Friday, April 18, 2014

Lift Up Thine Eyes: The Upper Floors of Downtown Geneva

By John Marks, Curator of Collections

Do you walk around downtown? If so, do you look at the upper floors of the buildings? (I say “walk” because this is a dangerous exercise when driving – trust me, I’ve tried it.)

As you look at the tops of downtown Geneva buildings, two terms to know are cornice and window hood. Cornices are the decorative bits directly underneath the edge of the roof. Window hoods, sometimes called drip hoods, are anything over a window to direct rain away from the top of the window.  

Some of downtown’s upper floors are ornate:

Originally built in the late 1890s for the Baker & Stark clothing store, this is now the Geneva Bicycle Center.

Some have been hidden for decades:














Metal facades were all the rage after World War II. Traditional downtown architecture was old, and business owners wanted to look modern and space-age. They used solid metal panels, or sometimes perforated screens that allowed light into the windows they were hiding. As tastes change, the metal has been taken down. You can see the difference between the Franklin Furniture façade, and the original brickwork that was revealed around 2008.

Some have been changed:






As you can see, these three stores on Seneca Street (J.W. Smith’s, Home Dairy, and Keilty Dry Goods) originally had one roof line and identical windows. The middle building had a new façade by 1929, but the window openings are still in the same configuration and the higher cornice is false. The late Merrill Roenke told me that his father was concerned about the heavy cast iron window hoods falling off J.W. Smith’s so they removed them; he didn’t say what happened to the cornice. In the third photo you can see that the current owners have put back window hoods, but not in the original style.

And finally, some have been lost:


With our photo archives, I have the luxury of looking at buildings that are gone. This building was at 525 Exchange Street, next to the Seneca Hotel. (Some may remember when Peck’s clothing store was there.)


Does any of this matter? It’s all personal opinion and taste. I feel differently walking into a 19th century brick building with decorative cornices and window hoods than I do entering a concrete block store with large single-pane windows. Preserving and investing in downtown buildings is all about betting that enough people will feel the same way to come to those stores and spend money.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Looking Back on Chocolate Almond Coffee Cake and Department Stores

By Karen Osburn, Archivist



When I was very young I remember my mother dropping me off at my grandmother’s house in Rochester and taking a bus downtown to shop in Rochester’s department stores.  Sibley, Lindsey and Curr Co. was THE store at the time.  I used to beg her to take me with her, but she never did.  I had to wait until I was 14 to take a bus downtown with my girlfriend to get my first peek at this magical store that had EVERYTHING!  I still remember my friend, Pamm, telling me to close my mouth because it made me look like a “country hick.”  (We lived in a very rural part of Greece, NY at that time.)

As I stood under the clock in Sibley’s I knew I had never been in any store as fascinating before.  I am really happy I had that opportunity, because 20 years later that “magic” era was disappearing and the era of the suburban mall was firmly entrenched, syphoning business away from downtown stores.  Of course the malls are not solely to blame for the decline of downtowns and department stores, but it did play a part.  For someone like me, visiting stores like Sibley’s, McCurdy’s, Forman’s, or Edward’s with their very professional sales staff, who knew their frequent clients likes and dislikes and treated them with great deference even to the point of calling them when that special dress line arrived, the special bolt of cloth was in stock or your favorite author’s newest book was on the shelf was a memorable event.  I look back on these experiences with fond nostalgia.


Geneva had its share of department stores, too.   J. W. Smith’s was the big one in our city.  I didn’t move here until after the store was closed, but I remember talking with Genevans who shopped at Smith’s.  One couple told me of shopping there the first Christmas they were married and how the store wrapped everything and delivered it to their home.  Another person spoke with fondness of the store’s lending library.  I don’t recall having heard of a store with a lending library before, but I have a book in the archive with a book plate from Smith’s lending library in it.  We also have photos of the store’s interior, the fabric bolts, and millinery area.

