Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Doing History

by Bruce Whitmarsh, Director

Throughout March the Chemung County Historical Society has been highlighting the interesting history of some amazing local women as part of our celebration of Women’s History Month. I wanted to take a moment and recognize the women doing history right here at the CCHS. I have four dedicated and talented professionals who make the CCHS work every day.

Erin Doane is the curator here at the Historical Society and the results of her work are the most public. Anytime that you see an exhibit in the Chemung Valley History Museum, at one of our ECSD school partners or somewhere else in the community, this is Erin’s work. Creating and installing the exhibits is not all that is on her plate, she is also responsible for the care and maintenance of our three dimensional collection, everything from furniture to fire trucks and pottery to paintings. The CCHS has over 25,000 items in this collection and it is always growing. For greater insight into the job of a curator, check out Erin’s blog at http://chemung-valley-curator.tumblr.com/curatorsday.

Erin in her 1920s attire at the opening of our Chemung County in the 1920s exhibit.
Rachel Dworkin, our archivist, is well known to all the researchers of our area. She oversees the Booth Library and Archives. This part of the Historical Society holds all the manuscripts, newspapers, letters photographs and other such material. In all there is nearly one million pieces in this collection. The Booth Library and Archives is the primary resource for local history and Rachel is very familiar with the collection, quickly able to direct researchers to the resources they are looking for.
Rachel in the Booth Library and Archives
Kelli Huggins is a familiar face to the school children of this area. She is the Museum educator, responsible for all of our programming. This includes all of the visits in to classrooms. In January through March 2016, Kelli will reach almost 1200 students through in class visits. She also develops this programming as well, matching classroom needs with museum resources to make history come alive for the students. Thanks to Kelli we have a strong and growing home school program, reaching a new audience for this institution and better utilizing our resources for the entire community. Kelli’s hard work does not stop with the students however, if you have ever been to a lecture or program here at the museum, she did that as well.

Kelli leading a gold panning program with 2nd graders.
Probably the least publicly known staff member is Christine Gunderson, our office manager. She handles all of our everyday transactions, balancing monthly statements, paying bills and keeping us all in line with our budgets. She also oversees the front desk staff, keeps the membership database up to date, and handles all the rental and upkeep of the Lawrence Chapel. She might not be in public eye very often, but every project we do some part of it passes through her office.

Individually each of these women do an outstanding job, collectively they form a tremendous team. We are a small business and to get everything done, everyone pitches in. Exhibits are the responsibility of Erin, but they would not be complete without the hard work of Rachel and Kelli’s contributions. School groups are Kelli’s domain, but the rest of the staff helps make things work when 65 second graders show up and it takes all of the staff doing their respective jobs and more to make our big events, like GhostWalk, happen.

I am very proud of this staff and the great work they do along with making my job much easier. I hope that the next time you visit, either online or in person, you will take a minute to recognize all the hard work it takes to make this place function and think about the great staff that gets it all done.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Falling Women: Elmira’s Lady Parachutists

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

 On August 19, 1920, 18-year-old Ruth Blackman of Elmira jumped from the wings of an airplane at an altitude of 3,500 feet.  Performing before a crowd of 43,000 nervous spectators at the Wyoming County Fair, she climbed out along the wing of the biplane piloted by her friend Leon ‘Windy’ Smith.  “It was so cold up there that my hands and legs seemed numb when I stepped out,” she later told a newspaper reporter.  “Added to this was the terrific force of the plane.”   Despite the cold and the wind, Blackman made it out and, after receiving the signal from the pilot, stepped off the wing and into thin air.

“I dropped like a rock for about 30 feet until I felt the parachute open and hold me securely.  Then it was just an easy drop downward….When I got nearer the earth, I saw that I was likely to fall on top of a barn.  I paddled with my feet to get away from that and then I had to do some maneuvering to avoid landing on a fence or in a tree.  Finally I plumped right down in a bean field.”

