for him. He had died in New York City four days earlier. A High Mass was held for him at St. Cecelia’s and he was buried at St. Peter and Paul’s Cemetery. No survivors were listed.