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Chronicling history: new book reveals how national events impacted local citizens

By Joanne Beck
Michael Eula
Genesee County Historian Michael Eula in his office with some of his research material and books of photographs for his new book, "Historic Chronicles of Genesee County." 
Photo by Joanne Beck

While significant events were happening on the national stage — the assassinations of prominent political motivators, the Cold War, the New Deal and open racism with the existence of slavery — folks right here had their own thoughts, feelings, and ideologies that unfolded into the Genesee County landscape.

Local citizens cared deeply when President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were killed in the 1960s within six years of one another, and this area was full of introspective people — activists, philosophers, independent thinkers and keepers of a heavily agricultural region -- as well as those that were tolerant and welcoming of varying opinions while others were more dangerously skewed.

These details have been unearthed through the research and documentation of Genesee County Historian Michael Eula for his upcoming book, “Historic Chronicles of Genesee County.”

Although it’s not yet out for purchase, Eula teased it during a recent county meeting, also explaining to legislators that he had to switch publishers due to some artistic differences. It was enough of a tease that The Batavian interviewed Eula about the upcoming release, now being published by History Press and set for an April 15 publication date.

Overall, it’s a comprehensive social and political history from 1802, when the county was founded, to the present, he said.

“I wanted to explore a number of topics that hadn't been explored. And I wanted to address issues that had been ignored in the county's past, which is what comes up, with one exception in this in the Historic Chronicles,” he said. “So, you know, for example, when people looked at wars, they would look at things like the Civil War, that was a big one, I looked at the Cold War, and how that played out in Batavia in 1956, for example, no one had done that. And I also looked at the county's reactions to three key assassinations in the 1960s, President Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. That's the first chapter in this book. So I look at different aspects of the county's history by looking at things that had national links, and that had not been addressed by others who have done the county's history before.”

Artistic differences?
As for those editorial differences, Eula had been working with SUNY Press, which, he said, had requested some revisions, including a change of his title, reverting the term of woman slave to instead read enslaved, and — this, he said was the final straw — asking that he insert they for the pronouns he or she in some cases. 

The Batavian contacted SUNY Press for comment, and Senior Acquisitions Editor Richard Carlin said that the publisher does not change gender pronouns for historical figures from he or she to they. 

“We follow the guidelines of The Chicago Manual of Style in the copyediting and preparation of all of our manuscripts,” he said. That manual does have two uses for they, one being when a person does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun or is of unspecified gender.

At any rate, Eula and the publishing company were having difficulty proceeding with the book’s finale, so Eula moved on to History Press and is happily working with Acquisitions Editor Banks Smither. History Press falls under the larger umbrella of Arcadia Publishing, the country’s largest local regional publisher, Smither said.

“The company publishes books by local authors on local subjects, and we market and sell them exclusively in the local market for brick-and-mortar sales. So his book, for example, will sell in accounts throughout the county and maybe a little bit of the neighboring counties. But that's it for brick and mortar, and then we'll put the book online, and then on our website, and then ebook and all that. But our expectations are just itself, as you know, to the local audiences that care about it. We have been doing this for a long, long time,” he said. “So we're looking to sell to people who walk into the bookstore or walk into a gift shop … and want to buy a product that's vibrant and talks about their community. And it's written in a way that I like to describe our style as kind of a feature piece in a magazine, a little breezy, a little easy for the general audience, but also still substantive about the local history. And so, we are finding that academics like Michael are sometimes better off publishing with us because we can reach a wider audience.

“He’s the County Historian, that's an official office in New York State. And so every county has one, and we work with a bunch of them to publish in their communities, and they just have great platforms for it,” Smither said. “So he came to us, I was intrigued by the manuscript. We're continuing to look for more and more products in every town that we can. We do see local history continue to increase in salience in every community in the country. Our business itself has grown substantially over the last 15 years.” 

About the book
There are six meaty chapters sandwiched between a preface and conclusion that cover:

1. In Only Six Years: Genesee County Reacts to the Assassinations of the Kennedys and MLK;

2. Batavia Explodes: Cold War Anxiety and the Preparedness Drill of 1956;

3. Immigrants to White Ethnics Italians and Irish;

4. Hoover, Roosevelt, the New Deal in Genesee County;

5. In Western New York? The Ku Klux Klan in Genesee County in the 1920s;

6. Activists, Farm Women and Professionals

Some locals may have heard Ray Cianfrini’s talk about the Ku Klux Klan’s existence in Genesee County back then, and Eula incorporates Cianfrini’s research into an expanded chapter that raises questions about what was going on at the time.

