Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Celebrating African-American Freedom

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information

African Americans have celebrated American freedoms since well before the nation recognized their right to share in those freedoms. The earliest of these celebrations were a form of political protest, as former slaves in the “free” North gathered, usually in August, to protest their exclusion from the rights other Americans celebrated on Independence Day. These festivities started after Great Britain freed her slaves in the West Indies. The Emancipation Celebrations later incorporated other advances in black civil rights, including the emancipation of American slaves, the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, and the passage of various Civil Rights bills and laws. Today Juneteenth is the most well-known of these festivals, celebrating the date during the Civil War when African Americans in Texas learned of their emancipation.

Members of Geneva’s African-American community outside the High Street Church where many worshiped in the 19th century.

Emancipation celebrations were a vital part of Geneva’s African-American history in the 1800s, beginning in 1840 and continuing intermittently until the 1900. Geneva’s first known African Americans, Cuffe and his wife Bett, were brought to the shore of Seneca Lake (at Rose Hill) in 1792 by Alexander Coventry. During the next decade, the Rose and Nicholas families moved from Virginia, bringing over 100 more enslaved African Americans to the area surrounding Geneva. These people formed the nucleus of a vital and persistent African-American community. Over the next fifty years this population grew, augmented by the migration of former slaves from the farms of Wayne, Ontario, and Seneca counties and by fugitives from the South. With a population of 639 African Americans, Ontario County had the largest black population of any county in western New York by 1860.

Poster announcing the 1879 Emancipation Celebration in Geneva.

Western New York Emancipation Celebrations moved from town to town and were hosted by Canandaigua, Auburn, and Penn Yan and other area communities. Its central location and sizeable African-American population made Geneva a favorite spot for these events, and the village hosted at least eight in the 19th century. Local political officials were sometimes invited to attend the festivities and march in parades to Pulteney Park or Genesee Park. In the parks or halls, members of Geneva’s African-American community read important documents from their crusade for freedom: the act by which England had freed West Indians, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 15th Amendment, and the New York State Civil Rights Bill. Luminaries like Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnet, and Sojourner Truth spoke to crowds of people from Geneva, Rochester, Syracuse, Auburn, Lyons, and the surrounding region. Many of the celebrations included prayer, parades, songs, sports competitions, food, and an evening dance.

Pulteney Park where many Emancipation Celebrations were held.

Frederick Douglass spoke at many of Geneva’s Emancipation Celebrations. Image courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian.

Unfortunately for historians, most existing accounts of these celebrations are filtered through biased white perceptions. In her 1994 book Make a Way Somehow: African-American Life in a Northern Community, 1790-1965, historian Kathryn Grover teases out the possible meaning of these Geneva celebrations for the African-American community. Using reports from national sources like The North Star and the biased commentary in Geneva’s white papers, she argues that the celebrations were political demonstrations, which white residents often chose to view as harmless theater or purely social events.

When they reported on the celebrations, the local papers invariably concentrated on the amusements and social aspects of the festivities, rather than the political content that underpinned the gatherings. At the 1860 celebration held in Geneva, Frederick Douglass gave his first address since returning from Europe, where he had fled after the arrest of John Brown, whom he called “the hero of Harper’s Ferry.” He spoke of the example of the British in freeing their slaves in the West Indies and his disappointment that the United States, with its proclamations of liberty, continued to support slavery and the slave trade. He addressed an audience that understood him when he said,

I have spoken and written much on the subject [of slavery] during the last twenty years, and have been at times accused of exaggeration; and yet I can say with truth, that I have fallen far short in describing the pains and woes…. The warp and woof of slavery is yet to be unraveled.—Each bloody thread must yet be disentangled and drawn forth, before men will thoroughly understand and duly hate the enormity, or properly abhor its upholders and work its abolition. This is the work still to be done. After all the books, pamphlets and periodicals—after all the labors of the Abolitionists at home and abroad—we have still to make the American people acquainted with the sin and crime of our slave system.
Rather than focus on Douglass’ arguments, the Geneva Gazette newspaper emphasized Douglass’ “free ebullition and bile” in his criticism of churches, political parties and society generally.”

