Jump to content

Community Writers

Our community blogs

  1.               In honor of Father's Day I'd like to share a story about my Dad that I posted on another blog site several months ago.


    Dad was one of 13 children.  I know they didn't have much in the way of material things and I'm not sure how much affection was shown while Dad and his brothers and sisters were growing up.  I would guess, based on things I remember about Dad while I was growing up, that there weren't a lot of hugs and kisses.

    I think my grandparents probably had to work so hard just to survive that there was only time and energy for the bare basics. What was yours was yours as long as you could hold on to it.  I'm no psychologist but I know those growing years and the events that happened helped shape Dad's character and personality.  Looking back now as an adult and remembering bits of conversation between Dad and his siblings I can understand how he came to be who he was.

    I remember one time when Dad and a couple of his brothers were target practicing using shotguns and he decided I was old enough to learn to shoot.  He handed me a 12 gauge, showed me how to load it, told me to tuck it in tight to my shoulder and aim; if I didn't it would kick and knock me on my rear.  I didn't tuck it in and down I went on my rear just like Dad said.  I think he knew that was going to happen and that they would all laugh, including Dad.  I didn't like being laughed at and I didn't want to do it anymore, but Dad told me to get up and try again.  He had me keep at it until I could handle that shotgun and hit the target with accuracy.  I learned not to give up.

    Bills were always paid first, a little set aside for savings, and groceries bought with what was left.  Dad called the bit of savings his "tuck".  If you wanted something and couldn't afford it, you saved for it or went without until you could pay for it.  More often than not it was go without.  As far as Dad's "tuck" went, that was generally his to use for what he wanted, be it a new gun or coon dog.  While we lived in the city, Mom would sometimes work outside the home at part-time jobs for extra money.  Once we moved to the country, however, having only one car meant Mom worked in the home exclusively so she had to work within Dad's budget and manage with whatever money he gave her.

    I applied for my first job the day I turned 16, was hired and started work that weekend.  I worked 5:00 am to 2:30 pm every weekend, on holidays and summer vacations.  If needed, I worked double shifts.  I also paid room and board.  I did not mind one bit.  I was becoming an adult and learning to provide for myself, and the money went to Mom. I learned that nothing is free, if you want something you work for it.

    Whining didn't get you out of doing something you didn't like.  There were lots of things my sisters and I hated doing like picking rocks to clear an overgrown yard so grass seed could be planted.  It didn't matter to Dad.  If he said pick rocks we picked rocks or whatever else needed to be done until it was finished.  You don't give up or do it half-assed (Dad's words). There was no such thing as "I can't" or "I don't want to".  You did what needed to be done and you did it the best you could.

    There was one exception that I can remember.  Dad would butcher chickens and we kids had to help clean them.  He'd butcher the birds outside but the worse part was the cleaning of the birds was done at the kitchen table.  A large pot of water was brought to boil on the kitchen stove.  Dad would dip the birds in the boiling water and then we plucked the feathers.  Dad would then burn the pin feathers off over the flame of the kitchen stove.  The stench of burnt feathers and chicken entrails is not pleasant and the odor would linger for a while in the kitchen after we were done.  At some point I decided I wasn't going to do this again. Dad told me "If you don't help with this you don't get to eat chicken".  

    That was fine with me.  "I won't eat chicken" I told him and after that I didn't help with cleaning chickens again. Dad's rule about not eating if you didn't help held and I was alright with that.  I learned about choices and consequences.

    Sometimes Dad would take us with him when he'd run his coon hound at night.  We always looked forward to going with him even though he'd stay out for hours at a time.  That is probably why we were only able to go with him on weekends.  Often one or more of his brothers would join us.  One night in particular stands still stands out in my memory so many years later.

    We were at another Uncle's farm; Dad, Uncle Nick, myself and another sister but I don't remember which one. We were all together in an open field surrounded by woods on both sides and there was enough moonlight that we could see the valley below us as the mists started slowing forming.

    It was late Summer/early Autumn and in my mind I can still see that night sky.  It was so clear and the stars so bright you felt you could reach up and touch them.  The night air was a mix of warm and cool breezes and carried the sound of Dad's dog baying in the distance.  I can remember the chirping sound of peepers all around us, and the earthy scent of the surrounding woods and the fresh-cut hay from the field we were in.

    I remember how we sat together on the ground in that field just being there in the moment.  Dad and Uncle Nick were talking, sometimes in Russian, and it felt so comforting to be there with them.  I wish I had the right words so anyone reading this would be able to feel that moment the way we did and I still do.  I remember laying down on the ground, looking up at the night sky and eventually falling asleep to the sound of Dad's and Uncle Nick's low voices.

    I learned that it's the simple moments in life that make the best memories.



    All rights reserved.  I hope you enjoyed my story but please remember it's my story so no using or copying any content in any manner without the express written permission of the owner...me.

  2. Father’s Day… a time to remember the dads we treasure.  They’ve taught us well in the ways of life.  I remember a lot about my dad.  In fact, it would be fair to say I had put him on a pedestal while growing up.  It seems he could do anything and everything, a jack-of-all-trades.  Though none of us can measure up all the time, there is One who is perfect… who forgives all our failings… our heavenly Father.


    There is so much my Dad, Ralph, taught me and my siblings, including all about the love of Jesus.   As a small child on the farm, I would say, “Jesus is my best friend!”  But, for a time as a teen, I forgot my childhood friend until my Dad reminded me of those words I used to say as a little girl.  Oops! 


    I loved playing board games on Sunday afternoons with my Dad, especially Scrabble.  I love the challenge of this game and tend to play aggressively, perhaps because I was in tough competition with my Dad.  Though I won only one game against him over those few years, it was a sweet victory knowing that I’d accomplished the win without his having given me an edge.


    He taught me honesty was the right way such that in 8th grade English class I chose to write an essay entitled “Honesty Is The Best Policy”, receiving an A.  Actually, I think I may have gotten writing and art abilities from him.  Although he was an exceptional storyteller, imitating voice and mannerisms of various comedians, I speak best through the written word.  He also had a gift for drawing with his talent for art passed on to me and my son.


    As we grew up, we loved hearing Dad tell family stories of his and our childhoods.  He had a gift for telling them in a personalized humorous way, and how I long to hear them all again.  I asked him to write them down for posterity, but he never did.  When he drove truck in the latter 1960s through the 1980s (and later huge tractors for an Iowan farmer in the ‘90s), he’d come home with stories from the road.  He shared radio routines by Bill Cosby and southern Cajun comedians, recalling their stories and imitating accents perfectly!  That was way better entertainment than TV any day! 


    I also recall a few stories of his time in the Army at Fort Greeley, Alaska (1956-1957), a foreign assignment before official statehood.  From 18 months to 2 years, I was too young to remember my six months at Delta Junction with my baby sister.  But, I do remember having heard how he and several buddies found a sunken rowboat.  As it lay not far below the surface of a lake, they pulled it up, cleaned it off, and took it out to fish.  It made for an interesting adventure to say the least – while they each took a turn fishing, the other three worked hard at bailing to keep the boat afloat!  Now that’s dedicated fishermen! 


    Fort Greeley is also where he learned to drive big rigs.  With someone ill, he was asked to take over in the motor pool one night.  Proving he could handle backing up a trailer perfectly, the commanding officer asked where he’d learned to do that since everyone else struggled.  “Backing up a manure spreader, Sir!” was his dutiful reply.  They kept him in the motor pool, where he got invaluable training for later driving 18-wheelers.


