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NSG Visit June 24, 2000

The Museum at Big Flats


Donovan A. Shilling

Sometimes some of the best small museums go unheralded while the larger ones boast of having all kinds of great historical treasures. Maybe they do, but except for a few insiders most of us never get to see those treasures in a lifetime. That's why a visit to the Big Flats Museum at 258 Hibbard Road in Big Flats, New York, was such a treat. Twenty members of the New Society of the Genesee visited the Big Flats Museum on June 24th and got to see hundreds of items spread through spacious ground floor areas. The museum has added several rooms in recent years, one after another, to house and show its growing collection of tools and products, clothing and furnishings used and produced in the area of Big Flats, as well as pictures showing early homes and work places.

Unlike larger museums who squirrel away the majority of their historical items, the museum volunteers at Big Flats have thoughtfully arranged their exhibits allowing visitors easy viewing access to the artifacts. These items were an important part of that Chemung Valley community's yesterdays. Tobacco, according to Elwyn "Bim" Van Etten, our host, town historian and long-time museum supporter, was the significant enterprise a hundred years ago for the farmers of the fertile flat fields along the river.

From 1850 until the beginning of World War II, tobacco was grown on local farms. In peak years, 1908 to 1919, tobacco acreage averaged 2000 acres. Storage for curing took place in ten tobacco barns in the county. In Big Flats the American Cigar Company was the largest of four processing plants using local tobacco for cigars, especially for cigar wrappers. The museum exhibits a Bemis Tobacco Setter complete with a mannequin driver and two tobacco plant "setters." Also seen are exhibits of tobacco related paraphernalia including a model of a tobacco drying barn, cured tobacco leaves, humidors, cigar posters and cigar boxes labeled "Chemung" and "Elmira City Club."

While tobacco is a unique exhibit at the museum, other presentations recapture life in the past of Big Flats. Beginning with a piece of a mastodon's tusk, one of several found in the locality, there are exhibits of many Indian arrow heads found at encampment sites and many places in the valley. The first white man known to have visited the area of present Big Flats was Etienne Brule in 1615.

The first settler was Christian Myneer who came with his family in1787 before the townships were laid out. The Town of Big Flats was established in 1822. Lumbering was the first industry. There were nine sawmills in operation in the town by 1850, but soon after farming became the dominant occupation.

The museum has received articles from different eras of its past. Sylvia Radford and Pam Farr have done much of the grouping of related items in displays, and intensified the illusion of reality by arranging many clothed model forms in the exhibits, as in the parlor scene with an organ and a square piano and elegantly attired adults. In the children's playroom, display models of children are posed, some on the floor, among a child-sized indoor seesaw, rocking chair and spindle crib and a wagon with wood-spoked wheels, complete with wooden bolsters and stakes carrying a box with painted panels and a driver's seat. On the wall and in cabinets are toy figures cast in the form of farm workers, celluloid farm animals from Germany, and early bisque-headed dolls.

A school room has been recreated with slates, readers, early maps and school desks. There is a kitchen display with an indoor water pump and a clothes washing machine, both hand operated. A kitchen cabinet from the Hoosier Cabinet Company of New Castle, Indiana, has a built in flour sifter-dispenser and a spice rack. Another corner of the display features an ironing board. Atop is a ruching iron used for pleating lace trim on women's clothing. Nearby is an unusual electric tie creasing device that was inserted into a neck tie like a sword and scabbard.

Other rooms are chock-full of tools and early agricultural implements, another brimming with Victorian furniture and clothing. The red velvet dress circa 1930 and other garments once owned by Mrs. Gladys Bates-Patterson, took the particular attention of several members of our group. The life's work of master woodworker, Charles M. Davenport was neatly documented with examples of his intricate veneer work including inlaid likenesses of Washington and Lincoln, and a photograph of a tilt-top table inlaid with the countenance of Mark Twain. Davenport's specialty, however, was the creation of over a hundred spinet desks beautifully crafted from rosewood.

Exhibits in the museum come down to recent times. An area political leader from the 1960s is given special honors at the museum. William T. Smith won national attention when he used his $6100 farm payment from Washington, "for not growing corn," to buy a spiffy new 1961 Cadillac. Local folks elected him a State Senator shortly after that and continued to re-elect him for years. The large sign carried on the roof of his car ridiculing farm subsidies is now in the Big Flats Museum.

There are scores of other exhibits such as the five-handled shovel used by Big Flats dignitaries in a dozen ground-breaking ceremonies and a fine showcase of railroad memorabilia. The Erie Railroad came through Big Flats in 1849, and the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western in 1882. Then there's the "Electric Permanent Machine" that curled ladies' hair but resembled an alien contraption for curling one's brain. However, one must visit the museum to truly appreciate the remarkable assortment of historic artifacts exhibited.

© 2000, Donovan A. Shilling
The Big Flats Museum is open from 9:00 a.m. until noon on Tuesdays,
other times by appointment. The phone number is (607) 562-7460
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