Friday, October 17, 2014

Girl Bands and Geneva

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

Recently, I got the book Swing Shift by Sherrie Tucker.  The book was published in 2000 and Professor Tucker was a professor at Hobart and William Smith when she wrote it.  Swing Shift is about the all-women bands of the 1930s and 1940s.  I wondered if any of the bands in the book were seen or heard in Geneva.  It turns out some of them were.

The first band I found was Ina Ray Hutton and her Melodears.  At the age of eight, Ina (1916 –1984) began dancing and singing onstage.   By the time she was 18, she had been featured in revues in Chicago and on Broadway, including the Ziegfield Follies.  In 1934, Irving Mills (a manager and jazz publisher) asked Ina to lead an all-girl orchestra called the Melodears.   

Ina and the Melodears were one of the first women bands filmed for Paramount shorts and Hollywood features.  The group visited Geneva several times in the 1930s, including in 1939, and performed at Schine’s Geneva Theater.  The group disbanded in 1939.    During the War years, many male musicians were drafted and “girl bands” came to prominence in popular music.  Ina, though, conducted an all-male band through the 1940s.  She brought them to town in 1948 when they played at Club 86. 

Between 1939 and 1948 Ina Ray was not forgotten in Geneva.  In 1942 She showed up in the Daily Times wearing her rubber bathing suit for the last time before she donated it to the war effort.  “Bombshell to Bomber,” said the Times.  

Ina and the Melodears, of course, were not the only female musicians of the era.  Professor Tucker mentioned that girl bands tended to be either bombshells or domestic angels.  Another girl band was Phil Spitalny’s Hour of Charm orchestra, which ran from 1934 to 1954.  I have not found that Hour of Charm visited Geneva, but they do show up frequently in the radio schedule listings in the local paper.  In 1946, for example, you could hear them on Sunday at 10pm on WHAM.  They were also featured in a short film, too, and were listed in between Cary Grant’s Mr. Lucky and a Donald Duck cartoon in the Schine’s Daily Times ad on July 12, 1943.

Geneva Daily Times, May 22, 1939

For twenty years, Phil Spitalny incorporated a talent search into his orchestra performances and women in this area tried out.  In 1941, the Daily Times reported that three young women had been chosen as “Cornell finalists” in the preliminary Hour of Charm song auditions.  The eventual winner would appear as guest singer on the Hour of Charm broadcast and win $100.  In 1947, the Shortsville Enterprise ran a piece congratulating Miss Ann Stoddard for performing a harp solo with the Hour of Charm.   

The Daily Times mentions several other “all-girl” bands appearing locally during the 1940s.  Joe Bishop and his All Girl Band played at Schine’s for the Halloween Fun Fest in 1940.  Pearl Jaquin’s All-American Girl Band performed at the Romulus Grange Hall in January 1941.  The same group played for the Danc’ Inn the next August.  Count Berni Vici and his All-Girl Band played Schine’s in February 1942.  The Count’s band also traveled with a chorus line.  In 1946, Geneva’s Armory hosted a Dance Parade, featuring Bonnie Downs and her All Girl Band.  Professor Tucker says the Downs Band was made up of Eastman School of Music students.

Many of the girl bands went on USO tours, both in the US and abroad.  I have not found that any of the nationally touring women’s bands played at the Geneva USO, but the Daily Times reported in April 1945 that “Music sweet and smooth was served up by Eastman School of Music students for servicemen at USO yesterday . . . an all-girl orchestra headed by Miss Nancy Gates of Geneva presented a program in the style of Phil Spitalny’s girl orchestra.  . . .”  The program was about a month after Joe Louis visited the Geneva USO.  It appears that the USO went for variety.

Monday, October 13, 2014

World War II in the Eyes of a "Boomer"

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

The Geneva Historical Society is starting to focus more on researching Geneva during the World War II years because we have an event coming up in February highlighting the entertainment, music, and costume of the 1940s.  Since I was born in the early 1950s World War II was very fresh in the memories of my parents and their friends so by process of osmosis I became more familiar with that war than some of the more recent ones during my own life. 

