Saturday, May 29, 2010

Decoration Day and Bovina's Civil War Dead

Memorial Day started after the Civil War as 'Decoration Day.' First observed nationwide in 1868, it was intended to honor the dead from the recently concluded conflict. The Civil War Veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, spurred on the celebration, choosing May 30 as the date each year.

In Bovina, as in other towns throughout the country, much of the work of placing flags and flowers on the graves of fallen comrades fell on Bovina's Civil War veterans - it's 'Old Soldiers.' Each year, these survivors of the conflict, likely with help from family and friends, would visit cemeteries to place the flags and flowers.

Bovina lost eleven young men in the actual war: Sinclair Burns, Andrew G. Chisholm, Solomon Coulter, Robert Dysert, James C. Elliott, Thomas Elliott, William T. Gillie, John Murray, Jr., James T. Oliver, William Storie, and William H. Stott. Only three of these died in battle: brothers James and Thomas Elliott and William Stott. The Elliott brothers both died in November 1864. Thomas was wounded October 19 at Cedar Creek, Virginia and died in a Baltimore hospital on November 6. His brother James died at the end of November. Six other Bovina soldiers died of Typhoid Fever and two others died of unspecified diseases. This ratio of battle deaths to death by disease is very typical of the Civil War. Some of the fallen soldiers are buried in Bovina, while others have memorial stones, with their actual graves in the south - three are in Beaufort, South Carolina.

As the years passed, there were fewer and fewer Old Soldiers around to carry out their acts of remembrance. In 1916, it was reported that though Bovina still had five Civil War veterans, only two of them were healthy enough to participate in placing the flags and flowers.

Decoration Day became a day to not just honor the dead from combat but to remember family and friends. My dad remembered his mother, Anna Bell LaFever, making sure the graves of all of her loved ones who had passed on had flowers that weekend. And as a child, I remember the trips we made over to the Beaverkill to put flowers on the graves of my mom's family. By then, Decoration Day had become Memorial Day. Though the latter term was in use later in the 19th century, it didn't become common until after World War II. In 1967, Congress passed a law making Memorial Day the official name of the holiday.

Today, those soldiers lost in the Civil War and all veterans of combat are remembered in Bovina cemeteries each year with the placing of flags on the graves by the American Legion. Bovina has around 120 veterans in its various cemeteries, from the American Revolution, War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, the two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.

So enjoy the weekend - but don't forget why we have this holiday in the first place.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bovina, Wet or Dry? - Part II

By the time Prohibition became the law of the land in 1920 with the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, Bovina had already been dry for at least three decades and probably longer. I say probably longer because of a recent discovery. I noted in the previous blog entry on this topic that I thought Bovina probably went dry when the State passed legislation in the 1890s allowing such a step. In subsequent research, I found this statement in a news article from an 1883 newspaper from St. Lawrence County (NY) comparing 'temperance' and 'license' towns: "Bovina is a temperance town, and last year paid $61 to support a pauper in the poor-house, while Hancock, being a license town, has paid during that period for the support of its paupers in the poor-house the sum of two thousand eight hundred and seventy one dollars." ]No, I won't attempt to analyze the validity of this statement, or the inference being draw from this information, other than to note that Hancock did have a larger population than Bovina.] It appears that Bovina was dry by the early 1880s so that by 1920, the town was well experienced in the life of Prohibition when the whole nation went dry.

In 1933, Prohibition was repealed. When Prohibition ended, the assumption in law was that every town in New York was wet. A local option vote had to be held to make a town dry. For Bovina, the issue was moot. Since no one considering the idea, no steps were taken to officially make Bovina a dry town. After half a century of being dry, Bovina technically was now a wet town.

This changed just after World War II when Edward B. Cornell opened a tavern on the main street in the hamlet of Bovina Center. It was popular with certain people, but unpopular with others, particularly those who lived in the hamlet. A letter to the Delhi Paper in 1947, headed by the title ‘Vote Dry for Delhi!’ specifically cited the example of Bovina as a reason for Delhi to stay dry: “A prominent Bovina man told me that the residents of Bovina Center are thoroughly 'fed up' with conditions created by the recent advent of the saloon there... cars, trucks and old jalopies bring customers to the Bovina bar, filling the limited parking space nearby, causing traffic congestion and confusion; children are seen going in and out of the place, and the noise continues until late at night.”

This was in October 1947, when fourteen townships in New York State were voting on whether to stay or become dry. Bovina was one of those towns (and Delhi was another). The proposition that appeared on the Town of Bovina ballot asked voters to vote on four specific questions governing the sale of alcoholic beverages:

1) To be consumed on the premises where sold;
2) Not to be consumed on the premises where sold;
3) To be sold by hotel keepers only;
4) To be sold by summer hotel keepers only.

There were two groups campaigning on the issue. The “Taxpayers Local Option Committee” was pro-license, meaning they supported allowing the sale of alcohol in Bovina. They argued that the licensing fees would off-set the need for more taxes. The “Community Welfare Committee” was anti-license. They argued that the ending of licensing fees would not increase taxes.

The vote to go dry passed in Bovina by a two to one margin. Ten of the fourteen townships in New York State that held votes that month voted to become or stay dry, including the Delaware County towns of Delhi and Walton. Cornell had just renewed his license in October 1947. He stayed in business until the license expired the following year. He was not able to renew it, of course.

