Ten Gifts to the World
Nov 20, 2015 06:30PM
It’s Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday all around: Mountain Home has ten candles on its birthday cake this month. (Readers will note that in honor of the anniversary, we have re-published Tucker Worthington’s original painting for our Christmas cover from December 2006.) It was in December 2005 that Wellsboro native Teresa Banik Capuzzo and her husband Michael Capuzzo started the magazine, “Free as the Wind.” But it’s the magazine’s 100,000 readers and advertisers in the Twin Tiers, and the scores of award-winning local writers, artists, and photographers in this creative borderland, who make Mountain Home our authoritative regional magazine, and the best darn small-town magazine in America.
In the seasonal spirit of gifts and giving, your correspondent looks at ten of the most influential, global-impacting movements, innovations, people, and just damn cool stuff that our region has given to the world.
Corning Glass’s Dr. Donald Keck once said, “The idea has always been, if you don’t invent it, someone will.”
So yes, had Mansfield University not hosted the world’s first night football game in 1892, someone would have.
If the Women’s Rights Movement didn’t start in Seneca Falls, New York, someone somewhere would have started it.
Had Samuel Clemens settled elsewhere besides Elmira, New York, he likely would’ve written Huckleberry Finn somewhere.
And a George W. Sears, father of modern-day camping, would have surfaced from the backwoods of some American rural outpost, but it was here in Wellsboro in the late 1800s.
If you don’t invent, someone will, and many of the “someones” took up arms, as it were, in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York and the Finger Lakes. Simply put, these folks changed the world.
The Elmira Express
There’s a photograph of Ernie Davis, c. 1961, holding the Heisman Trophy for his particular brand of physical excellence in college football. His hair is neat and his smile neater. You look into his eyes and they’re of the kind that look so damn happy, so grateful, and so full of life. He looks like the type of man who never knew what it meant to wake up on the wrong side of the bed; there was no wrong side of the bed for Ernie Davis.
He was the first black man to hold maybe the most famous trophy in all of sports.
He’d be dead by 1963, twenty-three years old.
They called him The Elmira Express. At 6’1”, 210 pounds, his depot, as it were, started in Elmira, where he was a three-sport star with football, running away with his God-given Pennsylvania-grown capacity for steamrolling the hell over people.
Davis led the Syracuse Orangemen to a national championship, won the aforementioned Heisman Trophy, and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns, where he would join the immortal Jim Brown.
Two things would have happened. One, Davis and Brown could have been the all-time greatest backfield in the history of the NFL. Two, a precursor to modern- day quarterback controversies, perhaps a running back controversy would have taken place. But there was also a third scenario: Davis could contract a particularly malicious and unsentimental form of leukemia and never set foot on the field again.
That’s what happened.
Ernie Davis would never want your pity. John Brown, a former teammate and best friend, told NFL.com, “Ernie Davis didn’t die at a young age, he lived at a young age.”
As you may or may not know, Samuel Clemens took up residence in Elmira, New York, holed himself like a hobbit in a twelve-foot diameter, octagonal house he filled with cats, papers, and the smoke of as many as forty cigars a day to write a book that made Ernest Hemingway say, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”
The house on Quarry Farm, which moved to Elmira College in 1952, harbored Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain, while he wrote his seminal works of fiction: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The house was built to resemble the pilothouse of a Mississippi River steamboat. You can take the man out of a Mississippi steamboat, but you can’t take the Mississippi steamboat out of the man.
So...why Elmira? The late Elmira College MT scholar, Michael Kiskis, said in a 2010 NPR interview about Clemens, “He had been such a vagabond for the years between seventeen and thirty, and this gave him a real chance to put down roots and be hugged by a big family.”
After a long day of writing, which, presumably, cramped up his hand and left his clothes smelling like 400 ashtrays, he’d sit in his rocking chair and read what he wrote that day to his wife and daughters.
How did they react when he read, “The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the room; then she put them up and looked out under them.” Or, “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.”
Did they laugh at that?
Kiskis said, “If you look at the major novels though the major frame of his career, look how many of them deal with questions of family.”
And in Elmira, where he rests in Woodlawn Cemetery, he wrote the books—and maybe the book—from which all other American novels arise.
Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy
It depends on the picture you look at. Hal Roach, nearing age thirty, a driver’s hat on, suit and tie, half-smirks like he’s about to laugh.
Once an extra in the silent films of the time, this Elmira native clearly had a voice, a voice that brought forth Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy, two of the most iconic comedies in the history of television.
Artists have ways of bringing their upbringing with them (see Samuel Clemens), and, it appears, Roach was no different. Take Our Gang, Peanuts before Peanuts. It was, in a small way, a reflection of early 20th century Elmira.
Rachel Dworkings, archivist at the Chemung County Historical Society, said, “Elmira was an ethnically and racially diverse town. He would’ve had experiences of seeing ethnically and racially diverse kids. He went to school with African-Americas and immigrants. He felt a racially diverse group of children was a reality. They hung out together.”
