Friday, March 27, 2015

"My Kids Don't Care About This Stuff"

By John Marks, Curator of Collections & Exhibits

I’m cleaning out my parents’ house as we get ready to sell it. Mom passed away last fall and Dad left the house a week later to move into assisted living. Like many houses, the attic is packed with...stuff. For years before this, “what to do with the attic” periodically came up in conversation. Mom didn’t want to talk about it, Dad wrung his hands and worried about the burden on us kids, and my sister volunteered once to take care of it because “you’ll be dead someday – might as well empty it now.” My response was always, “No one touches the attic – I’m the curator.”

There were plenty of things in the rest of the house as well. We did an initial massive cleanout at the time of the funeral – something to keep busy - but it was mostly empty boxes and 40 years of old magazines. My brother returned to Illinois, leaving the housework to me, my sister, and our spouses. We boxed 54 years of clothes, books, knick knacks, and housewares. As I always promised, I saved the attic for myself.

I’ve spent many hours in the attic during my life: retrieving suitcases, Christmas decorations, and seasonal clothes. This is different, deciding what to keep and what to toss. Decades of mice and silverfish have made some decisions for me. While magazines from the 1960s are interesting, I feel okay about discarding them. Anything with a family connection becomes much harder.

I’ve only gone through about half of the attic, but so far I’ve found:
  •  Dad’s report cards 
  • His siblings report cards; they have all passed away, but their children survive         
  • Dad’s high school yearbooks        
  • His yearbooks from the first school at which he taught     
  • Dad’s World War II service photos, uniform insignia, and separation papers
  • His family photos of previous generations, not all identified        
  • Much of the same for Mom (minus World War II service): infant and toddler photos,high school and college photos, lesson plans from college when she was in teacher training.

The emotional aspect is that I’m seeing many of these things for the first time and, in Mom’s case, too late. Growing up, I heard more about Dad’s family than Mom’s; I was a teenager before I knew she was a much younger half-sister to my aunts and uncles. She told some stories but never brought out the photos from the attic. She must have had her reasons, but I feel like I’m learning about my mother “backwards” through these photos.

Gini Lavery, 1940s, Delmar, NY
Back to my title: One of the most common things I hear in my job (after “I was on my way to the landfill with this and I thought of you…”) is, “My kids don’t care about this stuff.” After this experience, I wonder (but would never say directly to a patron), “Have you tried? What about grandkids? Sometimes interest skips a generation.” Maybe stories at the dinner table don’t grab attention, but bring everything out of the drawers, closets, and attic and leave them out where the family can see them and see what happens. Better yet, absolutely forbid the kids from touching your stuff, then leave the room – you know it will be the first thing they do.

Truck my grandfather drove produce to Albany markets
The ultimate question is, “Does any of this matter? How long do you keep all this stuff? No one will care after you’re dead.” The answer is up to you. Do you care more about how much money your father earned in his life, or the fact that he was in the high school drama club? It’s our interests and talents that make us interesting people, and that forge connections among generations as we learn these things. Bring your stuff out of the attic and keep sharing it; if one family member takes an interest, it’s worth keeping.

Charlie Marks on a hotel porch in Italy, 1946

Friday, March 20, 2015

Stay In the Sunshine While We May

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

Artemus Ward

The course of Lectures before the Young Men’s Association of Geneva, was inaugurated on Tuesday evening last by Chas. F. Brown, (Artemus Ward,) in the delivery of a humorous and characteristic production, denominated “the children in the wood.”  Linden Hall was densely crowded by a highly appreciative audience, who appeared greatly to relish the eccentric drollery and humor of the entertainment.  . . .
                         From Geneva Daily Gazette, January 10 January, 1862

When I found this reference, I looked up Artemus Ward.  Though I  had seen his name before,  all I knew was that he was a 19th-century humorist.  Charles Farrar Browne lived from 1834 to 1867.  He was better known by his pen and stage name, Artemus Ward.  Born in Maine, Ward started in the printing and newspaper business quite young.  He published his first humorous essay in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1858His collected works were very popular in America and England.  Around 1860, he began to appear as a lecturer, and attracted large audiences.

