God’s Handprint

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Corning Inc.’s sway in municipal matters is apparent on the city’s main street. Market Street teems with stately stone buildings, calligraphic signs, and geraniums blooming from giant planters; every side of the street is the sunny side. It’s hard to believe it was once an eyesore. After a 1972 flood, community members launched an effort to rid Market Street of the garish billboards and haphazardly slapped-on additions that had hidden its historic architecture. In 1974 the Corning Glass Works Foundation, through a seed grant, helped create the Market Street Restoration Agency; it would become the model for countless restoration programs. Still funded entirely by Corning Inc., it offers free design services to any Market Street business that wants to renovate. Almost all of them have.

Market Street today, rather than being frozen in one era, presents a mélange of periods, from the Victorian Ice Cream Works to the volcanic rock-faced 1960s YMCA. As the city’s idealized epicenter, the street is the locus for several community events throughout the year, including a jazz festival, a farmer’s market, and, as part of “A Crystal City Christmas,” a gingerbread walk. This last is perhaps the most appropriate, because Market Street—and Corning as a whole —is a gingerbread village year-round, sweet, fanciful, and contrived. Everything not quaint is hidden from sight: Even as it offers full views of not one but five factories, it maintains a surreal picturesqueness.

Just twenty-six miles from the street where Corning has stopped time, Hammondsport’s Curtiss Museum commemorates the man who propelled New York—and the nation—into the speed-hungry, aviation-mad twentieth century. Glenn Curtiss first won fame as a motorcycle man. The bike-shop owner created his first motorcycle by fastening a single-cylinder engine- with a carburetor fashioned from a tomato can—to one of his bicycles. By 1907 he was being called the fastest man on earth, having gunned his forty-horsepower V-8 motorcycle 136.3 miles per hour down a Florida beach.

His motorcycles are the first exhibit in the Curtiss Museum. Really bicycles with engines where the pedals should be, they resemble the steroidal motorcycles of today about as much as Curtiss’s diaphanous June Bug resembles a DC-10. The museum’s reproduction of the 1908 plane looks like a glorified kite strung together with wire and bamboo, but the June Bug nonetheless took Curtiss almost two kilometers through the air in the firstever preannounced, officially observed flight. The plane was a result of Curtiss’s membership in the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), a five-man group assembled by an aging Alexander Graham Bell.

The AEA had moved headquarters the previous winter from Bell’s summer home in Nova Scotia to Curtiss’s hometown, Hammondsport, on the southern tip of Keuka Lake. It was an astute decision. The same air currents that waft off the Finger Lakes to nurture grapes also buoyed flying machines (and hang gliders today). Curtiss’s feat with the June Bug provided grist for the area’s penchant for handing itself prestigious titles; it is not only the Wine Capital of America, the Crystal City, and the Soaring Capital of America, but also the Cradle of Aviation, a title that has proved problematic.

The June Bug first flew four and a half years after two other bike-shop owners, the Wright brothers, had quietly made their initial powered flights at Kitty Hawk. But most Americans thought of Curtiss as the first in the air: He reveled in his ever-growing publicity while the Wright brothers remained taciturn about their achievements until it was too late. The Curtiss Museum alludes to, but plays down, the trouble that followed. In 1909 the Wrights filed a patent suit against Curtiss, kicking off eight years of countercharges, injunctions, and appeals. Both parties were too stubborn to settle, and while they squabbled, aviation progress ground to a halt. Upon the United States’s entry into World War I, however, the government imposed a patent pool on all industry members, effectively ending the dispute.

The museum keeps a spot for Curtiss’s once-ubiquitous Jenny, the plane in whose open cockpit many World War I pilots and 1920s barnstormers learned to fly. Visitors to the museum can also explore a restoration shop and peer into work being done on old aircraft; with its wrenches and pliers hanging on the wall, the operation feels like the Hammondsport shop must have when a man with a grade school education tinkered his way into technological history.

In 1948, following in Curtiss’s speeddemon footsteps, a Cornell law student named Cameron Argetsinger got the blessing of both the Chamber of Commerce of Watkins Glen, a hamlet on the southern shore of Seneca Lake, and the Sports Car Club of America to hold a road race. Nearly ten thousand locals thronged a 6.6-mile course that October to watch Argetsinger reintroduce auto racing to postwar America. Travelers can still follow the winding course on which those early drivers competed over Watkins Glen’s verdant dips, bends, and curves.