    He also was given an unprecedented promotion because he took the time to thoroughly clean an office coffeepot, a skill learned from his Dutch immigrant mother who had taught him all aspects of housekeeping while growing up, like any good Dutch mother.  With a general visiting Fort Greeley, and the coffee-making task handed down to my Dad, he took pains to provide a clean urn for making fresh-brewed coffee… which greatly impressed the general.  When the general asked who made the coffee, the aide who was supposed to have made it “blamed” my Dad.  Instead of the feared reprimand for the typically bad-tasting coffee the office was known for, the general complimented my father on the best cup he’d ever tasted!  Turning to the senior officer, he told him to give my father a promotion!


    When we were younger, he always had time for us.  I enjoyed it when he took us fishing.  And, though I could never bring myself to touch those worms (still can’t!), let alone put them on a hook, and never did catch “the big one,” it was the quality time with our Dad that meant the world to us kids.  As a tomboy, I especially enjoyed working outside with my Dad whether it was in the barn learning to care for the animals, in the huge vegetable gardens, or traipsing the fields and woods hunting.  That love just naturally transferred to enjoying the time spent working alongside my husband out in the barn or in the yard, even growing my own gardens.


    As we grew older, I still adored my Dad.  In my teens, he listened to us and gave sound advice, but I wasn’t always ready to listen to him.  His careers changed from farming, to driving a grain truck delivering feed to dairy farmers, to carpentry with his Dad, a general contractor in northeast New Jersey, to driving a tank truck “locally” and later OTR (over the road/cross country).  When we lived in Clifton, he drove chemical tankers locally in northeast Jersey, southern New England, and New York City.  What stories he brought home from his experiences!  I got to ride with him only twice and wish it could have been more.


    I was never so happy as when we moved back to New York in 1969!  Though I hated city life, I can now look back with fond memories of Clifton.  But, as we settled in to “backyard farming,” he taught me how to raise our mare, War Bugg, a granddaughter of Man O’ War.  I helped him build her corral and box stall in the small barn, along with re-roofing and remodeling the old chicken coop for our flock.  And then came the heavy-duty barn chores of mucking out the pens, learning to groom War Bugg and how to pick up her feet to clean the undersides.  I saw his deep concern when I stepped on a wasp’s nest in the haymow with 11 stings on my leg, and saw his gratefulness for my dousing him with a 5-gallon pail of water when a torch threatened to catch him on fire while trying to burn tent caterpillars.  But, I also learned the hard way that running War Bugg flat out up the road and back could have killed her.  I was scolded but good, yet taught to walk her slowly, allowing her to have only small sips of warm water until she cooled down. 


    As we grew older, we teens were often in our own world.  Soon enough, I got married and began a new life with my new family, while my siblings and parents scattered themselves around the U.S.  Life changes, and we change with it.  I well remember teasing my Dad as a child when he turned 30 that he was old, and that when he would turn 50 he’d be “way over the hill.”  Well, Dad, guess what?  Your oldest daughter reached that milestone a ways back, too!  Giving him this writing in 2014 before he passed away in 2015, he knew I felt blessed to have him as my Dad.  Sometimes I wish I could go back and recapture the childhood fun of days long ago, but I greatly treasure the memories that linger.


    May you each be blessed with very special memories of your Dad!  Happy Father’s Day!

    I Remember A Dad

    Linda A. Roorda

    I remember a dad who took me fishin’

    And remember a dad who hooked my worms,

    Who took those hooks from fishy mouths,

    And showed me the country way of life.


    A family of six, two girls and four boys

    Fun and trouble we shared as we grew.

    From farms and fields to paved avenues,

    Walking and biking, exploring we went.


    I remember a time spent playing games,

    A dad who’d not cheat for us to win.

    Family and friends and holiday dinners,

    Lakes and farms and countryside drives.


    Weeds were the bane of childhood fun,

    So ‘tween the rows we ran and we played.

    But as I grew and matured in age,

    Weeding was therapy in gardens of mine.


    I remember a dad who thrived on farming

    Livestock and gardens, and teaching me how.

    I remember a dad who took me huntin’

    Scouting the fields, always alert.


    I remember a dad who taught us more

    For growing up we learn by example.

    I remember working alongside my dad

    Roofing a barn and building corrals.


    I remember a dad whose gifts were given

    In fairness to meet each child’s desire.

    I remember a dad whose wisdom we honor

    In memories of caring and love in small ways.


    I remember a dad who brought us laughter

    With Cajun and Cosby stories retold.

    For blessed with a gift of retelling tales

    Family and childhood events he recalled.


    I remember a dad whose time was given

    To help his children face life’s turmoils.

    Time spent together are memories treasured

    For things done best put family first.


    I remember a dad who taught me more

    To treasure my faith in Jesus my friend.

    In looking to Him as Savior and Lord,

    Salvation by Grace, not earned by my deed.


    As I look back to days long ago,

    I remember the dad I knew so well.

    For I miss the dad who took me fishin’

    And remember the dad who taught me more.


    All rights reserved.

    May not be reproduced without permission of author.


  3. After the apparent suicide of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain I've seen several posts on social media apparently shaming others for feeling bad while "ignoring" the average 22 vets that commit suicide everyday. 

    You know why no one says anything about those 22 vets? Because we didn't know. We don't hear about it because of the stigma society attaches to suicide. Like a pregnant unwed mother in the 40's, it's avoided, not talked about like some shameful thing. Put away so we can pretend things are neat and tidy in our little world. We like that, it's easier. 

    Hell, what about the other people, the non-celebrity, non-veteran suicides? According to statistics from 2016, 120 people commit suicide A DAY. And reports indicate that the number has increased since. Why aren't the other 100+ people included in that meme?

    Why need to prioritize one group of people over another?

    It's perfectly okay to feel bad when ANYONE commits suicide, regardless of their station in life. EVERY death by suicide is sad. I didn't personally know Bourdain, Robin Williams, or anyone who was just found this morning. For anyone who let's that darkness overtake them, we can still feel sympathy for them; the 14 year old whose been bullied, the soldier fighting demons of war, or some rich guy on tv. 

    Like many Americans, I too have felt the loss of someone I know after they decided to take their own life. Additionally, because of my former profession I've seen the aftermath first hand. It's not easy to understand, it's not easy to see, but it can't be ignored. It needs to be addressed, and it's not something that you can just plug into a meme on social media and move on.

    Perhaps Bourdain's and other celebrity suicide deaths can bring about discussion on the topic of suicide and mental health in America. Shed that stigma and make people more aware, more open to talk about it today. And maybe, just maybe, lead to a few less self inflicted deaths tomorow. 

  4. Green is the prevailing color in June.  All of the trees have leafed out, the encroaching comfrey and day lilies have grown green, tall and wide and we are mowing the grass often.  Tulips are gone, lilacs have ceased to spread their fragrance but the peonies are opening into ruffled aromatic blossoms.  The birds are quieter now, busy with their nests and nestlings.  Corn is being planted and hay fields are being mown or chopped; an aroma that brings back all sorts of memories.   My brother bought a baler that made smaller, cylindrical bales so that a house-hold of daughters and one younger sister could help with the hay.    While I didn’t cherish the job when I was sixteen, to this day, mown hay is a fragrance that I breathe in deeply and appreciatively.  A June day with blue skies and sunshine is what most people refer to as being the “perfect” day and it is also an ideal kind of day for making hay. 


    As for special days in June, there’s Flag Day on June 14th and Father’s Day, this year on June 17th.   Flag Day was emphasized more in my growing up days than now, and many of us may still be able to recite part of Henry Holcomb Bennett’s* poem, “Hats off! The flag is passing by.”  There’s plenty of controversy around the flag right now; we all need to remember that it is an icon not an idol, two quite different things.   Father’s Day is a very old tradition in Europe, celebrated on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19th).  The Spanish and Portuguese brought this custom to Latin America and it eventually was adopted in the US.  It was first celebrated in 1910 in Washington state, and eventually put on the third Sunday in June for all states.  It is a time to appreciate not only actual fathers but also the caring people who provide father figures for those who need them.

