The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2002

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A Tribute to

Charley Oliver

Born on May 12, 1915


Bill Treichler

Charley Oliver is a true Taurus—right from the start he loved people and, they have been reciprocating to him in like manner ever since.

He was the first son born to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Oliver IV of Cohocton, New York, so, of course, they named him Charles Oliver V. He had an older sister, Mary, and later on, two brothers, Gale and Ralph, and another sister, Lucy, who drowned near the family cottage on Loon Lake when she was only 10 years old.

Charles and his brothers and older sister all attended Cohocton schools and then went on to colleges. Charles graduated from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 1936, and went to work for the Corning Glass Works almost immediately. One of his early assignments was at the New York World's Fair in 1939-40. He thoroughly enjoyed showing Corning products to the visitors at the Glass Industries Building and answering their questions. Even more than the daytime activities, he got his biggest kicks out of taking the hometown folks to the big city night life, particularly the jazz clubs on 52nd Street and down in Greenwich Village, which is where he lived during this time.

While he was in New York City, he married Constance Crites. Their first son, Charles Oliver VI, was born there. After moving back to Corning in 1945, they had a daughter, Mary Constance, and two more boys, Thomas George and Theodore Kent. Altogether they have given Charley a total of 12 grandchildren.

When he returned to Corning after five years working in the Manhattan office on 5th Avenue, he became manager of market research in the Technical Products Division of Corning Glass Works. During his 35 years with the company he focused on sales and spent a lot of time traveling to meetings all around the country in company planes.

In Corning, Charley took an active part in Boy Scouts. It all began when he volunteered to serve as a Cub Master, then became an assistant Scout Master, a Committee Chairman, then a District Chair and so on until he was elected Chairman of the Steuben Area Council at the time when there were 1000 volunteers in the organization. After completing his term he served on the Council Board for 26 years and was awarded the Silver Beaver, the highest award for service in the B.S.A. He has always worn his Silver Beaver with great pride.

In 1972, Charley took an early retirement but did continue to work with Corning Glass Works as a consultant. He even had his own consulting business for a time, and he also worked for a Michigan-based consulting firm. Dan Peters of Construction Resources, Inc. remembers that he first met Charley through the suggestion of a mutual friend, Warren Stone, who had worked with Charley at CGW. The first project in which Charley participated was a study to identify and quantify market opportunities for radar-transparent plastics. It became clear to Dan that Charley not only knew the subject, because of some of his prior work, but that he also knew many of the "players" whom he had met over the years. The assignment was completed quickly with Charley's knowledge and contacts. Peters recalls that they traveled all across the country on projects ranging from determining the volume of wood-cutting tools used in sawmills and furniture plants; to using plastics in boat construction; to the market demand for products used in the repair and remodeling of non-residential buildings.

Other civic and business organizations in which Charley took an active part while living in Corning were the American Marketing Association for which he wrote several noteworthy papers, the Corning-Painted Post Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Corning Kiwanis Club in which he holds a Life Membership. He is a past-president of the Corning Free Academy, the P. T. A. and the Mayor's Commission on the Restoration of Downtown Corning. As a member of the latter group, he unearthed the history of many of the buildings on Market Street and was successful in promoting their restoration to attain the attractive appearances of the street as it is today. The commission developed into the Market Street Restoration Agency. Charley was also a faithful member of the old Baron Steuben Coffee Club and a member and president of the Horse Vigilance Society.

On January 19, 1976, he was appointed Steuben County Historian and took over the part-time job on February 1. That year he helped Everett Kilmer establish the Steuben County Hall of Fame which inducted its first ten members in 1976. During the 20-year duration of the project, Charley worked diligently to gain recognition in the Hall of Fame for the men and women of the county who had made significant contributions to their communities and to the country. To preserve public faith in the selection of inductees for the Hall of Fame, Charley refused to be inducted himself as long as he was connected to the board, although he had been nominated many times by his friends and admirers. This is typical of Charles Oliver's sense of propriety and modesty.

In 1978 Charley encouraged the Steuben County Board of Supervisors to authorize a county government-wide records survey, which identified records eligible for disposition or preservation. This records survey was carried out, and the data collected formed the basis for the present records management and archives program in Steuben County government. While serving as County Historian he conducted a drive among the Town Historians and local historical societies to canvas all of the cemeteries in the county and to compile a complete record of all burials including headstone readings. It was a very successful effort.