Ward was one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite authors.  Before Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet, Lincoln read them “High-Handed Outrage at Utica.”  When writing, Ward pretended to be a traveling showman with wretched spelling, who exhibited a menagerie and a group of wax figures.  Here is the “High-Handed Outrage” -
In the Faul of 1856, I showed my show in Utiky, a trooly grate sitty in the State of New York.   The people gave me a cordyal resepshun.   . . .  1 day as I was givin a descripshun of my Beests and Snaiks in my usual flowry stile[,] what was my skorn & disgust to see a big burly feller walk up to the cage containin my wax figgers of the Lord’s Last Supper, and cease Judas Iscarrot by the feet and drag him out on the ground.  He then commenced fur to pound him as hard as he cood.  “What under the son are you abowt?” cried I.  Sez he, “What did you bring this pussylanermus cuss here fur?” & he hit the wax figger another tremenjous blow on the hed.  Sez I, “You egrejus ass, that air’s a wax figger – a representashun of the false ‘Postle.”  Sez he, “That’s all very well fur you to say but I tell you, old man, that Judas Iscarrot can‘t show hisself in Utiky with impunerty by a darn site!” with which observashun he kaved in Judassis hed.  The young man belonged to 1 of the first famerlies in Utiky.  I sood him, and the Joury brawt in a verdick of Arson in the 3d degree.
As a platform speaker, Ward did not talk about wax figures or snaiks, but he did wander from topic to topic, playing with words and making puns, alluding to well-known songs and poems, making sly references to current events, and seldom referring to the subject of the title of the talk.  Edgar M. Branch wrote an article about Ward’s “Babes in the Wood” talk in 1978.*  Through newspaper accounts, Branch reconstructed some of the body of the talk and gives us an idea of what Genevans were laughing at 153 years ago.

Apparently Ward’s talk evolved over time, but appeared in very similar form under several different names including “the Children in the Wood,” “the Babes in the Wood,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and “the Ghosts.”  Ward did not actually talk about those things, though he did mention several times during the two-hour performance that he was supposed to be doing so.   

For flavor, I will give you just a few bits from Mr. Branch’s reconstruction.  The parentheses are from one of the original reporter’s account of audience response.

We are often told that “a rolling stone gathers no moss;” and I suppose it don’t.  And I don’t see what a rolling stone wants to gather moss for.  I don’t see what good it would do the rolling stone – provided it could gather moss.  But – I am reminded that I have an entirely different subject upon which I propose to address you.  . . . 
 As it was better to go [to California] by way of the sea, I went. . . . The sea was rather rough the first few days we were out, and my friend Augustus Chilson was very sea sick, indeed.  I did all I could for him.  I carried him raw pork, swimming with molasses, which he positively refused.  I offered him a strong cigar – a very strong cigar . . . and that he also refused.  There was a frightful sea on the second day out.  I happened on deck, and overheard the following dialogue between a young married couple.  The young man first spoke:
         Young man – “Yes, dearest Ellen, it was noble in you to throw up – (Great laughter . . .) so exalted a position in society, and accompany me, a poor adventurer, to a far distant land.”  (Renewed laughter . . .)
         Ellen – “No, dearest Henry, you have thrown up far more than I have.  (Renewed laughter.)  Your commission in the army, did you not throw that up?   (Laughter.)  You talk to me about throwing up, when you know you have thrown up more than I have.”
         Young man – “Don’t, my dearest Ellen, talk so much about throwing up.”
  A few moments later, mid the solemn vespers of the sighing winds, I saw them mingle their dinners with the flashing waves.  (Great laughter . . .) . . .
I have a grandmother, among other things.  (Laughter.)  I do not boast of any superiority or originality on this account.  A great many men are situated the same way.  (Laughter.)  . . .
  As the man said of the yellow fever, there is one thing about it, “It don’t detain you long.” . . .
 I want to assure you . . . that poetry never did occur to me as the subject of a lecture.  I flatter myself I have some of it within me.  It is pleasant, for instance, to rise in the morning, when the dew is on the grass – which is a kind of way the dew has of doing.  (Laughter.)  In the summer season it dews it more perhaps than it dews in the winter season.  (Laughter.) . . .
I have a theory of my own, that we better stay in the sunshine while we may, inasmuch as we know the shadows will come all too soon. . . .
Mr. Branch argues that Ward was gently lampooning the usual run of deadly serious lecturers of the day, in particular Ralph Waldo Emerson, who seems to have drifted from point to point in his talks.  Observers of the time also mention that much of Ward’s humor came from his onstage persona (very innocent and confused) and the way he spoke.  The humor of another time, like its fashion, sometimes baffles us today.  Artemus Ward’s legacy may rest largely in his inspiration of Mark Twain, who once said “I think his lecture on the ‘Babes in the Woods’ was the funniest thing I ever listened to.” 

*“The Babes in the Wood”:  Artemus Ward’s “Double Health” to Mark Twain by Edgar M. Branch.  Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA) 93 October, 1978: 955-72. 

Friday, March 13, 2015


By Karen Osburn, Archivist

The month of March is upon us with wildly unpredictable weather.  March is the month of wind, sun, snow, rain, sleet, and it usually has a complete temperature rollercoaster.  I have a real love/hate affair with March.  The days get longer; the sun comes out more and then just as I begin looking for crocuses, daffodils, primroses and violets in the garden we get socked with a blizzard or ice storm! 

