The Stationmaster’s Unspeakable Hobby: An Interview With Alternative Historians Brody Burroughs and Kurt Piller

By Dara Engler

Station 923, the long-abandoned dwelling and workshop of Ithaca’s last light-rail stationmaster, has been revived and is open to visitors!  Join us for the site’s opening reception on Friday, October 26th, from 5-9pm.  I had the chance to preview the exhibit before its unveiling.

Stepping through the stationmaster’s doorway was like falling through a rabbit hole into another world, operating within alternate laws of time and space.  Upon crossing the threshold, my senses – visual, olfactory and auditory – were met with the foreign, yet oddly familiar sensations of an untold story.  I immediately found myself uncomfortable and claustrophobic, enveloped in the very private life of a mysterious stranger.  The experience left me with the combined intrigue and guilt you would expect to accompany this sort of historical voyeurism.  Left with numerous questions, I had the opportunity to sit with the curators of the space, zealous alternative historians, Brody Burroughs and Kurt Piller.

E: How did you become involved in this project?

B: In 1987, after a previous owner purchased this abandoned property and began exhuming the ramshackle buildings therein, our New York State office of the Alternative Historical Preservation Society was called upon to document, catalogue and acquire all artifacts on site for posterity. You see, as local alternative historians (we contract independently through the statewide office in Utica), the contents of this chamber were of particular interest to us, and as we researched archive and artifact, it became clear that the dwelling and doings of this mysterious mind yearned to see the light of day.

P: …Right, and so, for the past six years, we gathered from storage every artifact – every button, bone, surgical instrument and shard of glass curated in the exhibition you see here – which we took on a highly acclaimed tour of North America, finally coming to rest here, precisely in its original location. Thus ends a fateful journey.

E: As alternative historians, what are your roles and responsibilities in a project such as The Stationmaster’s?

B: The Alternative Historians’ creed is thricefold: “Preservation, Presentation and Prevention.”

P: Actually it’s “Precision.” “Preservation, Presentation and Precision.” Our greatest responsibility is to historical truth and accuracy. And if not accuracy, then at least precision.

B: And if not precision then at least plausibility. Also, these items are on loan from our state archive, and we assume they will want them back eventually, so please do not touch anything.

P: Especially if you’re not current with your tetanus shots.

E: In your professional opinions, is this site – and the artifacts within it – relevant to American history?

B. Well, considering how many of this country’s religions began in Upstate New York, it goes without saying.

P: Yeah, this area is a veritable fool’s goldmine of historical pseudo-scientific and quasi-religious precedents, starting with the nation’s earliest recorded sightings of the Cortland Skunk Ape and “Old Greeny” the Lake Cayuga Leviathan. This area has witnessed the Angelic Visitation that sealed the fate of the Donner Party, and the pious mania of Biblical Literalism that made the Cardiff Giant and the Manlius Midget the premier tourist destinations of Upstate New York, second only to Niagara Falls and Howe Caverns of course. They made Syracuse the city it is today. Believe me, Jersey and Rhode Island would kill for our historical significance.

E: In the course of your research about the station and its inhabitant, which findings have you found most surprising?

B: Some of the most intriguing are the latest developments, brought to light by Carol Kammen’s research and column (E’s note: Pieces of the Past, Ithaca Journal, Saturday, October 20, 2012, page 4A) on nineteenth century Ithacan and “Scripture Madman” Alson Dean and his Museum of Wonders. This fellow created a Leviathan, Man-Beasts which P.T. Barnum eventually presented as Gods Worshipped by the Natives of Timbucktoo, and even sculpted Satan himself! She writes… I have it here actually… uh, “He disappears from the local record by 1900. I wonder if any of his creations might still be around?” Well, not only do we believe that some of Alson Dean’s creations may well be in this very exhibit, but we are also beginning to unravel the thread between Dean and our Last Stationmaster, or whoever the final occupant of this room may have been. Whether it is a lineage of blood relation, apprenticeship, or indentured servitude remains to be determined.

P: I personally was most surprised to find that his mother was a one-legged French prostitute named Madeline. It’s details like that that really help us connect with the past.

B: Precisely! Which is why presentation is so important. It’s how we all piece the past together, so to speak.

E: What, have you determined, was the stationmaster’s hobby?

P: It would be unprofessional for us, as professionals, or amateurs, to speculate without further input from historians and qualified medical personnel. As to whether this “hobby” was a viable business venture or the symptoms of an undiagnosed mental illness, or both… who knows? I’m not a doctor, yet there is no doubt in my mind that this man loved animals. And needles.

B: And was a devout Catholic. Clearly what you see here could only be the passion of a unique and solitary individual, who spent the entirety of his days focused on this, and nothing more. Unless of course he had a regular day job, too.

E: What are the moral implications of making public, the private space of this past occupant?

B: Well, that’s an interesting notion… but come on, we all have bills to pay. And really, its a victi-

P: What I think we are saying is that, because the exact identity of the Last Stationmaster, or whomever last inhabited this room- and we have our theories – but since the precise identity remains unknown, there is really no need to confront this question, and no way any legal claims could be made. And it’s not slander if it’s accurate, merely defamation of character. Legally speaking. Not morally, of course, but our scruples are sound.

E: Legality and morality aside, do you ever feel as if you are unearthing someone’s last resting place?

B: As far as we know, he’s not actually here in the exhibit… though we certainly do not know what became of him, and this is the original site, so anything’s possible… anyway, I think I know what you’re getting at. Look, we’re not forcing anyone to go in there. That’s the decision of the viewer. We learned our lesson in Canada. No kids.

E: Do you have any advice for youth interested in pursuing careers in alternative history?

P: Oh, I say “Go for it!” Look at me!

B: You are limited only by your imaginations.

            For an opportunity to tour The Station Master’s Unspeakable Hobby, you may attend the opening reception on October 26th from 5-9pm at station923, located at 923 East Shore Drive; Ithaca, NY.  Additionally, the installation will be on view through November 15th, by appointment:

image by Rotem Rozental

About station923

Located in Ithaca, NY, Project Space 923 is an alternative exhibition space committed to the uncompromising presentation of contemporary art. Our goal is to offer a platform for innovative and audience-engaging forms of practice in a community with few such venues, as well as to involve the contemporary art dialogue on a regional, national and global level. View all posts by station923

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