A Hammondsport Odyssey
Conflict, Pedro and a Touch of Grace
The twentieth century has been called "The American Century," and you could already see one of the reasons if you read the January 2 issue of the weekly Hammondsport Herald in 1901. German business leaders were complaining that world financial markets had begun taking their cues from Wall Street. "Ever since the war with Spain," the Germans said, "the United States government has pursued undeviatingly a world-policy of conquest."
It was certainly true that in 1898 we had picked up Puerto Rico, Guam, some guano islands, and Hawaii, besides establishing a protectorate in Cuba. By 1901 we also had troops in a multi-national force occupying parts of China, where the Boxer Rebellion had attacked foreigners. Mining engineer Herbert Hoover, who had survived the 55-day siege of the Legation Quarter in Peking, was preparing to return to China even as US forces were preparing to leave.
We also took over the Philippines from Spain, and in those islands we were locked in struggle with pro-independence insurgents, who saw no point in replacing Spanish colonialism with American imperialism. Our 9th Cavalry had just attacked a large insurgent force, killing 45 Filipinos, even as Cornell established six scholarships for students from our new Pacific possession—a net loss of 39, cynics might reasonably observe.
The British had their colonial troubles as well. In West Africa they were meeting success against the Ashanti, the last independent indigenous power on the continent apart from Liberia (whose power structure wasn't really indigenous anyhow) and Abyssinia. But in South Africa, Britain was meeting repeated defeats at the hands of the Boers, Dutch-descended farmers who resented British dominance, including the prospect of (relatively) liberal racial views.
All this no doubt clouded the last days of Queen Victoria, who died on January 23, ending the second-longest reign in British history. Kaiser Wilhelm II was already rattling the saber against England (he didn't like British pre-eminence any more than the Boers did), but blood is thicker than water. Kaiser Bill's mother was Queen Victoria's daughter Vicky, so he rushed to London and the side of Grandmama before she died, much to the annoyance of his English cousins. The caisson that bore the Queen to her tomb had new pneumatic tires, because she had been shocked by the jolting of the coffin at the Duke of Wellington's funeral many decades earlier.
Anti-saloon campaigner Carrie Nation was arrested in Wichita that January, and West Point abolished hazing after two cadets died. Douglas A. MacArthur, who had almost died under hazing himself, inspired admiration and exasperation when he refused to name his tormentors before a Congressional committee. Mark Twain wintered in New York City, and Teddy Roosevelt killed a mountain lion in Colorado; he had recently been elected vice-president, but was not yet inaugurated. There were 4,047 millionaires in the United States. One of them, meat-packing tycoon Philip Armour, died.
Folks in big cities like New York could avail themselves of a lecture tour by Mr. Winston Churchill. Young Mr. Churchill had just been elected (for the first time) to Parliament, but forewent swearing-in ceremonies because he needed the American and Canadian lecture fees. Churchill regaled audiences with the thrilling tale of his capture by Boers in South Africa, and his daring cross-country escape with a price on his head. Mark Twain introduced Mr. Churchill to one meeting as "the perfect man" by virtue of having an English father and an American mother.
Druggists on New Year's Day found themselves subject to a new Empire State licensing fee of $2.00 per annum. Smallpox broke out in Elmira and Watertown, while Savona sharply complained about a sewer line leading from the county office building (in Bath) to the Conhocton River. Telephone companies were organized in Pulteney and in Bath, where a collision on the Lackawanna line wrecked several railroad cars and injured two people. In Hammondsport, on the other hand, things were mostly quiet.
True, Father O'Shea at St. Gabriel's Church reported arson at the rectory, but it had been the first fire alarm for several months. The Knights of the Maccabees, Ladies of the Maccabees, and International Order of Red Men dedicated lodge rooms, complete with steam heat and electricity, in the new Pratt Block. Banker Pratt also boasted a time lock on his safe, and picture checks with a view of Keuka Lake. This latter innovation caused quite a stir, but the bank went broke in a few years, leaving stockholders and depositors high and dry, for there was no banking insurance back then. Mr. Pratt should have lavished a little less on lodge rooms.
Players of Pedro (a form of pitch) held a progressive Pedro party around the town. Later that month they all took a trip to Bath, returning by train at midnight on a Bath & Hammondsport special. (Pedro players were obviously a pretty lively bunch.) The married couples dancing class, 120 strong, held a dance in the rooms of the Keeler Hose Company, one of three volunteer fire forces serving Hammondsport at the time.
The Hammondsport paper carried ads for Jell-O (a new concoction, made not too far away, in LeRoy), Sapolio, Cordova Candles, Singer sewing machines, and Duffy's Pure Malt Whisky. But the month ended with a jingle of pleasure for young and old. Sleighing began that winter in the third week of January, as the nineteenth century exhaled one final breath of grace.
