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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Grounds of Expansion: The Seward Surveys of New York’s Natural History

by Zachary Finn
Copyright © 2020 All rights reserved by the author.

“This earth is undoubtedly a wreck of a former world; a new combination of old materials.”
 DeWitt Clinton, 1822[1]

“Nature has written her own annals on the globe we inhabit.”
William H. Seward, 1842

In 1817, the future New York State Governor (1839-1843), Senator (1849-1861), and Secretary of State (1861-1869) William H. Seward was simply a college student seeking to distinguish himself from the pack. Struggling through his second year at Union College in Schenectady, New York, the petite and diminutive young man-- he stood at only about five feet, and five inches tall--was fighting tooth and nail to become a member of Phi Beta Kappa.[2] Not only would induction mean having his “name enrolled in a society of which De Witt Clinton, Chancellor Kent, and Dr. Nott were members” (the latter two being a revered local judge and the college president,) but it would also allow the young man, as he put it, to “acquire great secrets of science.”[3]

While Seward tirelessly sought acceptance into Phi Beta Kappa, elsewhere, other “secrets of science” were being unearthed--including in Seward’s own backyard of Orange County, NY.

As Seward woke at 3:00 AM each morning, eager to unlock the mysteries of the natural world through “severe study,” a tusk from an enormous mastodon was found only five miles away from Seward’s hometown of Florida, NY.[4] His native Orange County had already been established as a hotspot of discovery after multiple mastodon bones, some dating before the American Revolution, were unearthed in the region. However, in 1799 the discovery of fossils in a clay pit at a family farm in Newburgh, NY, led both to the excavation of the site and a new booming interest in paleontology in the Hudson Valley. A rapid flurry of similar discoveries propelled a spike of early archeological digs in Orange County, culminating with the eventual display of a complete mastodon skeleton in 1801, the year of Seward’s birth.[5]

By 1817, while Seward was on campus in Schenectady, Orange County was the place to be for amateur paleontologists (though the word paleontologists had yet to be termed) and geologists alike, most of who were well-educated gentlemen-generalists who were interested in the study of natural history.[6] Similarly, New York Governor DeWitt Clinton was intrigued by these fields, and he would become an avid writer on subjects about science.[7]

Sunday, April 12, 2020

How to Save an Island

By Emma M. Sedore

Copyright ©2020 all rights reserved by the author
photos used are permission of the author

View on the Susquehanna (above Owego). By W. H. Bartlett, 
5 x 7 engraving by C. Cousen, 1839
It is not uncommon for people to save historic buildings, but almost thirty years ago, a group of concerned citizens went a step further and saved an island; all 112 acres of it, along with its incredible history.

Hiawatha Island is the largest island in the NYS portion of the beautiful Susquehanna River, approximately three miles east of the village of Owego and twenty miles west of Binghamton.

First known as Big Island in the nineteenth century, it was a favorite subject of such painters as Thomas Doughty, William Henry Bartlett, Thomas Chambers, and Currier and Ives. Its rich history includes births, deaths, marriages, and almost everything in-between.

A poster used to entice tourists to the island.
Its earliest years began with Native Americans using it on a seasonal basis for farming, hunting, and fishing. It was mentioned in the journals of explorers as early as 1615 and land surveyors in the mid-eighteenth century. The island saw the armies of Generals Sullivan and Clinton swoop past in a deluge of rain during the Revolutionary War in August of 1779.

One of its most flamboyant periods began in1873 when a local group of businessmen dreamed up an idea to make it into a destination for tourists. They first built a steamboat right on the riverbank in the village of Owego to take them up and around the island, and everybody loved it. That led to building a four-story hotel, a dance hall, a bowling alley, and gravel walks that led to manicured picnic areas. Groups of people came from all over, including the very first reunion of the 109th Civil War volunteers. It was so popular that according to the old hotel ledger at the Tioga County Historical Society Museum, in Owego, thousands of tourists visited there from twenty-six states and nine foreign countries by 1884. In fact, the NYS Legislature passed a law on April 18, 1876, to allow the Susquehanna River to be dredged between Owego and Binghamton to allow the new 120-foot steamboat, Lyman Truman, to travel back and forth.

John D. Rockefeller talked about his boyhood connection with Hiawatha Island in his biography by Allan Nevins. The Kilmer brothers of Swamp Root Medicine fame, in Binghamton, became the owners in 1887 for more than a dozen years. Their plans included enlarging the hotel and installing medicinal fountains that they said would cure just about anything that ailed anybody. Still, when new business opportunities opened for them back in Binghamton, they called it quits and moved on. Its flamboyant days were definitely over.

The 20th century saw new owners. The first was a woman who always dreamed of using it as a summer home, without the noise of tourists. In the early twenties, it was purchased with plans to make it into a bible camp. That worked for a while, but it wasn’t long before the next owner came along. He owned the largest hotel in the village of Owego, and his plan was to use it to grow most of the food for the dining room. Because it was during the Great Depression, caretakers worked long, hard hours for just a dollar a day. They oversaw the gardens, the creamery, and caring for the animals. During this period, two babies were born on the island and sad to say, five drownings occurred, including the owner himself.
Hiawatha House, ca. 1890
Shortly after, a local doctor with seven children purchased it. When he died unexpectedly, the next owner came along with big dreams of making the island into a tourist attraction, wax museum and all; but because his plans fell through, he fought a long legal battle over it and lost it to an owner who put the island up for auction. In a way, this final chapter is reminiscent of the island’s flamboyant years.

