A Hammondsport Odyssey
War and Peace
Grattan H. Wheeler died on April 10, 1901, shortly after his 88th birthday. He had been born in the town of Wheeler, which was named for his grandfather, who was a veteran both of the Revolution and of the War of 1812. Grattan moved to Pleasant Valley in 1857, went into grape growing, and was president of the Pleasant Valley Wine Company for the first nine years of its existence.
Wheeler was instrumental in founding Prattsburgh's Franklin Academy and the Hammondsport Academy, besides supporting the later conversion of Hammondsport into a Union Free School. After his PVWC days, he opened the Wheeler Wine Company, but this burned in 1876 and was reorganized as Hammondsport Wine Company, which passed from his hands in 1878. One of his sons was Steuben County Surrogate Judge Monroe Wheeler, who later served as a director of the Curtiss company and handled much of the firm's legal work (some of it quite poorly). Monroe's son Sayre Wheeler would be in the Aerocar steamlined travel trailer business with Glenn, and would even become Lena Curtiss's second husband after Glenn died.
Grattan Wheeler's Pleasant Valley farm had become the home of his daughter Eliza and her husband, Major Hezekiah Ripley Gardner. Gardner, who came to Hammondsport from Illinois as a child, helped organize an Illinois volunteer company for the Civil War, becoming a captain and serving on the staff of General George Buell. But this was no “bombproof” billet, and Gardner lost his right leg at Missionary ridge. After the war he traveled for PVWC, Urbana Wine Company, and even a California firm (rumor has it they grow grapes out there, too).
Major Gardner, aged 61, survived his father-in-law by only 15 days, being apparently in fine health until he caught a cold on a Saturday and died of pneumonia, in the Wadsworth Hotel (current site of the Big M parking lot), on the following Thursday. Medical science, of course, could do virtually nothing in 1901 about what the Hammondsport Herald termed "the insidious disease." The paper also reported that month that Scientific American was recommending a treatment of tar and turpentine for diphtheria. There were signs of better days coming, though. Dr. Babcock in Branchport bought an X-ray machine; some of his equipment is in the Curtiss Museum. Even though the Civil War had been over for 36 years, armed conflict continued to preoccupy many Americans. Foreign demand for cavalry horses was sending prices for sound young teams up into the $200-$275 range. The Hammondsport paper published a letter from former townsman Adolphe Giffen, who was in Peking with US forces that had helped put down the Boxer Rebellion. General Funston captured Filipino independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo. Aguinaldo agreed to accept US sovereignty and urged his countrymen to make peace, upon which General Arthur MacArthur (father of Douglas, who was then at West Point) released a thousand political prisoners. Major Gardner, had he lived, probably would have been quite proud to see that name in the news. Arthur MacArthur, as a very young Wisconsin volunteer, had made his mark as the first man up Missionary Ridge.
Of course, Hammondsporters also had more peaceful pursuits. Glenn Curtiss ran an ad for his harness business. Horse populations were dropping dramatically with the advent of bicycles, electric streetcars, and even the brand new autos. But in a rural community like Hammondsport, where apparently no auto had even passed through town as yet, horses were still vital. The paper reported three accidents involving horses, and for 75 cents you could get enough Devoe's Gloss Carriage Paint to do your whole buggy in any one of ten colors.
St. Gabriel's Church broke ground for their new $1400 rectory, and the Methodist Church installed those electric lights it had collected for, pointing out that this would make the place cooler in summer. Mrs. James Neel opened the Lake Keuka Cat Kennels, where she intended to breed angoras commercially. With ice finally melted, navigation on the lake resumed, but nights were still cold enough for good runs of maple sap. Urbana named 71 highway supervisors, each responsible for a stretch of road near their homes, and Steuben County appointed a sidepath deputy, charged with making sure that cyclists each had their tags up to date. Despite all those conflicts in the world, life was peaceful enough on April 10 for the Herald to devote most of its front page to Easter fashions. You could outfit yourself in style at Cohn's in Bath, Brough's in Hammondsport, or Lown's in Penn Yan. Hopping on steamships, buggies, and railroad cars, many people ushered in spring by doing just that.
A Month of Storms
Hammondsport had its first thunderstorm of 1901 on Thursday, May 2, and its first concert in the park on Saturday, May 11. (They used the very bandstand that still graces the town square.) James McDowell caught an eight-pound trout, while individual fishermen using Seth Green rigs in the branches were taking as many as 98 a day. A. D. B. Grimley trotted out a bright new ice wagon with a matched team of grays, and the summer season was under way.
There were other signs that a new season was at hand. Village women who owned property and paid taxes on it gained the right to vote on village taxation issues. And the State of New York established an automotive speed limit at 15 miles per hour. A new Hammondsport ordinance required cyclists to completely dismount when passing any person walking or standing on a public walk, on penalty of a $2.00 fine and conviction as a disorderly person.