After the Civil War and Emancipation, Geneva newspapers devoted more space to celebrations that seem to have lost their political force. At the same time that white southerners were terrorizing African Americans in the post-Reconstruction South, the 1881 orator never mentioned it. He focused on the African-American’s long history in the country, his contrast to the Chinese immigrant laborer, and the importance of his labor “where the white man cannot—in the warmest parts of the country,” in the cotton fields, sugar plantations and iron foundries. He pointed out that black Americans paid taxes and that progress that had been made in education. At the same time, he reminded his audience (white and black) that “We are…just as much within the circle of American citizenship as if we had come over in a different manner [than as a captive]. The negro belongs here.” The writer went on to detail the subsequent social events with no acknowledgment that this citizenship was being denied across the country.

One of the last celebrations in 1900, “hardly came up to those of former years” in attendance. The audience was described as mostly white and attracted by the sporting events. The decline of the Emancipation Celebration occurred as many African Americans left Geneva and other small towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for the opportunities available in larger cities. The local community seems to have become too small and too focused on survival to host large celebrations. This remained the case until the post-World War II era.

For more information about these celebrations and about Geneva’s African-American community, see the 1994 book Make a Way Somehow: African-American Life in a Northern Community, 1790-1965 by Kathryn Grover.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Lighting the Scene

By Alice Akins, Site Manager of Rose Hill

Darkness has always challenged us.  In the narrow crooked streets of early cities,   people traveling after dark risked stumbling over obstacles, straying into noxious gutters, and encountering criminals.  The earliest street lights were candles or oil lamps, often privately owned.  In 1417, the Mayor of London called for lanterns “to be hanged out on the winter evenings.”  The inhabitants of Paris in 1524 had to keep lights burning in all windows facing the streets.  These measures kept cities dimly illuminated until the early 1800s.

William Murdoch

William Murdoch was the first person to use gas for lighting.  In the early 1790s, Murdoch experimented with various types of gas, finally settling on a gas derived from coal as the most effective.  He lit his own Cornwall home in 1792 with coal gas. Six years later, he lit the main building of the engine works in Birmingham, and in 1802 he illuminated the outside of the building, to the amazement of the local people.  German inventor Frederick Albert Winsor demonstrated the first public street lights in London in 1807.  

Rembrandt Peale

The new technology spread rapidly, including to the United States.  Artist Rembrandt Peale illuminated a room in his Baltimore museum with great success in 1816.  The novelty impressed patrons as a “ring beset with gems of light.”  Peale even became one of the founders of the Gas Light Company of Baltimore – making his adopted city the first in the United States with gas streetlights.    In 1823, the New York Gas Light Company served parts of Manhattan with gas street lighting to supplement or replace 18th-century whale-oil lamps.

In 1848, the New York State legislature passed an act to allow the formation of gas light companies.  Between 1848 and 1860, 74 such companies were formed.  Locally Seneca Falls and Waterloo were illuminated in 1856, and Penn Yan in 1860.

The Geneva Gaslight Company on Wadsworth Street, 1872

The Geneva village meeting minutes tell us a little about the introduction of street lights here.  In April 1852, the village board gave Stephen Merideth permission to lay “Gass pipes” through the streets of the village, “on condition that the same be not impaired, and that the Trustees have Supervision of the Same –.”  Mr. Merideth must not have been able to follow through on the project, or at least not as quickly as the board wanted.  In September of that year, the board stated that “the Resolution of Apr 13th 1852 granting to Stephen Merideth to privilege of laying Gass pipes through the Streets was rescinded – On Motion of W Crawford, permission was granted to Messrs Dungan Cartwright & Co [the firm that lit Ithaca] to lay Gass pipes through the Streets of the Village, on Condition that it be done within Eighteen months . . . ”  By March 1853, the minutes say that Dungan Cartwright  had formed the Geneva Gaslight Company “for the purpose of manufacturing and Supplying Gas for lighting the Streets and public and private buildings of the village of Geneva.”  Located on Wadsworth Street, the company would provide Geneva with the necessary buildings, fixtures, and apparatus.  The board confirmed that the new company “may lay conductors for conveying Gas through the Streets lanes alleys and Squares” of the town. 