Briefly, John Williams Smith and S.S. Cobb opened a dry goods store in Geneva in 1847 under the name Cobb & Smith.  John was a young child when the Smith family moved to Geneva from Massachusetts in 1822 and became lifelong residents from that moment on.  He worked as a clerk in various local stores until he accumulated enough experience and money to start his own business.  By 1849 S. S. Cobb left the firm and Solomon E. Smith Joined his brother in the dry goods business.  Jointly they operated J. W. Smith & Co. until John died in 1878.  The company name stayed until 1892 when a stock company was formed with S. E. Smith as President and Wm. Whitwell as secretary and treasurer.  The business name was then changed to The J. W. Smith Dry Goods Co.


On April 1st, 1929, the J. R. Roenke’s Sons, Inc. (formerly Roenke and Rogers) dry goods store, located next to Smith’s on Seneca Street, merged with J. W. Smith Company and for close to a year was run under the management of Henry and Richard Roenke.  At the end of that period the Roenkes acquired a controlling interest in the company which retained the J. W. Smith name.  When Smith’s closed in 1977 it was the oldest continuously operated Department Store in the United States. 

It was a sad day for J. W. Smith’s loyal customers when Smith’s closed in Geneva leaving the building to be used by other businesses.  For instance, Don’s Own Florists, is one of the businesses in the old Smith Building at 40-42 Seneca Street. 



As I walked around Geneva’s downtown recently, I saw signs of growth that allow me to hope the day of under-utilized city centers is coming to an end.  Stores like Stomping Grounds, Finger Lakes Gifts and Lounge, Whisper Chocolate, Mother Earth, Super Casuals and Don’s Own to name only a few are making for an interesting and pleasant shopping experience.  I was able to do the majority of my Christmas shopping locally this year which was a pleasant experience compared with fighting the mall traffic.  I anticipate the day when I can wander downtown and purchase anything I need without having to get in my car and fight the suburban traffic.  And I believe it is coming!

Oops, I forgot to tell you about the Chocolate Almond Coffee Cake.  The fifth floor of Sibley’s was a bakery and they made a coffee cake that had a chocolate almond filling in a pastry- type crust. I purchased one every time I went to Sibley’s.  They also had a gourmet grocery on the first floor which sold beautiful fruit and vegetables and items that were not found in the grocery stores where I shopped.  I remember being so disappointed when General Motors took over the 5th floor of the Sibley building displacing the bakery.  Eventually the entire food section of the store was phased out and sometime after I moved from the Rochester area, the store was closed.  The day I can buy a chocolate almond coffee cake in Geneva is the day downtowns will have come full circle for me.



Friday, April 4, 2014

Every Now and Then

By Kerry Lippincott, Executive Director


During a session about boards at Camp Finance last year, it was suggested that a mission moment be part of a board meeting.  Loving the idea, I started sharing a mission moment (or two) during my report to the board.  Simply put, mission moments serve as examples and reminders of we, the Geneva Historical Society, exists.   Last week, I had a mission moment and was reminded of why I do what I do.

While giving a tour of the Geneva History Museum a visitor became most impressed with our collections storage.  It is here where one can find, among other things, Native American artifacts, Whale Watch wine glasses, a blue print to develop the Lake Front, furniture, and painting by Arthur Dove. As he was leaving the visitor stated that the exhibits are nice and organized but there was just something about seeing everything in one space. 

And objects (three-dimentional and papers based) are at the very heart of what we do.  Without objects, how could we tell Geneva’s stories?  How can we document the changes over time in Geneva without maps, photographs or city directories?  What would Rose Hill be like without furniture?   Who would want come to an exhibit with just text?  How can we explain John Johnston’s contributions to agriculture without a drain tile or his writings? 

Our entire collection consists of approximately 7,000 three-dimensional objects, 2,000 costumes and textiles, 1,300 cubic feet of archival materials and 50,000 photographs.   The William Walker Collection is a collection of American furniture and decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries.   The objects displayed within our three historic houses also include 18th and 19th century furnishings and artwork.  Located on the grounds of the Johnston House, the Mike Weaver Drain Tile Museum displays a collection of agricultural drain tiles.