News spreads quickly in a small village, and when several local businessmen heard that Hiawatha Island would be put up for auction, they made a huge decision to save it, especially because it was rumored that a land developer wanted it and knowing its history, that was unthinkable!

Their first plan of action was to raise enough money to go to the auction and bid on it, which was just a few weeks away. They contacted every person, organization, and business to raise the money, and when the day arrived on August 20, 1988 they had collected $42,000. That seemed enough until the opening bid started at $50,000! Not to be deterred, they allowed the group’s spokesperson to keep bidding, figuring they could get the rest of the money later. Bidding went on all afternoon until the land developer jumped his bid to $350,000. At this point, the group figured that if he wanted it badly enough, let’s make him pay for it; so they went ahead and bid $351,000 thinking the developer would say $352,000, but the gavel came slamming down with the auctioneer saying in a loud voice, “SOLD!” They were speechless, remembering that there was a ten percent auctioneer’s fee that brought the total cost to $386,100, and the total had to be paid up by October. It was all over the news. The television stations and newspapers mentioned it almost daily. Everybody was talking about Hiawatha Island.

A separate fund-raising committee called the Hiawatha Purchase Committee was formed, and frantic efforts were made to sell certificates for a square foot of the island at $10 each, which sold like hotcakes. Auctions, jamborees, and more were held, and fortunately, Paul Noel Stookey, of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame, came to Owego and gave a benefit performance at the middle school. Needless to say, it was a sellout. Private individuals made generous loans, and more importantly, over a dozen people actually mortgaged their homes and businesses. By October, enough money was finally raised, and they even had a $15,000 check leftover!

That was the good part. The not so good part was that after the owner and the auctioneer were paid, the ad hoc fund-raising committee had to start all over again to pay back the good people who mortgaged their homes and businesses and gave generous loans.

Grants were successfully written and received from the J. M. Kaplan Fund, Norcross Wildlife Foundation, the local Mildred Faulkner Truman Foundation, and others. The local IBM plant was more than generous with matching funds by its many employees, donating thousands of dollars. The Purchase Committee never had a dull moment. They gave regular “breakfasts on the island,” which were extremely popular and profitable. They sponsored everything from garage sales, raffles, tee shirts, and everything they could think of. At the island for two days, an innovative dance company delighted and amazed visitors to fiddle music with their rendition of the island's history while flitting through the bushes and even hanging from the branches of trees.

Significant awards that boosted their morale included the NYS Outdoor Education Association, with the “Environmental Impact Award in recognition towards the improvement of environmental problems through research, conservation and/or political action. One of the more unusual awards was the Giraffe Award, by the Giraffe Project of the state of Washington. The key requirement to earn it was that we had to have the audacity to “Stick one’s neck out.”

After five years, the loans were finally paid in full. On a sunny autumn-scented day, October 23, 1993, a happy, upbeat crowd shuffled through piles of colorful leaves to the ceremony site on the island. They cheered when the deed was handed over to the Fred L. Waterman Conservation Education Center in Apalachin, N.Y. with the condition that the water-bound property is forever protected.

Waterman would use it for educational classes on Native American civilizations, conservation, and wildlife and is open and free for everyone to enjoy. As an added safeguard for

Hiawatha Island, a permanent easement, was made to the Finger Lakes Land Trust, which will make sure that no bridge or other permanent crossing would be built to the island.

It was once referred to as the “Island of Charisma,” and it seemed fitting because two of the volunteers fell in love and were married on the island May 15, 1993, the date chosen to correspond with the first wedding held there eighty years before.

Last but best of all, through respect for each other’s integrity and commitment, camaraderie developed among the group that still binds them today.

About the author: Emma M. Sedore has been the Tioga County Historian since 2001 and the Town of Owego Historian since 1987. As a result of her book, Hiawatha Island, Jewel of the Susquehanna, she was awarded the DAR History Medal, and a copy was placed in the DAR National Library in Washington, DC.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Don't Have a Cow!

By Lauren Letellier and Chris Atkins, Town Historians of Hillsdale, NY


Over the years, a number of celebrities have lived in or visited Hillsdale. Some were not famous when they lived here but achieved celeb status elsewhere. But Hillsdale was always “home.” A case in point was Hudson River School painter John Bunyan Bristol, who was born in Hillsdale but achieved prominence in New York City. Even after he received worldwide recognition, he still spent summers at the Mt. Washington House.

Some believe that one of Hillsdale’s celebrities was "Elsie the Cow," the famous mascot and logo of the Borden Milk Company. We're sorry to report that the real Elsie the Cow never made her way to Hillsdale, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some Elsie history here in town.

Our story begins in Norwich, NY, where Gail Borden was born in 1801.

Gail Borden
After a few years, the family moved to Kentucky and then to Indiana. In his early 20s, Gail followed his brothers south, eventually working as a surveyor in Mississippi. By 1835, Borden – now married – had settled in Texas, working first as a surveyor and then as a newspaper editor, which is interesting since his only formal education took place during his two years in Indiana, and that was spent learning to be a surveyor. How he ended up editing a newspaper is still a mystery.

Borden was an inventor, although not always successful. One of his inventions was “the terraqueous machine,” a kind of sail-powered amphibious wagon that could make both thunder across the plains and glide into the waters of the Texas coast. Accounts of his first – and only – journey are not kind.