    I haven’t often written about my father, perhaps because his too-early death came just about the time we could have related as adults.  In my junior-hi and high school years, my father and I experienced a certain amount of tension.  He was fine at math and sciences, and had no clue why his youngest child wasn’t.   This created mutual frustration!   Many years earlier, he worked hard to get school buses for our centralized school, and so saw no reason why I’d want to ride in anything else.  And he was considerably more authoritarian than my maturing sensibilities liked.  I think this was probably true for many fathers of that era.  However, he was also a person of integrity who wouldn’t consider doing anything in a dishonest or slovenly manner.  He advocated for good schools, feeling that the education not available to him was essential for his children.  He had a respect and love for the land; I remember walking with him as he hand-scattered seed in the fields and explained which seed was for where.   And he cared deeply for his family.   He insisted on good manners, on relating to people respectfully, and on doing one’s best ---- and a bit more.  He was easily irritated a tendency that, unfortunately, he passed on to me and a couple of his other offspring.  My husband insists that irritability is a genetic line that runs through my family……. prickly, he calls us. ☺    It’s just that we tend not to suffer foolishness patiently, and certainly not gladly.  On this Father’s Day, I will be remembering my father as someone who would play Candy Land or Chinese checkers with small children, who purchased two Easter dresses for me when I was ten years old because I couldn’t decide which one I liked best, and who thoroughly enjoyed seeing his house full of family whenever possible.  I wish I’d expressed my appreciation to him more often.


    For some reason, deeply buried in my subconscious, June often puts me into a state of nostalgia.  I pour over scrapbooks and yearn for family gatherings and luncheons with friends.  I may make more phone calls just to stay in touch.  I find myself suddenly wishing for home ------ but which one?   Where I now live and have lived for nearly 40 years and am deeply rooted in community?  Our Pennsylvania home where both children were born and where we lived for ten years while acquiring a wonderful group of friends who we then had to leave?  Or the home where I grew up, a farm house surrounded by stately trees and wide gardens with Guernsey cows in the fields (hopefully not in the gardens) and acres to roam?  

    Where do you consider “home”?  Everyone has their own vision.  For some, it is the rolling green hills of Vermont or upstate New York.  For others it is looking out over the ridges and hollows of the mountains that run like a spine down through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky; blue and smoky.  Still others long for the wide sweeps of corn, wheat and sunflower fields of the mid-west or the tall, snow-capped mountains of Colorado and Wyoming ---- or the wide blue skies of Montana where one can see for miles and miles. And there are those who pine for the ocean of either coast.    What we see and cherish is often a matter of perspective linked to the experiences we’ve had in those places.

     In the home where I grew up, near Rochester, I experienced small town warmth via family, church, school and the Grange.   I learned leadership skills in 4-H and I loved the farm (well --- maybe not the chickens!!) with its fields and woods.    Then, as a young married couple, we lived in Pennsylvania and I remember ice cream socials, wonderful 4-H volunteers, church retreats, ladies’ Bible study, our toddlers’ wall-to-wall toys, and parties in our summer kitchen with the walk-in fire place.  Here, in Spencer, where we’ve resided for the most years, we experience a community that seems to have accepted us for who we are, even when they think we are slightly odd.   Our sons spent most of their being-educated years at S-VE; it is a small enough school so that we knew their teachers and felt welcome there.  One didn’t have to worry too much about kids in trouble because someone would be sure to tell you if they were on the roof, hanging from the catwalks or out of line in any way.   We continue to find fellowship, friends who truly care and opportunity to grow in our faith and understanding of the world here.   
    Think about your home; its blessings, your experiences, what has made you love it.  A little nostalgia is, on occasion, a good thing, as are thoughts of what makes a real home.  Alexandra Stoddard,**a creator of homes and a writer, says: “Home is where we express our passions and our unique creative vision.  We should seek and celebrate the poetry of every day at home.”   And perhaps taking time to consider that is what makes each day special.

    While summer doesn’t officially begin for another two weeks, most of us consider early June its real onset.  I look forward to the activities and events already on my calendar for the summer months, but I know that all too soon I’ll be looking back on them.  Thus it is my firm intention to enjoy each day to its fullest ---- even those days of heat and humidity that try my endurance.  Seeds are planted in the garden, the tomatoes and potatoes seem to be thriving and the usual weeds are growing apace.   As June explodes in flora and fauna, we remember why we so enjoy the four seasons; variety just makes life interesting!!

    *-Henry Holcomb Bennett ---American author, journalist and poet.  1863-1924
    **- Alexandra Stoddard is an American interior designer and lifestyle philosopher

    Carol may be reached at: cpeggy@htva.net. 

  5. The memorials -- the words and the places of remembrance -- are essential. But so are the actions that must always go hand in hand with the tributes.

    Or, in a thought commonly attributed to our nation’s first President, George Washington, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

    Recent Memorial Day observances here at home, and across our state and nation, were poignant expressions of appreciation for the bravery, sacrifice and service of veterans. Appreciation, as noted in the phrase above, represents a fundamental part of this equation. The other key part is how veterans are treated. 

    With that in mind, the state Senate recently approved a comprehensive legislative package addressing a range of concerns and challenges facing New York’s active military men and women, and veterans. The legislative action came during the same week that the Senate inducted nearly 60 New York State veterans into the Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame, including long-time Steuben County farmer and World War II veteran Warren A. Thompson. We valued the opportunity to salute Warren as a symbol of the “Greatest Generation.” I will also take this chance to commend the Bath VA caretakers who accompanied Warren to Albany for the induction ceremony and who, day in and day out, deliver, in outstanding fashion, their own commitment to our veterans’ well-being. 

    The measures the Senate acted on seek to recognize the sacrifices of America’s active military and veterans -- to pay better attention to how they are treated. Our military men and women have made and continue to make a remarkable commitment to serve this nation. In return, we have a duty and responsibility to take actions and provide the programs and services they need and deserve.

    The legislation focuses on employment, health care, home ownership, tax relief and a range of other economic, educational, public safety and government services challenges and concerns, including measures to: 

    -- create a task force to study and improve the job market for veterans. The task force, which would be comprised of stakeholders from state government, the private sector, and institutions of higher education, would hold annual public hearings and make recommendations on how the state helps military veterans find and maintain employment;

    -- create a certified service-disabled veteran-owned business enterprise development and lending program to help provide financial and technical assistance to disabled veterans who have started a business in New York;

    -- encourage public employers to hire military service veterans by establishing a “Hire a Vet” program to provide grants to municipalities employing a veteran;

    -- help service-related disabled veterans afford a home by giving those with a VA disability rating of 40 percent or higher a preference in applications to the state’s Affordable Home Ownership Development Program;

    -- establish a Veterans’ Gerontological Advisory Committee to help address the needs of a state with the second-highest veteran population in America, and an older veteran population whose needs and problems pervade multiple geriatrics and gerontology disciplines. At no cost to the taxpayers, the advisory committee will be able to provide crucial recommendations to the Director of the state Office for the Aging on policies, programs, services and trends affecting the aging veteran population;

    -- direct the state Division of Veterans’ Affairs and other state agencies to study and address the alarming trend of homeless persons who are veterans in New York, as well as the amount of homeless veterans who are also parents; and

    -- establish the “Veterans’ Memorials Preservation Act” to help protect veterans’ memorials throughout the state.