Medical experts were announcing their conclusion that malaria and yellow fever were spread by mosquitoes, and bubonic plague by rats. (It was actually the fleas, but even the rat connection was a big advance.) The U. S. was becoming interested in tropical diseases, such as yellow fever, after snatching a number of tropical possessions after the Spanish-American War. The independence movement in the Philippines was grudgingly giving up on its armed insurgency, so the army ended recruitment specifically for Philippine service.
Tensions often ran high internally, also. When 50,000 machinists went on strike, the National Guard shot two of them dead in Albany.
Of course there was plenty of excitement in western New York about the opening of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. J. S. Smith won a first prize at the Pan-Am with his Lake Keuka Catawbas. World's fairs were very popular in this time, when there were no radios, no TV, very few movies (with those at once silent and black & white), and technologically limited magazine illustration. The best way to get a feel for faraway places (apart from joining the army) was to gather at a great fair. Of course, if you couldn't make the fair, you could at least drool over technological innovations by dropping in at the post office to pick up a set of Pan-Am commemorative stamps. One of these actually pictured a motorcar.
In the village of Hammondsport, measles and chicken pox were both prevalent that May. Children today wouldn't know about such things, but a hundred years ago there were no preventive vaccines available for these and other "childhood" diseases. Every three years or so they would sweep through a community, playing havoc with school schedules. Likewise prevalent in the area were pheasants, which were being raised, for stocking, on the ground of the Bath fish hatchery. One of the released birds wandered the streets of Hammondsport, and sportsmen were eagerly anticipating the hunting seasons that would open in 1905.
The Keeler Hose voted to disband in May, leaving Hammondsport with only two volunteer fire companies. St. James Episcopal Church, with a new edifice being completed, lifted itself out of debt through a member subscription. The Baptist Church in North Urbana and the Methodist Episcopal Church in Hammondsport held joint revival services. Reverend Arthur Williams, formerly pastor at Mount Washington Baptist, was a missionary in the Congo Free State. New York state was going through Congressional redistricting (sound familiar?); Hammondsport's district was renumbered but unchanged. Mr. Zimmer installed a new 100 hp Corliss motor at the electric plant down by the waterfront, significantly increasing his capacity. But new opportunities also brought new drawbacks. When the Wheeler barn was moved from Vine Street through Lake to Main, workers had to remove the telephone and electric wires first.
One more change may have provoked a vaguely unsettled feeling among parents and children in Hammondsport. Beginning in May of 1901, the evening curfew was rung not by the town hall bell, but by the whistle on the electric light plant.
Keuka College by this point had raised $14,000 of a $25,000 challenge from the canning-jar Ball brothers, who had promised to donate $50,000 if the challenge were met. And Lulu Mott, recently widowed, opened a boarding house in Hammondsport, never dreaming that within a decade she would be hosting the most famous pilots in the world.
Some Things Never Change
Ah, June! The 1900-01 academic year was over at last, and the kids were out of school at last. We can be pretty sure that they had much the same feelings that kids had this year when school let out; some things never change. Hammondsport had its biggest graduating class to date.
The community was very excited by the dedication of the new Civil War memorial, which means that this village landmark has just recently enjoyed its centennial. The war had ended only 36 years earlier, making its veterans about the same age that Vietnam veterans are today. The monument was sponsored by Hammondsport's Monroe Brundage Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. The G. A. R. was a nationwide association of Union veterans, promoting the welfare of comrades and the advance of patriotism.
Since most members were staunch supporters of the party of Lincoln, cynics called it “the Grand Army of the Republicans.”
Be that as it may, veterans were proud of having destroyed slavery and saved the Union, and their neighbors shared their pride. Lake Keuka Navigation Company ran a special steamer from Penn Yan for the ceremonies, and photographer de Groat advertised that he would open his part-time Hammondsport studio an extra day that week in order to accommodate sitters. Today the monument stands on the front lawn of the municipal building, but a hundred years ago it was installed a few yards away, right in the center or the intersection between Lake and Main Streets. It was larger back then, too, standing on a circular base and surrounded with mortars and cannonballs. The monument provided the starting point when street paving finally began in 1914, but by then it was already being cussed out by the drivers of automobiles, which had certainly not been anticipated as a problem thirteen years earlier.
Moderns wars, of course, were also in the news. The British captured the “Mad Mullah's” supply base in Somaliland, but suffered a sharp defeat in a night attack by Boers even as Cecil Rhodes called for a South African confederation. Following Aguinaldo's lead, General Cailles in the Philippines surrendered 650 men and 550 rifles to US forces.
Weather was also big news a hundred Junes ago, as tremendous storms tore through the area. Lightning struck the Erie depot in Avoca, splintering nine utility poles, burning out the telegraph equipment and slightly injuring the operator. But James Shannon was killed inside his barn on Mt. Washington, struck with lightning as he harnessed a team. Terrific hail storms severely damaged the grape and fruit crops. Glaziers were sold out, and the four Hammondsport village churches wouldn't get all their windows replaced until fall.
