Review: Curiosities of Elmira

I enjoy poking around in the less illuminated corners of history.  Kelli Huggins’s Curiosities of Elmira gave me a chance to do so in my old home town. I’m very fond of my first home though I recognize that it’s gauzed up a bit with age and youth.  Elmira’s one of those small Middle Atlantic towns that used to house a mix of manufacturing and agriculture that supported a stable population.  The living was good enough to afford folks their eccentricities while keeping them close to the practicalities. In the last half century many towns with that profile have begun to slide into obscurity.  I suspect that the writing is on the wall for Elmira as well.  Against that backdrop, it’s great to see people working hard to capture its legacy.

Huggins has been working at the county historical museum and blogging enthusiastically for a while now.  I’ve seen first cuts at some of these chapters on the museum’s web site.  That lent a glow of familiarity to the proceedings and having the articles all together made for a lively and friendly reunion.

She thematically breaks the book into collections of short articles.  Each of those sections reflects both her interests and Elmira’s quirky past.  In its heyday, the place was much more of a crossroads both logistically and intellectually.  Most of the heyday described here is in the later half of the 19th century into the 20th.  It makes for a breezy mix of sciences being born and society being rattled by the Civil War.  Huggins treats all the times with introspection and affection, though she does not shy away from criticism when it it due.

It’s a well written and organized survey of the middle history of an interesting place.


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