“No Place Like Home” (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.

Laura Rice is Professor Emerita in the School of Writing, Literature and Film at Oregon State University. Specializing in comparative literature, literary translation, and sustainable development, she has written widely on Colonial and Postcolonial literatures, Cultural Studies, and Gender in international context. Her books include Revolutions in Tunisian Poetry, co-edited and co-translated with Karim Hamdy, and Of Irony and Empire: Islam, the West, and the Transcultural Invention of Africa. As Principal Investigator, she designed and conducted federally-funded research and development and academic exchange projects on the MENA region, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright, US Department of Education, and the US Department of State. Her current book project, focusing on Elmira in the last two decades of Twain’s life, brings her research back to the U.S. and to archives concerning her own family.

Professor Rice gave a lecture for CMTS in 2021. You can watch it HERE:

  • Laura Rice, “A Turn of the Century Case of Serendipity: Lawrence Joseph ‘Cooney’ Rice, The Boys of Frog Hollow, and The Youth from Mark Twain’s Charmed Circle” (September 16, 2021 – Chemung County History Museum) Lecture Images

Elmira at the turn of the 20th century was the stomping ground of “Cooney”—the main character in my book project. During my first research visit to the town, in 2016, I was “in search of place lost.” I was trying to discover the story behind a nationally-reported 1905-06 conflict between coach “Pop” Warner of Cornell and my grandfather, Elmira’s Lawrence Joseph “Cooney” Rice, Jr.  A newspaper article in a family scrapbook told one story: “2000 Cornellians give Cooney Rice a standing ovation” (1906).[i] An internet search revealed a different tale, one that had spread from New York City to Omaha to Spokane in the newspapers the previous year (1905): “’Cooney’ Rice, Cornell’s crack second baseman and last year’s varsity halfback . . . dismissed for causing dissensions.” Ovation to dismissal would be a tragic fall—but dismissal to ovation was a conundrum to be solved. Warner later attributed his leaving his job at Cornell to conflict with Cooney Rice, who was, in Warner’s words, “something of a hero in the minds of many.”[ii] I’d known my Grandpa Cooney, but this fellow in his twenties from Elmira, New York, nicknamed “Cooney” (Gaelic for handsome and dashing), on the far right in this 1904 photograph, was a mystery to me.[iii]

I traveled to Elmira to discover places Cooney Rice had called home well into his twenties.  Max Eastman, Cooney’s schoolmate at Mercersburg Academy at the turn-of-the-century, had described “Mark Twain’s Elmira.” He argued that “the extraordinary cultural situation into which Mark Twain arrived by marriage in 1869 . . . was substantially unchanged when I came there twenty-five years later.”[iv] Thanks to the Center for Mark Twain Studies, the Park Church and its archives, the Chemung County Historical Society and Museum, and most preciously Quarry Farm, that spirit continues on today.

The material urban space was a different story. A specialist in Comparative Literature, I’d spent much of my career in North Africa where the climate preserves layers of civilization, a Roman aqueduct cheek-by-jowl with a neighborhood mosque, a French colonial building, or contemporary university classroom. Elmira, on the other hand, had a river unpredictably and periodically in spate, and a railroad economy of boom and bust. When Max Eastman arrived in Elmira in 1894, already one quarter of the railroads were bankrupt. When I arrived in 2016, finding Cooney’s Elmira as a physical space was no easy task. Cooney’s house at 765 E. Water Street was gone, and the clues to his story—the Father Mathew Clubhouse, Langdon house, Langwell Hotel, Wyckoff House, and Fennell’s Commercial Hotel—all gone. The turn-of-the-century stores and businesses on the south side of E. Water Street, vanished.

In Twain’s letters describing his study at Quarry Farm, I found some of the natural ambience of Elmira at the time: “[It] commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant hills. It is a cozy nest . . . and when the storms sweep down the remote valley and the [lightning] flashes above the hills beyond, and the rain beats on the roof over my head, imagine the luxury of it! It stands 500 feet above the valley and 2 1/2 miles from it.”[v] Threaded through the stories Twain wrote at Quarry Farm were descriptions of the Chemung River below, transposed onto the Mississippi, his descriptions in letters transposed into Huck Finn’s narration: “Once or twice each night, we’d see a Steamboat slipping along in the dark. And every now and again, she’d belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimney. And they would rain down in the river. And look awful pretty.”[vi] I had imagined that Twain’s hilltop aerie overlooked the place Cooney Rice called home, and the bend in the river nearby. A visit to Quarry Farm, and a Van Aken photograph Twain sent to John Brown in 1874, confirmed the fact.