The jump was Blackman’s first from an airplane, but not her first time parachuting.  She had jumped from a hot air once balloon before, but found jumping from a plane much more thrilling.  Over the course of the summer, Blackman and Smith made 13 additional appearances and jumps at fairs throughout the Twin Tiers.  They tried spicing up the routine with tricks like jumping with an open bag of flour and jumping from one plane onto another.    In mid-October she and Smith traveled to Atlanta, Georgia where they performed aerial stunts for a movie which was being filmed there. 

Ruth Blackman and Leon 'Windy' Smith, 1920

 It was Blackman’s ambition to purchase her own plane and travel the country on the barnstormer circuit.  Maybe she did; she disappeared from the local papers after 1920.  By the summer of 1921, pilot Leon ‘Windy’ Smith had a new partner, the 17-year-old Elmira girl Irene DeVere.  She made her first jump over Mansfield, PA, and continued to work with him for the next few years.  When she wasn’t jumping out of airplanes, the petite, 92 pound daredevil worked as a stenographer. 

Irene DeVere, badass daredevil/stenographer

Monday, March 14, 2016

Our Lady of the Flowers: Susan L. Crane

by Erin Doane, curator

Susan Langdon Crane was an activist, a humanitarian, a reformer, a businesswoman and dairy farmer, a gardener, and a devoted member of Park Church. She was also Olivia “Livy” Langdon’s sister which made her Samuel Clemens’ (aka Mark Twain’s) sister-in-law. While being the in-law of a famous writer may be what Susan Crane is best known for, it is certainly not the most important part of her long, meaningful life.

Susan Langdon Crane
Susan Dean was born in 1836 in Spencer, New York to Elijah and Mary Dean. Both her parents died when she was very young and Jervis and Olivia Langdon adopted her. In 1858 she married Theodore Crane, one of Jervis’s business associates. The couple never had children but Susan was very close to her sister Livy and her children. Susan was with Livy in Buffalo when she gave birth to her first child, Langdon. All three of Livy’s daughters, Clara, Jean, and Susy, were born at Quarry Farm, Susan and Theodore’s home. Susan helped care for Livy and the girls through various illnesses and traveled with the family in Europe. When Samuel Clemens departed with Livy and Clara on a world tour in 1895, Susy and Jean stayed with Susan. She was also the only family member present at Susy’s death.

Susan Crane (center back) relaxes with family
and household staff at Quarry Farm
Quarry Farm may be most famous as Mark Twain’s summer home, but it was Susan and Theodore Crane’s full-time residence. Susan inherited the property upon Jervis Langdon’s death in 1870. The farm had served as a summer cottage for the Langdon family. The Cranes turned it into a year-round home. Susan referred to Quarry Farm as “Go As You Please Hall.” She happily shared her home with Livy’s family during the summers for nearly 20 years. In that time she got to know Samuel Clemens quite well. She became his trusted friend and a sounding board for his writing. In 1874, she presented him with an octagonal writing study. This provided him with a quiet place to work and kept his constant smoking out of the main house. Clemens considered Quarry Farm the home of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn because the atmosphere of the place helped bring the characters to life.

Quarry Farm was not only a place of leisure for Susan Crane. In 1903, it became a place of business. By the turn of the 20th century things had quieted down at the farm. Theodore Crane had died in 1889 and the Clemens family no longer summered there. In the early 1900s, frequent outbreaks of typhoid fever in the area were linked to dirty milk. The Elmira Academy of Medicine appointed a Milk Commission to try to solve the problem. The commission tried to get local milk producers to make efforts of produce more hygienic milk but all declined because the costs were too great. At the age of 66, Susan Crane volunteered to work with the commission and established the Quarry Farm Dairy. Her dairy produced milk under such sanitary conditions that it was the first to be certified by the health authorities as germ-free. The diary operated until 1919, selling clean milk in and around Elmira and donating it to local hospitals and sick families.

Susan Crane on the porch at Quarry Farm
I suspect that Quarry Farm Dairy was not a major money-making venture for Susan Crane but it was a continuation of her life-long efforts to improve her community. She was a reformer and activist from an early age. Her first major community service came during the Civil War. At the age of 28 she was the chair of the Soldier’s Relief Association Finance Committee. Records show that in November 1864 she managed expenditures totaling $609.98 with $3,693.53 remaining cash on hand. Today, that would equal approximately $9,000 in expenditures and $56,000 cash on hand. She was also a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and a supporter of the Elmira Industrial School, which provided low income and minority children with training in trades.

