Category Archives: Historic Sites

World War II Refugee Shelter at Fort Ontario

In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited a small group of Holocaust refugees to the United States. The War Refugee Board (WRB) was established to determine who should come to the US and where they should be housed. FDR sent Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior Ruth Gruber to Italy to bring back 982 men, women, and children. The refugees were from 18 different European countries and most were Jewish. Many had been fleeing persecution for years and had made their way to an Allied-controlled part of Italy. Almost 100 of the refugees had escaped concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald.

The refugees were to be housed at Fort Ontario, which is outside of Oswego, New York, and is now a state historic site. The fort had recently been vacated of troops training to fight overseas. Barrack-like houses were quickly constructed to be the temporary homes for the refugees. The War Refugee Board chose to keep family groups together, and sought people with skills that would be helpful in the camp (for example, seamstresses and carpenters).

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Two story barrack-homes and dining hall (Photos from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

The refugees took a ship from Italy to New York City, then a train to Oswego. After fleeing for months or years, the haggard group arrived at Fort Ontario on August 5, 1944. Many of the adults wore crude handmade sandals and most children were barefoot.

The refugees admired the beautiful grounds of Fort Ontario, but the tall fence around the compound reminded them of the concentration camps they had fled from. The barrier was a security measure and also served to quarantine them in case they brought communicable diseases. Oswego residents had been surprised to hear about Roosevelt’s invitation, and were curious about the newcomers. As soon as the refugees arrived, Oswegians came to the fence to greet them. Children on both sides played along the fence, and beer and cigarettes were passed over by the Americans.

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Refugees receiving shoes, soap, and towels upon arrival (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

In the first days after their arrival at the shelter, the adults were interviewed by WRB staff. They had all passed a background check in Italy, and now officials wanted to determine if the refugees could provide information on Hitler’s Europe which could help the Allied armies.

When the refugees first arrived, many gorged themselves on the food provided during meal times. After years of food scarcity due to the war, they were scared that the plentiful food would not last. Most of the refugees were underweight, so the WRB increased the amount of nutritious food served, particularly milk. The WRB also listened to requests and provided a few traditional ethnic foods such as dark bread, and created a separate dining hall for the Jewish refugees who followed kosher dietary rules.

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‘Lightkeeper’s House’ at Fort Ontario painted by refugee artist Olga Mikhailoff, c. 1945, State Parks; and English practice letter by refugee Stella Levi, October 25, 1944, State Parks.

After the initial quarantine period of several weeks, the refugees were permitted to leave the shelter. Children were enrolled in local schools and were bused in from Fort Ontario. Adults were given passes to go into Oswego and had to adhere to a curfew. In addition, the WRB hosted open house events where Oswegians could enter the camp; the main reason was to assuage local rumors that the refugees were living lavishly.

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Refugees building wooden music stands and orking in the machine shop (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Once the refugees became settled, they got to work. A library was created to provide books, English language classes were offered, and a day care was established. The dining halls and laundries were staffed, and private agencies outfitted workshops for creating products for sale, such as music stands. The refugees were paid a set wage, no matter the person’s previous work experience, funded by the WRB and private agencies. In the fall of 1944, a group of refugees left the fort for several weeks to help pick apples in the region.

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Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Fort Ontario in September 1944 (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Unlike the refugees coming to the US today, the World War II refugees were not initially granted the right to stay in the country permanently; FDR planned for them to return to Europe after the war was won. After FDR’s death and the war overseas came to an end, however, the WRB and federal government could not decide what to do with the refugees. The majority of the refugees wanted to stay in the US, and Oswegian leaders formed a Freedom Committee to advocate for the refugees to be permanently integrated into the community. Six congressmen of the subcommittee of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization visited Fort Ontario to hear testimony from the refugees, Oswego residents, and government officials. Leaders within the refugee committee were selected to give heart-wrenching accounts of what they had experienced during the war, and explain that many had no homes to return to.

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Newspaper clipping showing Boy Scout Troop 28 testifying before Congressmen about their desire to remain in the US (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks) and page from LIFE Magazine, August 1944.

