Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Happy Birthday, Alice!

I've been working on a post about the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (which is probably going to turn into two posts...) but couldn't let today pass without celebrating a very special occasion: It's Alice’s 151st birthday! Let's take a little tour through the life of our founder to commemorate the day.
A young and very serious Alice
Alice Trainer was born September 23, 1863 in Goderich, Ontario. She was the seventh child of Bernard and Louisa Saunders Trainer, and their fourth daughter. Louisa Trainer died in 1870, and Matilda, the oldest daughter, took on the responsibility of helping to raise her younger siblings.

Some time in the late 1870s or 1880s, Alice’s older brothers moved to Chicago for work, and in 1887 the rest of the siblings—Matilda, Bertha, Louise, Alice, and William—relocated there as well (Bernard Trainer had died in 1876).

Alice around the time she met Will Miner
While living in Chicago in the early 1890s, Alice met a young man named William H. Miner. How they met remains a mystery, but we know that they attended the Chicago World's Fair together and enjoyed “wheeling.” Alice and William were married in June, 1895.

At home in Chicago with one of her many canine friends
Alice and her fellow Kamby Mandolin Club members in
Jackson Park, Chicago

In March 1902, Alice gave birth to a son, William Henry Miner, Jr., but sadly the baby died when he was only two weeks old. Although they never spoke of it explicitly, it seems likely that William and Alice’s decision to embark on the ambitious project of creating Heart’s Delight Farm the following year was connected to this tragic event.

Over the following decades, Chazy and the surrounding area would come to play a very important role in Alice’s life as she and William expanded their activities beyond the farm to encompass the Chazy Central Rural School, the Kent-Delord House, Physicians Hospital, and of course, the Colonial Collection. Alice’s sisters eventually moved to Chazy as well, and after William died in 1930, Alice decided to live at Heart’s Delight year-round. 

Alice at Heart's Delight with a very small companion, 1934 
Alice presenting a new ambulance to Physicians Hospital, 1948
So, although it was William’s family ties that originally brought Alice to the North Country, she developed a close relationship with its people and places over the 50 years she spent here. Until the end of her life in 1950, she remained an active member of the Board of Directors of Physicians Hospital, the Women’s League of Physicians Hospital, and the Presbyterian Ladies’ Aid Society.

Alice also continued to add to the collection of the Colonial Home, turning it into the historical gem that it remains today! She wanted to make sure that local residents did not forget the history of their community, and I think Alice would be very happy to know how many people came to visit the museum during the Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration weekend.

Thank you, Alice, and a very happy birthday!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Letters from Omaha

Alice and William in the early 1890s
In the summer of 1893, Will Miner was traveling the country as a representative of the Hutchins Refrigerator Company (a subsidiary of the California Fruit Transportation Company) and trying to sell his newly-patented tandem draft rigging on the side. Although Will was a determined and ambitious young man, two other things were very much on his mind that summer: his beloved Alice, and the great exposition then taking place in Chicago. Its official name was the World's Columbian Exposition, but to Will it was just "the Fair." 

During an extended trip to Omaha, Nebraska in August 1893, Will frequently wrote to Alice, and he talked about the Fair almost as much as he talked about how much he missed her! Will's letters show just how much this event meant to Chicago residents, and how proud they were of the great "White City" that had miraculously emerged on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The Court of Honor and Grand Basin, overlooked by the Statue of the Republic

Intended to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World, the Fair opened a year late, on May 1, 1893. Like its predecessor, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the Columbian Exposition was designed to celebrate scientific and technological progress. But the organizers also intended to show (as one writer put it) "that the finer instincts of humanity have not suffered complete eclipse" in the drive towards progress and prosperity. Art and culture would also be on display, and the classically-inspired white exhibition buildings would provide an ideal setting for the moral lessons to be learned at the Fair.

"Chicago Day" set a record for attendance,
with 716,881 visitors
Will first mentioned the Fair in a letter to Alice written on August 15. He noted that Omaha was as quiet as Chicago on a Sunday, and observed, "There is certainly more business in Chicago than any place I have seen in this country, the Fair is helping us more than we realize untill we see how other towns are suffering from dull trade." In the summer of 1893, the United States was in the midst of a serious economic depression (known as a "panic" in those days), but the influx of visitors to the Fair (26 million over six months) surely helped Chicago weather the crisis.

Will wrote again the next day, saying, "I trust you are enjoying the events at the Fair which I see by the Chicago papers are very interesting. Yesterday was a day of events and I hope you saw the races on the lagoons." He also reported, "People out here are doing a great deal of talking about the Fair, they all agree that it is superb."

Ladies' Safety Bicycle, 1889
Alice must have reported to Will on her Fair-related activities, because in his letter of August 22 he said, "Am glad you are having such nice cool weather for wheeling and seeing the Fair." He looked forward to returning to Chicago, when they would "take some trips on the wheels." Bertha Trainer was taking riding lessons, and once she was done, the whole family would be able to cycle together. The introduction of the safety bicycle in the late 1880s led to a national craze for "wheeling." Unlike the old penny-farthing bicycle, with its enormous front wheel, the safety bike was stable and easy to use. Women, in particular, took to cycling with great enthusiasm, and the bicycle became a symbol of the freedom of the "New Woman" in the 1890s.

