November 30, 2021

Cortland County historian weighs in on historic objects

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Tabitha Scoville got the chills at the Cortland County Historical Society, when she handled the Civil War coat of a Cortland pastor who died in the battle of Gettysburg.

“That just hit me in the feels when I took that coat off the mannequin. Oh Lord,” she said earlier this month.

Scoville, director of the Cortland County Historical Society, opened the coat and saw embroidery work with Maj. Andrew Grover’s name and tulips inside. Sewing the name in these coats was the norm. But a flower was not, according to Scoville’s Civil War expert, Ed Raus.

“It had to be made by his wife,” she said.

Grover’s Union coat is Scoville’s favorite artifact. Scoville and her crew are doing distance research for people and are making its gift shop open to individuals by appointment. They also are taking to Facebook and Instagram, bringing history to the public.

“We started to give people something different to think about,” said Scoville of its “Adventuring Inside Cortland County Historical Society” series.

“I was doing seven days a week,” she said of the articles, that started in March. Then she enlisted help. “Liz took a day,” she said of Assistant Director Liz Wavle-Brown. “Lynne took a day,” she said of trustee Lynne Lash. “Sophie took a day,” she said of collection and research assistant Sophie Clough. “It takes two three hours to research one thing. Some are better than others.” “We decided to scale down to three posts a week … If people are agitated that we stopped, we will do more.” Scoville has been at the society for almost 7 1/2 years, almost two as director. She had just received a bachelor’s degree in history at Binghamton University when the Cortland job as assistant director opened up.

“I really like women’s history,” she said. “I feel that women are often forgotten and are really interesting.”

“I love all the pieces that we have shared this year. We have great items. I picked those that gave me chills, made me think more, had a great photo or story.”

Scoville’s top five historic objects at the historical society:

Photos provided by CCHS

LEFT Maj. Andrew Grover’s Civil War coat. MIDDLE: A candle mold from the Port Watson Grand Hotel, which was built around 1806. RIGHT: Meriva Carpenter’s bloomer outfit is one of two from the 1850s in the United States.

1. Maj. Andrew Grover Civil War coat

Grover was born in West Dryden and lived from 1830 to 1863, according to He was a pastor at the Cortland Methodist Church in Cortland and served in the 76th New York Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. He was killed in July 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, when the Union Army stopped Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his forces. Grover’s body was buried hastily by Union troops. When his wife, Sylvanus Mabel Fox Grover, heard that, she insisted he be brought home.

“She was not going to rest until he was buried in Cortland,” Scoville said. His body was moved to Cortland Rural Cemetery.

Scoville was walking through the museum with a descendent of another Union soldier looking at the Grover artifacts, which included a pastel portrait of Grover. The descendant was the three or four times great-grandson of a soldier whose parents did not want him to enlist.

Grover told the soldier’s parents to let him enlist in the Union Army. Nothing would happen to the man, Grover insisted. The man enlisted. He was unharmed, Scoville said.

“The man said to me, ‘I wouldn’t be here if he had died.’ It’s one of those pivotal moments in a family’s history. It brings the Civil War (closer to home) when you see something like that. The Civil War killed what, 550,000 people. When you zero in on one soldier’s luck, it just gives you the chills.”

2. Meriva Carpenter bloomer, miniature paintings

Meriva Carpenter’s bloomer costume is rare, Scofield said, one of only two in the United States from the 1850s. The piece has been loaned out to special exhibitions across the country.

Carpenter, of Homer, was a miniature portrait artist who lived from 1802 to 1887, according to blogger Don Shelton’s piece on “Three American Miniature Portraits.”

Scoville said Meriva lived with her husband, Eli, a weaver. The bloomer, a skirt over pants, was developed by women in the 1800s and was a radical concept. Pants were a no-no for women. The outfit got its name from Homer native Emelia Jenks Bloomer, a newspaper publisher and reporter who made the outfit popular, though she didn’t invent it.

The Carpenter family donated the bloomer outfit, as well as Carpenter’s paintings, to the museum. “We have a lot of information about her family,” Scoville said. “I want to make an exhibit on the Carpenters.”

3. The Port Watson tavern candle mold

The Port Watson tavern candle mold is “a really neat piece,” Scoville said. “I never saw a candle mold that big. Only say, maybe six molds. I want to say that was 21 or 24.”

She also got a kick out of the former owner using the mold as a footstool.

“I just wonder if they knew it as a candle maker, she said. “It just cracks me up.”

Scoville said the candle mold came from the Port Watson Grand Hotel, built around 1806 near what is now the Port Watson Street bridge.

In 1810, Port Watson had 25 houses and stores compared to 10 to 12 houses in the village of Cortland. Homer had 70 houses and stores, Scoville wrote in “Forgotten Places of Cortland County: Port Watson.”

“We don’t talk enough about the places that used to be here,” she said. “How many people know there was a village named Port Watson? I did not learn that until I came to work here.”

Photos provided by CCHS

LEFT: A jug found in Fabius around 1847 became a ketchup bottle in the Conable home. RIGHT: A sewing kit carved by Peleg Samson, a descendant of a Mayflower voyager.

4. The Conable ketchup bottle

The Conable ketchup bottle was a jug found in 1847 behind a log on a roadside near Fabius by David Conable, grandfather of the donor. It was partly filled with whisky, Scoville said. Mrs. Frederick Conable filled the jug with ketchup, which was home made in those days.

The Conables lived in two houses on Port Watson Street, just south of the bridge. They had a large family farm.

“I love that story so much … I was thinking, ‘Who was drinking out of that?’ How would you sanitize that so you would want to use it? And we have a lot of stuff from the Conable family. We have wedding stockings from the family, a wedding dress. It’s just interesting some of the old families that were here.”

5. Handmade sewing kit from Mayflower descendant

The society received a handmade sewing kit that came with family papers from the Crofoots and Samsons of Preble. Crofoot was a Dutch name, Scoville said. It came with a letter that talks about all the elements of the kit:

“Dearest Gertrude, I want you to have this little relic of by-gone days and prize it for its hallowed associations with the past. It was carved by Peleg Samson while he sat in front of the big log fire courting Mary Ring, who spun and colored the yarn and wove it into the flannel in the cushion. I believe this was a piece of her father’s shirt. The thimble was worn on the dainty finger of Sarah Alden Standish and aided in the fashioning of the tiny garments for their little daughter Lydia. Peleg and Mary made beeswax, the wax coming from the bees kept by Peleg’s father, Isaac. It is said that even the silk thread was made from silkworms brought in the ship with Barbara Standish. The white thread is not so ancient. Simon Samson of New Orleans, your father’s brother sent a package of cotton balls to his twin sisters [Deborah and Mary] and they spun it for thread. So, you see these links with the past are strong bonds which should strengthen our regard for our great and illustrious family tree.”

Samson lived from 1700 to 1741, born in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, according to GeniProfile. He was a descendant of Miles (Myles) Standish, the military adviser for Plymouth Colony and 1620 Mayflower passenger, according to Scoville.

Scoville loves the fact the sewing kit, common, used frequently, becomes a treasure trove when she finds out its silk thread was made from silk worms, its wax was made from bees kept by Peleg’s father. And she loves the resourcefulness of the people.

“At the beginning of the story, you can see him sitting at the fire, whittling away while he is courting Mary Ring,” Scoville said. “If the story was ever lost, the artifact would really be meaningless.”