    Earlier this year, the Senate also restored significant funding in the 2018-2019 state budget for veterans’ initiatives and increased funding for numerous programs that support veterans and their families.

    Let us all hope that appreciation and treatment always remain guiding forces whenever and wherever decisions affecting America’s veterans are made.

    "From The Capitol" is a weekly column distributed to local media by Senator O'Maras office for publication. 

  6. by Kelli Huggins

    I feel a bizarre kinship to Levi D. Little that is based solely on the contents of his scrapbook. In fact, I consider Little’s scrapbook to be one of my favorite items in our entire collection. It’s not so much that the contents are remarkable—it consists of newspaper clippings which are mostly available to read elsewhere. Instead, what I love about the scrapbook is that I feel like it gives a unique insight into his personality, and as it turns out, we like a lot of the same things.


    Levi Little was born in the Town of Baldwin on May 20, 1850. As a young man, he quickly moved up the ranks of local law enforcement; he was elected constable in 1873 and, in 1874, moved to Elmira, where he became as deputy sheriff. Three years later, he was elected sheriff on the Republican ticket. Less than four years later, he became the Elmira Chief of Police on April 11, 1883, a position he held until his resignation from the force in 1895. Claiming he was tired of the job, politics, and criticism, he worked the rest of his life as a detective for the Northern Central Railroad. 

    The scrapbook in our collection is from 1889 to 1890. Little mostly saved clippings of local police and crime news. That makes sense, of course. I used his scrapbook in my research for the “Great Female Crime Spree” chapter in my book Curiosities of Elmira because it includes clippings on the criminal dealings of forger Ella White, alleged murder Mary Eilenberger, and sex trafficker Mary Fairman (check out the book to find out more about these wild women). 

    But the crime stories are not the main reason I love the Little scrapbook. Occasionally, Little would clip a news story that had nothing to do with his professional life. He seemed to have an interest in what we might call “oddities,” something Levi Little and I have in common.


    He clipped a story about John Lawes, a local man who found unwanted fame for weight gain caused by a uncontrollable medical condition. Lawes’ is a deeply sympathetic story (which I also tell in Curiosities of Elmira) and it is unclear if Little knew Lawes personally or was just following his story.


    Little also saved stories that had to do with the happenings of some of the local clubs and organizations with which he was involved, giving us a better sense of how he was a member of the community outside of his official duties.


    I appreciate all of these things, but tucked away on a page toward the back of the scrapbook is the clipping I gravitate towards most:


    This article and etching show the famous Railroad Jack, a train-riding mutt from Albany, NY, who is the subject of my next book (check out www.findingrailroadjack.com for more information!)
    From my research, I knew Jack was a frequent guest of Elmira and was popular here, but to see him actually show up in a scrapbook (of the Chief of Police, no less!) gives me a better understanding of just how much local people liked the dog. This has become an important piece of evidence in my book project to prove the reaches of Jack’s celebrity.
    Levi Little died unexpectedly on March 8, 1901 from complications from surgery for appendicitis. He had never married, a fact that earned him some gentle ribbing in an 1888 Elmira Telegram article about local eligible bachelors. What was Levi Little actually like as a person? Like all people, he was certainly a complicated figure, but I can’t help but to like the glimpses of the “real” him see in his scrapbook.
    Kelli Huggins is the Education Coordinator at the Chemung County Historical Society. To see more of their blog, go to http://chemungcountyhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com
  7. 5ab66e39650c2_ScreenShot2018-03-24at11_25_30AM.png.7440659bc0b77081a2495ce8e4c86613.png

    Putnam Hill in Chemung, better known as Putt Hill, sits at an imposing elevation of 1700 feet. Located in the north east corner of the town, it is part of the Allegheny Plateau Region of the vast Appalachian Mountain Range, well known for its hard wood forests, ridges, hills, valleys, streams and haunting folklore.
    The raw beauty of the land is equally matched by the wild elements of nature. Those who inhabit this area face hardships and challenges when winter casts a spell over the mountain; turning it frozen and barren. The reward in spring and summer is the lush green foliage that reaches up to the blue sky and white clouds. However, in autumn the artist’s palette of reds and yellows that over come the hills soon turn to warm golden brown; and the fall sky turns to gray. Daylight grows short. The air is crisp. The forest floor is covered in the rustling of fallen leaves and the stirrings in the woods are amplified, with shadows darting from the corner of the eye. It’s the autumn equinox, when hauntings are prevalent in the minds of many. Were there spirits in the forest at night haunting those who entered or were they folklore tails of long ago?
    Thomas Putnam a brave pioneer settler to the mountain was born August 12, 1789 in Charlestown, New Hampshire to Thomas and Polly (Young) Putnam. Lucy Bowman Morse and Thomas were married in Vermont in the year 1813. Lucy was born in Concord, Vermont on March 10, 1792. Thomas, a veteran of the War of 1812 was well aware of life in the mountains, learning as a young child the privations of the forest. He and Lucy came to Chemung with their three children between the years of 1830 and 1840. Little is known of their two children Eleanor and Charles. That is not the case for George Washington Putnam who lived next door to his parents in the 1840 census with his young bride. George W. Putnam and Eleanor Jackson were wed November 14, 1839 in Chemung, NY by the Rev. J. Piersall. Eleven children would be blessed to their household: Dean, Mahala, Wilson, Martha, Lucy, Freelove, Jahiel, Hattie, Mary Elizabeth, Clarissa (Clara), Frances (Frankie); a household of thirteen.
    It was sometime between 1840 and 1850 that George Washington Putnam changed his name, becoming George Putnam West. His children and wife all carry the name of West as evidenced by their sacred family bible. The family bible also lists George’s parents as Thomas and Lucy (Bowman) Putnam. So why would a young man with a large family change his name to West, yet keeping his family name as a middle name so as not to lose his identity? The home of G.P. West is notated on Putnam Hill in the 1869 map of the Town of Chemung. The land was farmed for many years by the Putnam family in the wilds of the mountain. It was here, the family faced strife and joys.
    Nonetheless a secret was buried deep within the roots of this family. Thomas Putnam carried his namesake throughout his life: a name that passed back through time to England in the 15th century. But it was Thomas’s second great grandfather who defiled their name in Salem Village in the year 1692.  


       The Salem Witch Trials were well known for their accusations, trials, and executions. During the course of the year in 1692 more than a dozen persons claimed to be afflicted by spells of black magic and sorcery, allegedly cast by men and women who had enlisted the supernatural powers of the devil. The outbreak of witchcraft hysteria took place in Salem Village. In harsh reality, the Salem witch craze was largely fueled by personal differences between two families; the Putnams and the Porters.

    As the story goes, Thomas Putnam Jr. was known as a significant accuser in the 1692 witch trials. Earlier in life he was excluded from major inheritances by both his father and father-in-law and became a bitter and jealous man. Putnam, his wife and one of his daughters, Ann Putnam, Jr. all levied accusations of witchcraft; many of them against extended members of the Porter family, and testified at the trials.

    An interfamily rivalry began in 1672 when a dam and sawmill run by the Porters flooded the Putnam farms, resulting in a lawsuit. A few years later the Putnam’s petitioned the town in an effort to obtain political independence for the village, and the Porters opposed them. The arrival of Reverend Samuel Parris in 1689 intensified the Putnam-Porter conflict.