Several years ago I heard that the Smithsonian displays about 3-5% of its collections.  It’s pretty safe to assume that this true for most, if not all, museums.   When not on display objects do reside in storage but they do have other uses as well.   They serve as the basis for programs for people of all ages.  Objects are available to researchers or as loans to other museums and institutions. Through social media and technology we are finding other ways to share our collections.  Several times a week John posts images on our Facebook page.  As members of the Rochester Regional Library Council we are able to digitize portions of our archival collection and these collections are accessible on-line through New York Heritage.  

And for me it all started with an object – a  quilt.  During my junior year of high school students had a shadow day where they followed professionals in a career that they were interested in pursuing.  With an interest in American History, my guidance counselor said I had two options - become a teacher or write history textbooks.  Neither option appealed to me.  Not knowing what to do with me, I was sent to the Rochester Museum and Science Center where I spent the day with a curator and educator.  And I had an awesome today!    I got a behind-the-scenes tour and received plenty of freebies from the gift shop.  Towards the end of the day I got to assist with a photo shoot of a quilt that had recently been donated to the museum.     As we got the quilt out of its box there was some general discussion about the quilt – it was a friendship quilt made in 1854.  We were told that the maker had signed one of the corners.  To my utter amazement the signature was on my corner and when I looked there was Susan B. Anthony’s signature!!   I was actually touching a quilt made by Susan B. Anthony!!  Seventeen years later words still can not describe how I felt for that hour.  In handling the Anthony quilt with my white gloves I knew what I wanted to do.  And it’s nice to be reminded of that every now and then.  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The First Leg of the Journey Home

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

When the Johnston family emigrated from Scotland to Seneca County in 1822,  John Johnston’s sister Agnes came with them.  She stayed at Viewfields farm for three years, before returning to Scotland.  She wrote to her sister-in-law Margaret Johnston about the first part of her voyage.  A man named James Grieve (or Greive) traveled with her.   Anne DeRousie, who has studied the Johnstons extensively, believes that Mr. Grieve may have had a family connection with the Johnstons.  In 1825, it would have been improper, and perhaps frightening, for a woman to undertake a long journey without a man to assist her.  I reproduce Agnes’s spelling and punctuation as literally as I can.

I am happy to inform you that I arrived safe at Jersey City on Fri- night after a very tiresome journey of four days.  We did not reach Ithaca the day we started until twelve o/clock at night & had to start at two A. M.  We came to Owego to breakfast & crossed the Susquehanna river at the Great Bend.  . . . then we came into the state of Pennsylvania We reached a place called [illegible] tavern at night.  And I never was in all my life so completely tired out.  I fell asleep in my Chair before we had supper which was about eleven o’clock.  I would very gladly have gone to bed with-out supper but Mr Greive persuaded me to take a little food as I had scarcely taken any thing since leaving home  We were on our way again about two o’clock in the morning – We Had no one but our-selves in the stage all that day and it was nothing but up one mountain & down another until we reached Milford where we put up for the third night  I wished I had you with me to have seen what a wilderness we traveled through that day – We did not see a church for a hundred miles.  I have not seen a place to compare with Geneva since I left it – John used to grumble about people getting tired of a place – you may tell him from me if any of you should get tired he has only to send you down as far as Milford & you would be glad to return – We left Milford about three o’clock in the morning.  We crossed the Delaware river about a mile from there on a ferry setting in the stage there  We reached the State of New Jersey – a poor looking country – The land that is cleared seems to be worn out.  And we reached Jersey City about seven o’clock at night.  There I might have had a comfortable night’s rest if fatigue & the pain in my side had permitted me – Indeed I was quite sick although I did not say much about it – I rested there two days.  James Greive went over the next day & went through a great many vessels but could hardly find one to his mind – At last how-ever he engaged passage for us in an Irish brig for $25 each . . . She is the brig the Prince of the Asturious.  Capt Morris – I am to have the room at the foot of the Cabin stairs . . . and James Greive will have a berth in the Cabin – I came over here [to New York] on Mon Morning & I never saw kinder people than Mr & Mrs. Mc Crae – They made us move our trunks here & stay till our brig sails . . . we are to have Every Thing on board before Eleven o'clock this fore-noon.  The brig is bound for Dublin but has part of her cargo for Liverpool where we are to be landed.  I assure you it is not with-out fear that I trust my-self in her as she seems a very mean looking concern & Every one on board Except Mr Greive & My-self are Irish and I do not know that there will be another feamel [female] on board but My-self.  The Capt—[sic] said He was not sure but that there was an Irish Lady going.  She had not quite determined –

