March is Women's History Month, a time to commemorate study, observe and celebrate the vital role women have played in American history. In recognition, our March Hidden Heroes will focus on the accomplishments of notable women from our area.
"A skillful pilot of steam vessels and a competent and reliable engineer" is how Vernie Yates McGulpin was described on a canal boat pilots' license issued to her in 1904 by the State of New York. This license was granted to her at age 18, the earliest age at which she could receive it making her the only woman in upstate New York to be so qualified. Up until that time, Vernie had piloted vessels under a permit. In 1898, at age 12, Vernie and her parents moved from Auburn to 19 Center St. in Union Springs. Vernie's father, William Henry Yates, was a boat captain and noted artist. Together the duo traveled the Finger Lakes and Erie Canal in his 38 foot steam yacht, Vernada, while her mother ran a successful dressmaking business in Auburn employing seven seamstresses. Her mother's successful business provided the family income enabling her father to pursue a career as an artist. The Vernada was a wonderful traveling art studio for William and a great adventure for Vernie, as its pilot from an early age. Vernie recounted how they felt very safe among the canalers, known to be a rough and tumble crowd to those outside the business, but whom Vernie described as loyal and honest to their own.
Yates described his daughter as growing up on the "heelpath of the canal, like a colt." Numerous newspaper articles have shared Vernie's recollection of canal days. In one, she shares a memory of being tied up at a little town along the canal and needing milk. The lock tender directed them to the local Post Office where they found a cow in the back room. The cow generously provided a quart of very fresh milk. Vernie was surprised that the milk had not been stirred up with a buggy whip handle as she had often seen done by a Union Springs farmer and peddler.
Vernie once took up painting in her father's studio but gave it up at age six. Music had a greater appeal for Vernie who studied it at Wells later teaching in her home and directing the Union Springs and Sherwood High School orchestras. Vernie's own orchestra played at Emily Howland's 100th birthday celebration and Vernie recalled how disgusted Miss Howland was that no one noted her 101st!
Vernie left not only a legacy of musical memories but gave a great gift to future generations when, in 1973 at age 87, she penned her recollections of 74 years in Union Springs. From her reminiscences we learned of Saturday evening band concerts held on the lawn of the Backus mansion (where the present day Post Office is located) and of huge bonfires made from wooden boxes in the middle of what is now Route 90 held at midnight on July 3 to start the July 4 celebration. Vernie stated that "in those days, people knew their neighbors, and ours was a close knit community. In time of trouble or sorrow, the neighbors would rally round and do all they could to help in any way possible. And some of that beautiful spirit still survives." Wouldn't she be thrilled to know that spirit continues today!
Stay tuned for more! Linda Albrecht, member of our Curating and Exhibition Team, is currently preparing an exhibit honoring present day local women who have contributed much to our area, not unlike Vernie. Their backgrounds and experiences will surprise you and you will never view them the same. Their stories will soon be featured in the store front windows of 151 Cayuga St. We encourage you to visit this display (possibly with a child or grandchild?) to learn and share their accomplishments. We are indebted to Eric and Frances Rosenkrans, longtime museum members and volunteers, for providing this exhibition space.