Bovina stayed dry into the 21st century. There were unsuccessful efforts in the 1970s and 90s to reinstate the sale of alcohol, as well as at the start of the 21st century. All of these votes involved voting on five specific options. All five had to be presented. In 2007, the law was changed in New York, allowing for petitioners to push for a vote on a specific question. That same year, a group petitioned to put on the ballot one option - to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages in a hotel or resort setting. That option passed, so technically, Bovina is no longer a ‘dry’ town.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bovina or Boniva

For the first time that I can ever recall, Bovina got confused with the well know osteoporosis drug hawked by Sally Field - Boniva. I was at a conference today wearing my Bovina Town Historian hat, along with an id badge for the conference with my name and affiliation. I didn't notice anything at first, but a colleague pointed out that something looked odd and sure enough, I was listed as the town historian for the Town of Boniva! Bovina gets mispronounced frequently (see my blog entry for April 24, 2009) but rarely misspelled. But given these two words have all the same letters, it was only a matter of time.

Ok, just something silly for the day. And here's the town emblem showing the right way to spell Bovina!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Nineteenth Century Bovina Records - a Sampling

I have just uploaded to my Flickr page 31 scanned documents from the Town of Bovina. You'll see several tavern licenses, a list of town accounts for 1840 totaling $165.88, the bill for surveying the town boundaries when Bovina was created (including a $10 math error in the surveyor's favor), Berry Shaw Miller's power of attorney allowing his father to vote for him in the 1864 Presidential election, a list of jurors from 1836 and the appointment of a new tax collector in December 1845, necessitated by the imprisonment of the incumbent, Edward O'Connor, for his part in the shooting of Undersheriff Osman Steele during the Anti-Rent War.

I hope to continue uploading more files as time allows. To see these documents, go to

Monday, May 10, 2010

Bovina, Wet or Dry? - Part I

Until November 2007, Bovina was known as a dry town. This has nothing to do with weather, but instead refers to the sale of alcoholic beverages. Bovina was officially dry for 60 years, becoming a dry town in November 1947. Before 1947, Bovina was sporadically wet. In the early days of Bovina, alcohol was readily available for sale. And it was consumed pretty freely.

This doesn’t mean Bovina was an unusually drunk town. The period from 1790 to the 1830s saw the highest per-capita consumption of alcoholic beverages in the United States ever. Whiskey and other hard liquor were cheap and plentiful. Bovina was no different from many other American communities in the early 19th century.

Sellers of liquor had to be licensed. One of the first licenses issued when Bovina was created in 1820 was to John Hastings. The Commissioners of Excise for the Town of Bovina met at the home of Thomas Landon on May 3, 1820 to review Hastings’ request to operate a ‘Inn or Tavern.’

The commissioners, “having Satisfactory evidence that the said John Hastings [is] of good moral character and of Sufficient abilities to keep an Inn or Tavern … [and] that an Inn or Tavern is absolutely necessary at their houses respectively for the actual accommodation of travelers.”

The license (or recognizance) reads, in part: “John Hastings shall not during the time he shall keep an Inn or tavern keep a disorderly inn or tavern or suffer or permit any cock fighting, gaming or playing with cards or dice or keep any billiard table or other gaming table or shuffle board within the inn or Tavern … and shall in all things conform himself according to the true interest and meaning of the act entitled an act to lay a duty on strong liquors and for regulating inns and taverns passed April 7, 1801...”

A ledger believed to have been from Hastings shows ample evidence of the sale of alcohol, with sales of whiskey, gin and rum showing up frequently along with the sale of shingles, spoons, cotton cloth and snuff.

While the sale of liquor was legal, certain parties, particularly the Associate Presbyterian Church, frowned on it. When Reverend John Graham came to Bovina in 1832 as the church’s new minister, he found “rather too free use made of intoxicating liquor.” It was used “freely at births, marriages, and funerals, at logging bees, husking bees, chopping bees, raisings, vendues [auctions], and in the harvest field.” The session of the Bovina UP Church repeatedly had to admonish members for intoxication. On 11 December 1832, an Elder reported his conversation with a particular member, “respecting some imprudencies laid to his charge, among which was his having been seen in a state of intoxication.” The member in question at first denied this, but admitted it was true. “[H]e expressed his sorrow, and promised he should be more careful for the time to come.” Similar admonishments continued through the 1830s through the 1860s. Most of those so admonished promised to do better in the future. Some were more successful than others. Those who repeated the offense could find church privileges denied them.

The position of the church did not halt the sale of alcohol, but a couple of serious attempts were made in the 1840s via the ballot box. In 1841, a vote was held to go ‘no-license’ – meaning no sale of alcohol. The vote was close, with 83 supporting no-license and 72 supporting license. It doesn’t appear this vote led to a ban, however, for in 1843, there is in the Bovina files a tavern bond. In 1845, towns in New York got the option to vote ‘no-license,’ and while it appears that Bovina again voted for no-license, the State Legislature in 1847 rescinded this. The issuance of tavern licenses continued.

Here's a license from 1857 allowing Dorcas Hamilton, James Douglas and John Davis to allow the sale of alcohol at their hotel.

As the 19th century drew closer to the 20th century, however, Bovina became drier and drier. In 1896, a new local option law was passed by the State Legislature that allowed towns to vote whether to allow the sale of alcohol. It appears that Bovina exercised this option soon after the law passed and started the 20th century as a dry town. By the time of Prohibition in 1919, Bovina likely had already been dry for around 20 years.

Bovina also ended the 20th century as a dry town, but it had one brief wet period. I'll talk about that in the next installment about Bovina, Wet or Dry.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Wishing You Were Here - Bovina Postcards

I've created a new 'set' on my Bovina (NY) Flickr page called 'Bovina (NY) Postcards.' It's 24 postcard views of Bovina that I and others have scanned over the years - mainly Harlo Tim Bray and the late Alan Davidson. Check these out at Some of them are numbered, but the numbering is not consistent - this could mean there were several different sets - and the sets may not have been just Bovina views.

Your comments are welcome, especially if you can help clarify where some of the images were taken. And if you have Bovina postcards views that are not included here, please let me know so I can arrange to get a scan of it.