Dr. James D. Folts, now head of reference services at the New York State Archives in Albany, was selected to be the archivist for the Pulteney papers microfilming project. He recalls Charley's work:

Charley Oliver's greatest accomplishment as an orchestrator of support for Steuben County history was the microfilming of the Pulteney Land Office records. Charley convinced Chilton Latham, the Steuben County Clerk; the County Board of Supervisors; and the president of the Steuben County Historical Society, Louise Clark, that the large collection of handwritten letter books, deed books, surveys, and maps from the Bath office of the Pulteney Estate should be preserved and microfilmed. (The documents date back to 1791 and were purchased by the county after the land office closed in 1909.) Some related documents in other repositories were microfilmed as well. With financial support from Steuben County, the Steuben County Historical Society, the Corning Glass Foundation, the Addison Public Library, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (an arm of the National Archives), the project was carried out in the years 1978 - 1980. Fourteen rolls of microfilm (each, one hundred feet long) were produced, and forty maps were photographed at actual size. The facilities of the Corning Museum of Glass and the Corning Glass Works were used for the reproduction work, which was done to archival standards.

Charles Oliver was president of the Corning-Painted Post Historical Society when the Patterson Inn was purchased and restored. Phyllis Martin who was director of the Ben Patterson Inn Museum remembers all of the work and support that he gave to the Corning-Painted Post Historical Society and their projects:

My first acquaintance with Charley was probably through the Historical Society and the fledgling Storefront Museum of the Society in 1973. Charley at the time was the President of the Historical Society, and he supported Gertrude Boland's inspiration to create an historical museum in the former drugstore in the then Baron Steuben Hotel. It was intended to give the Society a "presence" in the community and a public exposure which it then lacked. That small museum opened in July of 1973, a year after the "Flood of '72," and I was later put in charge of it to create changing exhibits and to staff it with volunteers.

Charley was ever present at the Storefront Museum as he followed the progress of the restoration of Market Street led by Norm Mintz. The street was placed on the National Register in 1973. It was Charley who helped obtain the Hiram Rouse Cutting Shop for the Historical Society to set up as an exhibit in the Storefront. A portion of the "shop" is now in the new Corning Museum of Glass and another part is in a downtown Pittsburgh museum. Charley even took a course in glass engraving at Corning Community College so he could demonstrate to local school children stone wheel engraving, a skill which once made Corning renowned in the glass world.

Charley was also instrumental in securing the funds to restore the Hewitt Glass Photographic Plates which had suffered from flood damage in 1972. He was also responsible for the salvaging of Society collections which had been stored in homes of Society members (there being no Society headquarters at the time), many of these items had gone under water when the individual homes were flooded.

As president of the Society from 1971 through 1974, Charley was concerned to find a permanent home for the Society. What had been the Painted Post Tavern in earlier years had degenerated into an abandoned rooming house on Pulteney Street in Corning. The Society made unsuccessful attempts to acquire the property, but it did get it on the National Register through the efforts of Ernestine King, Charley, and others.

After the 1972 flood, Charley, Jean Wosinski, and other Society volunteers spent time cleaning the mud out of that abandoned flooded structure, but there was little hope of obtaining the property from the owner. The creation of a Corning Bicentennial Committee led to the opportunity to purchase the deserted former inn as the major bicentennial project for the area. Charley was one of those involved in obtaining the matching funds needed for the $50,000 purchase price of the building. A grant from the Corning Glass Foundation of half of that sum led to the successful drive to raise the remaining monies needed.

Once the inn was purchased, it was renamed The Benjamin Patterson Inn, honoring the first innkeeper, from its original name The Painted Post Tavern—since it was felt to be confusing that now The Painted Post Tavern was in Corning and not in Painted Post. Next came restoring the Inn to its original configuration of rooms. Here it was that Charley and John Hoxie were invaluable in the time and energy they put into the labor of restoration.

Such volunteer labor was essential—since the purchase fund for the Inn left no monies for the restoration which had to follow. A memorable photograph remains of John and Charley struggling with cast iron radiators which they had removed and taken to a local car wash mart to be flushed out and then returned laboriously to the Inn.