A gas light in Geneva 
The gas lighting phenomenon had some interesting consequences, both expected and unexpected.  One of the biggest was that crime rates dropped in cities with better light.  Gas lighting also meant longer work hours in factories, especially in the winter when days were short.  Some factories in Britain ran the clock around.  Production went up, although the workers may have found this a mixed blessing.  By-products from the manufacture of coal-gas became important to the dye and chemical industries.  Starting with mauve in 1856, a wide range of synthetic dye colors became available.  Gas light quickly replaced candles in theater as it was cheaper and brighter, and did not drip wax on the actors.  The better lighting encouraged audiences to pay more attention to the action on stage, and allowed theater owners to police crowd behavior. Actors could also wear less makeup and use more natural gestures.

Electricity began to replace coal gas for street lighting in 1875, when the Russian Pavel Yablochkov developed the arc light.  The first electric street lights in the United States were for the Public Square road system in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1879.  By the end of the century cheap, reliable, and bright incandescent bulbs had arrived and natural gas had also begun to replace coal gas in the United States.  The changeover was nearly complete by the 1940s and 1950s, though there are still some cities that use coal gas street lighting in historic districts.  

In Baltimore the first street light in the United States still stands and casts its softer glow.

Gas light pole at Rose, now electrified. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Swine Driver and Pound Keeper for Geneva in 1852

By Karen Osburn, Archivist and City of Geneva Historian

Recently I read the Village of Geneva minutes of the Common Council for the time period May 18, 1852 to May 11, 1853.  In that roughly one year period there were at least 11 mentions of Swine, Cattle and the “Pound”.  The entries began with William Earl being appointed Swine Driver and pound keeper.  A month later, he was removed from office and Luther Stockwell appointed instead.  Between March and April 1853 there is the notation of “another election” and Henry Snelling is listed as Swine Driver and Pound keeper.  The next entry, April 13, 1853, indicates that Henry refused to serve and John Payne was appointed in his stead.  The month following that announcement, May 1853, it is announced that Payne’s appointment was rescinded and William Earl reappointed to position of Swine Driver and Pound Keeper and also placed in charge of public parks.  Whew! That is a lot of changes for one political appointment!

Checking the Geneva Newspaper Index I found few articles on loose farm animals running the street.  In fact, I only found 3 references in the index.  However, in September of 1852 a man was prosecuted for “breaking open the pound” and remarks in January and March of 1853 made reference to a man forcibly removing cows from the pound keeper’s possession.  It appears there was a need for the position and some displeasure over how the responsibilities were carried out.

This may be difficult for us to relate to nowadays, but if we spend a few moments thinking about it we realize that livestock often represent a large portion of a farmer’s wealth in any time period.  Furthermore loose livestock can be a pesky annoyance at best and a danger to the citizens of an urban area at worst.  Anyone who has spent much time around farm animals realizes they can be unpredictable. They are just being animals, but since we are just being people, and many of us are people with limited experience with livestock, we often misunderstand an animal’s actions.

Imagine waking up one morning to a cow munching your carefully tended flower garden,  when you step outside to confront the creature you realize not only has she decimated your garden, she has also “fertilized” your sidewalk and broken down your raspberry canes.  When you approach the bovine, with broom in hand, the cow looks at you complacently and turns her horns in your direction….they look a bit intimidating don’t they? 

