Monday, December 26, 2016

Finding Horace McDuffee: A Historian’s Struggle

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Horace McDuffee with unidentified cat
The photograph above, with this older man and his cat in a humorous scenario, is one of my absolute favorites in our collection. That said, we didn’t really know anything about it except that it was supposedly of “Horace McDuffie.” If you’ve read our blog for awhile, you probably realize that I like to take a mysterious photograph and try to find the answers to the questions it raises. So, I decided to put my research skills to the test to find out more about Horace. This blog post is about Horace, but it is also about the historical process of putting together shreds of evidence about his life. This post is a little long, but I think it’s important to talk about how historians know what we know. The work of historians can be shrouded in mystery, and if you’ve never done historical research yourself (or even if you have), it can be difficult to know where to start. So here is how I went about “finding” Horace McDuffee.

I started out with the one piece of evidence I had: the photograph. Horace is holding a copy of the Elmira Star-Gazette so that gave me a pretty good indication that he was local. He doesn’t, however, show up in the Elmira City Directories, which is always one of the first places I look. The photograph is actually a printed photo postcard. This gives us a rough idea of the date of the image, placing it most likely in the 1900s to early 1910s (the date on the newspaper isn’t visible, so it’s hard to date it exactly).

All well and good, but there were even more clues on the back. Someone had written a brief inscription, which identified the man as “Horace McDuffie,” father of Inez McDuffie Baker Schuyler. Cool, now we have two names to work with. There is also a personal anecdote on the back: “He was such a dear old man. He carried the mail between the Swartwood Lehigh Valley R.R. station to the Rodbourn L.V.R.R. ‘depot.’”

Even better, we have a little glimpse into his profession, where he lived, and his personality. To me, the “dear old man” piece is so important, because it confirms to me the kindness that I read from him in this picture. I know that this sentiment is a little ahistorical, but there is such humor and sweetness to his interaction with the cat in this photograph. You feel like you understand something about Horace’s personality, which I think is what draws me to it.

This piece also gave me an indication of why I couldn’t find him in the Elmira directories- he didn’t live in Elmira. But where was Swartwood? After consulting with my brilliant colleagues and a map, I located Swartwood. It is an unincorporated area in the Town of Van Etten, near the Erin border. And lo and behold, you can see the tracks of the old rail line where Horace delivered mail.

Map showing Swartwood
Since I’m the kind of person that won’t stop researching until I’ve exhausted all reasonable avenues, I wanted to know what else I could find out about Horace. So I turned to the newspapers. Digitized newspapers, like those on or the New York Historic Newspapers website, are my go-to sources for much of my historical work. I typed in “Horace McDuffie” and couldn’t find any results about my guy.

With no results to show with that name in the newspapers databases, I plugged it into a basic Google search to see what would come up. There, I found an issue. The inscription on the original photograph had his name misspelled. I found a Swartwood Horace McDuffee, with an “ee” not an “ie” in 1878-1880 Elmira directories transcribed on the website of local historian Joyce Tice. The directories those years included brief sections of residents in small towns and villages outside of Elmira, including Swartwood. This feature was just in those couple of directories, and not the ones I had initially looked at. Plus, without keyword searchability and knowing exactly what town he lived in to start, looking for Horace was a little like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The directory entries did more for me than just confirming the spelling of his name. It gave me his profession: farmer. Had I just stopped at the original photograph, I wouldn’t have known that and would have assumed he was a postal employee. Now, it seemed that this work delivering mail was in addition to his work farming.

With his name correctly spelled now, I went back to the newspapers and found a couple of hits. “Horace McDuffee” showed up in the classifieds of the 1920 Elmira Star-Gazette. He was advertising chickens for sale and his address was listed as Swartwood.

But that confirmation that he was a farmer was basically it. I refined my search to include other variations instead of just the search term “Horace McDuffee” to allow for other ways that it might be written. There I found him as “Horace M. McDuffee” in his brother Charles’ 1900 obituary.

Now I knew that he had a brother and I knew his middle initial. Both were helpful pieces of information. I once again returned to a basic Google search, but this time for “Horace M. McDuffee.” This linked to a Find A Grave page and a cemetery listing for the Ennis Cemetery in Cayuta, Schuyler County on Joyce Tice’s website. From these listings, I learned not only where he was buried, but also his birth and death dates (1840 and 1924), and the names of his other family members, including his wife, Elsie.