On December 22, 1945, President Harry Truman announced that the refugees who wanted to stay should be permitted to remain in the US. After many months of waiting for a decision, the refugees were overjoyed. Immigration processing began in January and the last of the refugees left Fort Ontario on February 4, 1946. A group of 66 Yugoslavs decided to return to Europe, but most chose to remain in the US. More than half of the refugees were resettled in New York State, and many went to New York City, which had larger immigrant populations. Others were reunited with family in 21 other states.

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Senior conservator Heidi Miksch and Park Worker Brian Hibbert remove part of the historic fence at Fort Ontario. (Kevin Fitzpatrick, Palladium Times)

This chapter of American history is being brought back into the spotlight. Last summer, conservators from State Parks removed a section of the boundary fence for the refugee shelter and shipped it to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. “It’s an iconic symbol,” says Paul Lear, historic site manager at Fort Ontario. “It was the meeting place between the townspeople and the refugees.” The fence represents the struggles and successes throughout American history to welcome newcomers to our country: the initial barrier, followed by acceptance.

The new exhibit at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum featuring the fence is scheduled to open in April 2018.

Post by Alison Baxter, Excelsior Service Fellow

Special thanks to State Parks staff members Paul Lear and Amy Facca for pictures and resources.

Featured image:  Oswegians conversing with World War II refugees housed at Fort Ontario (Photo from ‘Token Shipment’ by Edward B. Marks)

Resources

Fitzpatrick, Kevin. “Section of Refugee Shelter boundary headed to National Holocaust Museum for new exhibit”. Palladium Times, June 30, 2017.

Marks, Edward B. “Token Shipment: The Story of America’s War Refugee Shelter, Fort Ontario, Oswego, N.Y.” United States Department of the Interior War Relocation Authority, 1946; revised 2017.

Fort Ontario State Historic Site

Oswego, New York

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Washington, DC

Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum

2 East 7th Street
Oswego, NY 13126

The Coming of the Phoebe

As spring returns to New York, so does the eastern phoebe. This charming bird begins its courtship and nest-building in March and April. Since April is also National Poetry Month, it seems fitting to pay tribute to this little bird. The following ode to the phoebe was written by John Burroughs (1837-1921), the beloved New York naturalist who was born on April 3.

John Burroughs Memorial State Historic Site is a great place to listen for eastern phoebes!

 The Coming Of Phoebe

John Burroughs

When buckets shine ‘gainst maple trees
And dropp by dropp the sap doth flow,
When days are warm, but still nights freeze,
And deep in woods lie drifts of snow,
When cattle low and fret in stall,
Then morning brings the phoebe’s call,
‘phoebe,
phoebe, phoebe,’ a cheery note,
While cackling hens make such a rout.

When snowbanks run, and hills are bare,
And early bees hum round the hive,
When woodchucks creep from out their lair
Right glad to find themselves alive,
When sheep go nibbling through the fields,
Then phoebe oft her name reveals,
‘phoebe,
phoebe, phoebe,’ a plaintive cry,
While jack-snipes call in morning sky.

When wild ducks quack in creek and pond
And bluebirds perch on mullein-stalks,
When spring has burst her icy bond
And in brown fields the sleek crow walks,
When chipmunks court in roadside walls,
Then phoebe from the ridgeboard calls,
‘phoebe,
phoebe, phoebe,’ and lifts her cap,
While smoking Dick doth boil the sap. 

Listen to the phoebe sing: 

Call recorded by Ian Davies

John Burroughs Boy and Man By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
From John Burroughs Boy and Man by Clara Barrus
Sources:

Barrus, Clara, John Borroughs Boy and Man,  Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920.

‘Breeding Season Dates.’ New York State Department of Conservation https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/wildlife_pdf/brddate.pdf.

Burroughs, John, Birds and Bough, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906.

‘Eastern phoebe.’ Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/overview.

‘Eastern phoebe song.’ Xeno-canto Foundation, https://www.xeno-canto.org/explore?query=+gen%3A%22sayornis%22+rec%3A%22ian+davies%22.

