Friday, September 26, 2014

From Beyond: Washington Street Cemetery Stories

Washington Street Cemetery is the third burial ground in Geneva. The earliest burial spot was on the site of Trinity Episcopal Church on South Main Street. Another early burial ground was on Pulteney Street, where the old Geneva High School once stood and the site of the new FLCC campus.  Graves at the Pulteney Street plot date from as early as the 1790s and were moved to a section of Glenwood Cemetery in 1926 when the school building was built.

In 1832 when room in the Pulteney Street burial ground began running out, the Board of the Village Trustees purchased the land for Washington Street Cemetery.   Eight years later more land was added to the cemetery. The first person buried at Washington Street was Mrs. Augusta Matilda Merrell, who died on September 28, 1832. Older death dates can be found in the cemetery but are likely reburials.

Though the last burial in Washington Street occurred in 2000, only a few have occurred in the last 50 years. Since there are no plots available for purchase only those that were purchased by families many years ago may still be used. Those areas that look empty may be graves of the poor who could not afford a marker, those with a stone that has deteriorated and disappeared, or areas where a family chose to rebury relatives in Glenwood cemetery or elsewhere.

There are about 2,200 burials at the cemetery dating from 1832 to the 1950s and during From Beyond: Washington Street Cemetery Stories the public will encounter several of the cemetery’s residents.   On Friday, October 3 from 6 to 8 p. m. and Saturday, October 4 from 2 to 4 p.m. community actors will “haunt” the cemetery and bring stories from Geneva’s past back to life. Stories will include those of the first graduate of West Point, a local Civil War colonel, an early children's book author, and a local African-American abolitionist. Live music of the Civil War era will also be provided by the group Rowhouse.

From Beyond begins at The Presbyterian Church at 24 Park Place. From the church, participants will be led to Washington Street Cemetery to hear the tales of the cemetery's residents. Tours will leave the church every 10 minutes. Those attending are encouraged to dress for the weather. The tour requires walking 4/10ths of a mile and stand during the performance. Performances will last approximately 25 minutes. For those unable to walk or stand, accessible performances will be held in the church hall on Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. Reservations are required for the accessible performances. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students, grade school through college level. As space is limited, reservations are strongly encouraged for all tours. Refreshments will be available in the Fellowship Hall at the Church.

Directed by Chris Woodworth, a Geneva native and Assistant Professor of Theatre at Hobart and William Smith College, From Beyond is presented by the Geneva Historical Society and the Founder's Square Neighborhood Association with the support of WEOS Public Radio. For more information or to make a reservation, call the Geneva Historical Society at 315-789-5151.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Evolution of Museums and the Geneva Historical Society

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

Charles Willson Peale is considered the father of American museums. (A painting by his son Rembrandt hangs in the main hallway of Rose Hill.) In 1786 he opened a museum of natural history in Philadelphia, which included an extensive portrait gallery; Peale justified this by saying man was at the top of the natural order. He charged 25 cents and felt that he offered “rational amusement,” what we might call leisure time education.

The Artist in His Museum (self portrait, 1822)
Peale pioneered elements still found in today’s museums. He presented “blockbuster” attractions such as a mastodon skeleton excavated in Ulster County, New York. He offered hands-on activities and evening lectures, and in 1816 provided gaslight for the comfort of his visitors. He also experienced challenges that are still with us. His museum struggled to maintain financial support, and did not have a good succession plan for survival after Peale’s death.

While Peale’s museum was almost immediately popular, the Geneva Historical Society had a longer, slower arc. Formed in 1883, membership was restricted to white males over 45 years old who had been born in Geneva. The mere announcement, by Rev. Dr. Hogarth, of an organizational meeting sparked an editorial in the Geneva Gazette of May 18, 1883:

“It would seem feasible to extend the membership so as to embrace all who have resided in Geneva 45 years or longer…it would appear that in an organization of this kind it is desirable to enjoy the fraternity of the older settlers, as all would become deeply interested in reminiscences to the very oldest period attainable. The editor of this paper is ‘barred out’ under the call, tho’ his residence in Geneva dates from 1823 – extending over a period of about 60 years. Open the doors, Dr. Hogarth!”

The main activity was reminiscing about people and events within the members’ memory. Until the 1940s, the historical society went through a cycle of a few years of activity followed by numerous years of dormancy. In 1941, the group had its first space at 501 South Main Street and began collecting and displaying artifacts. In 1946, the historical society was forced to move to vacant classrooms in the old Junior High School until 1950, then went to Lewis Street School for the next ten years. In 1960, Beverly Chew gave his home at 543 South Main Street, which remains the historical society’s headquarters.