Now that the pieces were all coming together, there was still one more place to look for Horace McDuffee: the census. You can easily search for census records on (with a subscription) or sites like Tracking Horace in the census from 1860 to 1920 further confirmed some things I had already discovered and provided a little more detail, too (it also introduced another misspelling of the family name, McDuffey).  In 1860, for example, 20-year-old Horace was living at home with his parents Catherine and Daniel, on a farm next to the farms of other McDuffee relatives. The family also had a “domestic” worker, 18-year-old, Celista Thorn.

The 1892 State Census showed Horace and his wife living with their daughter Inez, then 21, and his aged parents. By 1910, however, Horace was a widower and the household consisted of just him and his daughter, who had since married and went by the name Inez Baker (interestingly she wasn’t marked as widowed but her husband also was not listed as living with the family). In 1920, Horace and Inez (then Inez Schuyler, having married and widowed again) were still living together. Horace died in 1924 at the age of 84.    

If you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy blog post, I hope you’re not disappointed that I wasn’t able to dig up any terribly notable incidents in the life story of Horace McDuffee. But frankly, I think it’s just as important to learn about the Horace McDuffees of this world as it is to learn about the Mark Twains. Looking into the histories of most people in the past would yield a similar, normal paper trail. For many people, there is even less information. As a historian, it can be maddening to not find the answers. All in all, I spent a morning searching for Horace McDuffee and now I better understand the man in one of my favorite photographs.

No word on the story of the cat, however. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

WESG: Broadcasting Live from the Mark Twain Hotel

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about how the internet is killing print media. It’s stealing readers, people whine. Why would anyone buy a newspaper when they can just read it all online? Interestingly enough, newspaper companies during the 1920 and 30s were facing a similar challenge from what was then a new technological threat: radio.

On November 2, 1920, KDKA out of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania became the first American radio station to cover the news when it announced the results of that year’s presidential election. The station was owned by Westinghouse, a radio manufacturer, and the broadcast was basically a publicity stunt to get people to buy their radios. It actually worked. In preparation for the broadcast, the Elmira Star-Gazette purchased both a radio and set of speakers so they could play the broadcast to the crowds. 

The novelty of radio news quickly wore off, however, as newspaper owners realized that people who got their news from the airwaves didn’t need to buy a paper. The Gannett Corporation, owner of the Elmira Star-Gazette, became one of the many newspapers to experiment with establishing their own local radio station. By the mid-1920s, it had purchased a minority interest in WHEC out of Rochester. The experiment turned out to be profitable, and, in 1932, the Gannett Corporation established a new station out of Elmira.

WESG, owned by the Elmira Star-Gazette, had its inaugural broadcast on October 2, 1932. The tiny studio was a two-room suite in the Mark Twain Hotel stuffed with sound equipment, a piano, and the station manager’s desk. They paid their rent by name-dropping the hotel in all their station breaks. The station didn’t have its own transmitter, but had an arrangement to lease bandwidth and broadcasting time from the Cornell University radio station. It operated daily from 2pm until sundown. 

The Mark Twain Hotel, ca. 1930s. WESG studios are in there somewhere.

WESG studio inside the Mark Twain Hotel, ca. 1933
The station was an immediate success. George McCann, reporter from the Star-Gazette, did a daily news show, but it was the entertainment that drew in listeners and advertising dollars. The station drew heavily on local talent and had a wide variety of programs. There were musical programs performed by local talent including pianist Loretta Ryan, vocal trio Ernie, Al & Nate, and the Charlie Cuthbert band. Mrs. Clifford Ford did dramatic readings, while local comedians told jokes. Station manager Dale Taylor cut a deal to borrow new records from local music stores in exchange for free advertising. 

Ernest Palmer, Albert Wright and Nathan Blanchard, a.k.a Ernie, Nate & Al
Although WESG reported on the news, it filled a completely different niche than the newspaper. By the mid-1930s, however, radio stations were banding together to form networks with shared national programing. This not only included music and radio dramas, but also national news. Newspapers around the country lobbied heavily for laws banning the reporting of national news over the radio. Their efforts failed and instead these radio networks established their own news gathering and reporting systems.  Despite the competition, newspapers continued to thrive, mostly by either focusing on local news or by providing additional context for national stories.