    Twenty-six villagers, who included eleven Putnams, voted to give Parris a parsonage, a barn, and two acres of land. Some villagers claimed these gifts were too generous. In October 1691 a faction of Parris-Putnam supporters were ousted from the village committee and replaced by individuals who were openly hostile to the reverend; including members of the Porter family and Joseph Hutchinson, one of the sawmill operators responsible for flooding the Putnam’s farms and Francis Nurse, a village farmer who had been involved in a bitter boundary dispute with Nathaniel Putnam. The new committee quickly voted down a tax levy that would have raised revenue to pay the salary of Reverend Parris.

    It is no coincidence that the witchcraft afflictions and accusations originated in the Parris household. In February 1692 the reverend returned home from his congregation one evening to discover his nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Parris, her 11-year-old cousin, Abigail Williams, and their 12-year-old friend, Ann Putnam, the daughter of Thomas and Ann Putnam, Sr. gathered around the kitchen table with the Parris family slave, Tituba, who was helping the girls experiment in fortune telling. Realizing that they had been caught attempting to conjure up evil spirits, the girls soon became afflicted by strange fits that temporarily deprived them of their ability to hear, speak, and see. During these episodes of sensory deprivation, the girls suffered from violent convulsions that twisted their bodies into what observers called impossible positions. When the girls regained control of their senses, they complained of being bitten, pinched, kicked, and tormented by apparitions that would visit them in the night. These ghostly visions, the afflicted girls said, pricked their necks and backs and contorted their arms and legs like pretzels. Witnesses reported seeing the girls extend their tongues to extraordinary lengths. After examining the afflicted girls, Dr. William Griggs, the village physician, pronounced them under an evil hand.

    Nearly 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft in Salem during the summer of 1692. Twenty accused witches were executed, fifteen women and five men. Nineteen were hanged following conviction and one was pressed to death for refusing to enter a plea. Four prisoners, three women and a man, died in jail. The trials began in June and continued for four months; the final executions taking place on September 22.

    Ann Putnam, Jr. played a crucial role in the witchcraft trials of 1692. In her socially prominent family, her mother was also afflicted and her father and many other Putnam’s gave testimony against the accused during the trials. When attempting to make a judgment on Ann, perhaps we should remember that she was very young and impressionable and thus easily influenced by her parents and other adults. Fourteen years later she admitted that she had lied, deluded by the Devil.
    Historians claim to have identified a pattern of accusations that strongly suggests the afflicted girls singled out social deviants, outcasts, outsiders, merchants, tradesman, and others who threatened traditional Puritan values and or threatened the Parris and Putnam families, by claiming the spirits of the accused visited them at night and tormented them.
    Was it the multitude of chains created by the family over 100 years ago that pulled at Thomas’s feet as he plowed his fields? Was it with a heavy heart that he lived his life? Perhaps, this is the reason his son George broke the chains and scars, freeing his family of the dark shroud of guilt and humiliation cast upon them. The name Putnam forever remains in the wilds of the mountain, where the darkness of the forest hides the whispering of the winds.


    Disclaimer: Several on-line genealogy sites were used in researching the Putnam family. Without verifying the on line trees, there is a posibility of an error in the family tree, depicted in this story. For more information on the Putnam family: http://historicalechoes.weebly.com/thomas-putnam--west-family.html


    Mary Ellen Kunst is the historian for the Town Of Chemung. To see more information, visit her site, https://historicalechoes.weebly.com

  8. Chances are, if your surname is Cooper, Currier, Miller, Slater, Smith, Tanner, Tailor/Taylor, or Wright, etc., the earliest known source for your name can be traced to those ancestors employed with such skills at a time when an occupation typically became the family’s surname.  Over time, others may have adopted occupational surnames even though they, themselves, held no skilled connection to such a name. 


    Some names are more obvious than others.  A few years ago while writing this article on surname occupations, and discussing it with my husband, Ed began his own litany of surnames – Baker, Barber, Butcher, Carpenter, Plumber, Electrician…  Laughing, I said, “No one’s last name is Electrician!” to which he replied, “Oh that’s right; they shortened it to Sparks!”  You’re so helpful, dear!


    Centuries ago, typical Scandinavian patronymic (paternal) surnames used the father’s first name with sons adding “sson/sen/zen/zon” and daughters adding “dotter/dottr”, i.e. Nielsson/Nielsen, Nielsdottr”.  Thus, each generation was tracked by the father’s birth name as a prefix in a generational changing surname.  Legislation began in 1771 to establish permanent surnames, with subsequent amendments enacted frequently since.  Surnames also denoted town of residence, name of residence, or occupation, for example:  Moller = Miller, Schmidt = Smith, and Fisker = Fisher. 

    Norwegian surnames might also reference their farmland, such as:  Bakke/Bakken (hill or rise), Berg/Berge (mountain or hill), Dahl/Dal (valley), Haugen/Haugan (hill or mound), Lie (side of a valley), Moen (meadow), or Rud (clearing).  Similarly, Swedish surnames include Lind/Lindberg (linden/lime + mountain), Berg/Bergkvist (mountain/mountain + twig), Alström/Ahlström (alder + stream), or Dahl/Dahlin (valley).  Read more HERE


    As a genealogist, I enjoy the study of surnames and what they mean, and to what nationality they’re linked.  In genealogy research, I’ve been bemused by some of the names chosen centuries ago when families were forced to take a designated surname.  I am more familiar with our Dutch family names, many families forced to adopt permanent surnames by Napoleon if they didn’t already have one.  After occupying the Netherlands, on August 18, 1811, Napoleon required the hardy Dutch to register permanent surnames.  The stubborn Dutchmen that they were/are, you can find many interesting surnames among today’s Dutch if you delve into the meaning, including serious, humorous, place names, and occupational names. 


    Apparently, the top 10 Dutch surnames  include:  DeJong/DeYonge (the Young), Jansen (Jan’s son, like the American Johnson), De Vries (the Frisian, or of Vriesland), Van De Berg/Van Den Berg/Van Der Berg (from the mountain), Van Dijk/Van Dyk/Dyke (residing near a dijk/dyk/dike), Bakker (a baker), Visser (means fisherman with variations including Vissers, Visscher and Visschers.  After emigration to America, this surname was often changed to Fisher, which my paternal grandfather’s uncle did); Smid/Smit/De Smit/Smidt/Smits (a blacksmith), Meijer/Meyer/Hofmeijer (a farmer who managed a farm/estate for the owner/landlord like the ancient feudal system.)


    My paternal grandmother’s Vos of Zuid/South Holland province means fox.  My paternal grandfather’s Visscher (fisherman) family is from Groningen province, close to Germanic influence, and my husband’s Roorda (similar to the English Edward meaning famous guardian) is Frisian.  The first documented Roorda in Friesland province rode with Charlemagne, though I don’t know how my husband’s ancestors connect to him.  My mother-in-law’s family names include Van Der Heide (from the moor/heath), Van Den Berg (from the hill/mountain), and ten Kate (the cat).


    Other common Dutch surnames include Boer (farmer), Buskirk (bush church, i.e. kirk/church in the woods), de Groot (the large or great), de Wit (the blond), Mulder (miller), Noteboom (nut/walnut tree), ten Boom (at/the tree or pole), Van Der Zee (from the sea), van Dorp (from the village) van Staalduinen (from the steel dune) – you get the idea!


    As my long-time readers will recall, I’ve been enamored with all things Dutch having been born into a paternal full Dutch family.  Though my mother’s family had had little knowledge of their full ancestry until my in-depth research, it is interesting to note my mother’s paternal Swiss Dallenbach/Tillapaugh/German Kniskern and maternal Scots-Irish McNeill/German Ottman are overwhelmingly Dutch and German Palatine with Scots-Irish, English and French scattered amongst them.  That my mother’s parents each descend from one of the only two sons of a German Palatine widow is also among my treasured ancestral findings.