Travelers in 1825 had to buy enough food to last the entire voyage.  Roughly 3300 miles lie between New York and Scotland.  Before steam ships became common, and if you were not wealthy enough to take the fastest clipper ships, you could expect to spend 36 to 42 days crossing the Atlantic Ocean.  Agnes wrote Margaret, “We have got our provisions all purchased . . . I shall have plenty of money have no doubt.”  


An 1827 brig.  A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts.  During the Age of Sail, brigs were considered fast and maneuverable.       


Agnes’s letter suggests that a family argument might have led to her decision to return to Scotland:  

I hope John has got over his displeasure at me.  It really was not kind of him to be so severe upon me when he knew that one word from him would have stopped me – I don't think I Ever refused to do what he or you asked me while there and God knows, I would . . . have done any-thing what ever that would have added to either of your comfort.

On the Johnston trip from Scotland in 1822, the ship ran aground off Anticosti Island in the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River.  The passengers had to be rescued.  This mishap must have been in Agnes’s mind as she contemplated another voyage.

  -  I trust in God we shall reach the old English ground in safety  Should it be other wise determined We must submit our-selves to the will of the Almighty who orders all things for the best . . . 

Agnes’s brig was going to Dublin, but it had cargo for Liverpool.  She and Mr. Grieve got off in Liverpool and traveled north to their destination in the area of Dumfries.  As the crow flies, Liverpool is about 115 miles from Dumfries


We do not know whether another female traveled on the Prince of Asturias, or whether the Irish passengers were unkind to the Scottish passengers, but we know that Agnes came to Scotland safely.  Eventually she married and had children of her own.


There are two other letters from Agnes written to her niece Nancy, which was a nickname for Agnes.  One letter is from 1838 and the other from 1842.  Nancy was not born yet when Agnes left for Scotland, so Agnes knew her namesake mostly through letters.  In her letters Agnes urges her nieces to keep writing and to visit her and her family in Scotland.


Friday, March 21, 2014

The War of 1812: Who Cares?

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits


It’s been a long, very cold winter, the kind that leads to despair. It’s most evident for me as I start to plan for summer exhibits. This is the bicentennial of the War of 1812 – and 1814 was a significant year in that war  - and we should do an exhibit, but why? Aside from the song “The Battle of New Orleans,” most people don’t remember the War of 1812 or express an interest in learning about it. Maybe we should just open a sports bar in the museum instead.

No, the days are longer, the weather is promised to be warmer, and I will be positive. Here are a few reasons to care about or be interested in the War of 1812:

At the time, it was called The Second War of Independence.
The American Revolution had been won less than 30 years before, and Great Britain still had strong influence in North America. Among other violations, they had been seizing American sailors from merchant ships to serve in Great Britain’s navy, and many felt this war was an important test for independence.

There was the possibility of expanding our territory.
While perhaps not a motivation for going to war, there was the feeling that parts of Canada along our border would welcome being freed from British rule and joining the United States. (This turned out not to be the case.)

It was a big test of the Second Amendment and the militia system.
The Founding Fathers were opposed to having a permanent army and planned on using well-trained and well-regulated volunteer militias for national defense. The War of 1812 proved them to be neither trained nor regulated, although they improved as the conflict wore on.

An 1810 manual for drilling militia units.

New York State was geographically involved in the war.
While the American Revolution and Civil War were, for the most part, fought somewhere else, most of New York was in the thick of things. The northern half of the state shared water or land borders with Canada. Battles were fought along the Niagara frontier, at Sackett’s Harbor and Plattsburgh, and New York City and the Hudson River were strategically important.