The years after World War II ended were filled with comic books, novels, television programs and newspaper articles about the War. My cousin, who was 10 years older than I, had an enormous collection of comics that I was allowed to read if I was very careful (and sometimes very sneaky) and many of them dealt with combat situations.  I remember sitting on the living room rug and quietly listening to my dad and his friends discuss their experiences in the War.   Since I was present they were never explicit about traumatic events, I can’t recall them ever even mentioning shooting or being shot at much less killing someone, but they did talk about things that happened from which they were able to extract some humor.  I think they forgot at times I was there and when that happened they were a bit harsher with their criticisms of the officers in charge of their units.  If I was really quiet I might even add a few words to my vocabulary that I didn’t dare use, but were interesting to know.

Geneva teachers helping with the harvest

When I mentioned the era was filled with television programs having to do with war, I mean full!  A quick look at Wikipedia found eight military programs dealing with World War II airing in 1962 alone.  That count is probably off because I didn’t recognize some of the titles, but I will mention just a few of the ones that appeared regularly on our family television:

Combat! (1962 – 1967)
12 O’clock High (1964 – 1967)
The Gallant Men (1962 – 1963)
No Time for Sergeants (1964)
Hogan’s Heroes (1965 – 1971)
McKeever and the Colonel (1962 – 1963)
McHale’s Navy (1962 – 1966)
Hennessey (1959 – 1962)
Ensign O’Toole (1962 – 1963
Convoy (1965 – 1966)

As a child, I really enjoyed these shows.  I loved the comedies not knowing at the time that the War experience may have humorous incidents, but as a whole, is not funny.  I also loved the dramas, romanticizing the soldiers.  I grew up in a neighborhood where all of the children my age were boys (except me of course), so we played “soldier” when we weren’t playing cowboys and Indians.  I could lob a dirt clod grenade with the best of them and many a night saw me coming in the house covered with dust and with my fingernails grimy from mining the garden for appropriate size dirt balls to thrown at the boys next door.  I think our “war” came to a screeching halt the day one of them hit me with a dirt covered rock he had mistaken for a clod.  I may even have used one of those “special occasion” words I learned watching TV with my father and his friends.

Angelo Street boys

Now that I am older, and TV programs about almost any war are generally shown on PBS and done by someone like Ken Burns, I perceive war for what it really is, a frightening breakdown of civilized discourse brought on by greed, fear and hatred and acted out with a tremendous loss of life and property.  There is very little romance or comedy involved.

How did the children of Geneva see World War II?  We have pictures of the young men on Angelo Street having “war exercises”.  There are also photos of scrap metal collections done by the children of the city.  One book, Kathryn Grover’s Close to the Heart of the War: Geneva in WWII mentions teenager boys working a midnight to 2pm shift at American Can.  Though I haven’t found reference to their feelings on the subject, rationing must have had an impact on how children ate.  With items like meat and sugar being rationed I suspect there were some interesting substitutes for cookies, hot dogs, sausages and meatloaf.  I was looking through a war time cookbook which had a recipe for preparing parsnips as a substitute for bananas!  There was also a recipe for potato chocolate candy, and a brown butter soup.  The soup had no meat or meat juice in it at all.  I suspect the closest it came to meat was if a bird flew over a house while it was being prepared.

I can’t imagine going to bed every night hoping my father would come home from the war in one piece, or watching my mother be afraid.  I know my own dad often told me he was glad he had daughters so he would not have to see us go off and fight.

Students at St. Francis DeSales with their War Saving Stamp books

Close to the Heart of the War  also includes images of children collecting for metal drives, collecting milkweed pods for life preservers, and participating in the war bond program.  Some younger folks worked in the farm fields in the summers because of lack of labor due to the draft and jobs with high priority during war time.  I worked hard around the house as a child because my folks did not believe in being idle, but I can’t imagine what it would feel like to get out of bed at 11 P.M. and go to work for 12 hours, then come home and try to go to sleep so I could do well in school.  Just the thought of these things makes my entire life feel very privileged.

Looking back on my childhood I realize how we never feared being hungry and cold, while children in Europe were still starving and living without basic necessities of life, like a dry place to spend the night, fresh water, fresh food, or clean clothes.  They didn’t portray that on TV!

Boy Scouts outside City Hall

There are as many different views of Geneva during and after the war as there were people who experienced it here.  I have only touched on a couple, but if you would like to know more Close to the Heart of the War: Genevaduring World War II can be purchased through our website.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Geneva's "Busted Yankees"

By Anne Dealy, Director of Education and Public Information

Top of the front page of the Geneva Daily Times, July 28, 1914 with war declaration.
Austria was the first nation to declare a state of war. They were quickly followed by Russia, France and Britain.