Ice and Light
They were sleighing in Hammondsport as February opened in 1901—"much sleighing" to quote the Hammondsport Herald. Although people obviously used sleighs for transportation, sleighing season also seems to have been a time for pleasure, sociability, and no doubt, courting.
Highways, then as now, were a major concern of town government. There were 71 highway supervisors in Urbana alone; presumably each had responsibility for a stretch of road near his home. In most locales, the goal was not to clear snow but to keep it, packing it down to a hard surface by means of huge horse-drawn rollers. As long as this packed snow lasted, runnered vehicles could operate. Once it was gone, dirt and gravel roads might turn to mud or ruts, making wheeled traffic inconvenient, to say the least. But times were changing. A bill in the state legislature proposed to replace the labor tax for highway maintenance with a money tax.
Another sign of winter was the annual ice harvest. Workers in Bath were drawing ice a full foot thick, largely from Lake Salubria. Ice was big business back in those days. Electrical refrigeration was just in its infancy. Most rural districts had no power anyhow, and even in a village like Hammondsport, electricity (introduced three years earlier) was only part-time. So ice was vital for chilling and preserving food—in many places it would still be used routinely until after World War II.
Horse-drawn apparatus were often used to score the surface of the ice, but after that point it was man-power, with long saws cutting through the scores. After hauling ice out of the frigid water (no easy task in itself), workers packed blocks in sawdust and stored them in ice houses where they would keep until summer. It was chilling, backbreaking work, and ice businesses were often linked with coal businesses, giving the operators a sale item for each half of the year.
Electricity in Hammondsport, while still limited in daily duration, was at least spreading in area and increasing in power. P. G. Zimmer, who ran the power plant, added a new Westinghouse dynamo to his equipment in February of 1901. His lines began extending up Lake Street, taking in the residences of Aaron G. Pratt and Lyman Aulls. He published a prospectus for interested customers in the Herald. Installation cost $1.50 per light, and lighting was overwhelmingly the purpose of electricity back then—there were few "appliances" apart from doorbells. Zimmer would set you up with a meter at half his cost, refundable after one year.
As an aside, my father knew a man who as a boy helped his own father install electric lights, with knob-and-tube wiring, in New England. This gentleman said that all the neighbors and relatives would be gathered around waiting for the big moment when the lights came on. As soon as they did, someone would say, "Boy—these walls really need washing!" Of course, that was not simply a matter of better illumination. Up until that point they would have been using candles, gaslight, or oil lamps, building up quite a residue over the years.
Even in the depths of a Finger Lakes winter, with ice cutting and sleighing going vigorously on, the village (1169 residents) kept busy. Afternoon school sessions began at 1:15. George Hutches made a frisky road mare available by offering 600 tickets at 10 cents apiece. The members of the Hammondsport Hook and Ladder Company were planning for their annual ball and musicale on April 8.
Lua Curtiss Adams, Glenn Curtiss's widowed and remarried mother, was in town from Rock Stream with her little boy, Glenn's half-brother Carl. They were staying with her old mother-in-law, Glenn's grandmother Ruth Bramble Curtiss, in the big house where Curtiss School now stands. Besides just being sociable, she may have wanted to look in on the young couple. Glenn and his wife Lena lived with Grandma, and they were expecting their first child shortly.
Character impersonator Edwin R. Wells rounded out the season's lecture series at the town hall (at a guess, two of his subjects were Teddy Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan). The Methodist Church had just completed a series of evangelistic services, with 60 people converted or reclaimed, and 50 taken into the church on probation. Father Kennedy was installed as Pastor of St. Gabriel's, taking over from Father O'Shea. The Hammondsport pastor also had the parish of Prattsburgh, but there was no rail connection, so we presume he got back and forth by buggy.
Bath and Hammondsport were bickering over allocation of rural mail routes, which were finally being created after years of agitation by the Grange. Manfred Peterson in Watkins Glen was arrested for counterfeiting nickels, which must have been an intellectual pleasure for him, as he could scarcely have earned enough money to make it worthwhile. The Caledonia hatchery stocked Keuka Lake with half a million whitefish and half a million pike. Spring was coming.
In the first year of the new century, March was just as mixed-up a month as it is today. Hammondsport children were coasting on Pulteney Street (their favorite sport) when the month opened, even as bluebirds, phoebes, and robins made their return appearance from the sunny south.
