It’s that Elba time of year again.
The annual Onion Festival took over the Village Park this past weekend. The onions themselves are rounding into form and readying for harvest. And every now and then, when we get that fleeting breeze from the north, the ripe summer smell of Elba’s manure drifts over Batavia, further reminding us that, yes, our agricultural neighbors up Route 98 are still going strong.
With all that in mind – and in nose – I took a drive out to Elba for my latest Museum Mondays trip. And I was not disappointed. Elba is three times the museum, literally. A trio of buildings sits on just under an acre of land next to the Elba Cemetery, making up the Museum of the Historical Society of Elba.
Walking in the door of a light blue structure, I’m greeted by June Chamberlain, President of the Historical Society. She’s ready for me with written explanation of this three-building campus.
“This is Building Number One. It was built in 1994 with donated material and volunteers,” June reads. “Building Number Two is called the Griffin Hill House. That’s an 1842 house, and it was on the Ridge Road in Elba. We sold all the bricks for our walkway outside…and we raised $25,000, and that’s what we used the money for, to have that house moved here.
"And then in December of 2007, (Building Number Three) the barn was built and completed in January of 2008.”
Seemingly knowing I’ve got a long tour ahead of me, June quickly whips around the inside of Building Number One.
“We have an awful lot of ladies stuff,” says June, gesturing to one display case. And across the way, “we have the library here. And the maps from the muck.”
A seven-foot tall display case full of antique toys catches my eye (I’ve still got some kid in me, right?). When we returned later, June told me all the toys were donated from residents of Elba who either had them or found them in attics. One of the toys is an original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stuffed animal, as originated by the Montgomery Ward department stores.
On an adjacent table is what looks like a roughly-hewn dollhouse. It’s a miniature log cabin built by a Native American, complete with tiny furnishings and electricity, though “we haven’t got the lights set-up right,” admits June.
Further along is a row of women’s hats, and a case featuring a doctor’s bag and several instruments that once belonged to Elba’s longtime physician, Doctor Wohlfeil. There’s also many items from local service groups like Grange and Rotary.
Rounding a corner, I come face-to-face with a clown mask. The clown suit and oversized shoes are right next to it. “This is the Elba Elegants,” June explains of the display. “It was a group of people, male and female, that got together and just liked to sing and perform. And they would get all dolled up in different uniforms (such as the clown suit) and they’d be in all the parades – they’d even go over and be in the Oakfield parade.”
(Society publicist June Rowcliffe later e-mailed me: the Elegants were formed in 1970 with the help of WBTA's own Wanda Frank!)
Behind us is a loom, a weaving contraption that would take up about a third of your average home’s family room. “It came from the Skelton’s house on Norton Road,” offers June Rowcliffe, standing nearby.
“It was built in the attic, and they used it for years to weave their own materials,” adds Ann Gavenda, a charter member of the Historical Society. “I don’t know how they got it out, but they did!”
Ann certainly knows a thing or two about moving clumsy objects like the loom. As she takes over the reigns of my tour, I learn that she was responsible for the installment of the oldest building on the campus: the Griffin Hill House.
“It was moved with a flatbed trailer,” Ann says. “We couldn’t come down Route 98 because of the wires,” – the house was so tall on the trailer that it would clip normal-height power and telephone lines – “so we had to take a roundabout route from Ridge Road to Graham Road to Snyder Road to Weatherwax Road, and then we had to come across a farmer’s lot on West Avenue to get it in here.”
At its original location, the house was built in 1842 by the Griffin family, who operated sawmills. They had 13 children while in the house. It has three bedrooms on the second floor and one on the first floor.
The final occupant died in 1971 – despite the modern age, there was never running water or electricity installed in the house. One old woman who lived there, however, did have electricity. “(She) never disturbed the walls, but did it with cords,” explains Ann. “Highly, highly illegal as far as builders go,” she says with a chuckle.
Ann has tried to recreate the house as it would have looked in 1842. One room is especially tough: “Over here is the kitchen – but we have no idea what it looked like, because it had been completely done over as a bathroom.
“As of this week, my husband has built (a shelf) to hang pots and pans on…and we just had this dry sink built. This is typical of what might have been in the house, although I suspect they would have had a hole (in the bottom), and the water would have drained right out the back of the house, on the ground. Something you can’t do now.”
The first-floor bedroom is fully furnished. “Wash bowl and wash stand…and this is an old feather tick (mattress) on the rope bed,” Ann shows me. “And if you’d like to turn around and look behind you: there’s your own private toilet in the bedroom!” Of course, it’s a chair with a hole in the seat, complete with chamber pot beneath. “And you’d have been lucky to have one that nice,” she adds.
Ann shows us a few more items outside, including a small chicken house, an old well bucket, and yes, the original outhouse.
Then it’s over to the Museum’s new barn, overseen by Ron Komar.
“We have this Esso sign, that came from the County Line Garage,” says Komar, referring to an auto shop that used to sit on the Genesee-Orleans county line. “And that item right there is actually a piece of water pipe,” he says, pointing to a wooden log with a hollowed-out center. “That’s actually what they used back at the turn of the century for the water pipes underground – municipal water.”
Turning around, we see a faded green sleigh in the corner with a posterboard hanging off of it. “Elba was the first town in New York State to have rural mail delivery. And that’s the sleigh that the original mailman used to get around.”
In the opposite corner sits a desk with some old-looking office equipment on it. “The office desk and equipment from O & E Growers. They were big onion shippers in the area.” Their wooden sign hangs right above the desk, in nearly perfect condition.
On the adjacent wall is a blue, framed document. It’s a map of Elba’s famous muck plots. Ron says there’s an old problem arising out of the division of those plots that has maintained til today.
“The roadways (between the plots) weren’t listed as anyone’s property. So they look at a tax map, and there’s spots down there that no taxes are collected on because, technically, nobody owns the road.” Ron says he’s not sure, but doesn’t think the Town has figured out what road belongs to whom in order to collect taxes.
Up above that on a shelf is a unique historical display of stamped crates from every onion farmer that harvested in Elba. Names like G.S. Perkins, H.H. Hart, and Ritz Farms stand out in bold-face type.
Back in Building Number One, I sit down with June Chamberlain and Ann Gavenda.
“The whole significance for me is my kids,” says June, speaking of her motivation as Historical Society President. “I have four kids that all graduated from Elba school; I have 11 grandchildren that all graduated from Elba school; and I have 23 great-grandchildren now, and about 11 of them are in school now at Elba. And I want them to just appreciate the history of Elba.”
“I’ve done many, many tours with family reunions and class reunions,” says Ann. “People like that, who haven’t been back and seen all of this, are absolutely excited about it. It makes me feel good. We would like to see more attendance on Sundays. But talking to the other museums in the area…we think we’re doing well.”
The Museum of the Historical Society of Elba is open on Sundays from 2pm-4pm throughout the summer (from Memorial Day to Labor Day). Special visits can be made by appointment by calling June Chamberlain at 344-2707.