Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lighting at Rose Hill

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

For some time I’ve been telling visitors that we did not know exactly when electricity came to Rose Hill.  Recently, I found the answer to that question.

Advertisement for carbide gas household lighting, ca. 1915-20
Geneva Advertiser   September 23, 1890
People who happened to cast their eyes across Seneca Lake last evening must have been a little surprised to see so much illumination about the Rob' t J. Swan mansion, now the home of E. H. PLUMMER.  The occasion was the starting up of his new electric light, and . . .  quite a number were invited over to inspect the house and the plant.  About seventy responded, returning by carriages at a little after ten o'clock.    . . . [Rose Hill] is elegantly furnished from bottom to top, with electric light in every room and about the grounds.  He has a Dunning horizontal boiler, a Westinghouse engine and a dynamo of the United States Co., and the whole runs with less noise than a sewing machine.  . . .

According to the newspaper, Mr. Plummer came from Detroit, and he intended to make Rose Hill a race horse breeding and training farm.  He had plans to build a mile-long track (or at least a half-mile track) and spend the rest of his life at his new farm.  Three years later, he had sold the place.  Three years after that, Martin Smith of Geneva bought Rose Hill.  On February 14, 1896, the Geneva Gazette reported that “M. H. Smith, Esq., has purchased the magnificent Rose Hill farm on the east shore of Seneca lake  . . .   The mansion has 28 rooms, is heat [sic] by steam and lighted with gas generated on the premises.”

An exchange of emails with our Curator John Marks informed me that the gas lighting in question was probably carbide or acetylene light.  In 1892, the Canadian inventor Thomas Willson discovered an economical process for creating calcium carbide.  This was an important step in the industrial revolution in chemistry, and it was made possible in the United States by the massive amounts of cheap power produced at and by Niagara Falls.  Carbide was also useful for lighting.  Water combined with calcium carbide released acetylene gas, and it became available for domestic lighting in 1894.  The gas was piped through the house to fixtures where it burned.  Though it was prone to gas leaks and explosions, it produced a very bright flame and was inexpensive.  In fact, it was advised that you extinguish your cigar before refilling the system. 

Diagram of a house with carbide lighting 

Carbide lighting was largely used in rural homes, though the Daily Advertiser    said in January, 1896, that “Now is the time for cities desiring to operate their own gas plants to begin.   Acetylene gas, the new illuminant, is 40 times more brilliant than that used ordinarily.  People using it will therefore get much more light for less money.   . . . Besides being so much more brilliant, acetylene gas does not flicker, which will make it still more desirable.”

I had to wonder, though, what happened to Mr. Plummer’s electrical system. There may be a hint in the paper.  In 1893, Mr. Plummer tried to auction off all the stock and equipment at Rose Hill.  The sheriff of Seneca County showed up and attached most of what Mr. Plummer was trying to sell.  This suggests that Mr. Plummer was in financial straits and trying to sell things that other people claimed.  The electrical system might have been repossessed, or eventually sold.  It might also have been removed by the next owner of the property, Mr. H. S. Hopkins. 

A Westinghouse steam engine, 1890

However the electrical system disappeared, there are reasons a homeowner might have preferred carbide.  As my engineer brother Paul explained it to me, a steam powered dynamo running a generator would require more effort to turn on the lights, compared to the carbide generator:
  1. Steam/Electric: 
  2. Start a fire (probably coal.)
  3. Wait for steam.  Monitor water level in boiler constantly so as not to have the house blown up.  By the 1890s they would have had semi-automated boiler water level control, but not so automated that it would not have to be watched.
  4. Start the steam engine.  Monitor throttle setting for proper voltage.
  5. Ongoing maintenance:  boiler cleaning, fire box cleaning, ash removal, steam engine oiling and packing repair, steam pipe repair, light bulbs.
An Edison generator ("dynamo") from 1890


  1. Fill tank with water.  Dump in enough carbide powder for a while.
  2. When lights dim, pour in more carbide.
  3. Ongoing maintenance:  empty and refill the water tank, maybe replace the tank now and then, replace the lamp mantels, and occasionally repair gas pipes. 

Carbide seems to have been the way to go.  Now, at least, I can explain to visitors that electricity came temporarily to Rose Hill in 1890 – but after that, mysteries remain.
Carbide Lamps

Friday, February 21, 2014

Geneva House Architecture

By John Marks, Curator of Collections 

Geneva has great residential architecture. If you think I’m going to say, “because of South Main Street,” you’re wrong. A city’s housing stock is much more than a single street.

With few exceptions, we have one house of every architectural style of the 19th and 20th centuries. Think I’m making this up? We have an octagon house from the 1850s; only 173 were built in our state and most are not in the fine condition of this one on North Street.