In September 2021 I was privileged to spend two weeks at Quarry Farm. There, I found myself choosing to read and write in the dormer, above the famous covered porch, which looks out over Elmira much as Twain’s study did. In The Power of Place, architect Delores Hayden begins with a warning: “‘Place’ is one of the trickiest words in the English language, a suitcase so overfilled one can never shut the lid. It carries the resonance of homestead, location, and open space in the city as well as a position in a social hierarchy (15).”[vii] Seen from the dormer, the persistent morning fog blanketing Cooney Rice’s home down by Frog Hollow was just a distant cloud below the clear skies of Quarry Farm.

Once Susan Crane’s house, Quarry Farm was a lesson in the composition of place. Upstairs was a disorienting rabbit warren of rooms—various hallways, a mysterious staircase around the bend in the Scholar’s Lounge , the door to caretaker’s apartment you’d have sworn was downstairs, deceptively uniform bookcases filled with a riot of ideas, scads of orphan chairs, the multiple doors of the Scholar’s Workroom, as shown in the QuarryFarm 360 video.[viii]

Like the early drafts I’d written about Cooney Rice and Elmira, it was a place where one struggled to make connections, enjoyed sudden insights and fought multiple distractions.

Early versions of my nonfiction account of Cooney Rice’s story were pieced together bit by bit, from stories in the local Elmira and Ithaca newspapers, the expanding catalogue of friends and mentors, the sweep of history across the region, the patterns of immigration, and the tutelary spirits of Elmira at the time, Rev. Tom Beecher, Fenian T. McCarthy Fennell, and of course, Mark Twain. The biographical mushroomed into the ethnographical. There were friends—Ross Marvin, the arctic explorer; Frank Tripp, the reporter; Dode Birmingham, the ball-player, among many others. There were peers: writer Max Eastman, Barry Sayles who became the second Jervis Langdon’s brother-in-law, Jay Slee, son of Twain’s close friend and business partner of Livy’s father. There were mentors such as Tommy Fennell, Elmira’s City Attorney and later First Deputy Secretary of State for NY, and John Murtaugh, who became a NY state senator. There were friends of Pop Warner who unwittingly played a role, such as Frank Gannett, founder of the media empire.

Downstairs at Quarry Farm, the main rooms of Susan Crane’s home flowed into one another like communicating vases. In revising the narrative of Cooney Rice and what Max Eastman thought of as “Mark Twain’s Elmira,” I am trying to move the form from upstairs at Quarry Farm to downstairs. The rooms downstairs also dialogued with the space outside. Having the opportunity to stay at Quarry Farm allowed me to retrace the path Twain took down Old Water Cure Hill road, and to understand why he might often stop by Tom Beecher’s Wig-Wag Cottage on his way to do “banking” in town.

In my earlier research, I had become acquainted with many Elmirans, but most of them would be well over a hundred and twenty years old now. The fellowship at Quarry Farm allowed me to interact with Elmiran cousins I hadn’t known existed, meet the scholar and musician Joe Lemak and Steve Webb, caretaker and musician extraordinaire, talk with archivist Rachel Dworkin, education director Susan Zehnder, and curator Erin Doane of the Historical Society, see the Twain Archives with help from Laura Kane and Katy Galvin, and hear Reverend Gary Brinn’s sermon at Park Church (demonstrating that Tom Beecher’s spirit is still afoot), and visit the church archive with Jenny Monroe.

Whatever may have disappeared over time, it is easy to understand why Twain considered Quarry Farm his home away from home. During his last visit to Quarry Farm in June and July 1903, Twain, a baseball aficionado, would have read in the local papers about the red hot Father Mathew semi-pro ball team, captained by Cooney Rice. It drew large crowds to the Maple Avenue Driving Park(Dunn Field), which Twain could probably see across the river from his study. In Twain’s old haunt, I didn’t find evidence yet about whether he watched a game that year. But in Elmira and at Quarry Farm, thanks to the Langdons and the Center for Mark Twain Studies, the spirit of history and a sense of place is vibrantly present.

[i] “Rice Cheered,” Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, February 16, 1906.

[ii] Glenn S. “Pop” Warner, “My Forty Years in Football,” Chapter No. 26, Pittsburgh Press, January 3, 1928.

[iii] W. S. Shoemaker, “The New Era of Football at Cornell,” Illustrated Sporting News, 79 (1904): 14-17.

[iv] Max Eastman, “Mark Twain’s Elmira,” Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 176 (1938): 120-32.

[v] Letter to Joseph Twichell, June 11, 1874.

[vi] Tom Vitale, “Twain’s Summer Home: Visiting Elmira, N.Y.,” All Things Considered, NPR, November 30, 2010.

[vii] Delores Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.

[viii] “A Virtual Tour of Quarry Farm” by David Coleman, Small Town 360, Center for Mark Twain Studies. https://marktwainstudies.com/online-resources/quarry-farm-virtual-tour/