 

 

Fire Improves Bird Habitat at Ganondagan State Historic Site

Have you heard about wildfire outbreaks in California or New York on the news? Do you know how a prescribed burn and wildfire differ from one another?  A prescribed burn is very different from a wildfire. Prescribed burning is a management tool that is precisely planned for safety and meeting set goals, while wildfires often occur unpredictably and without warning. State Parks utilizes prescribed burning for both public safety and conservation purposes. This past spring, at the Ganondagan State Historic Site near Rochester, prescribed burning was used for both conservation and to replicate traditions of the Seneca people.

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Control lines are created at the edge of the area to be burned so that the fire does not escape designated areas. These lines are approximately 12 feet wide and are kept wet and clear of fire by prescribed burn staff, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

Ganondagan State Historic Site (Ganondagan) celebrates and interprets the lives and culture of the Seneca people, specifically the Seneca that lived on site between 1655-1687. The site is 570 acres, and in 2009, a 70-acre portion was set aside for grassland management. Journal entries from European visitors during the time of Seneca occupation, described the areas surrounding Ganondagan. In 1669, explorers Galineē and Dollier described vast oak openings with sparse, but lofty, oak trees and grasses taller than a man that extended for hundreds of miles in every direction.¹ These observations paint a picture of warm season grasslands, with grasses reaching heights of 8 feet or taller, sparse wildflowers and oak trees around their fringe.² Warm season grasses begin growing in June, reaching full maturity by August or September. Some of the earliest observations indicate that the Seneca people burned these grasslands annually, managing them to attract game animals and birds, and to facilitate nut collection.³

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Prescribed fire at Ganondagan was lit with drip torches, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

The 70 acres set aside for grassland management began its transformation in 2009, with the goal of recreating the landscape that existed for the Seneca at Ganondagan almost 400 years ago. A fully established warm season grassland can support many forms of life, and at Ganondagan it is a haven for rare grassland bird species. Grasslands are ecosystems maintained by natural disturbances like fire. Without disturbance, a grassland will gradually go through the steps of succession to become a shrubland and later a forest.

Before the prescribed burn at Ganondagan in May 2017, the grasslands had begun to build up a thick thatch layer, decreasing both the amount of sunlight reaching its sun-loving plants and the amount of bare ground between plants (which grassland birds and mammals like for habitat).

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A successful prescribed burn is designed to keep the fire within control lines and the smoke up and away from people and homes, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

Time of year can play an important role in how an ecosystem reacts to a burn. At Ganondagan, a spring burn was chosen to cut off early growth of invasive species and to promote the growth of the warm season grasses like big bluestem and Indian grass. Future prescribed burning done on the site may happen in different seasons depending on the desired outcome. For example, a prescribed burn taking place in this warm season grassland in the fall would promote the growth of forbs (broad leaved plants), such as wildflowers. Regardless of the timing, a properly done prescribed burn will not completely remove grasses or forbs, but can help achieve the best plant composition for grassland birds.

Prescribed burning was the perfect way to manage the grasslands at Ganondagan: it created a disturbance to maintain the ecosystem, returned carbon and nitrogen to the soil in the form of ash, and opened the grassland to more sunlight. This burn also provides a unique opportunity for educators to interpret this management tool, once used by the Seneca at Ganondagan to maintain the grasslands in the 17th Century, and now updated for the 21st century!

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The ‘mop up’ of a prescribed burn ensures that all of the fire is completely out and, as in the case of the Ganondagan Prescribed Burn, can take longer than the burn itself, photo by Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

This valuable management tool will continue to be used at the Ganondagan State Historic Site and are exploring future opportunities.

Post by Whitney Carleton-DeGeorge and Michael Galban , State Parks

Featured image: Joel Carlson of Northeast Forest & Fire Management LLC.

1 Galinée, René de Bréhant de. (env. 1670) 1903. “Le Voyage De MM. Dollier et Galinée.” In Exploration of the Great Lakes 1669-1670 by Dollier de Casson and de Bréhant de Galinée, ed. James H. Coyne. Toronto: Ontario Historical Society Papers and Records.

² Parker, Arthur – New York State Archeologist – “The League of the Five Nations – a Story of the Aboriginal Empire State” published in Livingston County Historical Society 34th Annual Meeting, Geneseo, NY, 1910.