In 1849, Borden turned his attention to meat. Specifically, he created a meat biscuit similar to Native American pemmican. The meat biscuits were immensely popular during the California Gold Rush because the 49ers needed compact, lightweight, non-perishable supplies, and Borden’s meat biscuits fit the bill. Borden actually traveled to the 1851 London World’s Fair, where his biscuits were well received despite the fact that they looked like an old Pop-Tart and from all reports tasted like the box the Pop-Tart came in.

Doesn't this look yummy?

(A lot has been written about Borden, and we commend our readers to the library or Internet for a more comprehensive study.)

Sailing back from London, Borden was horrified to see that several children aboard the ship had died from drinking tainted milk. He wondered if there was a way to preserve milk indefinitely, and found inspiration from the Shakers with whom he had spent some time, possibly in Kentucky. He recalled that the Shakers had developed a process of evaporating fruit juice by vacuum and making it “shelf-stable,” as we would say today. Borden used a similar process and invented condensed milk. In short order, he founded the New York Condensed Milk Company.

Borden opened factories across New York State, including in Craryville, Copake, and Ancram.

By 1858, Eagle Brand Condensed Milk was a trusted brand and selling briskly. During the Civil War, the Union Army supplied the troops with Eagle Brand, an enormous windfall for Borden.

Borden died in Texas in 1874, but the New York Condensed Milk Company lived on, and in 1899, the company renamed itself Borden Milk Company in his honor.

Still with us? Here’s the Hillsdale connection:

The cartoon logo of "Elsie the Cow" was created by Borden’s director of advertising, Stuart Peabody, in 1936

Peabody was a lifelong Hillsdale weekender with a farm on Taconic Creek Rd., off of West End Rd.

Peabody Corner
(Some sources credit New York advertising agency maven David William Reid with inventing Elsie. It’s often said that “success has a million fathers; failure is an orphan.” In any case, if Reid did indeed come up with the idea, it most certainly would have been by the direction of his client, Stuart Peabody. So we give Peabody credit, and so does Advertising Age. However, a New York Times obituary states that a Borden illustrator, Walter Oehrle, actually drew the cartoon, again at Peabody's direction.)

In a few years, Elsie became the most popular company mascot ever. The logo can still be found on Eagle Brand cans in stores across the country, and the Elsie logo is considered to be an icon of advertising history.

In the 1930s, Borden Milk Company invented the new-fangled milking machine called the "Rotolactor," which Borden proudly displayed and operated at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. During one demonstration, it is said, a girl asked the Borden representative, “Which one is Elsie?” Thinking fast, the Borden man looked around for the friendliest looking cow and selected a Jersey named “You’ll Do, Lobelia,” born in Brookfield, MA in 1932. Rechristened and festooned with a necklace of daisies, “Elsie” became the biggest hit of the World’s Fair

Elsie began making celebrity appearances throughout the Northeast. Still, demand for Elsie extended throughout the nation, and it soon became clear that there was a need for a few more Elsies, strategically located around the country. Sad to say, “You’ll Do, Lobelia” died in a tragic accident in 1941 and is buried in Plainsboro, NJ. Here’s the headstone.

"You'll Do, Lobelia
A pure bred Jersey cow
One of the great Elsies of our time"
You can go see it if you happen to be in Plainsboro and find yourself with absolutely nothing else to do.

The remaining ersatz Elsies soldiered on, appearing at War Bond rallies, store openings and fairs across the country.

But did Elsie ever grace Hillsdale with her bovine charm? There is no evidence that she did, although some residents recall visiting “Elsie” at the Peabody farm. Obviously, anyone can name a cow Elsie, and perhaps Stuart Peabody did.

But just like George Washington, the real Elsie the Cow never slept in Hillsdale.

About the authors: Lauren Letellier and Chris Atkinsare co-Town Historians for Hillsdale, NY. They publish a (mostly) monthly blog about Hillsdale history. Their blog is

Thursday, April 9, 2020

The Trials and Tribulations of Homer’s Circus Owner, Sig Sautelle

by Martin A. Sweeney

Sig Sautelle
Over a hundred years ago, there must have been something thrilling about a circus coming to town and perhaps something even more enthralling about a circus coming to town to spend the winter. Such must have been the case for young people in the Cortland County village of Homer in the 1890s when Sig Sautelle’s Circus came parading down Main Street. There were cavorting clowns, bareback riders, trapeze artists, tumblers, high-wire performers, and exotic animals. The Circus had 225 people on the payroll; boasted two elephants, 14 cages of animals and 150 horses, and ponies (according to John C. Kunzog’s book Tan Bark and Tinsel, 1970). For twenty-five cents one could enjoy one of two performances per day in one ring under one big tent set up on a large lot at the corner of Cortland Street and Copeland Avenue.

Then, starting in 1900, some of the performers and animals took up headquarters for the winter months at three red-painted, octagon-shaped buildings (one with a cupola still stands) and other structures at the south end of Main Street. Circus employees filled up the hotels in Homer, and their children attended the academy on the Green. “Sig,” its popular owner, was known for his big cigar, a diamond pin in his lapel, and ventriloquism skills he had learned while a drummer boy during the Civil War.

According to James P. Hughes (“Homer’s Sig Sautelle.” Life in the Finger Lakes. Summer, 2008),

In Homer’s confectionery store, to give the impression of a man trapped in the basement, he would carry on a conversation through a hot-air register in the floor with a helpless voice below howling, “Let me out, let me out!” As the children gazed through the grate bewildered, Sig stood by with a twinkle in his eye.