One of Susan Cranes’ most long-lasting and important community roles was as a member of the Park Church. She joined the then Independent Congregational Church in 1852 when she was 16 years old and was a member for 72 years. At the time of her death on August 29, 1924 she was the oldest member of the church. For over 60 years Susan prepared the communion table. She baked the bread, poured the wine, and cared for the linens. She joyfully continue the task even as her strength began to fail in her later years. She also provided floral arrangements for the church every Sunday for 50 years. She became known as “Our Lady of the Flowers,” because of this and only missed doing it twice – once on the Sunday following her husband Theodore’s death and once in the early 1910s when a week of heavy snow made it impossible to get down the hill from Quarry Farm. In a tribute to Susan Crane after her death in 1924, Rev. Albert G. Cornell called this her “floral ministry” and said that she “quietly preached the gospel of beauty through her floral sermons.”

Program from the Silent Ministry of the Park Church
celebrating Susan Crane’s 80th birthday in 1916

Monday, March 7, 2016

Rena Rockwell’s Fight For Equal Pay

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

“I am unable to understand why a woman performing exactly the same duties as a man should receive less compensation for her services,” wrote New York Governor Alfred Smith when he signed the Teachers’ Salary Act in 1924, which was supposed to eliminate pay discrimination due to gender.  Women had just earned the right to vote and equality was a hot topic.  Unfortunately, despite this new mandate, pay equality didn’t come immediately for all female teachers.  Rena Rockwell, a teacher and head of the history department at the Elmira Free Academy, made it her personal mission to change that. 

In the 1920s, Rockwell was the president of the Elmira Teachers’ Association and used her post to advocate for equal pay legislation.  In May 1924, Rockwell went to Albany advocating for the equal pay act.  She expressed her embarrassment that Elmira was the only place to send both a mayor and a female Board of Education member to fight against the bill.  Still, the bill passed and Rockwell said, “The pleasure of hearing those men who have blustered so often in state association meetings and other gatherings of teachers, humiliated by the governor’s searching questions, was worth the trip to Albany.”  She also noted, “we in Elmira are not to reap immediate fruits of victory in any increased pay.  But there is a much bigger victory than the financial, the victory of principle.  It remains for us all to reap fruits according as we sow… Remember that this is part of the whole movement for the rights of women.  We have the suffrage: much else we have not yet.”

True to her word, Rockwell continued her battle for the “fruits of victory” for Elmira teachers.  She took the Board of Education to court and on June 9, 1925, New York Supreme Court Justice Leon C. Rhodes decided that Rockwell was entitled to pay equal to that of her male colleague Ralph S. Austin.  Rockwell asked the court to force the Board to increase her annual pay from $2,000 to $2,100.  Austin received $2,100 even though he did the same work as Rockwell (he arguably did less than her since she was also head of the department).  The Board of Education claimed, however, that the Legislature had no right to decide the details of teacher contracts and that pay raises would hurt the city’s budget.  Judge Rhodes decided in Rockwell’s favor and ordered she be paid the $2,100 salary and back pay.

On June 10, the Elmira Board of Education voted unanimously to appeal the decision.  The Appellate Division sided with the Board of Education. Rockwell was ordered to pay $153.30 to cover court costs.

Despite setbacks in Elmira, Rockwell’s work inspired other cases, particularly in Syracuse.  In 1927, Cornelia Moses, a Syracuse teacher, became the center of a similar pay case and was able to close the pay gap, but again, the appeals court found that there still could be differences in pay as long as gender wasn’t the only reason for the discrepancy. 

Rockwell still continued her work advocating for teachers and in October 1926 she was elected president of the Teachers’ Welfare League of New York State.  She continued to be a driving force in state and local politics for the rest of her life.  When she died in October 1947, she was hailed for her political action.  The Elmira Star-Gazette wrote, “No one knew better than she that many disagreed with her opinions; but everyone respected her faithful, spirited adherence to what she believed to be right.”