    I extracted a number of Dutch surnames from Wikipediaparticularly since early New York was settled predominantly by the Dutch in New Netherlands.  Think about the names below, sound them out using your best phonics, and you’ll hear names and terms in use today, many of which are familiar to me from my grandparents and their friends. 

    Baas – The Boss

    Bakker – Baker

    Beek, van – From the brook

    Bos – Forest

    Berg, van der/den – From the cliff, mountain

    Berkenbosch- birch wood, a grove of birch trees

    Boer, de – the Farmer

    Boogaard – from the orchard, Americanized as Bogart

    Boor, van der – possibly of the same French root as Boer – farmer or simple person, aka boorish

    Bouwman – mason, construction worker

    Brouwer – Brewer

    Bruin, de (Bruijn, de) – brown

    Buskirk, van – literally bush church, or church in the woods

    Cornelissen – son of Cornelis/Cornelius

    Dekker – from the verb dekken or to cover as in covering roof tops (compare English "Thatcher")

    Dijk, Deijck, van – From the dike

    Dijkstra  – From the dike

    Graaf, de – The count/earl

    Heide, van der – from the heath

    Hendriks, Hendriksen, Hendrix – Henry's son

    Heuvel, van den – From the hill, mound

    Kuiper, Cuyper, Kuyper, de – the Cooper

    Leeuwen, van – From Leeuwen/Leuven; Levi

    Jaager, de – the Hunter

    Jansen, Janssen – Jan's son (compare Johnson)

    Jong, de – the Junior

    Koning, Koningh, de – the King

    Lange, de – the long/the tall

    Linden, van der – from the Linden (type of tree)

    Meijer, Meyer – Bailiff or steward

    Meer, van der – From the lake

    Molen, van der – from the Mill

    Mulder, Molenaar – Miller

    Maarschalkerweerd – Keeper of the horses (compare English marshal)

    Peters or Pieters – Peter's son

    Prins – Prince

    Ruis, Ruys, Ruisch, Ruysch – the sound of wind or water (surname common with millers).

    Rynsburger – inhabitant of Rijnsburg

    Smit, Smits – Smith

    Teuling – Toll taker

    Timmerman – Carpenter (timber man)

    Tuinstra – From the Garden

    Visser – Fisher [my ancestral Visscher – Fisherman (from Groningen, near Germanic influence)]

    Vliet, van – From the vliet (type of water)

    Vries, de – from Friesland/Frisian

    Vos – Fox

    Westhuizen, van der – from the houses located in the west

    Willems, Willemsen – William's son

    Wit, de – White (= the blond)


    But, back to our preoccupation with occupational surnames, particularly old English surnames.   Brewster was a woman brewer of alcoholic beverages, like beer.  Chapman, old English for ceapmann, was a merchant or salesman.  A cooper made wooden barrels or tubs with innumerable uses.  A miller owned or worked in a mill, especially noted early on for grinding grain into flour.  A smith was a blacksmith, hammering out iron objects heated in the fire.  A tanner cured hides, while a currier (remember the artwork of Currier and Ives?) removed the hair from the hide, readying it to be made into leather goods.  An experienced tailor could sew the finest outfits just by taking your measurements.  A wright was a skilled woodworker, the word replaced by carpenter in the 11th century.  A prefix designated other skills a wright might be proficient in – i.e. a shipwright built ships, a wheelwright made and repaired wooden wheels, a millwright set up machinery, and a wainwright was a wagon maker.


    The name Cooper is Anglo-Saxon, stemming from the original Latin word cupa, Middle Dutch kuiper, German kuper, and anglicized in England during the 8th century.  Surnames were also necessary when governments implemented a personal tax, or the Poll Tax as it was known in England.  Over the centuries, many surnames have changed spellings, some dramatically so, often due to one’s ability to spell, or lack thereof.  This fact alone is key when researching your ancestors.


    A cooper was a skilled craftsman who worked with a variety of carpentry tools.  He made and shaped wooden staves with broadaxes, planes and drawknives to form the rounded vessel, which in turn was held together by wooden or metal hoops/rings around the exterior.  He then fashioned wooden lids or barrelheads to fit tightly.  A cooper played a vital role within a community.  His barrels, buckets, butter churns, casks, firkins, hogsheads, kegs and tubs, etc. were needed to hold milk, water and a whole range of staples/food supplies, dry food goods, gunpowder, and other liquids like beer and wine.  The products of a cooper’s trade were generally known as cooperage, or individually a piece of cooperage. 


    A dry or slack cooper made wooden containers for dry goods including grains, nails, tobacco, fruits and vegetables.  A dry-tight cooper’s casks kept moisture out, enabling gunpowder and flour to be preserved.  A white cooper made the pails, buckets, dippers, butter churns and tubs to hold liquids, but these were not used for shipping.  These containers used straight staves, or wood that was not bent.  The wet or tight cooper made barrels and casks in which liquids, including beer and wine, could be stored and preserved, and later transported.  Certain woods have long been used in wine barrels to give a distinctive flavor enhancement to wine and liquors.


    When we think of a miller, one who owned or worked in a mill, we usually envision a gristmill in an idyllic setting by a flowing stream and peaceful pond.  The water flowed over the wooden “paddle wheel” which turned the shaft/gears which turned the millstone.  A miller is among the oldest professions, a vital link within the community since everyone needed his product.  Millers took grain and ground it finely between two flat millstones to make flour, the staple of breads, biscuits, pastries and pasta.  Almost every community had its own mill for the convenience of local farmers transporting their grain.  The miller’s income often stemmed from a “miller’s toll,” a certain percentage of the grain he had milled rather than a monetary fee. 


    Wikipedia describes the milling process well:  “The millstones themselves turn at around 120 rpm.  They are laid one on top of the other.  The bottom stone, called the bed, is fixed to the floor, while the top stone, the runner, is mounted on a separate spindle, driven by the main shaft.  A wheel, or stone nut, connects the runner's spindle to the main shaft, and this can be moved out of the way to disconnect the stone and stop it from turning, leaving the main shaft turning to drive other machinery.  This might include driving a mechanical sieve to refine the flour or turning a wooden drum to wind up a chain used to hoist sacks of grain to the top of the mill.  The distance between the stones can be varied to produce the grade of flour required; moving the stones closer together produces finer flour.”


    Smith, another common old English surname of the Anglo-Saxon era, or the German smithaz or Schmidt, originates from workers who were skilled in working with metal, such as a blacksmith or metalsmith.  They made wrought iron or steel items by forging - the process of heating the metal in a fire until it is soft enough to be hammered, bent or cut to make gates, railings, agricultural implements, tools, household items, and weapons, etc.  Typically, a blacksmith made horseshoes while a farrier shod the horse, though often their skills were interchangeable.  A whitesmith/tinsmith or tinker worked with tin, typically making useful household items.  Working with a lighter metal, he did not need the higher temperatures of a blacksmith’s fire.  The skills of both a silversmith and goldsmith are self-explanatory. 


    Tanner is also an ancient Anglo-Saxon surname taken by those employed in the process of tanning animal hides/skins.  It is thought to be of Celtic origin, a word for the oak tree and its bark which was used for tanning.  A tanner held an important skill during the medieval era when leather was used for many common but necessary items including buckets, clothing, shoes, harness and saddles, and even armor for battle.  Tannin (from the German word “tanna” for oak or fir, i.e. Tannenbaum) is the chemical residue from oak tree bark used to treat the animal hides, also producing the coloring during the process.