With these tantalizing influences, how many local boys contemplated running away with the circus come spring? Perhaps they would have reconsidered if they knew what events lurked ahead.
Circus tent

Judging by the newspaper accounts of the day, circus life, at least outside the ring, was not all that glamorous. For George Satterly (Sept. 22, 1848 – June 21, 1928) – sometimes spelled Satterlee and better known as “Sig Sautelle” – there seemed to be plenty of unwelcomed, even dangerous, challenges for a flamboyant circus showman whose show traveled via road, the Erie Canal, and railway to communities primarily in New York State. While his ads, such as one in the Daily Argus of July 5, 1901, enticed the people of Mount Vernon, NY, and elsewhere to take in “A Vast All-Star Programme of sensational and exclusive features in its arenic department,” other newspaper articles present a sampling of the traumatic events associated with Sautelle’s traveling entertainment extravaganza.

For example, there was a negative reputation borne by circus people that comes through in The Port Chester Journal’s reporting of an incident (Thursday, July 18, 1901). It seems that during the evening show at Port Chester, Sautelle ordered a police officer to arrest a lad named Eddie Hutchins, a Port Chester lad “who had been with the circus for some time” as it made its way through the Hudson Valley. Sautelle claimed, “he had discharged him in Albany and that he had followed the circus ever since and he wanted him arrested and taken off the grounds.” Sautelle further maintained he had paid Hutchins upon termination and had the receipt. However, Hutchins countered that Sig Sautelle had "fired" him without paying him what his due was and that “he had followed the circus around in the hope of getting his money.”

The officer believed that in ordering the arrest of Hutchins, Sautelle would appear in court against him. He claimed Sautelle had vouched "his lawyer" would be present and appear against Hutchins. The lad was locked up for twenty-four hours before a justice of the peace was available to hear the case. At the hearing, neither Sautelle nor “his lawyer” appeared. Without a complaint brought forward, Hutchins was released. And Sautelle’s Circus had already departed, leaving the lad in the dust.

The newspaper went on to state that while Hutchins was admittedly an unsavory character, “this does not alter the case…. There was no warrant for his arrest, and the officer was clearly in error in arresting him on the word of a circus-man. The integrity of Sautelle may be all right, but circus men are birds of passage and the officer should have known this. He should not have taken as gospel what Sautelle told him.” The paper further noted that “in the wake of all circuses, there is a miscellaneous following which drift in with the vans of the road.” The paper called them “camp followers,” but maintained that Hutchins [mind you, a local boy] had an “outrage” imposed upon him. “Hereafter,” the paper concluded, with a stereotypical bias, “there should be some discretion used in making arrests of persons on the order of circus men. As a class, we are not stuck on the Canvass Knights who are not loath to resort to all kinds of acts to gather in the shekels.”

The next incident, as reported by the Syracuse Evening Herald on August 17, 1901, occurred in Saratoga, NY. This time, J. Charles Banks of Seneca Falls, the manager of Sig Sautelle's circus, shot and killed Herbert Tackaberry of Ottawa, Canada, at 8 P. M. on the 16th at the South Broadway circus ground. “Tackaberry had been following the circus, running a gambling outfit,” reported the paper, “and for some reason left, it is supposed because his presence was not desired.” He returned on the 16th, the shooting resulted, and Banks claimed it was in self-defense.

The coroner was summoned. He examined the body. One of the shots took effect in the right temple and went clear through the head. The other entered just below the ear, severing the jugular vein and carotid artery. The coroner concluded death must have occurred within five minutes after the shooting. Banks was arrested on the charge of murder in the first degree.

Banks was taken to police headquarters and jailed. The examination of Banks took place around midnight that night before Justice Delaney. C. B. Kilmer and W. P. Butler appeared for the defendant and Assistant District Attorney McKnight for the people. To take the testimony of several employees who had been subpoenaed, the examination was not held until after the circus’ evening performance. The courtroom was filled with a good many of Sautelle’s employees when the proceedings commenced.

After the formal charge of murder in the first degree was read and a plea of not guilty entered, Richard Raymond, ticket seller for Sautelle’s show, was called to the stand. He stated that he knew Banks and Tackaberry and was standing at the entrance to the main tent when he saw Tackaberry sitting to one side of the entrance and Banks opposite him on the other side. He said Tackaberry got up and started towards Banks with his hand at his hip pocket. Banks then took hold of Tackaberry. A scuffle ensued, and shots fired. Tackaberry fell to the ground. Raymond testified he heard nothing said between the men and “it was only an instant between the time of the scuffle and the firing of the shot.”

Under cross-examination, Raymond said that he had been with the show since the 10th of May and knew both men personally. He said that Tackaberry followed the show with a “gambling game” and was a "grifter.” He had remained with the show two weeks, but on the 16th came as a visitor. Raymond said on one occasion he had been shown a revolver by Tackaberry and was told that if ever Banks told anything about him, he would "croak" him. On another occasion, he had said that if he (Tackaberry) were obliged to leave the show, he would get even. Raymond stated, “Tackaberry carried two revolvers, one in his hip pocket and the other in his vest pocket, wore brass knuckles at times, and carried a cane and a lead Billy club. Some witnesses testified that the weapon was in Tackaberry’s possession and that he "was loading it apparently for use when Banks snatched it and fired the two shots.” Hearing the shots, a crowd collected in time to see Tackaberry fall, and Banks start to run away. Chase was given, and Banks was readily captured when he saw that escape was impossible. But he managed to dispose of the weapon, which had yet to be found. Circus employees called Banks “an inoffensive sort of fellow.” They were surprised he had even resisted.