Beyond that, Laurel and Hardy became a groundbreaking comedy. Roach created one of the first—if not the first—comedy template that involved two performers. Chris Foran of the Journal Sentinel wrote that were it not for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (and by extension Roach), there may not be a Cedric the Entertainer and Martin Lawrence, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, or Abbott and Costello.
Roach passed away in 1992 at the age of 100, and he was interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in his native Elmira.
Nessmuk, and American Camping
George W. Sears, a.k.a the coolest, slickest nomme de plume (ever?)—Nessmuk—was a sports writer and minimalist canoer, the father of what we may call modern-day camping.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “The river is by far the most attractive highway,” and the Hook and Bullet Thoreau, our Nessmuk, took to the rivers as a German hits the Autobahn.
In the 1880s, he paddled a canoe there and back again—266 miles—through the Adirondacks. As Norman Sims and Mark Neuzil wrote in their as-of-yet-untitled forthcoming book on the North American canoe, Sears’ vessel, the Sairy Gamp, was a mere nine feet long and weighed ten-and-half pounds. He could portage with ease and be back on the river.
The boat was a symbol, the canoe equivalent of Sears himself. Weighing barely over 100 pounds and standing barely taller than a fifth grader, Sears was stoic in his philosophy, stripped to the bare essentials.
After returning from a three-year voyage on a whaler headed for the South Pacific in 1841, the same year Herman Melville shipped out from the same port to the same whaling grounds, Nessmuk in his early twenties moved to Wellsboro, where he lived the rest of his life, between adventures, and is buried.
He served as editor of The Wellsboro Agitator, was a star writer for Forest and Stream, and helped birth American outdoor writing, penning his famous book on camping, Woodcraft, in 1884, a book that remains in print to this day.
Football Under the Lights
The thing with Mansfield being the birth of night football is that if it wasn’t for one industrious man, Monday Night Football would owe another town a debt of gratitude.
Tioga County hadn’t been wired for electricity, and most people probably hadn’t even heard of it. General Electric took its electricity on the road to show people the light.
To have the most impact, GE figured it needed a large gathering, a spectacle, and the Great Mansfield Fair of 1892 seemed the perfect venue.
At around the same time, Mansfield University had started a football program because, as Steve McCloskey, sports information director of MU, said, “We were being a real college because real colleges in the east had football teams.”
One of the players approached GE and wanted in, wanted to promote his team. And what better way than to play an exhibition under the lights?
As with anything in its natal stages, the logistics were simplistic and a bit careless, but they got it done. In the middle of the 110-yard field stood a pole with six lights hanging from it. Strings of lights hung from the grandstands. The luminary effect?
“It’s similar to what you would get with three street lamps today,” McCloskey said.
By day, the field was used to showcase livestock. By night, all anyone did was remove the livestock. You do the math. Wyoming Seminary (from nearby Scranton), a prominent prep school at the time, arrived by train. The teams played beneath the lights, the game becoming increasingly hazardous as the sun went down. Players ran into that pole. They tackled the wrong players. Naturally, the officials called the game at halftime, a 0-0 tie.
You could call it a successful failure.
Now, Mansfield didn’t play another night football game for 121 years, but what can’t be taken away from is this: MU was first. The seed of Friday Night Lights and Monday Night Football came from a little town in the late 19th century thanks to one industrious, opportunistic spirit.
“It’s led to an identity for Mansfield and Tioga County,” McCoskey said. “‘I’m from Mansfield, Pennsylvania. We’re the birthplace of night football.’”
The Town That Saved Christmas
You can almost imagine a Hallmark made-for-TV Christmas movie that takes place during World War II, and opens with a dark world of Douglas and balsam firs unlit by ornaments. Why? Because the illuminated spirit of Christmas was German by descent, and the Fuhrer wasn’t concentrating on making and exporting pretty Christmas bulbs.
Enter the Corning Glass Works factory in Wellsboro and, specifically, the ribbon machine, for it was the ribbon machine that allowed for mass production of light bulbs, and, given the bellicose nature of Germany at the time, this ribbon machine saved Christmas.
“It’s faster than a bullet comes out of a gun,” said Pat Davis, whose father, Ellsworth Brown, worked at the factory. The ribbon machine, which could make 300,000 blanks a day, is the Henry Ford-ian assembly line for glass blowers. Technologies come along and render people to the sidelines. Fitting that a ribbon machine stands in the Henry Ford Museum as one of the ten most important inventions that changed the world.
Brown’s designs for split molds for the glass blanks led Wellsboro to be called The Glass Christmas Ornament Capital of the World.
“The machine was really made for light bulbs, but they also got the idea they could make these glass ornaments as well, and that really is what spawned the actual making of the Christmas ornaments,” said Wellboro Historical Society’s Scott Gitchel. “Then it became cheaper for the general public to get.”
And so lights came on and the Christmas trees glowed, as they should, and it was all because of the ribbon machine of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania.
The American Main Street Revival
Restored Main Streets are the new black. Dilapidated Main Streets are the low-hanging fruit of any ambitious city planner. Most are uniquely positioned because the street’s “old style” is suddenly charming, inviting, urban chic.