World War I exploded across the pages of Geneva’s newspaper during late summer, 1914. The front page of the Geneva Daily Times abruptly shifted its coverage from the Mexican Revolution and civil unrest in Haiti and Ireland to full-blown coverage of the war in Europe.

One immediate U.S. concern was for Americans abroad. As we saw in our previous post about the Herendeen family, the war came about so suddenly and unexpectedly that few people were prepared for it. As mobilization for war began across Europe, there were over 100,000 Americans visiting or living abroad who were unable to leave easily. In addition to covering the national story of these “busted Yankees” as they were sometimes called, the Geneva Times reported on local citizens who were caught up in the start of war and their efforts to return to Geneva.

Headline of newspaper article: Friends worry about Americans abroad.
Americans abroad were a concern throughout the country. Geneva Daily Times headline, August 1, 1914

In an August 1 article about Americans abroad, the Times listed 22 Genevans known to be living or traveling in Europe. Many were professors or scientists associated with Hobart and William Smith Colleges or the State Agricultural Experiment Station, while others, like the Herendeens, were touring the continent. One couple was on their honeymoon trip.

When the war began on August 4, the United States pledged to remain neutral, so Americans were not in any particular danger in the nations they were traveling in. However, no one wanted to be in a potential war zone, and the rush was on to get back to the States. There were two main problems facing those who wanted to leave: money and transportation.

Image of a sample letter of credit
A sample letter of credit from the Scientific American Handbook of Travel, 1910.

As we saw in John’s previous post, Frank Herendeen was in no rush to leave Germany. He and his family could afford to stay in the country during mobilization. Other Americans were not so lucky. Travelers at this time relied on cash, traveler’s checks or letters of credit drawn against funds deposited with a bank or broker based in the United States. In the first days of the war, many European banks would not honor checks or letters of credit, and travelers soon began to run out of money. The U.S. State Department had to act as an intermediary, helping those in the States send funds to their relatives in Europe. By August 4, Congress had appropriated $2.5 million dollars to be distributed to Americans stranded in Europe without money. On August 11 The Times reported that American diplomats were trying to get 5,000 penniless students out of Germany.

Transportation was the second problem, largely due to war mobilization. On August 4, a Geneva resident and native of Germany, Joseph Holz, explained to the Times how German mobilization worked. He said that his male relations were probably already with their regiments. The order for mobilization of the army immediately put the nation under martial law, subjecting all transportation and communication lines to military control. News of the order for mobilization was spread by telegraph, telephone, courier, and paper bulletin. Response was immediate:
Every man drops his work as soon as he hears the order; the plow is left in the furrow; customers are left at the counter; balances are left unchecked in the bank. Every man liable for military service rushes to the nearest transportation line, which will take him to his regiment, whether its headquarters be a mile away or 100 or 500 miles distant. The reservists do not wait to pack luggage or food. There are clothing, equipment and food for all at the mobilization centers in storage warehouses, always filled, ready for the call. Men go to the trains often hatless and coatless.
According to Holz, this drill was practiced twice a year. German reservists did not need train tickets, since only soldiers could ride the trains during mobilization and they rode for free. This was one reason many foreigners had difficulty getting out of Europe, and why Herendeen did not rush to leave. Trains simply weren’t running for civilians until after the armed forces were assembled, which took about two weeks. Passenger trains were evidently commandeered in other countries as well. American travelers got out however they could, crammed into freight cars and cattle cars with makeshift benches, or like Genevan Katherine Gracey, sitting on a suitcase in the aisle for two days.

Train car with men crowding the windows and waving
Mobilization train full of German men heading to war. Courtesy German Bundesarchiv.

Getting news in Geneva of stranded relatives was also difficult. During mobilization the government took control of the telegraph lines and private messages were difficult to send. In addition, shortly after the war started, the British cut all five German telegraph lines passing through the English Channel. Most families had no news of their relatives for two weeks or more. The Times reported every letter and cable from a Genevan that came to their attention. Katherine Gracey, who was in Switzerland when war broke out, was able to cable her safety to her family by August 13, but a letter she sent on July 31 was not received until August 24. Her family did not hear from her again until she cabled from London on September 4.