After the people rested their case, Clarence B. Kilmer for the defendant moved to discharge the defendant because the shooting was justified. It was overruled by the court, and the District Attorney would not accept a plea of manslaughter. It was ultimately determined that Banks be held to await the action of the grand jury on the original charge of murder in the first degree. During the coroner’s inquest, about fifteen witnesses testified Tackaberry had at various times threatened Banks with violence, which was similar to that brought out in the police-court examination. The coroner exonerated Banks.

Residents of Homer, New York, must have found some irony in the Cortland Evening Standard of Monday, August 19, 1901. The paper noted Banks was to stand trial and added the following: “It will be remembered that the grand jury of Cortland County on Feb. 4, 1901, reported six indictments, two of which were sealed. One of these was against Tackaberry for assault on the person of a man by the name of Morrison. Tackaberry then worked in Thurston's winter garden. He was given a hint of the indictment before the grand jury reported, and he skipped to Canada and had not been found by the officers.”

Banks was acquitted on November 15, 1901. The following notice appeared that day in the Waterloo Observer: “The many friends of J. Charles Banks, of Seneca Falls, were pleased to note this morning that his trial for the murder of Herbert Tackaberry… had been finished and that the jury, after being out five hours, had returned a verdict of not guilty.” The verdict must have been a relief for Sig Sautelle as well, whose business had moved on since the incident, following the adage “The show must go on.”

It was not just the humans associated with Sautelle’s Circus that got into deadly scuffles; the animal performers did, too. On June 4, 1902, the Cortland Evening Standard reported that a tiger in the Sautelle menagerie had escaped from his cage while on a moving train and got into a horse car. A terrible fight occurred between the tiger and the frightened horses. Several horses were badly lacerated and bitten. A horse named Toby fared the worst but managed to kill the tiger, breaking its ribs and neck. The Poughkeepsie Eagle of May 31 described the ferocious attacker as a year-old, 400 pound Bengal tiger in Sautelle's circus and said, “It is fortunate the tiger in escaping entered the horse car instead of jumping off the train and taking to the woods where he would probably soon have attacked people.” The Eagle said the circus train was headed for Poughkeepsie when the battle occurred and that it was “a bloodcurdling affair while it lasted.”

There has always been conjecture regarding the fate of some of Sautelle’s elephants. According to local lore, some were buried in the field in Homer that was once known as Contento’s junkyard. Judging by the following article in the Cortland Republican for November 30, 1905, Sautelle may have, indeed, pondered burying one problematic pachyderm in Homer.


"Duke," Sig Sautelle's Ugly African Elephant Breaks from His Moorings at Headquarters, and One of His Keepers Narrowly Escapes His Murderous Attack.

There was plenty doing at the animal house at Sig Sautelle's headquarters last Monday morning. Soon after daylight, "Duke," the big and ugly African elephant which was chained to a big post in the animal house, made a lunge at one of his keepers. The post to which he was attached broke off under strain and liberated him. Mr. Marrow, the expert animal man, and manager, was quickly summoned and hastened to the quarters. "Duke " had chased one of his attendants into a corner, knocked him down, and made a vicious lunge at him with his single tusk. The tusk providentially missed the man's body and went below his legs. Other attendants with pikes attacked the elephant and made him back away and Mr. Morrow secured a long pike in use by telephone linemen, who were working close by, and hastening to the rescue drove it into the elephant's trunk.
As soon as the man was rescued from his perilous position and the others had found places of safety, about 100 grains of morphine was administered to the elephant. It was given in water first, but "Duke" detected something wrong with the water and drank only a few swallows. Then the bread was soaked in the water and fed to him, and more was placed in apples which he seemed to relish. About fifteen minutes were required to get the desired amount of the drug down the big brute. Fortunately, with the exception of smashing up some woodwork, little damage was done. The stoves, fortunately, were not overturned, and as soon as possible, the fires in them were extinguished. After some time, the morphine began to take effect and along in the afternoon, “Duke” became drowsy enough so that he was able to be again chained securely to a post which it will be very difficult for him to break. The other animals in the house were greatly excited during the elephant's rampage, and there was a lively time all around till the morphine took effect and quieted the angry elephant. The beast has been Sautelle's property for about a year and has given much trouble by his treacherous and ugly disposition. Mr. Morrow said he was a sorry looking beast Tuesday morning, the morphine having evidently given him considerable distress. Mr. Morrow said enough was administered to kill 150 men.

Marital spats among circus employees are hard to ignore when traveling and living in close quarters. One such conflict made it into the May 22, 1903, issue of The Waterville Times: “One of Sig Sautelle's hyenas was devoured by its mate, while en route from Oneida to Rome. When the cage was opened, the blood spatters were seen, and naught remained but the bones.”

The same newspaper revealed on January 26, 1912, that a circus performer had such a disagreeable personality he simply had to be terminated:

“Kruger,” the African lion which was purchased last spring for $1,000 by Sig Sautelle and kept in winter quarters at Homer, was shot last week having become so viciously ugly that he fought his keepers and no one could be hired to longer care for him. “Kruger” had killed two keepers and injured others. An attempt was made to put him to death by poison, but he detected an unusual smell in the meat and refused to eat. Chloroform was then tried, but he knocked away the saturated sponge with his paw as fast as it was shoved under his nose, and finally he was shot.