I haven’t lived in Geneva long enough to have a favorite blizzard story for here though I do have snow storm stories about my other two long term residences, Rochester and Hemlock, New York.  The Blizzard of 1966 comes to mind along with the winter of 1977-1978 which had ferocious storms.  So in the midst of these winter doldrums I decided to see what I could find for major winter storms in March that may have affected Geneva and I came up with two whoppers!

The Blizzard of 1888 is supposed to be the storm against which all others are compared.  The storm began March 11, 1888 and ended March 14, 1888.  This storm began with mild snow starting about 3 pm on March 11 and by the time it finished at 3 am on  March 14 almost 50 inches of snow had fallen, drifts were even higher than 50 inches and the City of Albany was completely shut down.  400 people in the state lost their lives and trains were trapped in drifts 20 feet deep!

New York City after the Blizzard of 1888

I realize that compared to the 7 feet of snow that was dumped on Buffalo earlier this year 50 inches doesn’t sound that bad, but we need to keep in mind that this happened in 1888. What was snow removal like in those days? There were no motorized trucks, big V plows, salting rigs and snow blowers.  There were sleighs (I haven’t seen many sleighs that were 50 inches off the ground though), but unless the snow was light 50 inches is over 4 feet and would come up to most horses underbelly.  How did the snow get removed? In the early 1800s it was by shovel.  Residents and merchants were required to clear their own streets, not just sidewalks.  Often groups of men would shovel the snow from the street into a horse drawn cart for removal to an open spot of ground.  Walking was the best means of travel in those early winters after a major storm.  By 1862 reports of horse drawn plows came from Milwaukee where a plow would be attached to a cart and pulled by horses through the street.  Of course that also had its problems.  Side streets and sidewalks became clogged with the snow removed from the main roads. Still it was an improvement over do-it-yourself shoveling.

Another snow removal innovation was putting snow plows on trains to clear the rails.  This helped train travelers, though I am not sure how easy it was to get to your destination once you arrived at the station.  Horse and sleigh were pretty handy most of the time.  As early as 1913 motorized dump trucks and plows appeared making snow removal easier.  In 1920 Chicago tried a piece of equipment called the Barber-Green snow loader, which scooped the snow off the street onto a conveyor belt which in turn loaded the snow into a chute at the top which dumped it into a truck parked below the loader. (Why don’t we have these now?)  While dump trucks and tractor plows were expensive, revenue lost due to impassible roadways cost even more, so cities purchased snow removal equipment.

Seneca Street facing west, early 1900s

Another memorable winter storm was commonly known as the “Superstorm” beginning on March 13 and ending on March 14, 1993.  I remember this storm vividly.  I was living in the hills above Honeoye, Hemlock and Canadice Lakes at the time.  By the time the storm was finished we had four foot drifts of snow all the way down an 850 foot stretch of driveway.  The mailman and newspaper deliverer couldn’t get down the road, but it didn’t matter because I couldn’t get to the end of the driveway anyway.  By the time I got to the end of the driveway it was Tuesday morning and I found that the road was finally plowed and all that could be seen of the mailboxes were the openings protruding from the snow banks that lined the road.  Our driveway was finally cleared with a bucket loader/backhoe at about 3 am Thursday morning.  It was a memorable experience. 

I guess we could have it worse.  This winter seems to have lasted forever!  Yet, my mail still gets through, my papers still get delivered, my recycling is taken away, my garbage is picked up and I know that by the end of this month I may possibly spot a crocus, or a violet or a song bird.  I can still get to the grocery store and my favorite ice cream stands are either open or hiring helpers.  Now that is the true harbinger of spring, forget the robins!

So I close this blog post optimistically awaiting spring, remember…IT COULD BE WORSE!  At least Geneva has the equipment to remove the snow.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Geneva USO and WWII

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information

View of the USO building in Geneva
The building at the corner of Main and Seneca Streets was converted into Geneva's USO Club in in 1943.

World War II is often described as a war in which everyone in the entire nation geared up and did their part for the war effort. In Geneva this can be seen most plainly in the establishment and running of the USO Club.
During World War I, organizations like the YMCA and Salvation Army provided social services to soldiers and sailors. In anticipation of the U.S. entry into World War II, President Roosevelt authorized the creation of a private non-profit organization to serve military personnel in February of 1941. The YMCA and Salvation Army joined with the YWCA, National Catholic Community Services, National Travelers Aid Association, and the National Jewish Welfare Board to form the United Service Organizations for National Defense, or USO. Responsibility for locating, furnishing and renovating buildings fell to the military, while the six service organizations controlled the USO's operations. The purpose of the USO was to build morale by providing men and women in military service and defense workers with “wholesome and healthful” recreation opportunities and a “home away from home.” An unstated goal was to provide social alternatives to bars and brothels for servicemen.