We have a Mediterranean-influenced house and Spanish eclectic style on North Main Street, fairly close to each other. The houses may have reflected the owners’ heritage, or perhaps they saw images in a builder’s pattern book and said, “I’ll take that one.”

Most Genevans know of the “Frank Lloyd Wright house” on Washington Street. In spite of weeks of research, its owners have not found the architect who designed it. While not by Wright, it is a good example of Prairie Style architecture.

There is even an International Style house on Lochland Road. Now, it is mostly hidden by trees and shrubs; that is good or bad, depending on your feeling about this minimalist style.

If you know architectural styles and when they were popular, you can tell when a street was developed. In the case of Washington Street, there is a fairly clear timeline going east to west.

Original Structures
While some buildings have been altered, for better or worse, most houses in Geneva still stand where they were built. Few old houses were destroyed to build a more modern style on the same spot; rebuilding after a fire is an exception. North Main Street is exceptional for its lack of infill (new buildings on a street of much older architecture) and its variety of styles, from Federal to Shingle to the eclectic styles shown earlier.

Geneva’s houses may reflect the wealth of the original owners and changing architectural styles. They also hint at the stories of families who chose how their house would look, for reasons lost to time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Thinking Spring

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

I know some folks enjoy winter, but I am not one of them.  Right now I am very tired of hats, coats, gloves, boots, shovels, salt, shovels, ice, below zero wind chill temperatures, yak trax, shovels, salt, shovels and everything ( did I mention shovels?) about winter.  While perusing some photos in the archives I came across some images of a snowstorm that buried Geneva in 1925.  The photos are from the end of January and beginning of February.  The images of Exchange Street are impressive, with streetcars and automobiles drifted up to their windows.  I was reminded that this doesn’t happen very often in Geneva. We are fortunate enough to be in a place that seems to get bypassed by the worst of the winter weather.  Yes, we get the bitter cold, but we don’t seem to get the snow that places like Buffalo, Syracuse, or Rochester get. I am quite happy about this.  Still I can’t help but wonder if the residents of Geneva in the 1920s, 1960s, 1970s and other memorable tough winter years waited impatiently for nursery catalogs the way some of us do today.

For me, the colorful nursery catalogs are harbingers of spring, much like the robins, red winged blackbirds and crocuses.  Even though I don’t really have a place to put in many plants just the thought of gardens full of flowers, vegetables and trees or bushes loaded with fruit are warming to my beleaguered winter spirit. 

I look at maps of Geneva from the 1850s and see acres of land occupied by nurseries and wonder if the horticulturalists and nursery owners waited as impatiently as I do for the first blooms of spring to show themselves?  I wonder if they planned their gardens and new plantings as eagerly as some of us will at the end of this winter?  I suspect they did, how could they resist the multitude of colors and fragrances they knew would become available in the warmer weather?

Did you know that Geneva and many of the towns and cities in upstate New York were once home to many nurseries?  Geneva had W. & T. Smith, Maxwell Bros., to name only two of our many nurseries.  We also had the New York State Agriculture Experiment Station.  Newark, NY had Jackson and Perkins Roses.  Rochester had Elwanger & Barry’s Mount Hope Gardens, VanPuttee Seeds and other nurseries plus Highland Park to showcase gorgeous plants .The upstate area was a hot bed horticultural innovation and it showed. 

The New York State Agricultural Experiment Station developed several varieties of apples and grapes including: Cortland, Empire, Jonagold, Jonamac and Macoun apples and ‘Noiret’, ‘Corot noir’ and ‘Valvin Muscat’ grapes.  They have also bred various new types of berries and other plants.

Jackson and Perkins developed many new varieties of roses during their time in Newark.  I remember one called “Tropicana” which my mother grew.  It was a beautiful shade of coral and smelled a bit like sweetened tea.  It was lovely.  My grandmother had a very small yard in Rochester and crammed it with as many roses as she could.  The smell of warm earth and roses from June through August plus the buzzing of bees making their way from flower to flower remain some of my best memories from childhood.

Today, New York State is home to 58 species of wild orchids in shades of pink, yellow, white, and brown.  Among the showiest orchid of our native species are the “Lady’s Slippers” often found in pink and yellow.  We are also part of an area filled with extensive grape vineyards and many orchards of apples, apricots, peaches, cherries, plums, and nectarines.  Numerous small variety farms grow strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, gooseberries, red and black currents, dahlias, gladiolas, peonies, squash, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, beans, cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale, spinach, and rhubarb. I don’t think I have even come close to naming all the crops grown in this area.

How can I not look forward to spring?  Even when I don’t grow the crops myself nursery catalogs and the hint, the tantalizing thought of spring help me shovel that last pile of snow, throw salt on the last bit of ice, pull on my yax tracks one last time, because I know that around that corner are the colors of spring, the smells of spring and the taste of spring.  Spring is coming!