Category Archives: Historic Sites

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

Iroquois White Corn Project

Ganondagan State Historic Site, in the Finger Lakes Region, was once the capital of the Seneca Nation and home to as many as 4,500 people. Ganondagan is translated to mean “a town on a hill surrounded by the substance of white” referring to white blossoms growing there which turned into an edible fruit.   Located in Victor, New York, Ganondagan is the only New York state historic site dedicated to Native American history.

The original Ganondagan (ga·NON·da·gan) community was destroyed by a campaign of the French in 1687.  At the time the French army and their allies spent days destroying corn, beans, squash and other foods that sustained the Seneca Nation and other Haudenosaunee (Iroquois people).  Records show that that over 1,200,000 bushels of corn were cut down, burned and destroyed in mid-July of 1687. Seneca homes were also burned to the ground.  In 1987 Ganondagan State Historic Site opened as a New York State historic site 300 years after its demise.

The Iroquois White Corn Project (IWCP) was first established in 1997 by Dr. John Mohawk, on a Seneca reservation known as Cattaraugus, upon his death in 2006 the project became dormant.

In 2012 the Friends of Ganondagan re-established IWCP in a farm house on site with the help of Historic Site Manager Pete Jemison who moved the equipment and Iroquois White Corn Project Ganondagan.  Today the IWCP produces three products from heirloom Iroquois White Corn: whole hulled dried corn, roasted white corn flour, and white corn flour, which are marketed by the Friends group. Iroquois White Corn is a slow food, gluten free and highly nutritious, especially when combined with beans.

The process of removing the hulls from the kernels using cooking lime is known as nixtamalization.  This culinary technique softens the corn hulls and kernels, creating whole hominy which can be ground in to masa flour.  Nixtamalized corn has healthy amino acids and vitamin B and is more flavorful and aromatic. Nixtamal is the Spanish interpretation of the Aztec term for the process of soaking dry corn in fire ashes to improve flavor and nutrition nixtamalli.

About 75% of our corn is obtained from Haudenosaunee farmers and products are sold to the Seneca Nation, Oneida Nation, retail outlets (including Wegmans) and through the gift shop in the Seneca Art & Culture Center.

The Iroquois White Corn Project provides employment and training for both Native American and non- Native youth. Volunteers assist the IWCP at the annual husking bee (held in the fall) and by sorting corn kernels.  Volunteers also assist in maintaining our onsite gardens.  We grow the three sisters – corn, beans, and squash – known to the Seneca as Our Sustainers – Dioheko.

The Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan opened in October 2015 and houses a gallery, two classrooms, an orientation theater, auditorium, caterer’s kitchen, archival storage, and offices for the staff.

More information about Ganondagan and special events sponsored by the Friends can be found at Ganondagan.org

Post by Peter Jemison, State Parks

A Conservation Cornerstone Celebrates 20 Years

This year, the New York State Bird Conservation Area (BCA) Program celebrates its 20th anniversary. Since 1997, the BCA Program has been promoting the conservation of birds and their habitats on designated state-owned lands and waters in New York State. There is no other program like it in the United States. The BCA Program is modeled after Audubon’s Important Bird Area (IBA) Program but is backed by legislation.  Sites are considered for BCA designation if they meet criteria relating to high concentrations of birds, bird diversity, or the presence of at-risk species. Recognizing a site as a BCA brings awareness to the needs of birds on state-owned lands and encourages management that benefits the bird populations. While the BCA Program focuses on birds, the program also benefits other species that share the same habitats.

Cerulean Warbler.
A rare cerulean warbler, photo by Charlie Trampani.

Audubon has partnered with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (State Parks) on the BCA Program since its beginning, and has held up the BCA Program as a model for other states to protect birds. This fall, Audubon was delighted to join State Parks in celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the program, in conjunction with the designation of the 60th BCA in Ganondagan State Park.

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Dedication of the Bird Conservation Area at Ganondagan State Historic Site, photo by Laura McCarthy, Audubon NY.

In recent years, Audubon’s partnership with State Parks has expanded to include Audubon in the Parks initiative, which is a partnership with Audubon New York, State Parks and its Regional Commissions, Audubon Chapters, and friends groups to advance bird conservation in State Parks, specifically focusing on BCAs and IBAs. Through Audubon in the Parks, Audubon assists with the implementation of BCA management recommendations, conducts bird monitoring, and helps with other strategies and research activities that benefit priority birds and habitats. In addition, Audubon advocates for funds to ensure that habitats are preserved and managed in a way that benefits priority birds and further connect people to these unique places.

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Audubon New York staff and members bird watching in Fillmore Glen State Park, photo by Jillian Liner, Audubon NY.

Through Audubon in the Parks, Audubon has been active in more than 50 State Parks across the state, including 20 BCAs. This successful initiative continues to grow through projects like the one recently completed at Schodack Island State Park, which has been designated as a BCA because of nesting Cerulean Warblers and wintering Bald Eagles. Led by the Audubon Society of the Capital Region, this BCA project included building bird blinds for visitors to view birds without disturbing them and removing invasive species within the park. The chapter continues to foster a community connection to the park and importance of this BCA by hosting eagle walks and other events such as the recent Schodack Island Raptor Fest.

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Members of Audubon Society of the Capital District constructing a bird blind at Schodack Island State Park, photo by Laura McCarthy, Audubon NY

Audubon congratulates New York State on the BCA program and looks forward to continuing the strong partnership with State Parks to make New York a better place for birds and people.

More about BCA’s

Map of Bird Conservation Areas

Post by: Jillian Liner, Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon New York