    The Wikipedia article in my research includes a photo entitled “Peeling bark for the tannery in Prattsville, New York during the 1840s, when it was the largest in the world.”  Here, men are shown removing strips of bark from the base of trees in the forest.  Oak and hemlock were the trees of choice.  After peeling the bark off, the trees were sawn into firewood or lumber.  The bark was set out to dry, then ground down and put into vats of water, and left to leach out the tannic acid necessary for tanning hides.  Many of those early virgin forests were thus logged bare for the tanning products.


    Some of the tools used in the process of tanning include:

    Fleshing knife – for removing the flesh from an animal skin/hide

    Unhairing knife – for removing the animal hair on the skin/hide

    Sleeker – for smoothing the skin/hide

    Buffer – for shining the animal's skin/hide

    Stone mill - driven by horses, used for grinding oak-tree bark which is used during tanning.


    In the old days, tanning was an odiferous trade, typically performed by the poor on the outer edges of town.  Even today, if the old-fashioned methods are used, tanneries emit foul odors and shops are set up well away from populated areas of town.  The process is a lost art, one I found fascinating to read about, even if yucky.  Again, Wikipedia gives an apt description of the processes.  There may be some within our communities who trap and tan the animal hides to make their own leather.  If so, they likely use a modern chemical process which I saw described online.  But, for the purpose of the history of this interesting old skill, we’ll describe the ancient process.


    When the skins/hides arrived at the tanner’s shack, they were dry, stiff and filthy.  The first step was to soak them in salt water for curing to help prevent bacterial decay.  The soaking steps also helped to clean and soften the hides.  The hides were next treated with a layer of lime, and then pounded and scoured to remove any remaining flesh and fat.  The hair needed to be removed, either by soaking in urine, coating it with a lime mixture, or letting the skin putrify for a few months before dipping it into another salt solution.  With the hair loosened, the tanner could more easily scrape the hair fibers off with the unhairing knife. 


    After the hair had been removed, either animal brains, manure/dung or urine was pounded or rubbed into the skin.  The ancient tanner often used his bare feet to knead the skins in dung water for a few hours.  Centuries ago, tanners hired children to collect dung and urine from chamber pots set out on street corners for such a purpose.  Plant juices or bone marrow, urine and rotted brains were used by many African tribes to make soft leather.  The ancient Hebrews used oak bark, Egyptians used Babul pods, and the Arabs used barks and roots.  Japanese preferred rapeseed (a flowering plant) and safflower oils.  Eskimos used fish oil, while Native Americans would smoke the hides to tan them.  Mud and alum were used by the ancient Chinese, as did the Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Indians, and Greeks.


    Softening the hide can be done by further pounding or rubbing it with sticks or heavy ropes, or by pulling it from the edges with another person to stretch it out.  After putting the hide through all these processes, it would be pliable and to ready to use in making various items.   I remember going with my father as an early teen to a leather shop in Newark, NJ where he picked out leather of various shades, thickness and flexibility, including alligator hide.  Using a variety of tools to create designs, he made beautiful purses for my mother and others in the family.  I still have a small one he made when I was about 5. 


    The ancients took leftover leather scraps from their projects and put them into a vat with water to rot.  After several months, this mixture was boiled down to make hide glue.  Nothing was wasted!


    A cooper, blacksmith, tailor or wheelwright can often be found in living history museums like those I have visited:  Bement-Billings Museum in Newark Valley, NY; the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY; Genesee Country Village Museum in Mumford, NY; and Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, just to name a few as there are so many other museums to visit.


  9. Most people connected to Chemung County are aware there is a serious contamination issue on the grounds of Elmira High School and potentially in the school’s surrounding neighborhoods as well. First identified more than 25 years ago, the problem remains largely unmitigated, placing scores of students, teachers, staff, residents and community members at risk for exposure to hazardous chemicals.

    Industrial Background

    Jim Hare, Elmira’s former mayor and a local historian, recently published an article in the Star Gazetteabout the industrial background of Elmira High School’s property on South Main Street, an area sits in what is now a largely residential area.


    The Preliminary Site Assessment for the Remington Rand Plant site prepared by the Unisys Corporation, the company which has liability for the property, prepared in July 1988, provides in interesting history of the site on South Main St. The property purchased by the Elmira City School District for the new high school had been an industrial site since 1882 when 20 acres of land were donated by John Arnot to encourage business development in Elmira.  The Payne Engine and Boiler works was the first business to locate there.  From 1909-1935 the Morrow Company and the Willys-Morrow Company occupied the site.  From 1935-37 the Elmira Precision Tool Company was there to be replaced by the Remington Rand which lasted until 1972.  In 1977, the Elmira City School District took possession of the northern part of the property.

    While there were questions and comments on the street about the site and its history,  in all of the public discussion about building a new school on a site which had been used by industry for nearly 100 years, the risk  of hazardous waste and pollution which might jeopardize students and faculty was never raised as an issue.  Indeed there was no discussion about the exposure to such waste by neighbors of  the property.

    In 1952, the State Department of Health informed the Remington Rand that toxic wastes were being discharged to the Chemung River.  In January 1954, a large fish kill resulting from cyanide contamination on the river resulting from nickel plating at the plant was noted.  Further contamination was noted in 1958.  In 1965, Sperry Rand Corporation was notified that elevated concentration of zinc and cyanide were noted in Miller Creek (flows into Miller’s Pond).  By 1967 Sperry Rand had failed to meet abatement schedules to treat contamination problems.

    The 1988 Preliminary Site Assessment, referenced by Hare above, provides an incredibly detailed overview of the area’s history. It also includes a table describing the waste produced by Remington Rand in 1967, just ten years before the Elmira City School District purchased the property.


    Public Outcry

    To the best of my knowledge, concerns about the environmental safety at Elmira High School (formerly Southside High School) were first raised in the late 1990’s by a group of parents and students over what appeared to be an unusually high number of serious illnesses, including cancers, in young people who attended the school.

    Indeed, an article published in the New York Times on on December 27, 2000, entitled “Specter of Cancer Haunts a School; Industrial City of Elmira Confronts Environmental Legacy” detailed the concerns that were raised at that time.

    Years ago they drew little notice, the pond that never freezes, the rainbow of colors glinting off the surface of a creek, the hard-to-pronounce chemicals sprayed, painted and, yes, sometimes spilled around the mile-long stretch of factories on the south side of town.

    This small Southern Tier city, which promotes itself as the gateway to the Finger Lakes and the place where Mark Twain wrote classics like ”The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” owes much of its existence to the less glamorous might of industry, which in the last century turned out cars, tools, typewriters, warplane components, fire hydrants and much more.

    But as Elmira strives to rebound from years of hard times after the decline of manufacturing, residents have begun to question the legacy of all those factories as never before.

    They are especially concerned by suggestions that a number of cancer cases reported by former and current students of a high school here are linked to the school, which was built on land that has supported a diverse array of industry from the Civil War to the 1970’s.

    The State Health and Environmental Conservation Departments have conducted tests at Southside High School and a neighboring property that is the site of an abandoned plant.

    Interestingly, Hare’s recent article included a quote from Dr. Paul Zaccarine, Elmira City School District’s Superintendent at the time the high school property was purchased from Remington Rand, who stated in 1976 that “the positive aspect of having that building put up there does outweigh the negative aspect of using that particular area as an industrial site.”

    However, when he was interviewed in 2000 by the USA Today, Dr. Zaccrine had a much different outlook.


    ”I wish I could undo it,” says Paul Zaccarine, 71, the school superintendent who oversaw the school’s construction in the late 1970s. Now retired and living in Illinois, he is watching in horror as student after student gets cancer.

    ”It’s really frightening,” he says. ”That site was the least desirable as far as I was concerned, but because the Remington Rand people had given us the land, the board voted to go ahead and take it. We got it for a dollar or something.”

