History in Motion as VoteTilla Comes to Town
Story by Anne C. Coon
When the sun comes up on Monday, July 17, excitement will also rise as Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and other historical figures in period dress step aboard a fleet of packet boats in Seneca Falls.
From July 17 through July 21, communities and visitors along the Erie Canal will witness an amazing sight as the boats of VoteTilla move through the water at the 19th-century pace of 5 miles an hour, bringing history and celebration with them. Traveling from Seneca Falls to Rochester, and stopping at towns along the way, VoteTilla is a week-long navigational celebration of the 100th anniversary of woman suffrage in New York State. (Although a contemporary writer might refer to women’s suffrage, the VoteTilla organizers are intentionally using the singular form woman suffrage, just as it was used in 1917.)
Equal parts history, canal theater, and summer fun, the idea for VoteTilla came from the Collections and Education Committee of the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House. First a catchy phrase tossed out while brainstorming, “VoteTilla” rapidly captured the imagination and support of committee members and of Deborah Hughes, president and CEO of the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House. The possibility of using packet boats to focus 21st-century audiences on the incremental progress of woman suffrage – while creating opportunities for communities, historical sites, and local organizations to join in and be part of the fun – gave VoteTilla instant appeal.
“More than any exhibit or event we could have planned, VoteTilla has become a powerful symbol of the cooperation and hard work required to secure the vote for women,” says Deborah Hughes, “and the canal is a natural conduit for bringing people together, sharing ideas, and building enthusiasm.”
The VoteTilla fleet consists of five steel-hull packet boats. Three boats are hosted by the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House. They will be driven by volunteers and offer day trips or weeklong passage for reenactors, historians, guests and a few VIP travelers. Two other vessels will be sponsored and driven by individuals from the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls and the Susan B. Anthony Center of the University of Rochester. Throughout the week, other private boats will join VoteTilla on route, and the Sam Patch replica of an 1800s packet boat from Rochester’s Corn Hill Navigation will jump in for the final stretch from Pittsford to Rochester.
Arranging for the food, costumes and sound equipment needed for five days of travel and programming is a huge task and one that depends almost entirely on countless VoteTilla volunteers. Besides logistics, the planning also involves careful attention to content. From the beginning, the organizers were committed to providing historically-grounded programming every day. Professor Ann Gordon, the leading authority on Susan B. Anthony and editor of the Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, eagerly signed on as week-long Scholar-in-Residence. Other scholars and biographers will be speaking to audiences both on and off the boats throughout the week.
Professor Gordon’s interest in VoteTilla is, first of all, historical. “VoteTilla brings together two very important elements in American history – infrastructure and equal rights,” she explains. “More particularly, the Erie Canal was the highway along which the family of Susan B. Anthony moved west to Rochester in 1845. The trip along the canal will draw attention to local activism in women’s long campaign to win equal political rights.
“As a leader, Susan B. lectured and organized in the towns on this stretch of the canal again and again over half a century,” Gordon continues. “She looked for allies among the men (the voters) and for activists among the women. Eventually, men and women in these towns and others made woman suffrage a reality.”
Another special appeal of VoteTilla that others will surely relate to, she adds, “On a personal note, I grew up singing ‘You’ll always know your neighbor, you’ll always know your pal, if you’ve ever navigated on the Erie Canal.’”
Building a cast of reenactors was one of the first programming challenges. Reenactors of well-known historical figures, as well as reenactors of everyday people in period dress, will appear at every stop. Some will ride on the boats, and others will meet the boats at night. With period costumes and speeches taken directly from historic materials, reenactors will stage dramatic pieces written especially for VoteTilla. By connecting 19th-century reform efforts to contemporary issues and “unfinished business,” these short plays will create a conversation that moves between past and present as easily as costumed reenactors mingle and talk with audience members.
Local towns and villages have stepped up enthusiastically to welcome VoteTilla. Communities along the canal are hanging out bunting, hosting lunches and providing everything from band concerts to their own 19th-century reenactments. Partner organizations, including Bristol Valley Theater, are bringing exciting programs directly to VoteTilla sites. The benefits to communities promise to be significant when visitors linger to explore a new town or take a side trip to one of the many historical houses, museums and suffrage-related sites along the VoteTilla route.