“My whole chapter is titled Western New York question mark … and I talked about the growth of the Klan, and then it's collapsed by 1924. And to me, how do we explain that? And how do you know who was resisting that? And how do you explain the rise of the Klan, when about three percent of the population of the county was African American?” Eula said. “So what's feeding into this raises a lot of issues. Prohibition was one. Immigration was another. I think people might find that interesting.”

He also made what he found to be interesting political findings about the Hoover years.

“You know, some of the reasons why Republican candidates, unlike most of the rest of the country, were still winning elections here during the Depression, Herbert Hoover won this county in 1932, for example, when Roosevelt was winning much of the rest of the country. Why is that?” Eula said. “And then just very human stories about the Depression that I pulled from different sources.

“And then, finally, the last chapter is a chapter on women's history. So chapter six is about middle-class women … and I looked at a number of things in that chapter, including diaries that we have, right here in the archives, that were kept by farm women. Pretty fascinating stuff, you wouldn't think that when the women were so busy with animal tasks, at home, and on the farm, were reading serious philosophy and really thinking about it in their diaries,” he said. “Women who had more resources, and more access to political power to another woman.

He will delve into women who did not have such means, poor women and women slaves, in a second book that he is working on, he said, but that’s for another story. 

In this book, he covers the suffrage movement, which was big in Genesee County.  That doesn’t mean that everyone was on board with it, however, and Eula also covers women who opposed suffragists, conducting meetings in their Batavia homes at the turn of the century. 

“And what was striking about both sides is their willingness to have conversations with people that they were in disagreement with. I thought that was a striking difference from our own day, where people tend to get so partisan that the conversation dies out,” he said. “You had women who were suffragists who would invite women who were members of groups that were opposed to women having the right to vote into their home to have discussions about both sides of the issue, say in 1904. 

“And then, some of the activists were earlier on involved in the abolitionist movement. Here I talk about some of those, there was a big abolitionist movement here. And there were also people who supported slavery. And so I talked about them as well,” he said. “And they were women who were involved in the abolitionist movement, who then later, or their daughters became involved in the suffrage movement. So it was a seamless movement from one focus on one aspect of civil rights to another.”

One of his favorite chapters is the one about the Cold War, he said. While doing his research, he learned just how much locals, through their letters to the editor, disagreed with the Korean War, which has often been shadowed by Vietnam as being so highly controversial.

I really enjoyed doing Chapter Two on the Cold War because it led me to a lot of other reading to give a context. And since the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991, and the archives were open, a lot of what we thought the Kremlin was planning, actually, there's no evidence for it. So that caused the question how much of The Cold War anxiety was really warranted. So that leads to really fascinating questions,” he said. “And in that chapter, I talked about, for example, of course, we had, even after the Korean War ended in 1953, there's still a peacetime draft. So young men had to be concerned about where their draft numbers were. We often think of that, something like that with regard to Vietnam and forget that was going on a long time before Vietnam. And even when it was peacetime or relative peacetime after the Korean War. And so it was, it was definitely seen as a very serious reality.”

Eula uses examples from today, such as with behaviors around COVID, and traces certain traits that have been passed on over the centuries and generations from political parties — such as people who were “steadfastly Republican.”

“Meaning they believed in individualism, they believe that there should be as little state interference in people's lives as possible,” he said. “Now, another question I lead the reader with is, ‘will that continue into the future? Or or will Genesee County look very different by the next century?’ One's guess is as good as anyone else’s,” he said. “But at least up until I am with that book, the feeling that there shouldn't be too much-centralized authority is one that's very paramount in Genesee County's culture. It's a very conservative culture in that sense. 

“And I don't mean conservative in terms of a political party, Republican or even Democrat, I mean, conservativeness sensitive, individuals should be able to make their own decisions about what their own lives look like. And so those in authority here have to tread very carefully.”

Another conclusion from his studies?
He thinks that kind of conservative nature comes from the rural landscape and agricultural economy here, he said, and given the wide base of the agricultural economy, “farmers tend to be very independent.”

“Primarily over half the county's acreage is devoted to farming at any point in time, and that produces a very different political culture. And interestingly enough, I think it's one that incredibly has taught much more tolerance than more urban industrial cultures tend to that I was really struck by,” he said. “There is a willingness here to hear the other side. Even though you disagree. I used the example before of the suffragists' movement.”

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