A week later, Will wrote that he was "getting anxious to hear from you as no letter has arrived up to date, suppose you are busy seeing the Fair this week with sister Lou." And "speaking of the Fair, I believe I can thoroughly appreciate it when I see it again, it seems an age since we were there last together, am sorry to be away from Chicago so much during the Fair for we both miss much of its best features."

Interior of Machinery Hall
Will and Alice likely had many more chances to visit the Fair before it closed on October 30, 1893. Given what we know about Will Miner's interests, it's likely that Machinery Hall and the Transportation Building were two of his favorite exhibits at the Fair. The Transportation Building contained 8 acres of space devoted just to railroads, including an extensive display by the Baltimore and Ohio Railway, which showed "the development of locomotives and cars from the rudest and earliest days to the present time."
The Transportation Building's gilded and polychrome facade
stood out among the neoclassical structures of the White City

We don't have any letters from Alice written during this period, so we don't know exactly what she thought of the Fair. But for someone with interests in art and history, the exposition offered plenty of opportunities to study both. In my next post, I'll be looking more closely at the ways in which colonial architecture, furniture, and decorative arts were presented at the World's Columbian Exposition.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Among Friends: An Evening with Local Author Stephen Woodruff

On Saturday, August 30, the Alice helped kick off the first weekend of Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration activities with a visit from Stephen Woodruff, author of the young adult novel Among Friends: A Quaker Boy at the Battle of Plattsburgh. The book is about 13-year-old Elijah Hoag, a Quaker living in the settlement near Peru, who faces some tough situations as war approaches his home in September 1814. Stephen gave a wonderful talk in which he took the audience through the various influences that came together to give him the idea for this book.

Stephen grew up in Peru, and as a kid he heard reports of a deserted town outside the village. This was the Quaker Union--once a thriving settlement which had largely been abandoned by the 1850s. Later, as a teacher in the Peru elementary school, Stephen helped develop a local history program for fourth-graders in which students compared the present village to 19th-century photographs. Many of the buildings the students studied for this project later became settings in Among Friends.

Around this same time, Stephen encountered the journal of Henry K. Averill, which had been edited by local historian Keith Herkalo and published by the Battle of Plattsburgh Association. Stephen became interested in Averill's account of his experiences as one of Aiken's Volunteers during the battle. A group of teenage boys playing a pivotal role in the American victory certainly seemed like a intriguing premise for a novel...

All of these ideas were beginning to come together, but more research was needed. Stephen began to gather more information about the Quaker Union and about Quaker theology and practice. The Quakers (or Society of Friends, as they called themselves) originated in England in the mid-17th century when they broke off from the Church of England. Quakers emphasized the individual's personal relationship with God, unmediated by clergy or formal services. They believed that all people had an "Inner Light" that could be cultivated through communal, but largely silent, worship. Unlike many other Christian denominations, Quakers allowed women to speak publicly during meetings. They also supported abolitionism and pacifism, and were known for their plain style of dress and use of thee and thou as ordinary pronouns.

A Quaker meeting in London, 1809. Men and women sat separately in the meetinghouse,
and there were no ordained ministers. Anyone who felt moved by the Inner Light could speak.
The Keese homestead. More early photos
can be found at the Town of Peru website.

Quakers were persecuted both by the Church of England and by Puritans in North America, but they were able to establish settlements in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Long Island, and Dutchess County. It was these Dutchess County Quakers who became the first settlers of the Quaker Union in the early 1790s. Many of the earliest residents, including William and John Keese, had worked as surveyors for Zephaniah Platt, and were paid for their services with land. By 1814, the Quaker Union was a prosperous settlement of 40 to 50 houses, a school, a tavern, and other businesses. But it was already beginning to feel the effects of what would ultimately become a schism in the community due to the radical preaching of Long Island Quaker Elias Hicks.

The main character of Among Friends, 13-year-old Elijah Hoag, thus finds himself facing a number of problems. In addition to the tensions within the Quaker community, he is frightened by the possibility of a British invasion. But he's also a little bit interested in the idea of boys his own age who are willing to fight--something that would be totally contrary to his Quaker beliefs. Plus there are troubles at home on the farm, where Elijah just can't seem to do anything right, and he's been having strange and ominous dreams. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that this is a very enjoyable book for teens or adults. Stephen Woodruff does an excellent job of blending fictional characters with real events and people in a believable way. 

Engraved plate from rifle presented by Congress to Martin Aiken,
in the collection of the Clinton County Historical Association.
This year's Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration (Saturday, September 13) will include a reenactment of the skirmish on Bridge Street, in which Aikin's Volunteers played an important role.

The Yellow Store in Goshen, where Elijah meets Henry Averill, was a real place and is now located at the Babbie Rural and Farm Learning Museum in Peru, which is raising funds for its restoration.

Among Friends is available for purchase at the Clinton County Historical Association and the Corner-Stone Bookshop in Plattsburgh, and at Amazon.com