In an era when many a city family may have kept a cow, pig or horse for milk, meat or transportation it was not unheard of to find they had escaped and were distressing your neighbors.  Today, this type of animal interaction seldom occurs in urban areas, but in the transitional areas between farm and city it is much more common to look out your window and find your neighbors’ grey pony consuming your bird seed in competition with a wily raccoon. 

My own encounters with livestock have been mostly benign, but several of them have been more interesting than I expected.  I lived in a rural area for a large portion of my life and experienced some moments that branded themselves in my brain.  When I was very young a team of horses escaped from the farm across the street and came galloping through our yard, frightening my mother while I gaped in awe at their thundering hoofs disappearing into the field behind our house.  Then there was the time when I encountered an entire herd of loose draft horses while driving down a country road someplace west of Rochester.  The horses surrounded our small car and escorted us down the street with our eyes about level with their bellies.  Unbelievably, nobody I spoke to knew whose horses they were! 

As a child my parents and I visited a farm where pigs were raised.  While the adults were chatting, I went with the other children into the barn to see the new piglets.  I discovered how fast you can run with a “barking” sow chasing you out of a barn.  How did we know she thought we were dangerous to her babies?! 

That experience left me less than enchanted with pigs.  Imagine my thoughts when I moved to the country as an adult and discovered feral pigs on my property!  Apparently the neighbor’s pigs had escaped and he had recaptured all but two.  Those two hogs decided that being free was preferable to being sausage and did their best to remain wandering adventurers.  At that time we had just completed building a house, an endeavor which left us little money to spend on a lawn mower.  The resulting meadow was about 2 feet high and I was standing on the front steps surveying the situation when I noticed the vegetation in front of me parting and a pair of pigs’ backs cruising through what was masquerading as a lawn.  Shortly afterward we borrowed a scythe from my father in an attempt to “tame” the pasture and the pigs were eventually trapped by another neighbor and properly confined.

Then of course there were the cows.  Another neighbor kept dairy cows of a large and crafty variety.  (Anyone who has stood next to a Holstein knows these are BIG animals.) They were continually escaping his fence and standing in the middle of the road, just over the crest of a hill where you could not see them when you were headed south up the hill.  My first encounter with them taught me to crawl over the crest of the hill at a reasonable speed, but it took another neighbor hitting a cow with a truck to encourage the farmer to put up a cow crossing sign.  The idea of a cow or swine driver and a pound for the offending livestock is beginning to sound pretty good isn’t it?

Many of us think of a “pound” as a place that takes in dogs and cats temporarily.  That is because in our urban areas today these are the animals that commonly need a shelter from neglect or a clearing center to be reunited with their owners.  One hundred and fifty years ago it was pigs, cattle, sheep, goats and horses that suffered from neglect or wandered off.    Sometimes their owners were cruel, but more often than not they simply were not aware their pigs or cows had wandered off, or if they did thought they would just go and collect them later.  Wandering livestock caused problems and necessitated the position of Swine driver and pound keeper be filled by a responsible person.  In an area where most people knew their neighbors and their animals it was easier to return an animal to the right owner than it is today, when many of us are not familiar with our neighbors due to available time and work schedules. 

Even today organizations like Lollipop Farm in Victor, NY are home to a variety of farm animals that have been abused or neglected or turned over simply because their owners are no longer able to care for them.  Bunnies, lambs, pigs, llamas, horses, ponies, sheep, goats and cows all come through the doors of these rescue/rehabilitation places in search of veterinary care or a new home. 

To end this article on a positive note, please consider adoption when you are considering adding an animal to your family.  There are wonderful animals available who will be grateful for a good home and you will be rewarded with a great new friend.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

When Hobby Meets Work

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

I’ve played the violin since I was in the fourth grade, and I’ve fiddled for 24 years. (Violin is classically composed music, fiddle is folk music often, but not always, written by Anonymous or Traditional.) Along the way I’ve acquired a harmonica, some penny whistles, a mandolin, a tenor banjo, a ukulele…you get the idea.

