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  • Diane Janowski

Made in Elmira and Chemung County

by Diane Janowski


Over the years, many fine products have been made locally. If you grew up here, you learned about our fire hydrants, coaster brakes, fire engines, friction clutches, glass bottles, machine tools, TV tubes, greeting cards, typewriters, cut flowers, boxes, and packaging materials. But, you may not know that there were many other products, now obsolete, that were made right here.


If you were a sick child with chest congestion and a cough back in 1909, your mother might have “greased” you with “Brown’s Eucalyptus Ointment.” It smelled strong, but the manufacturer, William S. Gerity of Gerity’s Drug Store on Lake Street, claimed it worked.


frostilla elmira
An 1949 Frostilla advertisement in the Star-Gazette.

Another concoction made here was the internationally known fragrant pink lotion “Frostilla.” The Frostilla company was founded on Lake Street in 1884 by Clay Holmes. After a terrible fire, he moved his production to 410 West Gray Street, the Madame Halina dance studio building. After Holmes' death, the business continued under Holmes’ son-in-law, Floyd Shoemaker. The business was sold in 1949 to the Wildroot Company of Buffalo.


Peter Biggs’ father, Michael, came from Ireland to Elmira in the early 1830s to help dig the Chemung Canal. Peter soon followed and saw the opportunity to help keep Elmirans clean. Peter Biggs opened the Elmira Steam Soap Works, making good old-fashioned soap. The soap was boiled by steam for four days, drawn and run into frames, and then cut into bars in the required size. Because his business was at an important location near Elmira’s Junction Canal, he could easily load his products onto a canal boat and ship them to all points from Seneca Lake to Pennsylvania. His factory was on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and East Fifth Street. It was razed after being severely damaged by the July 2012 tornado.


In 1837, John M. Robinson owned the Robinson Chair Company. He made cottage chairs, Boston rocking chairs, and Windsor chairs. His city director advertisement said his business was located " a few doors below the bridge, opposite the Chemung Canal Bank.”


Elmira even had several mattress manufacturers in the late 1800s. The Queen City Mattress Company was the biggest local company at 620 State Street. Their mattresses were made with “Hair, Cotton, Wool, Fibre, Husk, or Grass Excelsior. Another company, F. M. Blystone, made “Downyrest” mattresses at 744 Baldwin Street in 1894.


From 1893 to 1963, the Elmira Knitting Mill in Elmira Heights produced knitwear, including sweaters, socks, hats, and scarves. During World War II, they produced clothing for the military. Another mill was the Campbell Knitting Mill at 821 East Avenue in the heart of the Frog Hollow neighborhood. In 1904, the company employed 225 workers. Wool underwear was their chief product.


L. Freudenheim’s factory at 111 Railroad Avenue made women’s skirts. In 1905, the company produced around 55,000 skirts a year. It closed in the 1920s. Also on Railroad Avenue from 1880-1908 was the J. Richardson & Company shoe factory that produced 1,600 pairs weekly. Mr. Richardson provided homes for his employees and executives in the row houses and apartment buildings on West Water Street at the foot of Davis Street.


In the early 20th century, Elmira was home to several musical instrument factories making pianos and organs. Robert Hope-Jones invented the “modern theater organ” and produced them on Madison Avenue and East Fifth Street. He sold his patents to the Wurlitzer Company. Jacob Greener manufactured pianos between 1864 and 1916. William King opened an organ factory on College Avenue from 1865 to 1887. The quaint building still exists just north of Goodyear Tires.


M. Doyle Marks came to Elmira in 1898 and opened a franchised piano store. In 1904, he bought out his obligations to the franchise and renamed the store after himself. Marks designed an upright piano – the “Doylemarx” that sounded good and was affordable to the public. His store closed in the 1930s.


Brothers Daniel and Floyd Hungerford were, among other things, “airplane and airship builders” at 823 West Second Street. In 1909, they built their first airplane and flew it at their private airstrip in Southport. Neighbors along Second Street considered the brothers either geniuses or just crazy. In 1929, they built their most famous project, the “Rocket Car,” around a 1921 Chevrolet auto body. The first test run was down Second Street on November 2, 1929, when it roared down Second Street with a twenty-foot flame shooting out behind. Neighbors snickered when they saw it, but it held acclaim in scientific circles. The Rocket Car is now displayed at the New York State Museum in Albany.


Elmira and Chemung County have also produced many good food products. From about 1900 to 1920, Charles Hancock had a bread-making plant at 409 Madison Avenue. He made “Hancock’s Buster Brown Bread.” B.F. McCain’s bakery on East Washington Avenue made big pretzels. C. W. Smith on Baldwin Street provided Elmirans with freshly made crackers in 1886. Every year, father and son Sylvester and Fred Rogers made gallons of maple syrup at their facility at Pigeon Point. Elmira even had two horseradish producers in 1912 – the Taylor brothers, W.H. and H. on Judson Street, and Nickolas Viele on Harper Street provided the piquant sauce for Elmira’s roast beef.


Cigar manufacturers were dotted all over town. T. O Shannon made fine cigars at 514 North Main Street in 1894. Some of his brands were “Reliana” and “City Club.” Competitor William Hart of 603 Lake Street made “Country Club” and “Two Harts.” At 376 South Main Street, John C. Conlon made “Feast of the Flowers.”


Reliance Motorcycle Works in Elmira Heights produced motorcycle engines in 1900. One of the company’s mechanics was Glenn Curtiss of Hammondsport, who helped make the best machines possible.


Old Lowman Whiskey was produced for medicinal purposes. The distillery in Lowman closed around 1918 with the advent of prohibition. If that was too strong, Calvin Johnson produced “Standard Malted Milk” in his Grove Street home from 1933 to 1936.


Other liquid product manufacturers include Eagle Bottling Works at 420 Carroll Street, which was famous in 190l for its apple cider, birch beer, cream soda, chocolate soda, and lemon sour soda.


So remember—Elmira and Chemung County have been the home of many products thanks to the ingenuity of our local citizens. In 2015, fire hydrants, friction clutches, boxes, and packaging materials were still being made locally.




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