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Labor and Labor Day in Geneva

September 17th, 2021

By John Marks, Curator of Collections

At the August History Happy Hour at Lake Drum Brewing, I showed some photos of public halls. There was Linden Hall, Dove Hall, and Collins Music Hall; all hosted a variety of gatherings. One attendee told me there was a hall in the Guard Building, originally known as Smith’s Block. I was sure there wasn’t but he punctured my vanity the next day with evidence. It was Federation Hall, which sent me down a rabbit hole of research.

New Year's events at Federation HallI went to nyshistoricnewspapers.org that has Geneva newspapers from the early 1800s to the 1920s. I found articles mentioning that Federation Hall was the meeting place of the Geneva Federation of Labor (GFL), the local branch of the American Federation of Labor. It was used by the general assembly of GFL but also hosted events of member unions.

As I clicked on more articles, I found the names of some of the unions. One article said the Cigar Makers’ Union was the oldest in Geneva. In July 1890, the Iron Moulders’ Union held their own parade through downtown to Pre-Emption Park (where Courtyard Apartments stands), followed by a picnic with contests and prizes.

Around 1900 these professions had local unions: barbers, bartenders, blacksmiths, boilermakers, carpenters, garment workers, malsters, painters, plumbers, polishers and buffers, and steamfitters. These were just the ones I found in a casual search.

Headlines from a newspaper article about Geneva's first labor dayper Article Labor Day In GenevaThe first Labor Day parade in Geneva was in 1897. With music from the Thirty-Fourth Separate Company’s band, union members marched through downtown and ended at Pre-Emption Park. An estimated crowd of 4,500 celebrated at the park and watched a ball game, and bicycle and foot races.

The Geneva Federation of Labor added to its membership, from a handful of unions in 1897 to 15 in 1901. The next year, there were 21 organizations, representing almost a thousand local workers.

Labor Day celebrations grew larger for several years, but the 1903 Geneva Daily Times reported a change. Headlines read, “Labor Day Will Be Quiet Here, Genevans Will Celebrate Elsewhere.” Railroads offered cheap excursion rates that weekend to regional cities and Niagara Falls. Elmira held a large parade gathering in unions from central and southern New York, and northern Pennsylvania. Fifteen bands were scheduled, with trains running from Geneva to Elmira. A few hundred Geneva union members attended.

We have some union materials, mostly 20th century, in our archives, but a complete history of organized labor in Geneva is a much bigger project. We welcome information and photos from individuals or current unions.

Historic Geneva tells the stories of Geneva, New York.  Discover  these stories online and in person through the Geneva History Museum, Rose Hill Mansion, and Johnston House.

One response to “Labor and Labor Day in Geneva”

  1. Pim Larsson-Kovach says:

    Great research John, and very interesting to read about all these unions that existed then.

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