After breakfast our first order of business was to find and visit the Arnot Art Museum. It seems really unusual for a town as small as Elmira to have its own art museum. This was a surprising treat. We learned that it originated with a wealthy family in the 19th century and a collection made by one of the sons, Matthias Arnot. The collection has grown and has become a public trust. The building is in the middle of downtown, but it is clear that it once was a mansion with grounds and a beautiful setting. Most of the collection is European oil paintings, and they reflect the collector’s tastes and preferences.
One of Elmira’s claims to fame these days is that it was for, nearly 20 years, the summer home of Mark Twain. The connection came from the fact that Twain married Olivia Langdon, a daughter of a prominent Elmira family. After visiting the art gallery we found our way to the grave of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and the gravesites of the Clemens and Langdon families.
We made arrangements to see the Mark Twain study and the Mark Twain Exhibit at Elmira College. The study is a small octagonal gazebo-like structure in which Twain wrote many of his most well-known works. It was located originally on East Hill overlooking Elmira, and it was moved to Elmira College in 1953. We were able to see it, go inside it, and hear the story of Twain’s connection to Elmira. Our host was Dr. Joe Lemak, the Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies. After showing us the study, Joe then took us to the Mark Twain Exhibit. We were able to see some original manuscripts (copies of pages), some furniture and daily use items, several photographs, and a number of other items that came from Twain’s summer home nearby. It was awesome to be able to get this one-on-one treatment from a Twain scholar.
After we left the Twain center we made a brief visit to the Chemung Valley History Museum. Yes – we really packed in the things-to-do in this short trip to Elmira. I went into this historical museum with one over-riding question: what caused the City of Elmira to become established and to grow? In other words, what was the original economic base for the city’s existence? Believe it or not, it was not easy to find answers to this question in this history museum. In one small exhibit area I found information on this, but the majority of the displays and exhibits seemed to assume that visitors either knew this stuff or it just didn’t matter. It was amazing to me to realize this hole in the presentation of Elmira’s history. There was a lot in the museum about government services, government programs, and government provisions for people. It was clear to me that the people who put this material together had a blind spot for how it is that people actually make a living and why it is that people choose to congregate in an area in order to give rise to a community and eventually a city.