I’m lucky enough to incorporate my hobby into my work in various ways. I often play background music for our events, from Geneva Night Out to fundraisers at Rose Hill. There’s often a giraffe-in-the-zoo element to it: people rarely see one person casually playing music, and almost no one anymore grew up with a relative who played folk music around the house. Most folks recognize the violin, but the mandolin, ukulele, and sometimes the banjo are completely foreign. I don’t consider these performances historical, but it does show people a time before MP3 files and YouTube.

I also play music from a specific time period for special educational events such as Farm Heritage Day, held every other year at the John Johnston House. The goal is to get people to think about music of 150 years ago. If you wanted music, someone had to play it; if you wanted it louder, more people needed to sing. Even without radio or television, there were national “hits” like songs by Stephen Foster; it was spread by sheet music and word of mouth.

Some fiddle tunes I know, like Turkey in the Straw, date back to the early 1800s and are appropriate. Jim Kimball, a musicologist at SUNY Geneseo, published a tunebook of his research into NYS dance tunes. His time period is the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but again many of these tunes were around earlier. I’m fortunate to know Katie Boardman, an independent musician and researcher who formerly worked at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown. She has researched  and shared tunes that were played in the first half of the 1800s, as well as songs done by community “singing schools”.

My current project is coming up with temperance songs for a fundraising party at Rose Hill. (A temperance party with beer and wine? While “teetotalers” abstained from all alcohol, many temperance people felt beer and wine were acceptable but hard liquor was the real enemy.) A national resource for period music is the Library of Congress American Memory Collection at I have found sheet music for 1870s classics such as “The Poor Drunkard’s Child” and “The Lips that Touch Liquor, Shall Never Touch Mine” as well as temperance lyrics set to well-known tunes.

I feel lucky to combine my interest with work. I don’t think there’s much call for fiddle tunes in real estate, insurance claims, or podiatry

Friday, July 12, 2013

Intoxicating Pursuits

On Friday, July 19 we are hosting a temperance themed party at Rose Hill.  And I know what you may be thinking – temperance?  What kind of party will that be?  Until the late 1800s a majority of temperance advocates were against “ardent spirits” (rum, whiskey, and other hard liquors).  Weaker beverages (like wine, beer and cider) were ok along as long as they were drunk in moderation.

Of course temperance advocates had their work cut out for them as alcohol was such an integral part of American life.  With coffee, tea, milk and water considered unacceptable beverages, the only other alternative was alcohol.  There was the eye opener of rum or whiskey in morning before a glass of beer or cider at breakfast.  Offices, shops and factories often closed at 11 am and 4 pm for a quick nip or two.  Wine at dinner was followed by night caps to avoid night chills.  There were other opportunities throughout the day for   a drink or two – social calls, business transactions, birthdays, christenings, graduations, marriages, funerals, elections, court sessions and the list goes on .  For every affliction from teething to aches and pains of old age alcohol was prescribed in one form or another (particularly brandy, whiskey and fruit based wines).

In the 1820s and 1830s growing concerns for occupational safety, public safety and personal health led to the development of temperance societies like American Temperance Society, Washington Temperance Society and Sons of Temperance.  The societies held conventions, encouraged men to sign pledge cards, circulated petitions, and held lectures.  By 1833 there were over 5,000 temperance societies in the United States. Between 1851 and 1855 prohibition laws were even passed in 11 states and 2 territories.    Temperance even became part of pop culture.  Temperance songs included The Lips that Touch Liquor Shall Never Touch Mine, Girls, Wait for a Temperance Man and Willie Has Signed the Pledge .  Beginning in the 1840s temperance tales (novels, short stories, plays and illustrated materials that warned of the dire medical, social and moral consequences of alcohol) became best sellers.

By the 1850s the temperance movement had lost momentum.  The nation’s attention was focused on the approaching of Civil War.  European medical reports stated that alcohol was dangerous in excess but alright in moderation.  Prohibition legislation was either repealed, modified or simply unforced.    During the mid-1870s the movement would gain momentum again.  But instead of moderation and personal choice, supporters would advocate for legislative bans on all alcohol for everyone.