Niagara River, with Fort George (Canada) on left, Fort Niagara (US) on right

The challenge, as with all exhibits, is to convey this to and engage with visitors. (An additional challenge is the rarity of artifacts from the war.) If most of the visitors read most of the exhibit panels, and about half of them think or say, “Huh, I didn’t know that! That’s interesting,” we call that a good day at the office. 

Geneva and the War of 1812 will open Friday June 6. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Reading Old Handwriting

By Karen Osburn, Archivist and City of Geneva Historian


We have some very interesting old letters, journals and diaries in the archives at Prouty Chew House and I love reading some of the entries.  It isn’t always easy for a variety of different reasons.  Sometimes the handwriting is faded and/or blotchy.  Other times the person who wrote the piece used such flowery script that it is like trying to “read” a piece of abstract art, for instance is that letter an uppercase F or a T?  Is the word Taking or Faking?  Sometimes the spelling doesn’t make sense as spelling wasn’t standardized as it is today and was less important than beautiful script in the early 1800s.  Sometimes the person writing the letter conserved paper and wrote horizontally and then vertically across the paper. 

It is often difficult for me to read a letter from the 1800s, but some of the students who come to do research or help with the archives have an even harder time than I do with the flow of letters.  Computers seem to have changed peoples’ ability to read and write cursive letters.

The first time I noticed the change was when I had a college student ask me to read a document for him.  The handwriting on the particular paper wasn’t very bad and I was a bit perplexed until the student explained that he was not taught to write in cursive and was unfamiliar with it.  Wow!  This may make transcription of old letters much more difficult when potential volunteers are no longer familiar with “long hand” just printing or computer fonts.

I love to experiment with different computer fonts and I admit that some of them can be somewhat hard to read, i.e. Vivaldi, Brush Script, Edwardian Script, Fiolex Girls, or Outright Televis to name a few.  I also remember when there were no computer (Yes, I am that old!) and our grade school teachers taught students good basic handwriting in self-defense. Can you imagine trying to read 30 third or fourth grade student papers when the printing or cursive writing on them made real hen scratches look legible? 



My fourth grade teacher gave me a D in handwriting on my final report card of the year.  My parents made me write one paragraph every weekday all that summer before I could go out and play. They picked the paragraph and believe me it was never short. If I was too quick and sloppy I had to write a second paragraph to reinforce practice.  By the end of the summer I could write well enough to please my fifth grade teacher and get passing marks in handwriting.  I don’t know if handwriting is even taught in schools anymore, but I don’t think it is stressed like it was in the 1960s.

So how do we go about reading old handwriting?  Practice, practice, practice!  With some documents, you can scan them, blow them up and see if that helps decipher the letters.  With others you could scan the document and then play with the contrast on a photo program and see if that helps make it readable.  You might try putting a piece of paper over the letters so only the top half or bottom half is visible, a trick I learned in a workshop that sometimes helps. Usually, I try to figure the word out from the context of the sentence. Or I try to look for an unrecognizable letter in a different word and decipher the meaning, which is tedious, but often works. Reading old handwriting can be a chore, but the end result can be fascinating!

Does it matter if students can’t read or write cursive writing?  The answer is yes and no. Does it matter if today’s students can’t write well with pen or pencil? Since the majority of students have some form of computer access, probably not.  The important thing is that they can think rationally, communicate coherently, and convey instructions and ideas effectively using a computer as their pen and paper.  It could help to develop a reasonably legible signature, but computer documents are adequate for communication purposes.

The other question is does it matter when students can’t read handwriting?  Here I say yes! It matters if you are able to read.  Our ability to read can help us effectively learn from people in the past, be it your great, great grandmother, a person who signed the Declaration of Independence, a doctor, lawyer or veterinarian.  The ability to follow written directions is important and not every document you have to deal with will be legibly hand printed or typed and printed on a computer. Reading script is not yet in the same realm as trying to read hieroglyphics.  Our alphabet is still the standard for written English and it is helpful to be able to read the ABCs in any form of script being used whether it is ABC, ABC, ABC, ABC, or ABC.  Even if people no longer use script to write I think it pays to be able to read it since you never know when you may need to read a document written.  Who knows, a favorite cousin may leave you a small fortune in a handwritten will someday and it will certainly be important that your lawyer understands how to decipher what was written.  There is a big difference in inheriting one million dollars or one willow doll cupboard don’t you think?