Group photo of faculty at Hobart and Williams Smith Colleges, c 1914.
Hobart Professors Alexander L. Harris and Edward J. Williamson were among those Genevans caught in Europe during the outbreak of war.

Some Americans were concerned about being mistaken for British subjects. This was a legitimate problem as passports were not required for travel in most of Europe and therefore not all travelers had them. The situation became a dangerous one for the head of the HWS German Department, Professor Williamson, who was trapped in Berlin at the outbreak of war. Canadian-born, he had a British passport and was in danger as soon as Britain declared war on Germany. Citizens of enemy nations were not permitted to leave the country, and he had to appeal to the American Embassy for a passport. The passport was granted based on his long residency in Geneva, and he was able to leave on a train especially for Americans. He was lucky, or he could have been one of the more than 5,000 British civilian men interned in Germany during the war.*

Photo of a young woman sitting on a porch, c. 1920
Katherine Gracey's post-college tour of Europe coincided with the outbreak of war.

Those who had been in Austria, Switzerland, France and Germany made their way slowly to ports in Holland, France and Italy, where they hoped to get steamship passage back to England or the United States. Then the difficulty became finding and paying for passage. At the same time that scores of people were fleeing Europe, ships were canceling runs across the Atlantic. As soon as war broke out, German and Russian steamships ceased running to the U.S. for fear of capture. Like the trains, many ships were also requisitioned for troop transport. The U.S. government even ordered battleships to Europe to assist in bringing Americans home. Katherine Gracey traveled across the English Channel from Havre to London on the Tennessee, which had left Virginia on August 6 with $8,000,000 in gold bullion to help Americans stranded in Europe. It shuttled them across the Channel and then went to help Jewish refugees leave Palestine as the war engulfed the Ottoman Empire.

Photo of sailors and refugees on deck of USS Tenessee
USS Tennessee transports expelled Russian Jews from Palestine to Alexandria, Egypt, c. 1914. U.S. Naval Historical Center

The least lucky travelers may have been the few immigrants to the United States who were back visiting family or friends in Europe that summer. According to Geneva’s newspaper, one of these, Geneva Cutlery grinder Frederick Schneider of Avenue B, was in danger of being drafted into the German army. There seems to be no further reference to him in the paper, and he is not listed in the city directory after 1913. He may well have been shipped to the Front.

All other travelers accounted for in the Geneva Daily Times appear to have returned from their adventures unscathed. Some reported their ships sailing with lights extinguished at night or being stopped by British or French ships on their way out of European waters. A few heard rumors of their ships being followed, but none reported any great concern for traveling. Americans in far fewer numbers would continue to cross the Atlantic, a voyage that would become very dangerous by January 1915 when Germans began to sink American merchant ships. The German sinking of the British passenger liner the Lusitania in May of 1915 resulted in 1000 deaths, including 128 Americans. This incident and the sinking of American ships became a source of anger that would turn American opinion against the Germans by 1917 and lead the United States to join the European conflict.

Drawing of the sinking of the Lusitania
The 1915 sinking of the Lusitania helped turn American opinion against Germany. Courtesy German Bundesarchiv.

*Both the Germans and the British had internment camps for POWs and men of fighting age caught behind their borders at the start of war. See the sites below for more on this forgotten history.

Friday, September 26, 2014

From Beyond: Washington Street Cemetery Stories

Washington Street Cemetery is the third burial ground in Geneva. The earliest burial spot was on the site of Trinity Episcopal Church on South Main Street. Another early burial ground was on Pulteney Street, where the old Geneva High School once stood and the site of the new FLCC campus.  Graves at the Pulteney Street plot date from as early as the 1790s and were moved to a section of Glenwood Cemetery in 1926 when the school building was built.

In 1832 when room in the Pulteney Street burial ground began running out, the Board of the Village Trustees purchased the land for Washington Street Cemetery.   Eight years later more land was added to the cemetery. The first person buried at Washington Street was Mrs. Augusta Matilda Merrell, who died on September 28, 1832. Older death dates can be found in the cemetery but are likely reburials.

Though the last burial in Washington Street occurred in 2000, only a few have occurred in the last 50 years. Since there are no plots available for purchase only those that were purchased by families many years ago may still be used. Those areas that look empty may be graves of the poor who could not afford a marker, those with a stone that has deteriorated and disappeared, or areas where a family chose to rebury relatives in Glenwood cemetery or elsewhere.