So if you would like to discover more about the temperance movement; sample food, wine, beer and temperance beverages popular in the 1800s; listen to  19th-century music; or  explore food and beverage production and consumption at Rose Hill, please join us on Friday, July 19 from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.  Tickets are $18 for members and $20 for non-members.  We hope to see you there!

For more information on the history of alcohol in the United States and the temperance movement, see The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition by WJ Rorabaugh and Drinking in America: A History by Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

126th New York At Gettysburg

By Kerry Lippincott, Executive Director

(Warning – I’m not a military historian.  What follows is my small attempt to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of Gettysburg and the role played by the 126th.  For more information, I recommend Written in Blood: History of the 126th New York Infantry in the Civil War by Wayne Mahood and The Redemption of the Harper’s Ferry Cowards: The Story of the 11th and 126th New York State Volunteers Regiments at Gettysburg by RL Murray.)

Every family has that place where you visit on a regular basis.  It’s a place where even though you know the lay of the land, you may still “discover” something new.  For my family one of those places is Gettysburg.

In 1989 we made our first we made our first visit and over the years we’ve been back too many times to count.  While on our first visit, my brother Matt and I actually thought that the body of Jenny Wade (the only civilian killed during the battle) was in the basement of the Jenny Wade House.  As our parents toured the house, Matt and I stood at the basement’s entrance warning people not to go down.  (Twenty-three years later I finally overcame my fear and re-visited the house.  And yes, the “body” is still there).  On another visit Matt and Dad roamed Little Round Top looking for a marker for the 20th Maine while Mom and I suggested that perhaps we all should stay on the nice trail created by the National Park Service. Eventually they stumbled upon the statue of Joshua Chamberlain.  In 2008 I thoroughly enjoyed the tour of the Shriver House as it tells a side of the Civil War that often gets forgotten – the effects of a battle and its aftermath on civilians.  

Last summer our “adventure” was searching for the 126th New York monument.  My parents had read about the regiment so they wanted to know where the monument was located. Whether we will admit it or not, my family has a ritual at Gettysburg.  On our first night we simply drive around the battlefield.    After a good thirty minutes or so, we found the monument in Ziegler’s Grove on Hancock Avenue.  If you are familiar with Gettysburg, the monument is near the old Visitor Center.  At the time I knew the 126th had some connection to Geneva.

On June 15, 1862 the 126th New York Infantry Regiment was organized in Geneva by Eliakim Sherrill (who would become the regiment’s commanding officer).  The regiment consisted of men from Ontario, Seneca and Yates Counties.  Company E was made up of men from Geneva and Rushville.    During their first engagement, the regiment surrendered to the Confederates at Harper’s Ferry earning them the nickname “Harper’s Ferry Cowards.”    The regiment was quickly paroled and spent several months at Camp Douglas in Chicago waiting to be exchanged.  It goes without saying that the men of the 126th had something to prove and Gettysburg was their chance.

In late June 1863, the 126th was on garrison duty around Washington, DC when they were transferred to the Army of the Potomac.  The regiment arrived in Gettysburg on the early morning of July 2 (the second day of the battle).  For two days, the regiment played an important role in defending the Union lines, particularly during Pickett’s Charge.  Of the approximately 455 men from the 126th at Gettysburg, 40 were killed (including Sherrill), 181 were wounded and 10 went missing.  Only three other Union regiments had more men killed, wounded or captured – 24th Michigan (272), 111th New York (235) and 151st Pennsylvania (223).  Three members of the regiments (George H Dore, Morris Brown, Jr. and Johnny Wall) would receive Medals of Honor for capturing Confederate flags.

For the next two years, the 126th fought in battles in Virginia, including the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and Petersburg.  To honor the men of the 126th, the State of New York dedicated a monument at Gettysburg on October 3, 1888.