    He says the long-term effects of the industrial waste were never considered. So far, nobody has found any evidence that an environmental study was done before school construction began in 1977.

    ”We just didn’t know enough about all of that to have it be a concern,” Zaccarine says. ”Every way we looked at it, we just felt it was an opportunity to get a brand-new school with a lot of the facilities we needed. If we had any indication that there was any contamination, we certainly would not have gone ahead with it.”

    An (Unfulfilled) Promise to Clean Up

    As a result of the push by community members, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) began taking soil samples from the high school’s grounds in 2000, a process that continues today, and has taken some steps to protect people who enter the property from coming into contact with what it concedes are toxic subsurface contaminants and vapors.

    In 2014, Unisys, company that owns the property and is the responsible for paying all clean-up costs, began investigating the site itself.  Based on what it found, Unisys chose to enter New York State’s Brownfield Cleanup Program. Last summer Unisys worked with the DEC and New York’s Department of Health to remove below ground PCB contaminated soils.

    However, the work is nowhere near completion. According members of the DEC at a public forum I attended last month, Unisys plans to remove 28,000 tons of contaminated soil from Elmira High School this summer, as outlined in the DEC’s powerpoint slides. This project will require the use of 35-40 trucks per day/6 days a week starting the day after school ends and finishing just before it resumes again next year. Workers will wear fully protective clothing, the trucks will be sprayed down each time they leave the premises, and the materials will be hauled to a hazardous waste dump.

    Of greater concern is the amount of work that will remain uncompleted at the end of the summer. The Brownsfield Clean-Up Program is notoriously slow, and it allows liable parties such as Unisys to delay remediation – i.e. paying for it – for years as the process drags on. The Brownsfield Program also allows companies engaged in remediation to receive tax credits each year, lessening the incentives liable businesses have to complete their work as soon as possible.

    Specifically, at last month’s public forum DEC officials stated the investigation into the extent of contamination at the school – a process that started almost two decades ago – will take at least 2 more years to complete, and Unisys will need an indefinite amount of time to mitigate the areas they acknowledge need to be addressed, as shown below.


    What about the Residents?

    Unfortunately, the contamination problem at Elmira High School is not likely limited to the school’s grounds. Although to date there has not been a large-scale inspection of the surrounding community, some evidence has begun to emerge that raises serious concerns.

    Specifically, John and Joann Siedman, residents of Raecrest Circle in Elmira, recently received a letter from Geosyntec Consultants, a company that is working with Unisys to assess the scope of contamination.

    The letter states that environmental samples from the Siedman’s property show toxic contamination, and warns them to take precautions on their property including “washing your hands, avoiding incidental ingestion of of soil during play, cleaning any soil covered tools and minimizing digging or relocating soil in areas where routine flooding occurs…(and keeping) livestock/pets from these areas as well.” Incredibly, neither Geosyntec, Unisys, NYDEC nor any other entity alterted the Siedman’s neighbors about their findings.

    IMG_2620 - CopyIMG_2621 - Copy

    Potential Legislative Actions

    This issue highlights why our community desperately needs a strong legislative body.

    The grounds of Elmira City School District’s only high school are admittedly contaminated, and many of its residential properties may be as well. As such, a full, immediate clean-up must be a top priority for all elected officials in our county, and the legislature can do a lot to put things in motion.

    There are three ways the Chemung County Legislature could make an immediate impact on this issue:

    Pass a Strong Resolution

    The goal for our community should be an immediate completion of the DEC’s investigation, followed by and/or in conjunction with a full remediation by Unisys. Continuing to implement “interim remedial measures”, i.e. piecemeal clean-up acts that could span a decade or more,  is simply not the answer.

    The legislature introduced a resolution last month, but tabled it after members of the community – including myself – stressed during public comment period that it doesn’t go far enough. Last night the resolution passed unanimously.

    Specifically, the resolution reads as follows:


    The language of this resolution should be contrasted with a letter signed by nearly 1,100 people affected by this issue – including several sitting Chemung County legislators – that urges New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to go much further. Indeed, the letter asks Cuomo to take the remediation effort out of the Brownsfield Clean-Up program altogether and instead pursue a far more proactive approach.


    We, the undersigned, write respectfully to request that you immediately require all of the toxic site concerns associated with the former Sperry Remington manufacturing site in Elmira, NY to be consolidated into a single site that is given a Class 1 Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Site designation: “Causing or presenting an imminent danger of causing irreversible or irreparable damage to the public health or the environment — immediate action required.”

    This action is warranted because it has been more than 20 years since high-level toxic pollution was discovered to have migrated nearly 1,000 feet from the former Sperry Remington factory site to Miller Pond in Elmira, NY. Yet, the full scope of that contaminated property’s public health and environmental hazards has neither been fully investigated and delineated nor cleaned up in strict compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements.

    The delay in achieving comprehensive clean up in strict compliance with all applicable regulatory requirements is unacceptable given that Elmira High School at 777 South Main Street is built directly on the contaminated site and a responsible party is required to clean it up. In addition, a residential neighborhood adjoining the former factory site has yet to be investigated for toxic pollution threats.

    Continued participation in the Brownsfield Clean-Up Program is too slow, and far too much is at stake to allow further delays. Whether the approach outlined in the letter is the most appropriate response remains an open question, requiring the sitting legislators to dig deep in order to figure out what our community needs. What we all should be able to agree upon is that waiting two more years for the investigation alone to be to completed is an absolutely unacceptable way to go.

    Conduct an Investigation

    As I described in a prior blog post, Chemung County’s charter is riddled with untapped potential as it relates to the legislature.

    Specifically, the charter provides that the legislature has the power to:


    [M]ake such studies and investigations as it deems to be in the best interests of the County and in connection therewith to obtain and
    employ professional and technical advice, appoint temporary advisory boards of citizens, subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, and require the production of books, papers and other evidence deemed necessary or material to such study or inquiry.

    What does this mean in terms of the contamination situation? It means the legislature has the power to take the lead in protecting our community. It can hire experts to conduct testing, appoint a commission of local citizens with specialized knowledge in this field, place members of NYDEC and Unisys under subpoena and have them testify under oath at a hearing, and/or demand NYDEC and Unisys produce documents and records that will help our community begin to understand what is happening and how big this problem really is.

    This approach is very similar to what is happening at the federal level with respect to injuries and deaths related to Takata airbag inflators. U.S. senators have stated they are undertaking the investigation and hearings to examine the “current manufacturer recall completion rates, the Takata bankruptcy and transition to new ownership under Key Safety Systems, and what all stakeholders including NHTSA are doing to ensure this process continues to move forward.”

    That is exactly what the sitting legislators can and should do here. A local entity needs to take the lead in this matter, and the legislature has the requisite power to do it.

    Create a true Council of Governments

    This issue highlights the need we have for a Council of Governments (COG), with representatives from all levels of local government including the county, towns and villages, the school districts, the sewer district, various public safety and public works entities and others.

    If we had a COG in place right now, it would be the logical place to take a massive issue like this, as the contamination problem overlaps many different governmental bodies. Unfortunately, Chemung County’s COG disbanded many years ago, and recent calls for a “quasi-COG” are so riddled political posturing that its hard to imagine it getting off the ground anytime soon.

    The legislature should act now to create a true COG that is unentangled by unnecessary components I have described in prior blog posts here and here. The legislators to do need to wait for approval from the Executive’s office. To the contrary, they can – and should – act now.

    There has never been a greater need for genuine cooperation than there is at this moment. Chemung County is facing a very serious problem. We need a legislature that is ready and willing to face it head on.


    Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature