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Archive for the ‘Elmira, NY’ Category

January 6th, 2015 by Cameron

Elmira’s Water Cure

Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York

At long last, the pen is finally moving again.

I must apologize for taking a few months off. I didn’t really go anywhere, it’s just that Distilled History needed to take a breather. I needed a break so I could throw a few back with the Campbell Family, talk James Eads with fellow history pals, and enjoy the incredible gin selection at my new favorite watering hole.  I also needed it because after bonking my head (quite badly) during a softball game in Tower Grove Park, things got a bit cloudy.

Well, maybe it was a bit worse than that. I lost my short-term memory for a few days, and docs told me that I suffered what is called a “subarachnoid hemorrhage”. It turns out that I’m actually quite lucky to be alive. Even better, I still remember all the useless stuff I’ve written about cocktails, cyclones, prostitutes, beer gardens, and all that other history I’ve compiled about my favorite city.

Well, almost my favorite city.

Elmira from East HillSome readers may recall that I am not a native St. Louisan. I’ve been here nearly twenty years, but I hail from Elmira, a small city located in upstate New York. Elmira is still, and will always be, my home.  It’s where I was born, it’s where I became smitten with the Manhattan cocktail, and perhaps most importantly, it still contains my nutty (but wonderful) mother. As much as I love St. Louis, it simply can’t compete with that.

And as I detailed a couple of years ago, Elmira also has a rich and enlightening history. And since I spent the last week sitting in my hometown drinking ungodly amounts of gin with Mom, I’m kicking off 2015 with some Elmira history. St. Louis, I’m going to be writing about you for years to come (barring additional head trauma), so hang tight. I’ll be back with you soon enough.

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Waturecure Hill RoadAs many know, Elmira’s most notable historical asset is the great American author Samuel Clemens. And despite recent unfortunate activity, Elmira is a good place. You have to scratch the surface a bit to see it, but Elmira is filled with thousands of people who are proud of the city’s history.

Elmira also has a fun little battle going with my fellow Missourians in the town of Hannibal over which area is the true “Mark Twain Country”. Hannibal has a case, but it’s tough to deny my hometown’s claim. Twain spent over twenty summers there, he fell in love (and got married) there, and best of all, he wrote much of his best stuff there.

But perhaps most significantly, he’s well… still there.

I always visit Mark Twain’s grave when I’m home in Elmira. I think it’s really cool that I can visit Twain and his beloved wife Olivia at the same time I visit a couple grandparents. All them share a current address in the (Bellefontaine-esque) Woodlawn Cemetery (and even better, my Grammy lies in peace less than twenty-five yards from another Elmira icon, Ernie Davis).

Anyway, good Elmira history goes far beyond Mark Twain. Much of it has absolutely nothing to do with the guy, but on my recent trip home I looked into a fun topic that shares a common denominator with the great author.

A simple road.

Let me paint the picture. Back in the day, perhaps after playing billiards and throwing a few back with pals at Klapproth’s Tavern on Lake Street, Mark Twain would hop into his carriage and steer it towards East Road (the same road I found myself standing on 150 years later). East Road was the path Mark Twain needed to get to Quarry Farm, his place of residence while summering in Elmira. On the way, Twain could look to his right and wave to Reverend Thomas Beecher, his good friend and the man who married him to Olivia Langdon. Beecher, an Elmira icon himself, had no difficulty acquainting himself to famous authors. His own sister only happened to write the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, a little tale she titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

(See what I’m doing here? Eat your heart out, Hannibal.)

1896 Elmira Map

Anyway, as Twain’s carriage continued upward, Twain would keep an eye out for the hard left he needed on Crane Road, the final turn needed to get him home. But Twain wouldn’t be able do it without visually swallowing the enormous complex of buildings that appeared on his left. That resort, known as “Elmira’s Water Cure”, gave the road the name it bears today, Watercure Hill Road. Almost nothing remains of the resort today (I think), but it must have been a site to see in the days of Silas and Rachel Gleason, two remarkable physicians who came to Elmira in 1852 and opened one of the first hydrotherapy resorts in the United States.

Elmira's Water Cure

Silas Gleason was born in Massachusetts in 1818. After growing up in Vermont and attending Oberlin College in Ohio, he returned to Vermont and graduated from medical school in 1844. In the same year, he married Rachel Brooks, a teacher from Vermont who became interested in studying (and ultimately practicing) medicine with her new husband. The two soon focused on a growing medical movement popular in Germany and England at the time: “Hydropathy”, or “Hydrotherapy” as it’s known today.

Hydrotherapy

As WebMD puts it, Hydrotherapy is “the use of water to treat a disease or to maintain health.” In the 1850’s, many physicians believed that warm and cold baths, compresses, spraying people with water, drinking copious amounts of water, and even tightly wrapping naked people in blankets soaked in water could help ease pain, cure disease, and help relieve symptoms of chronic ailments.

In the 19th Century, common water treatments included “head baths” for vertigo and hypertension, cold showers for people suffering from melancholia, and even “arm baths” to relieve of all things, a sore throat. Extreme treatments included strapping naked women to chairs and hosing them down, a “treatment” some believed could aid in preventing a wife from straying from her marriage.

Modern medicine has helped our ancestors realize that treating cholera or tuberculosis with a warm foot bath wasn’t gonna cut it, but hydrotherapy isn’t entirely quack medicine. It’s hard to argue that a warm bath can’t provide a brief respite to anyone having a rough go. Hydrotherapy also promoted practices such as good hygiene (during a time when bathing on a daily basis was unheard of), drinking ample amounts of clean water (instead of say, rot-gut whiskey), and even the simple relief of splashing cold water on your face after a shitty day at the office.

Fast forward to 2014, and all of us are probably practicing hydrotherapy on some level.

Rachel & Silas Gleason

Unlike the guys fire hosing women trapped in really bad marriages, it seems Elmira’s water doctors had a sense of reason to them. Silas and Rachel Gleason did not profess to be groundbreaking scientists or proponents of  rewriting medical theory. Instead, they promoted their means of treatment as a supplement to standard medical practices of the time.  They had no desire to “do away with doctors” or promote new theories in curing disease. They simply believed in improving life by making many of the same behavioral choices many of us make today. Examples include exercising daily, eating healthy, and getting outside as much as possible. The Gleasons simply believed water could assist these actions by putting the body in balance, removing toxins, and cleansing the mind.

Rachel Brooks Gleason Quote

Even without their Water Cure, the Gleasons were something a remarkable pair. While many Elmirans likely believed they were a couple of flakes , and others offered skepticism about their methods of treatment (Mark Twain included himself among this group), the Gleasons did become respected and active citizens in their new community.

Susan B. AnthonyBefore establishing the Water Cure in Elmira, Silas Gleason participated in the establishment of a medical school in central New York. He lobbied for the new school to admit female students, an almost unheard of idea at the time. But he won his case, and his wife Rachel became one of its first students. When she graduated in 1851, Rachel Gleason became one of the first women in United States history to hold a medical degree. And during many years as a co-founder of Elmira’s Water Cure, she was the only female physician in Chemung County.

This fact could explain why Susan B. Anthony took notice of the Elmira’s Water Cure and eventually became a patient. It’s also possible Anthony was drawn to Elmira by Rachel Gleason herself.  Dr. Gleason was a progressive thinker, intelligent, skilled, and undoubtedly an ideal acquaintance to have at the onset of a burgeoning women’s movement.

Elmira Water-Cure

His wife’s personal physician, Samuel Clemens called her “the almost divine Mrs. Gleason”, and insisted that she treat his wife Olivia during each instance of childbirth. In one amusing story, it’s claimed that Gleason was called to Buffalo to tend to Olivia Langdon after the birth of a son. When Dr. Gleason attempted to leave after a few days, a panicked Clemens supposedly barred the door and made “horrendous threats” about what would happen if she was allowed to escape.

In 1870, she published a book titled Talks to My Patients that became  a bestseller in the United States and England. Building on progressive ideals she held dear, the book focused primarily on women’s health, providing insight from years of treating women at the Water Cure. Along with providing advice on topics such as pregnancy and menstruation, she also displayed her progressive leanings  by promoting the use birth control and candidly telling women to simply “enjoy sex”.

Hints to Patients

In 1850, Elmira was a town of about 10,000 people (it was incorporated in 1864). After visiting Elmira to treat a patient, Silas Gleason became convinced it was the perfect setting for a new Water-Cure home. With the support of his wife, they chose a quiet hill on the east side of town with a nearby glen that provided all the water they needed.  The Gleasons called Elmira a “pretty town” with “delightful views” available among the “hills grand and the valley beautiful”. On nearly forty acres of wheat fields, they built their impressive complex. It opened to the public on June 1, 1852.

Water-Cure Dinner Horn

The main structure was four stories, flanked by two three-story wings. Over time, additional renovation and construction would expand it to enable the treatment of over 100 patients at a time. It was surrounded by nature trails, fruit trees, and vegetable gardens. It had a gymnasium, a bowling alley, and even a putting green. Bathrooms were over 100 feet long, enabling up to twenty women the ability to bathe privately at once. But Rachel Gleason was quick to point that patients should not expect hotel-like accommodations. It was a home for invalids, and strict rules were established. Along with scheduled water treatments, all patients were required to exercise twice daily, “quiet” was required during certain hours of the day, and smoking was not allowed in any part of “the Cure” except the billiard room.

Other more specific rules forbade patients from throwing anything out of open windows, driving tacks or nails in walls, and allowing children to play in the halls, the parlor, or on the veranda.

Elmira's Water-Cure

In 1852, a week’s stay at the Water-Cure ran from $7 to $10, depending on the desired level of treatment and accommodations (even an extra blanket added to the rate). That was a steep price for someone living in 1850, which means the thousands of patients treated by Silas and Rachel Gleason were usually people of means. While there, a host of resident doctors, nurses, and interns bathed, sprayed, wrapped, and dunked names of note that include the previously mentioned famed suffragette, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clara Barton, most of the Langdon Family (Mark Twain’s in-laws), several children of Brigham Young, Vice President Shuyler Colfax Jr., and even Emily Dickinson’s mother.

Stone Pillar on Watercure Hill Road

Finally, it must be noted the Water Cure was a fully successful venture. The Gleasons ran it for nearly fifty years, and it usually ran at full tilt. In the later years, it went through name changes (Gleason Sanitarium, Gleason Health Resort) and ownership changes (Dr. John C. Fisher took over in 1898) before Silas Gleason ultimately died in 1899. Moving to Buffalo after her husband’s passing, Rachel Brooks Gleason died in 1905.

As for the structure itself, the Water Cure was converted to a nursing home before closing for good in the wake of World War II. The buildings, bath houses, and remaining structures were all demolished in 1959.

Today, if one takes a drive up Watercure Hill Road (the road’s current name), it’s difficult to find any trace of what once stood at the corner where Mark Twain needed to hang a left. But take a closer look. Just past the “City of Elmira” sign, two stone pillars can be seen, hidden in the trees and brush, of an area that shows absolutely no evidence of human residence or activity.

Look for those pillars if you take a drive up East Hill. Because a century ago, those pillars marked the entrance to Silas and Rachel Gleason’s little slice of Elmira history.

The Drink
Fever Tree Tonic Water

When I first thought about the drink to pair with this post, only one came to mind. As Rachel and Silas Gleason would certainly insist, it has to be water.

But I’m going to kick it up a notch and talk a little tonic water.

I’ve been researching the history of tonic water, but that’s actually a topic for a future Distilled History post. In this post, I’d like to focus simply on the quality of tonic water. As I’ve tried to convince my dear mother, she needs to stock better tonic water in the house. And by the way, she also needs to screw the caps on tighter. Flat tonic water makes people sad (as Rachel and Silas Gleason were assuredly aware of).

Anyway, the gin and tonic is my standard drink. I love them, but I also know the g&t isn’t considered by many to be a “good” cocktail. It’s basic and kinda boring, and cheap tonic water makes them any version seem to taste the same. Even my mother (who doesn’t seem to mind flat tonic water), insists ordering a gin and tonic in a bar or restaurant simply isn’t worth it.

But like so many aspects of the cocktail scene today, even lowly tonic water is getting some love. Gin drinkers are realizing that stirring a processed tonic loaded with high fructose corn syrup does no favors to good gin. Better options include premium tonic brands like Fever Tree and tonic syrups like Jack Rudy or Tomr’s.  Any of these offer natural ingredients and a significant upgrade in taste.

Recently, I even attended a workshop at the Gin Room on South Grand (my favorite Water Cure in St. Louis) where I learned how to make my own tonic water. It was easy, fun, and as soon as I get my hands on some cinchona bark (to add the key tonic ingredient, quinine), I’ll never need a water cure other than my own.

Fever Tree Tonic Water

Notes:

Nearly all of my information for this post was gathered from a few short visits to the Chemung Valley History Museum (operated by the Chemung County Historical Society) and the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira. My short trips home don’t allow me much time for research (I didn’t even have time to get into their research room), but I’m beyond grateful to a certain archivist who pointed me towards three key sources:

  • The Chemung Historical Journal, Vol 12, No 2, December 1966
  • The Chemung Historical Journal, Vol 32, No. 2, December 1986
  • The Chemung Historical Journal, Vol 54, No. 2, December 2008
December 16th, 2013 by Cameron

87,000 Stories to Tell

Bellefontaine Cemetery in 1900Since I started this blog, I have purposely avoided writing about certain St. Louis history topics. In the past eighteen months, people have suggested I write about various things like the InBev buyout of Anhueser-Busch, the Pope’s visit in 1999, and even the Edward Jones Dome (seriously?). Honestly, these are topics that just don’t interest me. They make me yawn. Other suggestions, like the 1904 World’s Fair and the Gateway Arch, are so familiar in St. Louis that I’m not sure I could make them interesting. I worry writing about them would make others yawn.

The category “I’d Rather Be Burned Alive” includes a topic someone suggested just a few weeks ago. On that day, I was asked to research why everyone in St. Louis always asks everyone else in St. Louis “Where did you go to high school?”

After informing my well-meaning and idea-challenged friend that I attended Elmira Free Academy (located about 900 miles to the east), and then asking where she went to high school, I rolled my eyes and politely declined.

(Damn! I succumbed to that tedious St. Louis high school inquiry after all.)

Anyway, there’s another category of St. Louis history topics that I’m saving for a rainy day. These are the big kahunas; the topics that I believe are very special in this city. I want to space these gems out over the next several years (or as long as I continue to beat myself up trying to write this blog). Examples include the Cahokia Mounds, the Lemp Caves (if I can ever get down there), Forest Park, Pruitt-Igoe, and the Camp Jackson Affair. Dozens more exist, which means I plan to force this blog down people’s throats for years to come.

Well, I think it’s about time to dust off one of the good ones. A few weeks ago, I was the lucky recipient of a special tour of Bellefontaine Cemetery, the wonderful 314 acres in north St. Louis that holds as much history (literally) as any patch of ground in the Midwest. Over 87,000 people are buried there, and each one has a tale to tell. If you like Distilled History, get used to Bellefontaine. I plan to pluck stories out of this place for years to come.

Entrance to Bellefontaine Cemetery

Let’s kick this off by admitting that I adore cemeteries. I love to drive through them, bike through them, and tour them. I enjoy locating graves of notable people, as I’ve done for the Homer Phillips, Elijah P. Lovejoy, and Irma Rombauer posts in this blog. I sometimes go to cemeteries just to sit and read a book, admire the foliage, or even take a nap. I think they are big, wonderful parks of history.

A park-like type of cemetery such as Bellefontaine (and Woodlawn, the Elmira, New York cemetery that my fellow high school graduates should know), is considered a “rural cemetery”. These are cemeteries that primarily honor the dead, but are also designed to provide a welcoming and comfortable place for people to visit. That’s certainly the case at Bellefontaine. It is a peaceful and beautiful place to see. Containing more than 4,000 trees and over 180 species of trees and shrubs, Bellefontaine is not just a cemetery. It is also an accredited Level II arboretum.

The Rural Cemetery

The “rural cemetery” movement started in the mid-19th Century. Following a model set forth in Paris, the first rural cemetery in the United States was established in 1831 (Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Eighteen years later, Bellefontaine in St. Louis was established as the first rural cemetery west of the Mississippi River. Prior to Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis buried their dead in plots around churches and in smaller, overcrowded cemeteries in and around town (many were located along current-day Jefferson Avenue).

St. Louis in the mid-19th century was growing rapidly. Along with overcrowding, many believed that air, water, and soil could become infected with disease if people were buried near population centers. Both concerns were further intensified in the summer of 1849 when a deadly cholera epidemic killed nearly 10% of the city’s population (note: future blog post). Suddenly, burying people farther away became a priority.

Bellefontaine Cemetery in Autumn

As a result, city leaders formed an association for the purpose of founding a large rural cemetery outside city limits. It was named after Fort Bellefontaine, a military garrison located about five miles northwest of St. Louis. Along the road to that fort sat the Hempstead farm. This 138 acre farm was purchased by the foundation, and the land became the first of three parcels that together now make up Bellefontaine Cemetery as we know it today.

Bellefontaine Cemetery Map

The next significant step in the shaping of Bellefontaine Cemetery was the hiring of a renowned landscape architect named Almerin Hotchkiss. It was this man who created the master plan for the cemetery and gave it the look we still see today. He oversaw the building of the roads, landscaping, and overall maintenance of the grounds. Upon completing the overall plan, he remained in St. Louis as superintendent of the cemetery for the next forty-six years.

Perhaps the most significant monument in the entire cemetery (along with one of the better stories), is the Charlotte Dickson Wainwright Tomb. Universally regarded as an architectural masterpiece, the tomb was constructed in 1892 for the wife of millionaire and philanthropist Ellis Wainwright. Referred to in local press as “the most beautiful woman in St. Louis”, Charlotte Wainwright died suddenly of peritonitis at the young age of thirty-four. Her husband Ellis was emotionally devastated by her passing. In order to preserve her memory, Ellis Wainwright reached out to a particularly famous architect for a unique and exceptional design.

The Charlotte Dickson Wainwright Tomb

The result is one of the most significant designs from of one of history’s most important architects, Louis Henry Sullivan. Known as the “father of the skyscraper”, Sullivan was at the height of his fame when he was commissioned to design Charlotte Wainwright’s tomb.

Key to Wainwright Tomb

When Charlotte Wainwright died, Louis Sullivan was already in St. Louis finishing another project for Ellis Wainwright. That building, which also bears Wainwright’s name and stands today at the corner of Chestnut and 7th in downtown St. Louis, is another topic I better be careful with if I choose to write about it. Considered by many to be the first skyscraper ever built, the 10 story Wainwright Building is a masterpiece. It was even featured in recent a PBS documentary as one of 10 Buildings That Changed America.

When Wainwright asked Sullivan for a preliminary design, he provided a sketch of a tomb that combines two classic forms, a half-sphere resting upon a cube. Inspired by the tomb of a Muslim Saint in Algeria, the form appears solidly Byzantine. Assisting Louis Sullivan with the design (particularly the interior) was his head draftsman, a promising young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright.

The simple cube and dome design is accented by a border of richly carved motifs and bronze grill doors. Windows adorn each side of the tomb, each surrounded by additional stone carvings. Interestingly, the name “Wainwright” appears nowhere on the exterior of the tomb. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, it is often referred to as the “Taj Mahal of St. Louis”. The New York Times referred to it as a “major American architectural triumph”, and “a model for ecclesiastical architecture”.

Hugh Morrison, in his book Louis Sullivan, Prophet of Modern Architecture, writes:

…it is the most sensitive and the most graceful of Sullivan’s tombs, distinguished alike in its architectural form and its decorative enrichment. In the writers opinion, at least, it is unmatched in quality by any other known tomb.”

Wainwright Tomb Interior

While the exterior is unassuming, the interior (that I was delighted to be able to see on my special tour) surges with subtle color, swirled marble, and flecks of gold. The walls and ceiling are covered with a beautiful patterned mosaic. Look above, and small angels dispersed among small mosaics seem to come and go depending on the point of view. Below, two burial slabs are inlayed in the floor to mark the final resting place for Ellis Wainwright and his wife Charlotte. Each is chiseled with a poem, Lord Tennyson for the husband and Anna Laetitia Barbauld for his wife:

A Poem for Charlotte

Despite having two architectural masterpieces named after him, things didn’t go very smoothly for Ellis Wainwright during his later years. While in New York in 1902, Wainwright learned he was being indicted for attempting to bribe several politicians as part of a business deal. Instead of heading home to face the charges, he fled to Europe. Although he lived lavishly in Paris for several years, his self-imposed exile took a toll on his health. He didn’t return to St. Louis until 1911 when the prosecuting attorney in his case had retired. He paid a bond upon arrival and proclaimed to the press that he was happy to be back. Ultimately, the charges didn’t stick and Wainwright was able to resume life as he wished.

Soon after, Wainwright moved to New York to be close to other business investments. In 1922, he shocked friends and associates by “adopting” a twenty-two year old woman named Rosalind Kendall (he was seventy-two). She took his name, called him “Daddy”, and became his constant companion. She lived in the apartment adjoining his on Park Avenue.

Not surprisingly, The arrangement didn’t last. When Wainwright’s efforts to make Rosalind a movie star proved unsuccessful, Rosalind moved on. She supposedly accepted a sum of money in return for relinquishing any claims to Wainwright’s estate. Upon Wainwright’s death, this arrangement was legally overturned, making Rosalind Kendall very wealthy.

In declining health, Ellis Wainwright returned to St. Louis in 1924. He turned his attention back toward his departed wife Charlotte, setting up an endowment at Bellefontaine to repair her tomb in the event of vandalism or earthquake. His behavior also became increasingly peculiar. During his final days at the Buckingham Hotel, servants were required to physically move him from room to room in order to avoid being seen by hotel maids.

Ellis Wainwright

Ellis Wainwright died on November 6, 1924 at the age of seventy-four. He was laid to rest next to his wife in the remarkable monument to them both in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

The Drink

Homebrew

The reason why Ellis Wainwright had the means to build one of the first skyscrapers and the “Taj Mahal of St. Louis” is a good one. Like the familiar names in 19th Century St. Louis such as Busch and Lemp, Wainwright became rich as a result of beer.

When Wainwright was just twenty-four years old, he inherited his father’s Wainwright Brewery. Displaying a keen business sense, he secured his path to wealth by doubling profits within two years. He became even wealthier when he sold his brewery to a syndicate named The St. Louis Brewing Association (SLBA). Wainwright was named president and became responsible for managing day-to-day operations. The famous building that bears his name in downtown St. Louis today was initially built as a headquarters for the syndicate he managed.

With that in mind, it’s only appropriate to drink beer in honor of Ellis Wainwright, his lovely wife, and his epic tomb. Even better, I thought this post would provide a perfect opportunity to brew up a batch of my own.

 Homebrew Labels

First of all, I must admit that I am not an accomplished homebrewer. People who are familiar with the hobby know that it’s really nothing more than simple cooking. Well, I’m not a very good cook. But I can follow a recipe, and homebrew kits always come with recipes. I still brew from extract kits, and despite people insisting I move up to the world of “all grain” brewing, I haven’t done it yet. That day will likely come, because with each homebrew batch, I seem to add some additional piece of homebrew equipment that makes the process more fun. For those in the know, I introduced a stir plate and an outdoor burner for this batch. The result was an active primary fermentation that two days later had me scrambling for a blow-off hose.

Until I get to the next level, I’ll keep going with the real reason I started home brewing in the first place: Beer labels. Drinking the beer you make is fun, but naming the beer and designing the beer label is really fun. It’s probably why I’ll never keg it. As much as I hate washing and sanitizing forty-eight individual beer bottles, it makes my day to drink out of a bottle labeled as my own.

My beer may not taste as good as others, but I think my labels are top-notch.. This includes a new one featuring the exquisite tomb found in Bellefontaine Cemetery.

Charlotte's Tomb IPA

Sources:

  1. Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery by Carol Ferring Shepley
  2. St. Louis Brews: 200 Years of Brewing in St. Louis, 1809-2009 by Henry Herbst, Don Roussin, and Kevin Kious
  3. St. Louis: Landmarks and Historic Districts by Carolyn Hewes Toft and Lynn Josse
  4. Louis Sullivan, Prophet of Modern Architecture by Hugh Morrison
  5. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form – National Park Service
  6. Woo, William F., “Story Behind the Wainwright Building,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 23, 1966 p. 3J
January 5th, 2013 by Cameron

The Langdon Mansion

Greetings from ElmiraI had a one hell of a day last week. While driving from my native upstate New York to my current home in St. Louis, my car hit an ice patch on I-86. I lost control, spun, and was flung off the highway. I was flipped perfectly onto the roof of the car, which is where I stayed as I bobsleighed one-hundred feet down a hill.

It was quite a ride. Lots of snow, glass, and colorful language was bouncing around inside the car as I went. Remarkably, I hit something that caused the car to slowly roll me back upright. I came to a stop, turned off the engine, and realized I was completely uninjured. I was able to walk away like nothing happened. Other than a slight headache from a book (I think it was a book) that hit me in the head during the roll, I was as good as new.

What does this mishap have to do with history and booze? Well, after being collected and driven back to my hometown of Elmira, I had some time on my hands. Instead of sitting around and feeling sorry for myself, I decided to dig up some history in the town where I spent the first eighteen years of my life.

Sweet Wounded Jesus!

For a small city, Elmira has some good stories to tell. With that in mind, please pardon this brief sojourn away from St. Louis. I’ll return to the hidden tales of The Gateway City soon enough.

elmiramap

Elmira, New York is a small city of about 29,000 people in the Southern Tier of New York State. Just south of the Finger Lakes, it sits in a truly beautiful part of the state. Unlike St. Louis, it has rolling hills, voluminous lakes, and cooler summers.  Although I now prefer to live in St. Louis, I’ll never waver from the opinion that it was a great place to grow up.

In fact, I believe Elmira shares many qualities with St. Louis, but on a far smaller scale. Both cities are the population centers of their respective areas. Both cities serve as the regional hub for financial, cultural, and educational institutions. Both cities have a rich and deep history that often gets overlooked by the people who live there.

1972 Flood

On the flip side, both cities have watched their populations plummet in the years following World War II. Both cities are trying to bring people, companies, and jobs back within city limits. Both cities are desperate to revitalize their downtown cores (and both cities have mistakenly believed that building sports arenas is one way to do it).

Both cities have also been severely impacted by flooding. While St. Louis’s history with flooding is well-known, Elmira’s history with rising waters is just as troubled. Many point to the damage caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972 as the point from which downtown Elmira has never recovered.

And finally, both cities are filled with historic homes, buildings, and structures that are in desperate need of preservation.

Since starting this blog, I’ve become far more aware of the need for historical preservation. This was especially true when Landmarks Association helped me research the blog post about the William B. Ittner schools. I was stunned to see how much work and research they had completed in order to campaign for the survival of those historic buildings.

I can now say for certain that I wish my hometown had its own version of Landmarks seventy-five years ago. That’s because in 1939, the wrecking ball took apart this historically significant house that once sat at the corner of Church and Main streets in downtown Elmira.

The Langdon House

The Langdon House, facing Main Street

This large Victorian home was the home of a wealthy coal merchant named Jervis Langdon. He was an ardent abolitionist, and he served as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad along with his close friend Thomas K. Beecher. The brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thomas Beecher was the pastor of Park Church located across the street from Langdon’s home. Both men counted Frederick Douglass as a close friend. The famed abolitionist even once visited Langdon at his home in Elmira.

It was Langdon’s daughter, however, that would make the most significant impact upon the Langdon legacy in Elmira.

Olivia Langdon as a young woman

In 1867, Olivia’s brother Charles traveled to the Mediterranean aboard a boat named Quaker City. On the trip, he befriended a reporter writing a story for a California newspaper. That reporter was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, soon to become known as the famous author Mark Twain. One night, Charles showed Clemens a small daguerreotype of his sister Olivia. Upon looking at the portrait of the delicate woman, Clemens admitted to falling in “love at first sight”. Throughout the rest of the trip, he asked Charles to bring out the photograph and allow him to gaze upon it again. When the trip concluded, Twain made a point to visit Langdon and his sister during a trip to New York City. During that visit, Clemens was invited to visit the Langdon home in Elmira. It wasn’t long before Twain found himself knocking on the large door of the Langdon home on the corner Church and Main.

For the next two years, Clemens courted Olivia and visited Elmira often. After an initial rejection, the two became engaged in late 1869. On February 2, 1870, Mark Twain and Olivia Langdon were married by Thomas K. Beecher in the library of the Langdon home.

Over the next twenty years, the Clemens family would make Elmira their summer home. While there, they lived at Quarry Farm, a Langdon vacation home located on a large hill outside of town. In the octagonal study built there for him, Mark Twain found what he called “the quietest of all quiet places.”  Here, he would write the majority of his most famous works, including Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Mark Twain at Quarry Farm in Elmira

While in Elmira, the Clemens family would spend a large amount of time at the large house in town. Three of the four Clemens children were born in the house. The house was a convenient place for Clemens to entertain visitors or to do business. The house is where Ulysses S. Grant once visited Twain to discuss his memoirs, a work that Twain helped get published. Clemens even stated that since the house was so large, one could “always escape your enemies in Langdon house”.

The Langdon home is also where on a warm day in 1889, a young reporter from British India traveled to Elmira in search of his idol. Detailing the experience in his later work Letters of Travel, Rudyard Kipling recounts his arrival in Elmira:

“I slid on the West Shore line, I slid until midnight, and they dumped me down at the door of a frozy hotel in Elmira. Yes, they knew all about “that man Clemens,” but reckoned he was not in town; had gone East somewhere.”

Kipling then took a carriage to Quarry Farm, but was told Clemens was in town. He traveled back down the hill and found himself at the Langdon house. Kipling continues with his description of the meeting:

“Then things happened somewhat in this order. A big, darkened drawing room; a huge chair; a man with eyes, a mane of grizzled hair, a brown mustache covering a mouth as delicate as a woman’s, a strong square hand shaking mine, and the slowest, calmest, levellest voice in all the world saying: – “Well, you think you owe me something, and you’ve come to tell me so. That’s what I call squaring a debt handsomely.”

“Piff!” from a cob-pipe (I always said that a Missouri meerschaum was the best smoking in the world), and behold! Mark Twain had curled himself up in the big armchair, and I was smoking reverently, as befits one in the presence of his superior.”

Rudyard Kipling & Mark Twain

Kipling was just starting his career and was still unknown. It would be a few years before he’d achieve fame as the author of stories such as “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “The Man Who Would Be King”. But a year after their meeting, Twain recognized a sketch of Kipling in a copy of the London World. The article also mentioned that Kipling had traveled to the United States. Twain took interest in Kipling’s work and began to admire his burgeoning career. In 1895, Twain wrote a letter to Kipling:

“It is reported that you are about to visit India. This has moved me to journey to that far country in order that I may unload from my conscience a debt long due to you. Years ago, you came from India to Elmira to visit me. It has always been my purpose to return that visit and that great compliment some day. I shall arrive next January, and you must be ready. I shall come riding my ayah with his tusks adorned with silver bells and ribbons, and escorted by a troop of native howdahs richly clad and mounted upon a herd of wild bungalows; and you must be on hand with a few bottles of glee, for I shall be thirsty.”

Interior rooms of the Langdon Mansion

Olivia Langdon Clemens died in Italy in 1904. Although buried in Elmira, Clemens returned just once to Elmira after her passing. His last visit was in 1907 for the dedication of a new organ at Park Church. On that visit, he declined an offer to visit Quarry Farm because it would “awaken sorrowful thoughts”. Samuel Clemens died in 1910 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira along with Olivia and their four children.

Mark Twain's Grave in Elmira

Imagine if the stately Langdon home still stood in Elmira. Located at the busiest downtown intersection, it could have become the symbol of the city. Flanked by the historically significant Park Church, the elegant Trinity Church, and Wisner Park, the entire neighborhood would have become one of the most historic corners in the Southern Tier. Perhaps the house could have been used as the focal point in presenting the legacy of Mark Twain in Elmira. Unlike other cities that claim a legacy to Twain (Hannibal, Hartford), Elmira has no central building from which to tell his story. The octagonal study that was relocated to the campus of Elmira College is too small. His grave in Woodlawn Cemetery is well, perhaps too morbid. Quarry Farm still stands, but it’s far outside of town and isn’t open to the public. It’s even likely that most Elmirans couldn’t find it if they tried.

Mark Twain Study

The ultimate fate of the Langdon home is nothing short of maddening. In the 1930’s, the Langdon family offered to sell the house to the city of Elmira at its assessed value. It was offered as such for the purpose of creating a museum or a place of historical significance. For a price of just under $50,000, the city could have preserved a rare historical jewel that would have been a beacon for the city. City leaders debated, voted, and ultimately concluded that such a large home would be too expensive to maintain. The city declined the offer, so the home was sold home to a private developer. Within months, the home was razed and a shopping center was built. Named “Langdon Plaza”, the shopping center provides visitors to Elmira a place to purchase meatball sandwiches and hair gel.

All that is left of the Langdon home is the fence that surrounded it. Like the octagonal study, it was relocated to the Elmira College campus.

Langdon Plaza

The Drink

After flipping a car, it’s so surprise that I needed a drink. Maybe five. And although completely uninjured, I still had the mind to milk it. To that end, Mom filled me with good bourbon, gin, and plenty of home cooked food over the next few days.

Carl on the rocks

The extended trip also allowed me to spend New Years Eve with my Mother and her close friends. The party was held at the home of two very close friends in Elmira, Carl and Bunny Vallely. This presented a great opportunity because Carl Vallely is also a huge fan of the Manhattan cocktail.

There’s a great story that goes along with Carl and his love of the Manhattan. Years ago, when he first courted Bunny, he showed up at her door to take her on their first date. Tucked under his arm was a thermos. When Bunny answered the door and inquired “What’s in the thermos?”, to which Carl replied “Manhattans, of course!”. I can’t help but admire the guy for that. Taking a thermos of Manhattans on a first date is nothing short of fantastic.

And going forward in my search Manhattan cocktail varieties, I can now the recipe for “The Vallely Manhattan”:

  • 1 Part Canadian Club Whisky
  • 1 Part Sweet Vermouth
  • Stirred and served on the rocks

I asked Carl what the ratio of the ingredients should be, and he simply said “until you get the right color”. I guess I’ll have to work on that. He also omits the cherry, since it “takes up room in the glass needed for more Manhattan”. I certainly can’t argue with that logic. The “on the rocks” aspect of the Vallely is tough for me to get by, but it’s his drink. I was in his house and I was happy to drink them with a fellow fan of my favorite cocktail.

Carl served me a few of his Manhattans that night, but I also took the time to visit Horigan’s in Elmira. Owned by my old high school pal Katie Boland, I am a frequent visitor here when I’m in Elmira. My father used to spend so much time at the bar reading books that they’d actually keep the book there for him. Katie also happens to be Carl’s step-daughter, so when I asked for Carl’s version of the Manhattan, she was happy to oblige.

Horigan's ManhattanAs for my opinion of the drink, I’ll say that it’s very pleasant. Due to the ice and the use of Canadian whisky, it’s a lighter and smoother version what I’m used to. It doesn’t have that bite on the first sip (which I adore). It made me think I could be tricked into drinking more in one sitting than I’m used to. After rolling a car, that’s not the worst idea.

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