³Donck, Adriaen van der, 1620-1655. (Beschryvinge van Nieuvv-Nederlant. English) A description of New Netherland / Adriaen van der Donck; edited by Charles T. Gehring and William A Starna; translated by Diederik Willem Goedhuys; foreword by Russell Shorto.

A Century Run for Women’s Suffrage

In 2017, New York State had the honor of celebrating the centennial of women winning the legal right to vote, and it was my job to think of a way to take that celebration out to New York State’s parks and historic sites. Now there are lots of ways to commemorate such a momentous occasion, but what came to my mind first was bicycles, believe it or not. Susan B. Anthony once said “I think [bicycling] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world,” and matching one of today’s most popular physical activities with one of the most important developments in American democracy just seemed too perfect for words.

It might come as a surprise, but a woman on a bicycle was once a threatening sight—a harbinger of social upheaval that was going to change American life forever. Beginning in the 1860s, women on bicycles were depicted as displacing and overshadowing men. They were ridiculed for their mannish muscles and unusual clothing. They were even accused of neglecting their family responsibilities. Nevertheless, they persisted, and by the mid 1890s, women joined a nation-wide bicycling craze, and—after all that worry—they succeeded in changing what it meant to be a woman after all. Even women who did not ride bikes felt the impact of the changes it wrought.

Women in an early velocipede rac, portrayed as masculine-looking, Harpers 1869
Women in an early velocipede race, portrayed as masculine-looking. Harper’s, 1869.

Bicycles went through a variety of forms before coming around to the chain-driven, diamond-shaped frame we are familiar with now. Even though the new design was being marketed in the 1880s, few women attempted to ride the contraption. Cumbersome skirts, and more cumbersome social constructs about women’s frailty, kept them away. But it was only a few years later in the middle of the decade that the drop-frame bicycle (now commonly referred to as “a girl’s bike”) made way for women’s skirts. To make it easier, they followed advice once distributed by radical dress reformers, reducing the layers of petticoats and hemming their skirts above the ankle to make riding easier and safer. Some daring women even adopted the controversial “Bloomer Suit.” Armed with their bicycles, everyday women were now ready to change the world.

The Bicycle--the Great Dress Reformer of the Nineteenth Century, Puck, August 1896, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs
Detail: The Bicycle–the Great Dress Reformer of the Nineteenth Century, Puck, August 1896, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.
Fashion plates called Gibson Girls became the iconic image of fashionable women in the 1890s. Scribners, June 1895, Charles Dana Gibson
Fashion plates called “Gibson Girls” became the iconic image of fashionable women in the 1890s. Scribners, June 1895, Charles Dana Gibson, Library of Congress, Division of Prints and Photographs.

Taking to the roads challenged pre-conceptions about women in the 1890s. The cost of bicycles fell from as much as $150 to as little as $17.50, making them available to not just middle-class women, but also to some in the working poor. Their speed and efficiency eased jobs for some women like laundresses or even vegetable sellers who vended from clever devices built onto their bicycles. Middle class women benefited from the increased social connection, joining clubs—including suffrage organizations—with greater freedom than ever before. They also proved their physical capability, competing alongside men in “Century Runs,” or one hundred mile races. The ideal of the dependent, fragile woman of the mid-nineteenth century was gradually replaced by the more robust image of the active Gibson Girl in the 1890s.

With all this history in mind, I hastily blurted out, “So I’ll make a biking costume, and buy a vintage bike, and ride around at our historic sites telling people about the history of bicycling women!” Never mind that I hadn’t ridden a bicycle since the seventh grade, and I didn’t have a bike, and I still had to make the biking costume—this idea seemed easy in the dead of winter with three months to go.

Author Kjirsten Gustavson in her bicycling suit at Staatsburg State Historic Site lighter
Author Kjirsten Gustavson in her bicycling suit at Staatsburg State Historic Site.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I found myself freshly in possession of a vintage 1963 Raleigh bicycle (a surprisingly-close substitute for an 1895 model) and deeply engrossed in sewing a bicycling costume—complete with a steel-boned corset and reproduction high-heeled shoes. If I was going to go for a historic bike ride, I was going to do it in style!

It took some physical conditioning. I’m not going to say how long ago I had been in junior high, but it was long enough that I needed a little practice.  But just like the women of the 1890s, I found it refreshing to get outside and feel my own legs powering me through rural New York State, and pretty soon it also came with a sense of pride.