Our country was a very different place back then, missing many protections that we now take for granted and would be horrified to miss. It was only as of June 1 that the state required fire drills for schools with more than a hundred students. On that same day the two Doctors Babcock, apparently working in their village office or in the patient's home, removed four cancers from the armpit of a local woman (Dr. Babcock in Branchport was a nephew to these two brothers.) The government ruled that immigrants with tuberculosis would be denied entry to the United States. Depositors with the defunct First National Bank in Penn Yan received their second and last dividend from assets. They each lost a third of their deposits; compared with the experiences of many in those days of uninsured, unregulated banking, they got off pretty lightly.
Such was not the case in California, where masked men overpowered a guard to lynch five accused horse thieves. Or in Louisiana, where a mob lynched two African-American men for murder. And it was spectacularly not the case in Florida, where a mob burned an African-American man at the stake, charging him with assaulting and murdering a white woman. Such attacks were repeated all through the year, but proposals for federal anti-lynching laws were brushed aside because they would interfere with states' rights.
Once the storms ended, things were far calmer in Hammondsport, where the newspaper editor fulminated against mail-order bicycles and slyly observed that the village had 70 “bachelor girls.” This fact evidently did not distract sportsmen, who kept themselves busy organizing a gun club. The high school graduated its largest-ever class of 13 seniors, Glenn Curtiss went to Buffalo for the Pan-American Exposition, and village electors (now including some women for the first time!) voted 59-24 to raise a thousand dollars in taxes and buy the instruments of the Hammondsport Citizens Band. Ah, June.
A Close-Up Look at Graduation Day - 1901
More than a hundred Junes ago, students in Hammondsport and surrounding communities were doing what students always do at that time—struggling through Regents exams. Yes, the state-mandated tests were already an established part of school life back in those days, and they were already controversial with many citizens and educators arguing to abolish them.
But 13 students won through the ordeal, making up the largest graduating class in Hammondsport's history up to that time. So family and friends of S. Lynn Bauter, Clara J. Genung, N. Carleton Foster, Samuel French, Dora Duck, Bertha Duck, Pearl A. Wixom, Grace A. Wixom, John W. Keeler, Jr., N. Florence Wheeler, Lyman D. Aulls, and William Hamlin gathered in the Methodist Church to celebrate. The audience was large, the night was “very warm,” and the program was “necessarily long.” Back in March, the church had taken up a subscription in order to install electric lights. If that work had not been completed, then oil lamps would have made the place even warmer.
Salutatorian Carleton Foster led off with "America's Debt to Liberty," describing our nation's development from colonial days to “the foremost country of modern civilization.” Grace Wixom read her essay, "Night Brings out the Stars," pointing out how cares and responsibilities contribute to development.
Stella Casterline's address, “The Duty of Happiness,” forcefully argued that individual happiness was “our first and most important duty.” Stella could have fit in with several ancient Greek philosophers and quite a few mid-century psychologists.
May Maxon gave a piano solo, and Samuel French spoke on “The Days of Slavery,” admittedly an old topic. Dora Duck discussed “The Harmonies of Nature,” averring that apparent discordance was due to our own imperfect perception (Plato would have approved). The newspaper observed that a chorus at this point, “Morning Invitation,” “gave the listeners a breathing spell.”
It didn't last. Florence Wheeler got frequent applause as she gave the class prophecies, and read her essay urging the audience to imitate high and noble ideals. Adelia Ray took a different tack in “Unconscious Influence,” suggesting that listeners always watch their own conduct, knowing that it would influence others unconsciously.
Lynn Bauter (whose early dreams of missionary work gave him the lifelong nickname “Mish,” but who gave up the dream to become a boat builder) got an enthusiastic response by advocating “Our Imperial Republic.” As the paper observed, “President McKinley and his cabinet need not look for a more ardent champion of their treatment of America's new possessions.” It must have been quite a switch when Pearl Wixom drew life lessons from her favorite blossom in “Pansies for Thought.” Julie Masson sang a solo that was well received by the audience, which was at this point “tired and perspiring.”
But Lyman Aulls still had an inspiring account of the new Pan-American Exposition to give, while Bertha Duck delivered herself of a clearly original, if perhaps a little puzzling, work, "The Druids and their Customs." William Hamlin then stepped up to the plate with “Socialistic Tendencies,” denouncing this "alarming feature" of the current generation and urging citizens to vote it down without regard to party. (The graduating men of Hammondsport seem to have been pretty conservative, but over in Bath, Clair Hedges had recently delivered a forceful address at school attacking business trusts.)
At last Clara Genung arose for the valedictory, “From School Life to Life's School.” This was, the reporter noted, “well-prepared…abounding in fine sentiment and noble incentives… If the class heeds her injunctions, its fair promise will be materially increased.” Professor Plough, the principal, "presented the diplomas in a few well-chosen words.” (He would have been lynched had he done otherwise.) The chorus sang “Lark Song" and “Good Night,” following which Reverend Thomas Duck gave an invocation, and the meeting broke up, already planning next year's facilities in the new Opera House that Gottlieb Frey was building.
And so the first class of the twentieth century went into the world.
© 2003, Kirk House