There are about 2,200 burials at the cemetery dating from 1832 to the 1950s and during From Beyond: Washington Street Cemetery Stories the public will encounter several of the cemetery’s residents.   On Friday, October 3 from 6 to 8 p. m. and Saturday, October 4 from 2 to 4 p.m. community actors will “haunt” the cemetery and bring stories from Geneva’s past back to life. Stories will include those of the first graduate of West Point, a local Civil War colonel, an early children's book author, and a local African-American abolitionist. Live music of the Civil War era will also be provided by the group Rowhouse.

From Beyond begins at The Presbyterian Church at 24 Park Place. From the church, participants will be led to Washington Street Cemetery to hear the tales of the cemetery's residents. Tours will leave the church every 10 minutes. Those attending are encouraged to dress for the weather. The tour requires walking 4/10ths of a mile and stand during the performance. Performances will last approximately 25 minutes. For those unable to walk or stand, accessible performances will be held in the church hall on Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. Reservations are required for the accessible performances. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students, grade school through college level. As space is limited, reservations are strongly encouraged for all tours. Refreshments will be available in the Fellowship Hall at the Church.

Directed by Chris Woodworth, a Geneva native and Assistant Professor of Theatre at Hobart and William Smith College, From Beyond is presented by the Geneva Historical Society and the Founder's Square Neighborhood Association with the support of WEOS Public Radio. For more information or to make a reservation, call the Geneva Historical Society at 315-789-5151.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Evolution of Museums and the Geneva Historical Society

By John Marks, Curator of Collections and Exhibits

Charles Willson Peale is considered the father of American museums. (A painting by his son Rembrandt hangs in the main hallway of Rose Hill.) In 1786 he opened a museum of natural history in Philadelphia, which included an extensive portrait gallery; Peale justified this by saying man was at the top of the natural order. He charged 25 cents and felt that he offered “rational amusement,” what we might call leisure time education.

The Artist in His Museum (self portrait, 1822)
Peale pioneered elements still found in today’s museums. He presented “blockbuster” attractions such as a mastodon skeleton excavated in Ulster County, New York. He offered hands-on activities and evening lectures, and in 1816 provided gaslight for the comfort of his visitors. He also experienced challenges that are still with us. His museum struggled to maintain financial support, and did not have a good succession plan for survival after Peale’s death.

While Peale’s museum was almost immediately popular, the Geneva Historical Society had a longer, slower arc. Formed in 1883, membership was restricted to white males over 45 years old who had been born in Geneva. The mere announcement, by Rev. Dr. Hogarth, of an organizational meeting sparked an editorial in the Geneva Gazette of May 18, 1883:

“It would seem feasible to extend the membership so as to embrace all who have resided in Geneva 45 years or longer…it would appear that in an organization of this kind it is desirable to enjoy the fraternity of the older settlers, as all would become deeply interested in reminiscences to the very oldest period attainable. The editor of this paper is ‘barred out’ under the call, tho’ his residence in Geneva dates from 1823 – extending over a period of about 60 years. Open the doors, Dr. Hogarth!”

The main activity was reminiscing about people and events within the members’ memory. Until the 1940s, the historical society went through a cycle of a few years of activity followed by numerous years of dormancy. In 1941, the group had its first space at 501 South Main Street and began collecting and displaying artifacts. In 1946, the historical society was forced to move to vacant classrooms in the old Junior High School until 1950, then went to Lewis Street School for the next ten years. In 1960, Beverly Chew gave his home at 543 South Main Street, which remains the historical society’s headquarters.

Collection and display of artifacts was haphazard in the early years. Objects were often accepted for the following reasons: “it’s old”; “it’s very nice”; “my great-uncle brought it back from his trip to _____ in _____.” As collections outgrew the historical society’s space, things were put everywhere with few labels. Visitors loved it, and many think of that time as the good old days.

The pattern continued when the historical society moved into 543 South Main Street, only with more room to spread out. Objects were displayed for their own sake and there were few records kept about them. The donor’s name might be written down, but little other information as everyone at the historical society knew the donor and his or her story.

Change began in the 1980s, the golden age of New York State grant money. The staff identified important topics in Geneva history that hadn’t been exhibited, and for which we had little information and artifacts. These exhibits included African Americans in Geneva, the waterfront, the nursery industry, and the local impact of World War II. Outside researchers were hired to do oral history interviews, collect photos and artifacts, and write and design the exhibits. The historical society published books from these projects which are still in circulation.