When summer was in full bloom, I found myself driving all across New York State with a bicycle and a big smile, explaining to everyone I encountered why going for a bike ride was, in fact, a celebration of women’s independence. I visited seven historic sites from Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua to the Old Croton Aqueduct in Dobbs Ferry during the summer and fall of 2017, and I rode about 40 miles along with men, women, and children who got some exercise and celebrated some history all at the same time.

Author Kjirsten Gustavson on her 1963 Raleigh bicycle at the Erie Canal Boat Landing Museum lighter
Author Kjirsten Gustavson on her 1963 Raleigh bicycle at the Erie Canal Boat Landing Museum.

Kjirsten Gustavson is the Interpretive Programs Coordinator at the Peebles Island Resource Center. This specialized office helps New York State historic sites preserve and share their history with the public through conservation, exhibits, research, and a broad variety of additional assistance.

Featured image: Grems-Doolittle Library: The Heyday of Bicycles in Schenectady, 1890-1910

The Artist that Didn’t Exist: Glamony, Flameng, and the Portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills

Staatsburgh State Historic Site (Staatsburgh) is the former country estate of Ogden and Ruth Mills, members of the wealthiest and most elite society in the Gilded Age (1870-1900.)  Located directly on the Hudson River in the mid-Hudson Valley, the site includes a 79-room mansion, designed gardens, and a farm with many outbuildings that was a major employer in the area. The Millses were in residence in the fall, when they would entertain high society guests each weekend, assisted by a staff of 24 servants within the house. Modern day visitors to Staatsburgh see the mansion furnished and decorated as it was for these lavish affairs.

One of the most notable objects in the collection is a very large oil portrait of Ruth Livingston Mills, painted in 1909, which formerly hung in the ballroom of her New York City mansion. During the Gilded Age, it was standard for elite society women to have a glamorous portrait made by a fashionable artist. For decades, the portrait of Mrs. Mills was believed to have been painted by an artist named “Glamony” – a conclusion that seems to be drawn from the hard-to-read artist signature. For a long time, no information was found about this artist.

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At first glance, the signature on Mrs Mills’ portrait looks to read: François Glamony New York 1909, photo by State Parks

Recently, a State Parks staff member conducted online research and found a more promising lead on the portrait artist in a database of the Library of Congress, which attributed the portrait to François Flameng.  Googling Flameng immediately locates his biography along with countless examples of his paintings. Some of Flameng’s portraits have signatures very similar to the one at Staatsburgh. They also have clear stylistic similarities to Ruth’s portrait, including a soft and vague background with far more detailed attention to the trappings of wealth and status, including clothing, jewels and hairstyle. The brushwork of Flameng’s portraits also matches that of Ruth’s portrait.

One of Flameng’s most notable portraits was that of Queen Alexandra, wife of England’s King Edward VII.  Painted in 1908, the layers of chiffon and tulle surrounding the queen give her an ethereal quality.

Queen Alexandra_[Public domain], via Wikimedia
Queen Alexandra, Portrait by François Flameng, 1908, access via Wikicommons
Ruth Mills aspired to be the “queen” of American society, so it makes sense that she would have her portrait made by an artist who had just painted the Queen of England the year before.  Ruth’s sister Elizabeth and sister-in-law Elizabeth both had close connections to England’s royal family and the Millses had attended functions with the royal family. Connections to European royalty were highly prized by American elites aspiring to a quasi-aristocratic status. The Millses’ daughter, Beatrice, married the Earl of Granard in the same year that Flameng painted Ruth’s portrait – a social coup for the family.

Identifying the artist of Ruth’s portrait allowed further research, including where the painting had been exhibited. We discovered that in 1913, the painting was in an exhibition that raised money in support of women’s suffrage. This was a revelation, since Mills descendants had told us that Ruth did not support voting rights for women! Now, in the centennial year of suffrage in New York State, we are on the trail of other evidence that Ruth supported women’s right to vote. For more information about Flameng, and Ruth’s portrait and the suffrage connection, see Staatsburgh State Historic Site’s own blog.

Post by Maria Reynolds, State Parks