The following from the Waterville Times of October 4, 1912, presents a concise summation of how Sautelle dealt with the trials and tribulations of being a showman, including inclement weather:

Sautelle appeared in Waterville on Wednesday afternoon and evening according to schedule, giving two excellent performances. The circus travels by wagon and had experienced some very bad
roads during the past week. On the way from Worcester to Cooperstown, where the company showed last Saturday, one of the lion cages toppled over and turned a complete somersault
down an embankment, breaking the reach and otherwise damaging it. The circus is now on the way to winter quarters in Homer, after a most successful tour. Sig Sautelle is one of the oldest circus men
on the road, and small disasters like a deluge of rain or the tipping over of the menagerie merely cause him to puff a little harder on the cigar and gaze quizzically out over the rim of his glasses. The
circus left Cooperstown in the pouring rain on Sunday, Richfield Springs being their next stop. They came here from New Berlin and left yesterday morning for Morrisville.

Circuses faced incredible expenses, and that could have devastating economic consequences, as The Holley Standard of Holley, NY, (December 17, 1914) posted in this notice:

George C. Satterlee, better known as Sig Sautelle, the circus man, who resides at Homer, Cortland county, and was in this section with his circus for several seasons past, filed a petition in bankruptcy in Utica Saturday with unsecured liabilities of $33,103 and nominal assets of $3,815. His fifty creditors are scattered. All that is left of the circus is a spotted horse and mule.

Sig Sautelle
George Satterly and his ailing wife, Ida Belle, took up residence in 1915 on a small farm outside of Homer. That was about the time, according to the late Homer historian R. Curtis Harris, that the Wharton Moving Picture Company of Ithaca (the Hollywood of the silent film era) came to Homer to film a segment with the famous actress Pearl White. Extras were the many circus performers who still made Homer their home. Sig must have enjoyed it. For three days the glory of ,his old Circus was reenacted, if only for the camera (“Sig Sautelle: A Circus and an Era.” The Crooked Lake Review. October, 1995).

In 1927, the year before he died, Sautelle, then a widower, tried to give it another go. With the improvement in roads, he decided to use the new large, motorized trucks to move his new show. Caught in a downward whirlwind of credit and a fluctuation of prices, Sig's show failed the first year. To the end of his five-decade career in entertainment, Sautelle contended with ups and downs, earning his rightful place in the Circus Hall of Fame, and, for a while, Homer’s fame was tied to that of Sig Sautelle’s highly respected traveling circus.

About the author: A retired history teacher and previous contributor to the Review, Sweeney is the historian for the Town and Village of Homer, NY. He authored Lincoln’s Gift from Homer, New York: A Painter, an Editor and a Detective (2011) and a historical novel titled The Suffragette’s Saga: A Murder Mystery (2019).

Friday, April 3, 2020

The Kemp House Fire, Ballston Spa NY and the Pursuit of Better Firefighting Equipment

by Rick Reynolds, September 2019
Photo credits: Public Domain from the files of Brookside Museum, Ballston Spa NY
Church Avenue looking north, 1925

NOTE: There is a companion video to this story available at

It all probably started with an overheated oil or wood stove.[1] At least that’s what they said after it was all over. 6 dead, all in one family, a destroyed house, demands better fire service. “The most terrible [tragedy] that ever occurred in this village [and it has] cast a gloom over the entire community.”[2]

Early on the morning of November 6, 1925, the Union Fire Department was alerted, and fire trucks were deployed to the scene, the home of George Kemp, his wife, and a family of 5 children. The fire department was only located on Bath Street, so it was less than a mile to the scene of the early morning (12:30 AM) fire; presumably, it would not be a long trip but factors related to a fire in later years to almost the same location may have impacted response time. The fire department was not legally obligated to deal with the fire as it was outside the “corporation” (village) of Ballston Spa. And negotiating the hills from the village to the scene of the fire was difficult for the fire apparatus, which had to use low gear just to get there.[3]

The nearest fire hydrant was a quarter-mile away, north into the village of Ballston Spa. Thus quite a distance away from the Schenectady-Ballston road, or Church Avenue, house located about two buildings south of the present Stewart’s convenience mart.4 Laying all those hoses, which were reported to be about 1000 feet in length, would certainly have taken a considerable amount of time.

When the firemen arrived, they found a “seething furnace”[5], which they were unable to enter until some of the flames and heat had been quelled. Neighbors told of one of the children in the family, Beatrice (age 16), who had climbed out of a window, her clothes afire. She screamed for a neighbor who quickly extinguished the girl’s clothes, probably saving her from death. The entire side of the house broke into flames shortly after the girl escaped.

Neighbors at the time told of a fire that seemed to center in the chimney area in the house. That led to some speculation that the fire began in the woodstove, although other reports suggested that the chimney itself was not operational; it had previously been blown down in a wind storm.[6] Yet even other reports indicated that the chimney had been repaired only two weeks ago and was functional.[7]

When firefighters were able to enter the remains of the home, they found five bodies huddled together; all were burned beyond recognition. A sixth body was found in another room of the one-story four room house. The dead were George (age 40) and Sarah Kemp (age 32-3); Mrs. Kemp’s daughters from a previous marriage, Viola (14), Carol (10), and Myrtle (9) Allen; and another child from Kemp’s earlier marriage, Marthenia (11). Identifications could only be made by size alone. The position and location of the five bodies led to the belief that the father had tried to move a chiffonier, a tall dresser often with a mirror on top, away from a window to facilitate the escape of the family but that he and the others may have been overcome before he could accomplish the task.[8] The investigators also noted that the father’s body, with his wife and three children, was in a room other than the one in which he slept, indicating that he may well have been trying to herd them to allow them to make their escape from the flames together.

