November 29, 2021

Festival gathers steam

Travis Dunn/contributing photographer

Vanessa Mielke, co-owner of Heroes and Villians, a comic book shop in the Cortland Corset Building, works on her costume for the upcoming steampunk festival, Gears to Corsets, to be held Sept. 27-29 in Cortland.

It started with an idea, passed from one history buff to another.

Late last year, Bonnie Quackenbush, a local science teacher, tried to persuade Benjamin Sandberg, then-director of the 1890 House museum, to bring a steampunk festival to Cortland. Quackenbush was convinced that an industrial town with stately late-19th century buildings, Cortland, and the 1890 House in particular, would provide the perfect backdrop.

Sandberg was skeptical at first, but intrigued. He decided to investigate further.

He quickly learned of a steampunk event just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. So he signed up and went.

“I drove down there with very little information and just had a great time,” he said.

He came back to Cortland, convinced the same thing could, and should, happen here.

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For more information on the festival, go to

What really impressed him were all the different events.

“They had a huge roster of lectures and presentations and workshops,” he said.

What didn’t impress him was the hotel decor: It just didn’t fit in with the whole fictional world he was supposed to be experiencing.

“It was a little jarring,” Sandberg said. “It was kind of hard to immerse yourself when you’re in a hotel conference room.”

But Sandberg could picture it in Cortland. No hotel conference room needed — Cortland, with buildings like the 1890 House and the Cortland Corset Building, had all the backdrop a steampunk festival would need.

Soon after, directors of the community museums and historical societies started getting on board.

“I don’t know if I can take total credit for it,” Sandberg said, “but I definitely got the ball rolling.”

The ball rolled: Gears to Corsets, will unfold Sept. 27-29 in locations around Cortland.

Steampunk: A primer

Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that has taken on a vivid and theatrical life of its own. It started out as science fiction set in the late 19th century, featuring retro-futuristic Victorian settings and technology, while suffused with an anarchic 20th century punk sensibility.

The term originated in the 1980s as a mutation of the term cyberpunk, but applied to 19th century science fiction instead of the web-immersed worlds that novelists like William Gibson made famous.

The works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are precursors to the steampunk aesthetic, but “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” both the comic and the film, and “Wild, Wild West,” both the TV show and the film, are representative of the sub-genre.

What started as a science-fiction subgenre morphed into an aesthetic and a fashion sensibility, as well as something much more participatory.

Cosplay, sci-fi and fashion

Cosplay transformed steampunk into what it is today. Now steampunk festivals are popping up in unlikely places all over the country, Cortland being one of the latest.

Sharon Adams of Syracuse got into steampunk by way of cosplay, which involves die-hard science fiction, comic book, and anime fans dressing up like their favorite characters. And she got into that thanks to her husband, Will, who grew up in Homer, a big fan of Japanese anime.

“We’re big sci-fi geeks, too,” she said, noting that they’re both into “Doctor Who” and “Firefly.”

It started when she joined her husband at an anime convention. As her husband gravitated toward the events he preferred, she went off on her own and discovered what she really liked. One of them was cosplay.

Adams and her husband have been to half a dozen of steampunk- themed festivals since then, and are now both members of a steampunk group, the Temporal Entities of Syracuse, many members of which can be expected at the Cortland festival.

Parades, music, Twain and Poe

Here’s what Quackenbush thinks the weekend will look like: It will kick off Sept. 27, with a cocktail hour 5 to 7 p.m. at the Corset Building. The scene will shift to Homer, where costumed festival-goers will parade on the Homer Green. Then, at 8 p.m., there will be a steampunk concert. (What’s steampunk music? Google it.)

Saturday morning, there will be another parade, this one at 10 a.m. in the park in front of the Cortland County Courthouse.

After that, the timeline is still amorphous.

A number of events, including a Saturday steampunk fashion show, will unfold in the Corset Building, which will be the main hub of the festival.

• The Cortland Fire Department will also be involved, displaying 19th century hand pumps and firefighting equipment.

• Watering holes around town will feature festival-themed cocktails — for instance, the Wickwire Cocktail at Woodman’s Pub.

• The YWCA plans events focusing on the suffragette movement of the early 20th century.

• Mark Twain impersonator Ralph Shortell will wander from event to event.

• Edgar Allan Poe will also make an appearance at the 1890 House, in the form of dramatic presentations of some of Poe’s short stories, acted by members of the Half Light Theater Co. from Binghamton, said Jarrett Zeman, assistant director and curator of the 1890 House. Vendors, he said, will be set up in the 1890 House’s carriage house.

• A 19th century taxidermy workshop will be at Lime Hollow Nature Center.

• The Homeville Museum, the Cortland Historical Society, the Cortland County Cultural Center and the Living History Museum will all host events and vendors.

The sprawl is by design, said Meghan Lawton, director of the Cortland County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It’s really going to get people to move around the county and explore different areas,” she said.