Collection and display of artifacts was haphazard in the early years. Objects were often accepted for the following reasons: “it’s old”; “it’s very nice”; “my great-uncle brought it back from his trip to _____ in _____.” As collections outgrew the historical society’s space, things were put everywhere with few labels. Visitors loved it, and many think of that time as the good old days.

The pattern continued when the historical society moved into 543 South Main Street, only with more room to spread out. Objects were displayed for their own sake and there were few records kept about them. The donor’s name might be written down, but little other information as everyone at the historical society knew the donor and his or her story.

Change began in the 1980s, the golden age of New York State grant money. The staff identified important topics in Geneva history that hadn’t been exhibited, and for which we had little information and artifacts. These exhibits included African Americans in Geneva, the waterfront, the nursery industry, and the local impact of World War II. Outside researchers were hired to do oral history interviews, collect photos and artifacts, and write and design the exhibits. The historical society published books from these projects which are still in circulation.

Today we focus our collecting and exhibiting on areas most relevant to Geneva’s history. We look for provenance, or a Geneva-related story, when accepting artifacts; we create exhibits that connect to the city as we know it now. (Some connections, such as the War of 1812, are harder to sell than others.) We also move outside our building and reach out to audiences where they are, rather than wait for them to find us. While we don’t have a mastodon and use LED lights rather than gas, we’re still following many of Charles Willson Peale’s ideas.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Marian Cruger Coffin

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

There is no doubt about it, I am a frustrated gardener.  When I was a child my family, most of who could root a rosebush by sticking a cutting under a mason jar, excelled at growing many different types of plants.  My grandmother, Lucy, had a garden that was the envy of her neighborhood.  The lot was 40’ by 100’ and the house, which was a double, and garage took up most of the land.  What was left was a small patch of lawn roughly 15’ by 18’ surrounded by every type of decorative plant imaginable.  There was even a vegetable patch next to the garage that produced beans, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and some raspberries.  The flower garden and the vegetable garden were separated by a hedge of filbert trees, much to the joy of the local squirrel population.  Lucy could make any plant grow.  Not just survive but thrive!  My parents and my aunt learned from her and so my childhood was filled with decorative and food producing plants that grew lavishly on our property.  My parents composted, practiced crop rotation in the vegetable garden and impressed me into service for many hours of hoeing, weeding by hand and picking fresh vegetables. 

My sister and I have tried to follow in their footsteps, but I will admit that my thumb is more of a pale sea foam green than the verdant grass green of my relatives.  My sister does well with her horticultural endeavors, but mine peaked at about age 30 when I had a large collection of blueberries that produced buckets of wonderful fruit.  Since then I have moved to a home in the city where I have a little space and opportunity to garden, but lack the time.  I look with envy upon my friends who maintain gorgeous gardens and harvest vast amounts of tomatoes, beans, beets, onions and cut flowers from a piece of land sometimes no bigger than 25’ by 25’. Lately, the best I manage is a Christmas cactus that thrives on benign neglect.

I am even more aware of my horticultural shortcomings because some of the best green thumbs in the world once lived here in Geneva.  Between the nurseries, the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, fruit farms and wineries thousands of local people have worked developing plants and designing gardens.

Marian Cruger Coffin and her mother, Alice. 

One of those folks was famed landscape architect Marian Cruger Coffin.  After the death of her father in 1888, Marian and her mother Alice moved to Geneva to live with Alice’s sister, Harriet.  By 1892 the women moved in with Marian’s uncle, John Barker Church IV at 554 South Main Street.  While Alice and Marian were relatively poor they also had many upper class connections due to Alice’s family and those connections would be very helpful to Marian later in life. As Marian had no independent income she faced the choice of finding a rich husband or finding a career which would allow her to support herself.  She chose the latter and in 1901 Alice and Marian moved to Boston so Marian could attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and study architectural landscaping.

It took a lot of determination and courage for any woman to pursue a career in the early 1900s.  As fellow student Martha Brooks Brown put it, “It was considered almost social suicide and distinctly matrimonial suicide, for a woman to enter any profession.”  The social norm of the time was for men to marry younger women and Marian was 25 when she entered MIT.

After graduating in 1904 Marian soon discovered that no architectural firm would hire her because she was a woman, so she started her own business in New York City in 1905.  With connections to some of the most influential families on the East Coast she started designing suburban gardens.  Some of her first projects were on Long Island and eventually her clientele included the Fricks, Vanderbilts, Huttons, and du Ponts.  By the 1920s she became one of the most sought after landscape designers in the eastern United States.

As her reputation spread Marian was able to hire an assistant and move to a larger office.  She was also able to put her ideas and principles into practice.  Her firm not only employed women whenever possible but provided them with apprenticeships, a learning opportunity that had been denied to Marian.   