A soldier and sailor dance with young women holding shamrocks.
Servicemen enjoy a St. Patrick's Day dance at the USO.
The USO was originally designed to serve small American communities like Geneva that could not handle the influx of servicemen and defense workers that came with the building of large military bases and factories. In 1942 Geneva was already under strain from the construction of the Seneca Army Depot and Sampson Naval Training Station. The USO would be essential when the naval recruits or boots began arriving in October 1942. The Geneva USO council was formed in August, chaired by H.E. Hovey and made up of local representatives from the six service organizations, a rep from Sampson, and several community members.

Three sailors sitting at a card table with a young woman.
Jennie Hill plays cards with sailors in Geneva's first USO club at the Masonic Temple.
In September 1942, the Federal Security Agency purchased 361 South Main Street, the former Methodist Church building, which had most recently been an auto showroom and garage, and began refurbishing it to be the USO canteen. In the meantime, the USO opened a temporary club at the Masonic Temple across the street. The club had a grill where service members could get a 10 cent hamburger or a sandwich at cost. Dances were held there, although the space was so small there was barely room to jitterbug. Local volunteers provided homemade cookies, cakes, and pies, and the temporary club was furnished with donations from local businesses and residents.
Sailors and young women enjoy cookies from a a cookie jar.
Sailors and junior hostesses enjoy cookies at the USO snack bar.
By the time the new USO building was dedicated on June 19, 1943, the Geneva club had already served 100,000 servicemen. The new building had even more to offer, with a snack bar, reading rooms, darkroom, record room and game rooms for tennis and checkers. Sailors could call home for free or just take a break from the base. In addition to a few paid USO staffers, Geneva volunteers did most of the work. Nearly every church, fraternal and social club, community service organization, and major employer contributed time and money to the USO and its activities. Committees were devoted to dusting, flower decorations, transportation, cookies, refreshments and hostessing. Volunteers drove the Sampson band to the USO for dances and gave hostesses rides home after them. Geneva’s barbers made a spaghetti supper for the sailors and other volunteers helped sailors record their voices on records to send home.
Sailors at the Geneva USO recording messages on records to send back home.
Artists Elizabeth Rose Carson, Norman Kent and Elizabeth Boswell volunteered to sketch servicemen at the USO. On July 25, 1944 Carson wrote in her diary, “I did 11 (or more) portrait sketches of young sailors at USO today. I worked steadily nearly 4 ½ hours & loved it.” She loved it so much she sometimes forgot to come home from the USO and had to be reminded by her family to return at dinnertime.
Group of five young women wearing USO armbands
A group of the Geneva USO's junior hostesses: Catherine Salem, Betty Flick, Ruth Putnam, Leah Aynault, Jane Boughton and Lillian Dresser (seated)
The hostesses were what everyone remembered about the USO. There were two kinds of hostess. Senior hostesses were usually women over 35 who took on the role of mother figure at the Club. These women were the chaperones for social activities; they baked, sewed and gave advice to servicemen. They also recommended younger women as junior hostesses. Junior hostesses were usually single, and acted as companions for visiting servicemen, playing games, talking and dancing with them. One trainer reminded junior hostesses that their duties “are the same as those of a hostess at home—to greet her guests, to circulate among them, to be concerned that all guests should have a good time…and to be a good conversationalist.” She warned them “that girls who go to the USO for men, music and fun only will not last six months, and do not belong in the USO.” Although dating between military personnel and hostesses was discouraged, it did occur, and more than one hostess married a man she met at the USO. Most women, however, felt hostessing was a way to contribute to the war effort and do their part, while having a good time. Hostesses often had husbands, sons or brothers in the service and really wanted to provide a home away from home for men like the ones they knew and loved.

Sailors being served at the USO snack bar.
The USO, perhaps more than other efforts during the war years, was a true community labor in Geneva. Much of the organization’s work was done by women. It enabled women who weren’t willing or able to work in war industries to contribute to the war effort, using traditional female skills that had been valued before the war. The USO served sailors and soldiers in the community until 1946, when Sampson Naval base was closed. The USO building was purchased by the city and became a community Civic Center in the late 1940s. Today the building still stands and currently houses the offices of Legal Assistance of Western New York.

For more on USO hostesses, see Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II by Meghan K. Winchell (University of North Carolina Press, December 2008).
and Interview with Meghan K. Winchell.
History of the USO

History and structure of the USO