Bruce Schwendy, retired manufacturing engineer from General Motors, and member of the Board of Directors of the Canal Society of New York State, brings navigational and tactical expertise to VoteTilla. Dubbed the “admiral” of the VoteTilla Fleet Committee, Schwendy has planned the VoteTilla route and itinerary, calibrating the timing for departures and arrivals, and reaching out to local officials at each stop. From Schwendy’s perspective as a long-time canal supporter, using the waterway for a celebration of the centennial of woman suffrage in New York State is a perfect convergence of past and present. “These cities and towns were important historically,” he says. “Temperance, abolition, and suffrage reformers all visited these core towns in New York. They followed the route of the canal as they advanced their causes.” What is his biggest challenge, as he schedules the boats’ movement from point to point – including passage through 12 locks on VoteTilla’s 70-mile route? There’s no question, he says, it’s predicting the unpredictable. The other traffic on the canal could affect the passage of the VoteTilla boats. As he says simply, “It’s important to arrive when you say you’ll arrive. That’s the hardest part.”
On Friday, July 21, VoteTilla will arrive at Corn Hill Landing in Rochester. A grand welcome will feature an airplane flying overhead and pulling a VOTES FOR WOMEN banner, much as another plane might have done in 1917. Friday evening, the City of Rochester is hosting a special concert, and a parade on Saturday will be followed by an afternoon of period music, talks on historic figures, and a baseball game with the women’s team from the Genesee Country Village and Museum. When the sun sets on Sunday night, a very full week of VoteTilla will have drawn thousands of New York State residents and visitors to a memorable celebration of woman suffrage and to a greater understanding of the people who fought for suffrage, their words, and their continuing impact today.
VoteTilla is coordinated by the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, in partnership with several private and non-profit organizations and agencies, and made possible by a generous grant through Empire State Development and the New York State Council on the Arts. For more information and updates to the VoteTilla itinerary, go to Votetilla.org.
Anne C. Coon is Professor Emeritus in the College of Liberal Arts at Rochester Institute of Technology. Her co-authored book, Thriving in Retirement: Lessons from Baby Boomer Women, is forthcoming from Praeger in September 2017.
Vote Tilla Dates and Route
For daily programming, go to Votetilla.org
Monday, July 17
10:00 AM Depart Seneca Falls
11:10 AM Exit Lock CS 3,2
12:20 AM Exit Lock CS 1
1:40 PM Exit Lock E 25
3:10 PM Exit Lock E26
3:45 PM Arrive Clyde
Tuesday, July 18
9:00 AM Depart Clyde
11:05 AM Arrive at Lyons
1:45 PM Depart Lyons
2:25 PM Exit Lock E 27
3:05 PM Exit Lock E 28A
4:15 PM Exit Lock E 28B
4:35 PM Arrive Newark
Wednesday, July 19
9:00 AM Depart Newark
10:45 AM Arrive Palmyra
1:00 PM Depart Palmyra
1:55 PM Exit Lock E 29
2:55 PM Arrive Lock E 30
4:30 PM Arrive in Fairport
Thursday, July 20
10:00 AM Depart Fairport
11:35 Arrive Pittsford
Friday, July 21
9:00 AM Depart Pittsford
9:55 AM Arrive Lock E 32
10:40 AM Arrive Lock E 33
11:35 AM Arrive at Genesee River Junction,
1:30 PM Arrive at Corn Hill
Saturday, July 22
Parade and Celebration in Rochester
After 100 Years – It’s Still All About the Vote!
Let’s Come Together to Make Our Vote Count
The Women’s Suffrage Centennial Picnic will take place on Sunday, July 23, from 1 to 5 p.m., on the grounds of The Perkins Mansion, 494 East Avenue, Rochester, with 1917-era picnic food and drinks available for purchase. Activities will include conversations with historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Frederick Douglass in period dress; demonstrations by a Hurdy Gurdy musician and the ringing of the Rochester Remembrance Bell by relatives of suffragists to honor those we do not want forgotten. For information call 585-244-8890