Friday, March 7, 2014

Everything is Coming up Bloomers!

By Kerry Lippincott, Executive Director

For over forty years Elizabeth Smith Miller (1822-1911) called Geneva home.  An advocate for women’s suffrage, she formed the Geneva Political Club with her daughter and brought several famous suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, and her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton to speak in Geneva.     Known as a gracious hostess and accomplished cook, she published In the Kitchen in 1875. The book included various recipes and tips on entertaining, and went through several editions.  Miller is also credited with being the first woman to wear bloomers.  With the mention of bloomers one might instantly think of women’s underwear.  But Miller’s bloomers were an outfit where the pants gathered at the ankle with a knee length dress worn over the top.

Fashion Plate from Godey's Lady's Book, April 1851

In today’s society where a woman in pants is pretty tame compared to some outfits that are out there, Miller fashion choice in 1851 was extremely radical.   In the early 1850s women wore several layers of clothing.  The layers included a chemise, corset, several layers of petticoats (before the introduction of the hoop skirt in 1856 this could mean 8 to 10 petticoats), and a long skirt.  When completely dressed a woman’s clothing alone could weigh almost twenty pounds! Miller described the day when she had enough and developed a pattern based on an outfit she saw while in Europe:

In the spring of 1851, while spending many hours at work in the garden, I became so thoroughly disgusted with the long skirt, that the dissatisfaction... suddenly ripened into the decision that this shackle should no longer be endured. The resolution was at once put into practice. Turkish trousers to the ankle with a skirt reaching some four inches below the knee, were substituted for the heavy, untidy and exasperating old garment. 

The Bloomer Outfit

During a visit to Stanton in Seneca Falls, Miller wore her new outfit.  She not only inspired Stanton to adopt the outfit but Amelia Bloomer, editor of the local temperance newspaper The Lily, as well.  In addition to wearing the outfit, Bloomer wrote articles about it, printed illustrations of it and published instructions on how to make it in The Lily.  Bloomer’s articles on the new outfit were re-printed in newspapers across the country.  This is why the outfit became known as bloomers and not millers.  

Whether for comfort or health reasons, several women across the country began wearing bloomers.  However, these women were soon ridiculed in the press and in public.  Critics saw the new outfit as unwomanly and considered it one step towards women becoming men.  Others saw the outfit as immoral as woman’s ankles were simply not meant to be seen.  Citing Deuteronomy’s prohibition on cross-dressing, some critics went as far to say the Bible was anti-bloomer.

Anti-bloomer cartoon

Since many of the women who wore bloomers were also advocates for women’s rights, it was felt that bloomers were drawing attention away from the cause and slowly these women went back to wearing skirts and petticoats.  Miller would wear bloomers for seven years.  She would later write:

I wore the short dress and trousers for many years, my husband, being at all times and in all places, my staunch supporter... The dress looked tolerably well in standing and walking, but in sitting, a more awkward, uncouth effect, could hardly be imagined... 

So, by degrees... I lost sight of the great advantages of my dress - its lightness and cleanliness on the streets, its allowing me to carry my babies up and down stairs with perfect ease and safety, and its beautiful harmony with sanitary laws, consequently the skirt was lengthened several inches and the trousers abandoned. 

As months passed, I proceeded in this retrograde movement, until, after a period of some seven years, I quite "fell from grace" and found myself again in the bonds of the old swaddling clothes - a victim to my love of beauty... 

All hail to the day when we shall have a reasonable and beautiful dress that shall encourage exercises on the road and in the field - that shall leave us the free use of our limbs - that shall help and not hinder, our perfect development.


Though women would have to wait until the 1930s for it to be respectable for them to wear pants and shorts in public, Elizabeth Smith Miller is still owed a huge thank you for taking the first steps.

Elizabeth Smith Miller with her daughter Anne