WESG, however, did not survive the decade. The Federal Communication Commission declined to renew authorization for its lease of the Cornell transmitter in 1939. By that time, the equipment was cheap enough that the station’s parent company could afford to buy their own.  The new transmitter went live on November 26, 1939 operating under the new call letters WENY.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Elmira Advertiser Fire of 1888

by Erin Doane, curator

Recently, I came across a box of metal type letters in the museum’s collection. A note on the box read: Type salvaged from the Advertiser fire of 1888. That made me think, “What was the Advertiser fire of 1888?”

Box of newspaper type letters
On the night of February 15, 1888, fire broke out in the basement of the Elmira Advertiser building on the corner of Lake and Market Streets. The resulting conflagration was the worst seen in Elmira in 15 years. The newspaper’s headquarters were destroyed as were several other neighboring buildings. The fire did nearly half a million dollars of property damage and two men lost their lives.

The Advertiser was first issued on November 3, 1853. At that time it was called the Fairman’s Daily Advertiser and served as a marketing vehicle for the printing business of Seymour and Charles Fairman. It was distributed free to farms along Water Street in Elmira. By 1855, the Elmira Daily Advertiser, as it was then named, was available by subscription for $1 a year.

February 26, 1855 issue of the Elmira Advertiser
By the late 1870s the Advertiser had moved into the building at the corner of Lake and Market Streets. Previously, the location had been the site of hotels operated by Silas Haight. Haight came to Elmira in 1836 and worked in the mercantile business. In 1839, he became landlord of the Mansion House on Lake Street. He enlarged the hotel in 1849 and it burned down a year later. Haight built a brick building on the site and named it Haight’s Hotel. In 1851, President Millard Fillmore and Secretary of State Daniel Webster were entertained there when their train stopped in Elmira overnight. That hotel ended up burning as well. Haight rebuilt again and called the new building the Hathaway House. The building changed hands around 1860 and continued to operate as a hotel through the decade. The Advertiser moved into the building around 1875.

Hathaway House menu, 1874
The fire at the Elmira Advertiser began around 7:30pm on February 15, 1888 in the jobbing room in the basement where the papers were printed. The building became engulfed in flames and the editorial staff had to escape by ladders out the windows. Winfield T. Foster, foreman of composing room, was badly burned as he fled the building. A schoolroom on the third floor of the building served as the theory department of N.A. Miller’s School of Commerce. Five students were doing some work there that evening when the fire began. Four of the students got to safety by dropping from a window onto a roof below but the fifth was not so fortunate. William F. Naylor tried to get to the stairs but died of suffocation and burning.

The fire quickly spread down the block. The building that housed the offices of the Sunday Tidings, the shop of a milliner named Mrs. Anderson, and several other offices caught fire. The flames continued to spread southward to F.A. Keeton’s retail grocery, which was one of the largest in the city, to Mr. Suess’ barber shop, and J.M. Robinson & Son’s furniture factory. D.A. Morgan’s liquor store and saloon, Kraum’s boarding house, Brown & Co. tobacco store, Dr. J.M. Hill’s drug store, and the law offices of E.P. Hart and Judge Thurston also caught fire. It is estimated that the blaze damaged or destroyed nearly $500,000 of property (over $10 million today).

Owego Daily Record, February 16, 1888
The Elmira fire department’s efforts to fight the blaze were hampered by the extreme cold and the fact that two of their engines were disabled at the time. Just after 10:00 pm, the Lake Street wall of the four-story Advertiser building collapsed. It struck Charles Bentley of Truck Company No. 1 and James Fisher, superintendent of the United Illuminating Company. Bentley died from his injuries. By 11:00pm, companies from Horseheads, Waverly, Owego, and Hornellsville were on the scene to help beat back the flames.

Advertiser building the morning after
Elmira reserve police were called in the night of the fire to stop looters.
The next day, with help from the Gazette and the Telegram, the Advertiser was able to produce and distribute its issue for February 16, 1888. The Advertiser was in a new home by June of 1889 and continued publishing until 1963.