“A Feeble Salute to Mark Twain” (A Quarry Farm Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows and Residents, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information HERE.

Steve Jordan is a retired preservation specialist who restored old and historic windows in Rochester, New York. He grew up in west Tennessee, graduated from Memphis State University, Cornell’s graduate program in Historic Preservation, and has worked in the building trades since he was a young boy. He was the rehab advisor for the Landmark Society of Western New York for six years, an architectural conservator for Bero Architecture for four years, and a contributing editor for Old-House Journal from 1998 through 2015. Steve is author of the award winning Rehab Rochester: A Sensible Guide for Old-House Maintenance, Repair, and Rehabilitation (Landmark Society of Western New York, 1995) and co-author of Painting Kitchens – How to Choose and Use the Right Paint . . .  (Quarry Books, Gloucester, MA, 2004). He is also author of The Window Sash Bible (Create Space, 2015) and Storm Windows: A Comprehensive Guide to Wood, Aluminum, and Interior Storm Windows (Self Published, 2021). He is introducing a new book, Glazing and Replacing Glass on Traditional Wood Windows, the spring 2023. Steve is currently working on a book about the use and spread of sprung dance floors in early and twentieth-century America and a second edition of Rehab Rochester.

Steve Jordan restored the bay windows of Quarry Farm parlor in 2022. In 2023, he is scheduled to restore the windows of the Mark Twain Study, now located on the Elmira College campus, as CMTS prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Mark Twain Study in 2024.

He is the owner of Pain in The Glass, a business focusing on window repair and restoration in Rochester, NY.

The Bay Windows in the Quarry Farm Parlor

I am the guest of the historic Quarry Farm writer’s retreat tonight and tomorrow, where Mark Twain wrote several of his books and where I restored windows last year. A tad uneasy about being here, I am reminded of President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after he took office. I’m sure he was embarrassed at being honored for doing nothing and that’s sort-of how I feel, a bit embarrassed; thankfully I did a good job on those windows. Make no mistake, I am aware the drivel I write is of no consequence and pretty much realize they threw this aging dog a bone. Still, I am here and owe gratitude to Elise Johnson-Schmidt for recommending me and Joseph Lemak for inviting me. I will try to use my time wisely – writing the best drivel I can churn out.

View from the Quarry Farm Porch

As I once heard a character unaccustomed to nice hotels in a 1930s gangster movie state, “This is a swanky dump.” I was greeted by the caretaker, shown my room and told I would not be disturbed. Don’t misunderstand me; this is a very nice home and I have it all to myself. The small table Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn on is in the parlor; maybe I should sit down to its lofty surface for my evening’s drivel in effort to coax out Twain’s spirit and inspiration. Look for me on the NY Times Best Seller list soon: “Aging How-To Author and Working Stiff Writes Best-Selling Novel. If you don’t read the Times, catch me on The Johnny Carson Show.

Camp Chemung, a Union Prisoner of War Camp. Barracks #3 was dubbed “Hellmira” by its inmates. The prison detained civilians and military personnel of the Confederate States of America. From July 6, 1864 to July 11, 1865, 2,970 out of over 12,000 prisoners died from harsh weather, malnutrition, disease, and unsanitary living conditions.

My bedroom overlooks Elmira and the Chemung River Valley and just beyond the lovely view once stood the infamous “Hellmira” prison camp where Confederate soldiers were held towards the end of that awful War. Ten Jordans died in that camp and I assume some of them were likely related to me. I visited the local history museum and was disappointed to find that they don’t interpret the prison camp at all; I assume it has always been a dark chapter in local history and after all, how many confederates ever visit these climes anyway? I used to defend the south as a cautious apologist but as I was overcome with old-age wisdom, I gave that silly notion up as an idiocy of youth. Still, I mourn for those souls who suffered for their lost cause. But I digress . . .

As I drove down today from Rochester, I ruminated whether to continue on my current writing projects or begin something anew – something else that I probably won’t finish. Maybe I needed some appropriate music to set the mood – classical would be good, maybe a flamboyant waltz directed by Andre Rieu – I see him waving his arms, coattails flapping, and smiling to the audience. I chose the perfect music – Queen’s Greatest Hits, “Can anybody find meeee, somebody to love.” Hey, it’s what I had.

I have a history with Elmira since I’ve worked here off and on for years; it always disappoints. There is a small private college surrounded by neighborhood slums of beautiful but downtrodden housing stock made painfully obvious by an adjacent, expensive, nearly-new collegiate-Gothic dorm. This would be a great community for some of those citified, working from home, young people to move while the housing stock is cheap and opportunities abound. I hear that’s a trend now.

There is some encouraging development downtown but by and large it hasn’t really rebounded from the devastating flood that took out much of the center city in 1972, as if 50 years isn’t long enough. Unfortunately, the flood coincided with urban sprawl and the big box stores, another crushing blow to down towns, both urban and rural, across the nation. But I enjoy visiting; the architecture is great, the drive beautiful, and then there’s the Twain connection, including his wonderful study that was moved from the farm to the college in 1952. I hope to restore those windows this coming summer.

My family asked me what I would work on here. I’m in the middle or near the end of various projects. I decided to avoid my normal grind and return to my Memoirs that have laid fallow for a while. As part of those memoirs, I included a chapter titled, “Assholes I Have Worked For.” That’s heady stuff and I plan to revisit it tomorrow; come to think of it, Twain would probably appreciate it, too. Wish I could join him downtown at his favorite, Klapproth’s Tavern, for a beer or three, cigars, some billiards, his take on the California gold rush, and a salacious discussion of beautiful women. Maybe he’s watching me now.