Near Mr. Kemp’s body was found his revolver, as he had been a deputy sheriff for Saratoga County. All the cartridges had been discharged by the intense heat, and one of the bullets had gone through his wife’s head, probably after her death in the fire.[9]

A horrifying scene, to say the least.

In 1957, 32 years after that tragic fire, Deputy Sheriff Wendell Townley, who at the time of the fire was also the village fire chief, spoke about that night and what may have started the fire. He speculated that, based on the positions of the bodies, it was possible that the use of kerosene stoves in many rooms of the house had consumed large amounts of oxygen and that someone who was oxygen-starved may have fallen and tipped over one of the stoves. Or there may have been an accumulation of gases in the home and, when a draft of air entered the house, it may well have caused an explosion.10 But, he readily admits, we will never know what happened.

The one survivor, Beatrice, in 1957 married and living in Saratoga, really does not remember much more than the fact that she felt very lucky to have even survived the fire on that day. Her recovery was a very long one, especially when coupled with the fact that she reportedly had typhoid pneumonia when first admitted to the hospital.[11]

Reaction to the horrific fire was swift. In a day when news traveled far more slowly than in present times, the story was in newspapers far and wide. Healdsville, California, about one hour north of San Francisco, carried the story on the same day as the fire, November 6, but with a byline of Albany NY. Closer to home, Buffalo and Syracuse newspapers ran the story on their front pages, giving it top billing on the front pages. The local Albany Times Union carried the story the day after the fire, and the Schenectady Gazette ran an article a few days later about businesses in the area closing during one hour in the afternoon of the funerals as a sign of respect to the family. Hundreds of people lined the streets through which six cars carried the bodies of the dead members of the family.

The Saratogian, a local newspaper, in a rather opinion-laced article the day after the fire, stated, “Ballston Spa has been put to shame by visitors and residents of neighboring communities who have far better equipment with their inadequate firefighting equipment.” The article continued by contrasting what is to what should be. “At that time, as pedestrians heard the fire alarm, they …..would say, ‘Here comes our boys’ The trucks would then pass. With proper and up-to-date equipment, the same pedestrians could and would proudly say, ‘There goes our boys.’”[12]

The day after the fire, a group of 30-40 concerned and influential citizens of the village met to discuss fire protection in Ballston Spa. This fire plus one earlier at the Ballston Knit Glove Company had made it clear that getting to fires quickly was not happening, and access to water, especially for areas just outside the village, was a problem. There was a need for a pumper as a water supply and for a system by which volunteers could be immediately informed of the location of the event, just allowing them to reach a fire in a timely fashion. Officials who were involved in such alarm systems were present at that meeting. Fire Chief Townley stated that supplying each of the three stations in town, the Union Fire Department, the Eagle Fire Department, and the Matt Lee Fire Department, with a pumper, would cost about $20,000; many others said one pumper centrally located would suffice. A committee was established, and they were to meet the following Thursday to discuss specifics and make recommendations for upgrading fire protection in the city.[13]

About a week later, there were petitions circulating in town to ask the village Board of Trustees to call for a $20,000 bond issue to be floated at a special election. The bond would cover the cost of one pumper for the fire department, the installation of a fire alarm system, and the creation of a three-man paid fire department. However, the village trustees made it clear they did not feel the bond issue would pass as the continuing cost of maintaining the equipment and the cost of the paid firemen would be beyond what the public was willing to spend. The other question discussed by people was what to do with the three existing volunteer fire companies and whether they would even be amenable to this new plan.[14]

So what does all this tell us or, should we say, what has history taught us? There are now many more safety rules for uses of stoves in the home, particularly in light of a stove being one of the possible causes of this fire. Also, much is made in recent years of having a fire escape plan with no obstacles in the way. Maybe if the placement of the chiffonier had been different, the result of this fire, too, would have been different. And, quite obviously, fire equipment has improved dramatically, the procedures by which the fire trucks get to the location of the fire today have been improved, and most large population areas have paid employees trained to fight fires, a demand of the petitioners in Ballston Spa after this event.

Location of hydrants for access to water as well as a backup plan to use in case the hydrants are at a considerable distance become significant issues. Pumper trucks, as requested by the people in Ballston Spa village, become much more common.

And, coincidentally, six years later, July 23, 1931, the garage where George Kemp had worked, the Tuper Garage, had a fire. The garage was a couple of doors away from the Kemp house tragedy, and this fire brought back memories of that fateful night six years before. In this latest fire, a freight train blocked the roadway that the fire trucks could have used to get from the Bath Street station to the fire in the Church Avenue garage; that probably delayed the firemen by a minute or two.[15] However, “the timely arrival of the Ballston Spa fire department… prevented a serious loss.”[16] So the firemen’s arrival, although inhibited a bit, did not seem to impact the situation greatly. But, the dramatic increase in the number of cars on the road, cars filled with people who wanted to be as near to the excitement as possible, did make firefighting more difficult. And, often, drivers paid no attention to the hoses all over the roads and repeatedly drove over them! [17]So, all of the problems of firefighting are far from resolved six years after the Kemp house fire.

But, even more importantly, this fire was extinguished quite quickly with far less damage and injury partly because the fire department now had a “booster truck,” a pumper which contained water which could be used until the hoses were laid and hooked up to the hydrant well up the street.

But the road to that pumper was not without major hurdles. The village board had set up a special election to be held on December 12, 1925, just a few days over a month since the Kemp tragedy. The choice included two propositions: the purchase of 3 new trucks and the purchase of one truck, the latter of better quality than the trucks in the former proposition. Each choice was estimated to cost $20,000. Residents could vote yes or no on either or both propositions included on the ballot. Both propositions included three paid firefighters and an alarm system as well.