The Hammondsport Herald was brimming with enthusiastic news about the upcoming Pan-American Exposition (or world's fair) in Buffalo. The Pan-Am, an optimistic celebration of American know-how, had laid on a Lackawanna Special railroad junket for journalists. The Herald people participated, and dedicated their entire front page to the Pan on March 27. Of course, the Pan-Am was in fact shaping up as a truly spectacular affair. Moreover, Marc Bennitt, the Pan-Am's publicity director, was a former Hammondsporter who had actually started his career on the weekly Herald. Malinda Bennitt had been one of the paper's founders back in 1874, and Marc was presumably a family member.
The water commissioners and the village treasurer both issued their annual reports. The village budget was $3565.46, including a $75 allocation for each of three fire companies—Hook & Ladder, Citizens' Hose, and Keeler Hose. Money was appropriated for work on the creek wall. Hammondsport was getting nine months of curfew ringing for $11, besides spending a dollar a year to buy matches for "the old lamplighter." He also needed kerosene and lamps, of course.
The Methodist Church decided it had had enough of lamps and matches, taking up a subscription to install electric lights now that P. G. Zimmer had extended his lines up Lake Street. Zimmer even announced that he would place an incandescent arc light, at his own expense, on the new soldiers' monument, but that installation apparently didn't last long.
C. M. Thorp set up every second Saturday morning at the Bedell barn to buy veal calves, hides, poultry, and pelts. Frank Houck had the seasonal mail contracts for Penn Yan-Wayne and Hammondsport-Dundee. He ran these routes as long as the lake was frozen up, after which the customary steamboat delivery resumed. The Shannon steam plant in Penn Yan may have been sorry when the thaw came—they harvested 20,000 tons of ice that season, shipping it out in 6000 boxcars. But the weather did indeed break at last, and Keuka Lake rose over 5" in heavy rains.
Another sign of spring was the increase in bicycle advertising, including ads by Glenn Curtiss, who was also collecting 60-cent side path fees. Each bicycle in the county needed to be tagged annually, and receipts provided for cinder paths alongside the highways. A side path ran from Hammondsport to Bath along what is now Fish Hatchery Road. These paths were often in better shape than the roads themselves, and proved a blessing as more and more people sallied forth on two-wheelers. The modern "safety bicycle" was only about a decade old, but it had already changed patterns of American life and transportation.
Glenn and Lena Curtiss also celebrated the birth of their first child, Carlton, in March of 1901. Unfortunately, though, Carlton was a "blue baby." He had cardiac and respiratory problems, and would die a month before his first birthday. This was far more common in those days than it is now—the Franklin Roosevelts, the Dwight Eisenhowers, and the Winston Churchills would all lose very young children—but no less devastating than it would be for parents a hundred years on.
William McKinley was inaugurated for his second term on March 4, and attended the funeral of former President Benjamin Harrison later in the month. McKinley and Harrison had both been combat officers in the Civil War. New York governor Teddy Roosevelt, who was a very young child when he watched Lincoln's funeral procession pass through New York, had also been sworn in, as vice-president, on Inauguration Day. No one suspected that he would succeed to the White House nine months later, when McKinley was assassinated while visiting the Pan-Am.
There were certainly other signs of turmoil in the world. Blackmail charges made a nine-days'-wonder in Wheeler. A man in Sodus was killed by a trolley, and Robert Mower of Pulteney died in Naples on the Lehigh Valley spur. R. J. Wixom in Hammondsport advertised that none of the shirts in his store were made by sweat shops. Russians rioted in St. Petersburg. In Corsicana, Texas, 5000 Americans gathered to watch a Negro burned at the stake for assault and murder.
Signs of optimism were also in the air. Gottlieb Frey began work on his new opera house, and J. S. Hubbs on his modern residence. More than a hundred years later their work still stands, so it seems that some optimism was justified as winter gave way to spring.
A Close-Up Look at the Presidents of 1901
We already know something about what Presidents McKinley, Hoover, Benjamin Harrison, and Theodore Roosevelt were doing in 1901. How many other past or future Presidents were living in that year, and what were they up to?
Past President Grover Cleveland and future President Woodrow Wilson were both in Princeton, New Jersey. Curiously, the only Democratic Presidents between James Buchanan and F. D. Roosevelt were both active in the university—Cleveland as a Trustee, Wilson as a professor. He would be named university president the following year.
William Howard Taft, as we shall see, became civil governor of the Philippines in 1901. Warren G. Harding was an Ohio state senator, while Calvin Coolidge was re-elected as city solicitor in Northampton, Massachusetts. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in grade school in Kansas.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was a student at Harvard during this momentous year. Harry Truman was graduated from the only high school in Independence, Missouri, in 1901, along with Bess Wallace (the future Mrs. Truman) and Charlie Ross (President Truman's first press secretary).
© 2003, Kirk House