Today we focus our collecting and exhibiting on areas most relevant to Geneva’s history. We look for provenance, or a Geneva-related story, when accepting artifacts; we create exhibits that connect to the city as we know it now. (Some connections, such as the War of 1812, are harder to sell than others.) We also move outside our building and reach out to audiences where they are, rather than wait for them to find us. While we don’t have a mastodon and use LED lights rather than gas, we’re still following many of Charles Willson Peale’s ideas.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Marian Cruger Coffin

By Karen Osburn, Archivist

There is no doubt about it, I am a frustrated gardener.  When I was a child my family, most of who could root a rosebush by sticking a cutting under a mason jar, excelled at growing many different types of plants.  My grandmother, Lucy, had a garden that was the envy of her neighborhood.  The lot was 40’ by 100’ and the house, which was a double, and garage took up most of the land.  What was left was a small patch of lawn roughly 15’ by 18’ surrounded by every type of decorative plant imaginable.  There was even a vegetable patch next to the garage that produced beans, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and some raspberries.  The flower garden and the vegetable garden were separated by a hedge of filbert trees, much to the joy of the local squirrel population.  Lucy could make any plant grow.  Not just survive but thrive!  My parents and my aunt learned from her and so my childhood was filled with decorative and food producing plants that grew lavishly on our property.  My parents composted, practiced crop rotation in the vegetable garden and impressed me into service for many hours of hoeing, weeding by hand and picking fresh vegetables. 

My sister and I have tried to follow in their footsteps, but I will admit that my thumb is more of a pale sea foam green than the verdant grass green of my relatives.  My sister does well with her horticultural endeavors, but mine peaked at about age 30 when I had a large collection of blueberries that produced buckets of wonderful fruit.  Since then I have moved to a home in the city where I have a little space and opportunity to garden, but lack the time.  I look with envy upon my friends who maintain gorgeous gardens and harvest vast amounts of tomatoes, beans, beets, onions and cut flowers from a piece of land sometimes no bigger than 25’ by 25’. Lately, the best I manage is a Christmas cactus that thrives on benign neglect.

I am even more aware of my horticultural shortcomings because some of the best green thumbs in the world once lived here in Geneva.  Between the nurseries, the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, fruit farms and wineries thousands of local people have worked developing plants and designing gardens.

Marian Cruger Coffin and her mother, Alice. 

One of those folks was famed landscape architect Marian Cruger Coffin.  After the death of her father in 1888, Marian and her mother Alice moved to Geneva to live with Alice’s sister, Harriet.  By 1892 the women moved in with Marian’s uncle, John Barker Church IV at 554 South Main Street.  While Alice and Marian were relatively poor they also had many upper class connections due to Alice’s family and those connections would be very helpful to Marian later in life. As Marian had no independent income she faced the choice of finding a rich husband or finding a career which would allow her to support herself.  She chose the latter and in 1901 Alice and Marian moved to Boston so Marian could attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and study architectural landscaping.

It took a lot of determination and courage for any woman to pursue a career in the early 1900s.  As fellow student Martha Brooks Brown put it, “It was considered almost social suicide and distinctly matrimonial suicide, for a woman to enter any profession.”  The social norm of the time was for men to marry younger women and Marian was 25 when she entered MIT.

After graduating in 1904 Marian soon discovered that no architectural firm would hire her because she was a woman, so she started her own business in New York City in 1905.  With connections to some of the most influential families on the East Coast she started designing suburban gardens.  Some of her first projects were on Long Island and eventually her clientele included the Fricks, Vanderbilts, Huttons, and du Ponts.  By the 1920s she became one of the most sought after landscape designers in the eastern United States.

As her reputation spread Marian was able to hire an assistant and move to a larger office.  She was also able to put her ideas and principles into practice.  Her firm not only employed women whenever possible but provided them with apprenticeships, a learning opportunity that had been denied to Marian.   

Many of Marian’s ideas and theories are evident in the gardens of the du Pont estate at Winterthur.  Designed for her friends Harry and Ruth du Pont, it was the biggest commission of her career.  While she made attempts to find work in the Midwest the presence of several well-known firms in Chicago prevented her from making inroads there, however she had plenty of work to keep her busy on the East Coast.  The majority of her work was done in the twelve years between the end of World War I and the Great Depression.