Many of Marian’s ideas and theories are evident in the gardens of the du Pont estate at Winterthur.  Designed for her friends Harry and Ruth du Pont, it was the biggest commission of her career.  While she made attempts to find work in the Midwest the presence of several well-known firms in Chicago prevented her from making inroads there, however she had plenty of work to keep her busy on the East Coast.  The majority of her work was done in the twelve years between the end of World War I and the Great Depression.

Though the Great Depression reduced the number of commissions she received, Marian worked consistently until her death at age 80 in 1957. During her working lifetime she designed over 130 gardens including the Campus of the University of Delaware, the Caumsett Estate as well as Winterthur in Delaware and dozens of individual estate gardens. 

Marian Cruger Coffin

For more information about Marian read Money, Manure & Maintenance: Ingredients for Successful Gardens of Marian Coffin, Pioneer Landscape Architect 1876-1957 by Nancy Fleming.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Basket of a Tale

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

Margaret Johnston's basket
When people donate objects to the museum, we always ask if they know anything about the history of the items.  Sometimes there is a family story about who made or owned a piece, and we take those stories seriously.  Once in a while, though, when we look into the story, we find that there may have been some misunderstanding as the tale was passed down.  One example of this is a basket given to us by the Hutchins family. 

According to Agnes Swan Hutchins a tan grass basket with dark deer silhouettes was acquired by her grandmother Margaret Alexander Johnston on Anticosti Island in 1822.  Margaret was traveling with her young children Elizabeth and James, her sister-in-law Agnes Johnston, and a woman named Margaret McMath who may have been a cousin.  They were coming to join Margaret Johnston’s husband John Johnston, who had come the previous year and bought a farm on the east side of Seneca Lake.  Anticosti Island is at the outlet of the St. Lawrence River into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and it has caused over 400 shipwrecks.  

Anticosti Island is circled in green

In the spring of 1822 it caused a wreck for the Thompson’s Packet which was probably Margaret’s boat as she told the family that she had sailed on the brig Thompson.   Based on shipping records from Montreal, people boating in the gulf kept an eye peeled for trouble.  If a ship was aground, someone sailed up to Montreal and told the harbor master that there was a boat in trouble.  Ships were then sent to rescue the people and tow the boat into harbor.  The Thompson’s Packet was stuck at Anticosti for 16 days, and “received much damage, bout [sic] two leagues to the westward of Grand Bay.”  Meanwhile, John Johnston was frantic about his family.  When they did not show up in Geneva he tried to trace their journey backwards in hopes of locating them.  After a difficult journey on each side, the family was finally reunited in Montreal. 

Based on Agnes’s account native people were living on Anticosti in 1822, and her grandmother acquired a basket from them.  She believed that this was the basket in our collection. 

Last year I tried to learn more about Anticosti and its native inhabitants.  I discovered that although the Mi'kmaq and Innu people often hunted on Anticosti, neither of them had settlements there.  The shipwrecked passengers may have encountered native people, but I had to wonder how likely hunting parties would have been to have fancy baskets with them.

Innu baskets

When I began looking for of Mi’kmaq and Innu baskets online, I was a bit taken aback to find that Mi’kmaq baskets were usually ash splint, and unadorned, or birch bark with quill embroidery.  Innu baskets were apparently also of birch bark.  After contacting the First People’s Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the National Museum of the American Indian, I was referred to the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley California. 

Mi’kmaq basket

The Hearst Museum’s basket specialist, Natasha Johnson, agreed with the National Museum of the American Indian that our basket looks northwestern, and she asked for pictures of its interior. Below is her response -  
Based on the weaving on the interior (tribes to the west and south had plain interiors) I'm pretty positive this basket is Shasta, Wintu, Achumawi (Pit River) or Atsugewi (Hat Creek) that style is common to all four.  It’s not an area I know super well, but I'd estimate the basket to be any time from 1880-1950, possibly made for sale.   . . .  All Northern California tribes used Bear Grass (white) and maidenhair fern stem (black) in their overlay designs.  The under wefts are probably conifer root of some sort and the warps are often hazel or willow shoots.  The basket is twined, mostly plain twined, with three strand twining on the base, again for increased strength. . . . .
 She also sent a link to a picture of one of their baskets that looks very similar.  

Shasta basket from the collection of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology

It’s hard to know, looking at the pictures, how our basket could be anything other than a Northern California specimen.  Though I was disappointed to find this out, I wonder if the Johnston/Swan/Hutchins families had more than one basket in their attic, and if the story became associated with the wrong one.   But it is still a beautiful piece, and it is better to know than not to know.