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100 Years Of History

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CCHS

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by Erin Doane

On November 7, 1923, the Elmira chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution held a meeting. At that meeting, the organization’s president Dr. Arthur W. Booth proposed the creation of a historical society to preserve historic objects, documents, and stories. The first official meeting of the Chemung County Historical Society took place two weeks later with 75 people in attendance. 

The Historical Society’s first home was in two rooms on the upper floor of the Steele Memorial Library on the corner of Lake and Church Streets (now the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce). The rooms quickly filled with donations from the community. Members of the society presented talks about local history and created displays of historic objects in the library for the public to enjoy.

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The Historical Society received its charter from New York State in 1947. Shortly after, they began searching for a stand-alone building to house the collections and provide more space for displays. In 1953, the Historical Society moved into 425 East Market Street and Frances Brayton was appointed as its first professional curator.

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It was around this time that Historical Society also began searching for the mammoth tusk that had been found by Judge Caleb Baker along the Chemung River in 1778. (Read all about that tusk and the Historical Society’s search for it here) While they were not able to find the original, they were able to get a similar mammoth tusk from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

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The Historical Society relocated again in 1965 to 304 William Street.

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The mammoth tusk and all the other historic objects, documents, and photographs that had been donated over the previous 40+ years were moved into their new home. Many of the objects were used in new exhibits focused on topics we still explore in the museum today - life here in the 1800s, the Civil War, local organizations and schools, and, of course, Mark Twain. Materials that didn’t go on display went into storage. Unfortunately, one of the main storage spaces in the building was the basement, which proved disastrous during the 1972 Flood. (click here to read how the Historical Society reacted to the flooding)

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The Chemung County Historical Society moved one more time to its current location at 415 E. Water Street. The building was originally home to the Chemung Canal Bank starting in 1833. After the bank moved into new headquarters, the building housed law offices and apartments. It underwent major renovations in the late 1970s and opened to the public as the Chemung County Historical Society in 1982. In 1986, the Historical Society received accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). It was reaccredited most recently in 2021. Less than 5% of museum in the United States are accredited by the AAM. In 1992, further renovations to the building took place. An addition that includes the Howell Gallery, the Frances Brayton Education Room, and the Barn Gallery, as well as a new entranceway, was added to the main building.

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The Chemung County Historical Society currently operates the Chemung Valley History Museum and the Booth Research Library. Our mission is to deepen our understanding of history and to provide an appreciation of our community’s place in state and national history. We’ve done this over the last 100 years by collecting, preserving, interpreting, and presenting the history of our community and we plan to continue this mission for the next 100 years. 

And, yes, the mammoth tusk is still on display.

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Erin Doane is the Head Curator at The Chemung Valley Historical Society. For more information about the museum and to see more of their blog, click here

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