Though the Great Depression reduced the number of commissions she received, Marian worked consistently until her death at age 80 in 1957. During her working lifetime she designed over 130 gardens including the Campus of the University of Delaware, the Caumsett Estate as well as Winterthur in Delaware and dozens of individual estate gardens. 

Marian Cruger Coffin

For more information about Marian read Money, Manure & Maintenance: Ingredients for Successful Gardens of Marian Coffin, Pioneer Landscape Architect 1876-1957 by Nancy Fleming.

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Basket of a Tale

By Alice Askins, Education Coordinator at Rose Hill Mansion

Margaret Johnston's basket
When people donate objects to the museum, we always ask if they know anything about the history of the items.  Sometimes there is a family story about who made or owned a piece, and we take those stories seriously.  Once in a while, though, when we look into the story, we find that there may have been some misunderstanding as the tale was passed down.  One example of this is a basket given to us by the Hutchins family. 

According to Agnes Swan Hutchins a tan grass basket with dark deer silhouettes was acquired by her grandmother Margaret Alexander Johnston on Anticosti Island in 1822.  Margaret was traveling with her young children Elizabeth and James, her sister-in-law Agnes Johnston, and a woman named Margaret McMath who may have been a cousin.  They were coming to join Margaret Johnston’s husband John Johnston, who had come the previous year and bought a farm on the east side of Seneca Lake.  Anticosti Island is at the outlet of the St. Lawrence River into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and it has caused over 400 shipwrecks.  

Anticosti Island is circled in green

In the spring of 1822 it caused a wreck for the Thompson’s Packet which was probably Margaret’s boat as she told the family that she had sailed on the brig Thompson.   Based on shipping records from Montreal, people boating in the gulf kept an eye peeled for trouble.  If a ship was aground, someone sailed up to Montreal and told the harbor master that there was a boat in trouble.  Ships were then sent to rescue the people and tow the boat into harbor.  The Thompson’s Packet was stuck at Anticosti for 16 days, and “received much damage, bout [sic] two leagues to the westward of Grand Bay.”  Meanwhile, John Johnston was frantic about his family.  When they did not show up in Geneva he tried to trace their journey backwards in hopes of locating them.  After a difficult journey on each side, the family was finally reunited in Montreal. 

Based on Agnes’s account native people were living on Anticosti in 1822, and her grandmother acquired a basket from them.  She believed that this was the basket in our collection. 

Last year I tried to learn more about Anticosti and its native inhabitants.  I discovered that although the Mi'kmaq and Innu people often hunted on Anticosti, neither of them had settlements there.  The shipwrecked passengers may have encountered native people, but I had to wonder how likely hunting parties would have been to have fancy baskets with them.

Innu baskets

When I began looking for of Mi’kmaq and Innu baskets online, I was a bit taken aback to find that Mi’kmaq baskets were usually ash splint, and unadorned, or birch bark with quill embroidery.  Innu baskets were apparently also of birch bark.  After contacting the First People’s Hall of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the National Museum of the American Indian, I was referred to the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley California. 

Mi’kmaq basket

The Hearst Museum’s basket specialist, Natasha Johnson, agreed with the National Museum of the American Indian that our basket looks northwestern, and she asked for pictures of its interior. Below is her response -  
Based on the weaving on the interior (tribes to the west and south had plain interiors) I'm pretty positive this basket is Shasta, Wintu, Achumawi (Pit River) or Atsugewi (Hat Creek) that style is common to all four.  It’s not an area I know super well, but I'd estimate the basket to be any time from 1880-1950, possibly made for sale.   . . .  All Northern California tribes used Bear Grass (white) and maidenhair fern stem (black) in their overlay designs.  The under wefts are probably conifer root of some sort and the warps are often hazel or willow shoots.  The basket is twined, mostly plain twined, with three strand twining on the base, again for increased strength. . . . .
 She also sent a link to a picture of one of their baskets that looks very similar.  

Shasta basket from the collection of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology

It’s hard to know, looking at the pictures, how our basket could be anything other than a Northern California specimen.  Though I was disappointed to find this out, I wonder if the Johnston/Swan/Hutchins families had more than one basket in their attic, and if the story became associated with the wrong one.   But it is still a beautiful piece, and it is better to know than not to know.