The 1970s, a decade that seems to have a smoggy, distinctly Gingham Instragram filter, made Virginia Wright, a Corning rez since 1958, take stock of her surroundings: bars and men’s shoe stores. (Nothing brings in the tourists quite like dive bars and a size eleven 2E Red Wing—or not). Along with business owners and city leaders, she helped usher in the Main Street Renovation Movement.
In a Mountain Home story written by Alison Fromme, Tom Buechner, a founding director of the Corning Glass Museum, said, “Nowhere has the main street of an industrial American city been restored to its turn of the century appearance while serving as a lively, modern, shopping center. We could become a model for the nation—an 1870s living museum street merging in a 1970s renewal complex. Perhaps we could do it by 1976, the bicentennial year.”
Market Street became the North Star for towns looking to draw people in with that idyllic channel of shops, restaurants, and galleries.
Mary Means, the Director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Midwest Office, said, “Corning was quite important to the birth of what is now the National Main Street Center, and more than 1,200 towns and cities in the US and Canada have used its technical assistance and trainings to bring life back to their historic downtowns.”
Towns followed suit all across the country, something so simple that it was hard to believe that it was all right there the entire time.
Cornell University, and The Elective System
Just think, it was because of Andrew Dickson White, the first president of Cornell University, that Matthew Leinart, the former University of Southern California quarterback- turned-terrible-pro, was able to elect ballroom dancing as a course to finish out his studies.
The Elective System of picking one’s classes started in 1868 as a way for students to pick classes better suited to their passions, not a strict curriculum put into place by people who say they have the students’ best interest in mind.
It wasn’t universally lauded. In point of fact, several people (professors, disgruntled admissions employees?) thought it was a blight. Take this article from 25 April 1906 in The Cornell Daily Sun:
“...There is a feeling among the students in the academic department that the great diversity in the selection of courses has kept them apart and has prevented a satisfactory espirit de corps like that possessed by some of the other colleges.”
The deeper controversy was that Dickson, in league with Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot, who generally gets the credit though Cornell was first, was installing the German-style modern research university designed to find new knowledge to better the world, and tossing out the age-old English-style rote, character-building curriculum focused on the classics and the Holy Bible—in other words, a neutron bomb in the culture wars that continue unabated today.
The Elective System survived. Actually, it thrived, and took over the academic world. Now, of course, students eventually have to drill down and set aside the bong and stop ordering uncountable pounds of chicken wings as graduation looms and parents’ patience expires, but that’s the nature of ADW’s vision: these are our choices. Live with them, because you’ll be paying for it until your forty-six-years old.
Corning Incorporated: Fiber Optics, et. al
Isaac Newton would most definitely give a sturdy and enlightened high five to the inventors at Corning Incorporated. Newton was a dabbler in many things, optics was a particularly fine hobby when he wasn’t, you know, inventing calculus as a way to make sense of all cosmic phenomena.
Corning supplied the glass blank for the Hubble Telescope. Yes, that HT, which delivers images of the universe that can turn a once optimistic day full of possibility into the most existential bummer with one look at the Butterfly Nebula.
The fiber optic cable, which allows the modern-day user to stream cat videos with ease, may be the one of the single greatest technological contributions of the 20th century.
Drs. Peter Schultz, Donald Keck, and Robert Maurer invented low-loss optical fibers in 1970. Thirty years later they received a National Medal of Technology. (The committee must still be using dial-up.).
The Smithsonian features the low-loss optical fiber in its Innovation Wing alongside a page of Dr. Keck’s notebook with the word “Whoopie!” signifying the breakthrough.
There’s Gorilla Glass, Pyrex, and Willow Glass.
It’s, um, clear that Corning is a daily—if not hourly—influence in your life.
Women’s Rights: to Vote, et. al.
Right in the Finger Lakes, Seneca Falls, New York, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in 1848. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two abolitionists, organized the event, which hosted two hundred people.
The two met eight years earlier in 1840 at a World Anti-Slavery Convention and weren’t allowed on the floor on account of their gender. Eight years later, and no doubt royally pissed off, the two started the conference.
Day 1 was for women only. Day 2, men could attend. Among the forty men who arrived was Frederick Douglass. Soon Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances was signed by the entire convention.
Stanton petitioned for a woman’s right to vote, something that was met with no shortage of chortles and guffaws. Some people withdrew their endorsement. The sentiment being you can have your little convention and a small bullhorn from which to proclaim your ideals (First Amendment and all), but leave the voting to the men, sweetheart.
And thus, the women’s suffrage movement was born.
“This area was very progressive for the reform movement,” said Susan Murphy Abbamonte, the Director of Communications at the Susan B. Anthony House. “Susan was raised in a Quaker community and her religious beliefs informed her reform work.”
Anthony, who didn’t attending the first conference or the one that cropped up two weeks later in her native Rochester (she did have family attend), would later take up the mantle and, at long last, in 1920 (just fifty-two years later!) women could cast a ballot, a right that finally belonged to them.