At South and Massey, a present of Chautauqua past

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
The Miller Papers, collected and donated by family members and descendents of Chautauqua co-founder Lewis Miller, are on display at the Oliver Archives Center.

The Oliver Archives Center at the corner of South and Massey is, in a manner of speaking, Chautauqua Institution’s memory. Institution history, once collected and managed by Alfreda Irwin and June Miller-Spann, is now under the watch of Jon Schmitz, Chautauqua archivist and historian.

The building, originally a carpentry shop, was renovated through the generosity of Hale and Judy Oliver and became fully operational in 2005. The building’s design and location contribute to conditions necessary for the safe keeping of books, papers and artifacts. Attached to the building is a textile storage room for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Alumni’s class banners, back to the Pioneer Class of 1882.

The reading room is designed and operated to meet the needs of researchers, and it contains a number of displays and exhibits. Among them currently is a display of documents from the Miller Papers, collected and donated by family members and descendants of Chautauqua co-founder Lewis Miller.

Sitting toward the back of the reading room and covered by a black cloth to protect it from the light is a 1501 Koberger Bible. Anton Koberger was a German goldsmith, printer and publisher. Schmitz said it is a remarkable example of early printing and binding.

“In layman’s terms, it is a very old Bible,” he said. “And the accomplishment of this Bible is considerable. There is a lot of handwork on each page.”

Other Bibles are collected in a glass display case along the wall to the right of where a visitor enters the reading room. This display demonstrates the various types of Bibles common in the 19th century, Schmitz said. Some have decorative covers; some are family Bibles, commemorating a family member. These Bibles tend to be nicely illustrated, a feature that technology had made more affordable in the 19th century. Among them is Miller’s Cottage Bible, another one features Frank Beard’s picture puzzles designed for educating children, and one from Jesse Lyman Hurlbut that was also designed for helping children learn Bible stories.

Along the same wall are hundreds of books, many of which were written by Chautauqua faculty explicitly for the CLSC. Above the books, Schmitz pointed to a series of drawings developed in 1924 for what was then called the Bird & Tree Club. The architects — Harries, Hall and Kruse — were landscape architects, and had been engaged by the Bird & Tree Club to inspect the Chautauqua grounds and create drawings showing potential development and improvements, Schmitz said.

Across the room, in a glass display case, is a collection of marionettes made and once operated by Doris Goodrich Jones, a “Puppet Lady” from Texas who spent many summers at Chautauqua. An article by Terri Jo Ryan of the Waco Tribune-Herald said Jones’ puppetry mesmerized children with characters like the “Fiddling Cowboy, Monkeyshines the Brazilian monkey, Jimmie Scarecrow and an assortment of clowns, dancers, elves and a menagerie of musical instrument-playing critters.” Jones entertained Chautauqua audiences in the 1940s and ‘50s, Schmitz said.

In the center of the reading room stand the workings of a Seth Thomas clock from 1886, housed in the Pier Building and which served as the official timekeeping piece for the grounds. It was transferred to Miller Bell Tower upon its construction and ticked there until the 1960s when it was replaced with electronic works.

Through a gift from Chloe Cornell and her family, the clockworks were restored by area craftsmen under the direction of John Siriano.

During the summer the Oliver Archives Center is open every day but Sunday, and is staffed by Schmitz along with a number of part-time assistants and interns.