Much public discussion was held over what would be the best way to protect the citizens of the village and its surrounding areas. The local Ballston Spa Daily Journal was replete with opinions and advertisements for and against the propositions as well as detailed explanations of the mechanics of how to vote on December 12.[18]

One also has to wonder how much the realization that the population of the Ballston Spa area was growing after some decline during the years of World War I. From 1920-1930, the village’s population increase was more than double what it had been in the decade before the war and Saratoga County’s increase was almost four times what it had been during the same decades. Those kinds of increases would surely have been noted by the people offering services to the people in the village and beyond.[19]
Union Fire Station, 1910

There was a significant turnout on “election day,” and both propositions were resoundingly defeated: 1 truck, 53 yes to 279 no, and three trucks, 164 yes to 317 no. The prevailing reason why the one truck proposition failed seemed to lie in the fact that the decision of what make of truck should not have been pre-decided but rather left to the firemen at a later date. The three truck proposition seemed excessive to many residents; it contained too many paid firefighters and too many trucks for the village’s needs.[20]

The debate continued in the village, among the residents, and between the existing firemen. Some suggested buying two trucks; others suggested combining the three fire departments into two. In February 1926, the village board decided to offer a new proposition to the residents of the village: 3 trucks (because doing only two and thus discriminating against one of the companies could create bad feelings) and allowing the firemen with knowledge of their craft to decide on the makes for the equipment. Again, $20,000 was proposed to complete this deal in this March 1926 election. But, again, the proposition was defeated.

Laws at the time did not permit this kind of proposition to go before the public again. So the Eagle Fire Department, one of the three in the village, took the matter into their own hands. “Feeling that a great emergency exists for another winter in the matter of fire protection, we, members of the Eagle Fire Department do, therefore, volunteer with the aid and sanction of the Board of Trustees and the other hose companies, to raise by contribution and otherwise, a sum sufficient to either buy a new triple combination or new pump and chassis to put under our present equipment.”[21] They proceeded to do just so: raise money by “subscription,” or donations from the public.

On August 30, 1926, the local newspaper pictured and described the new combination pump, chemical, and hose truck, state of the art for its time, the truck that would help save lives and structures in the years to come in Ballston Spa.[22] It was not paid for, but the subscriptions had, at that point, produced enough money for the down payment.[24]

Ten months after the Kemp family tragedy and, after much discussion and interpretation, success has been attained. The fire’s aftermath had produced a change in firefighting in Ballston Spa.


1 “Only Survivor of Boston Fire is Dying,” Albany Times Union, November 7, 1925: 1

2 “Six of Kemp Family Burned to Death,” Ballston Spa Daily Journal, November 6, 1925: 1

3 “Begin Movement to Modernize Fire Department,” Saratogian, November 7, 1925: 6

4 Deeds, Thomas and Bridgett McNamara and George Kemp, May 1, 1923; Congress Gas and Oil and 180 Church Ave., August 27, 2004, Saratoga County Clerk’s Office

5 “Six Dead, One Dying, in Ballston Spa Holocaust,” Greenfield Daily Recorder, November 6, 1925: 1

6 “Only Survivor of Ballston Fire is Dying,” Albany Times Union, November 7, 1925: 1

7 “Discuss Fire Apparatus Need,” Ballston Spa Daily Journal, November 7, 1925: 1

8 “Six in Family Die in Burning Home,” Buffalo Evening News, November 6, 1925: 1

9 “Only Survivor of Ballston Fire is Dying,” Albany Times Union, November 7, 1925: 1

10 “Saratoga Woman only one of Kemp Family of 7 to Survive 1925 Ballston Fire,” Saratogian, July 3, 1957: 8

11 “Only Survivor of Boston Fire is Dying,” Albany Times Union, November 7, 1925: 1

12 “Begin Movement to Modernize Fire Department,” Saratogian, November 7, 1925: 6

13 “Begin Movement to Modernize Fire Department,” Saratogian, November 7, 1925: 6

14 “Petitions Calling for Vote on Bond Issue Circulated,” Saratogian, November 13, 1925: 6

15 “Firemen Save Tuper Garage,” Ballston Spa Daily Journal, December 8, 1931: 1

16 “Firemen Check Menacing Blaze in Tuper Garage,” Saratogian, July 23, 1931: 8

17 “Tuper Fire Brings out Auto Parade,” Ballston Spa Daily Journal, July 23, 1931: 8

18 “How to Vote on Fire Trucks,” Ballston Spa Daily Journal, December 10, 1925: 1

19 “Historical Population of Ballston Spa village for the period 1810-2014,” and “Historical Population of Saratoga County for the period 1800-2014,”

20 “Vote Down Both Firetrucks,” Ballston Spa Daily Journal, December 14, 1925: 3

21 “Eagle Fire Co A Go-Getter,” Ballston Spa Daily Journal, May 18, 1926: 3

22 “The New Fire Truck of Eagle Fire Co. No. 1 Arrives,” Ballston Spa Daily Journal, August 30, 1926: 3

23 “Fire Truck Tomorrow, “Ballston Spa Daily Journal, August 27, 1926: 5

About the author: Rick Reynolds, has been Historian for the town of Ballston, Saratoga County, NY since 2004 ( A teacher for almost 40 years, he was also the National American History Teacher of the Year in 2003 and one of the authors of “Wilderness to Community: The Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District” in 2005.