Single-handed, Charley tried to win the war against one of the serious desecrators of the Inn—the pigeons which roosted on the exterior cornices. His ingenious solution was to paint ROOST NO MORE on the east gable ledges. Whether it was his approach or the use of a "pigeon hot foot" solution which won the day is still in debate.

It seems to me that Charley was ever present at the Patterson, with a twinkle in his eyes and a smile upon his face, as he would hear my latest news of the Inn, check our progress in restoration and programs, and sympathize with my problems. I missed him greatly when he moved to Cohocton. His visits became less frequent and a bit more hurried—but he always made time for the Inn and the Society and historically minded friends.

Charley holds a very special place in my life, and my recollections of him are bound inseparably with the Corning Painted Post Historical Society and my many years as the Director of the Patterson Inn in Corning. His was a warm, affectionate presence, full of good humor and interesting stories—always his inimitable self, although he was reserved and modest. I always think of Charley as being the same—never aging, never changing, always outgoing and irrepressible.

In 1981, his marriage ended in divorce. Two years later he was joined in matrimony with Ellen Sherwood McDowell, the widow of a life-long friend. At this time, 1983, he moved back to Cohocton, his old home town. He really enjoyed renewing old friendships and making many new acquaintances. He helped reorganize a Boy Scout troop there and he joined several local organizations, including the Cohocton Lions Club, the Cohocton Historical Society and the Cohocton Development Corporation which sponsors the Cohocton Fall Foliage Festival. Charley was always urging visitors to attend the Fall Foliage Festival saying he'd be glad to reserve a tree for them in the Tree Sitting Contest for which the festival has become renowned.

Charles is proud of his heritage. The Oliver family can trace direct descendancy from Richard Warren, the first Governor of Massachusetts, who came over on the Mayflower. They have an 1810 Indenture to Charles Oliver for 100 acres in Steuben County. The New Englanders had heard glowing reports from the veterans of General Sullivan's Expedition. The Olivers were a hardy breed and had the spirit of pioneers to face the hardships of settling a far away land and make a new life for themselves. The first settler on the tract that is now Rogersville in the Town of South Dansville was Charles Oliver I. He is credited with building the first frame house, which still stands on the original site, and also a blacksmith shop. This was about 1815.

But to Charley, the most interesting of his ancestors was "Aunt Phebe," Phebe Amelia Oliver Briggs. She was a sister of his grandfather, Chas. Oliver III. Phebe was born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1841. Her father had been inspired by the "Westward Ho" movement. However, the family returned to Rogersville when Phoebe was a young girl and she spent most of her childhood and youth there and attended Rogersville Academy. She taught there for a while after her graduation and then went to Philadelphia and studied medicine at the Women's Medical College where she worked with Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell after completing her medical training and before accepting an appointment by the Quakers to serve as a doctor to the Otoe and Missouri tribes of Indians. She was sent to the eastern area of the boundary line between Kansas and Nebraska. There she met and married John Story Briggs, who was an Indian trader. They spent their honeymoon in a unique way—on a two-month buffalo hunt with the Otoe Indians. Mr. Briggs traded in buffalo hides and Phebe became known as "Medicine Woman." Before long the U. S. Government started moving the Indians farther south to Oklahoma. The Briggs moved to Norton, Kansas. He bought and ran a store and she practiced medicine—sometimes riding her horse 50 miles to call on a patient. Later they moved to Troy, Kansas. Here their eight-year-old daughter died. About a year later Mr. Briggs also lost his life. Sometime after that Phebe returned to Steuben County where she lived out her life in South Dansville. Phebe, always adventuresome, made a trip to the Far East in her 80s.

Charley collected material and stories about his great-aunt Phebe over the years and visited the plains states with Ellen to get a sense of the landscape where Phebe had lived on the frontier. He has always been fascinated by people as one-of-a-kind individuals and intensely interested in what they were doing, and ready to help them on with their projects and dreams. Charley was an early and enthusiastic supporter of The Crooked Lake Review and became the first subscriber. He often suggested topics for articles and supplied resource materials as he did for the story of the Mutual Horse Vigilance Society that appeared in issue #56, November, 1992.

Mr. Oliver is now a resident at Updyke's Willow Ridge Adult Care Home; Mrs. Oliver has moved to be nearby at 440 Seneca Road, Hornell, NY 14843.

© 2002, Bill Treichler
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