'The Gilded Age' of Dansville: Red Cross landmark becomes key plot point in HBO series

Neal Simon
The Evening Tribune

In “The Gilded Age,” the buzz-worthy series streaming on HBO this season, the gowns are opulent. The mansions are ornate. The class divisions are stark. And the history is — sort of — accurate, at least when it comes to Dansville, the Livingston County community that is the birthplace of the American Red Cross.

A key plot line in the show involves Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. In the series, set in the late 1800s, wealthy donor Bertha Russell, wife of a fictional robber baron railroad tycoon, sponsors three Red Cross chapters in an effort to ingratiate herself with “old money” New York City society.

In episode five, titled "Charity Has Two Functions," Russell and other characters travel to Dansville for an event at which Barton thanks Russell for funding the new chapters.

Actors Amy Forsyth (as Caroline “Carrie” Astor), left, Ashlie Atkinson (Mamie Fish) and Harry Richardson (Larry Russell) stroll across the lawn of The Ledges in Newport in the HBO drama "The Gilded Age."

Dansville scenes shot in Rhode Island

Southern Tier viewers of “The Gilded Age” won’t recognize any authentic Dansville landmarks. Many scenes of the series were shot in Newport, Rhode Island, including the Dansville action, which was filmed on School Street in Newport. The early saltbox style New England architecture in the background of the Red Cross scene would certainly look out of place in Southern Tier communities.

Newport also serves as the background for the series’ settings in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and for the summer homes of the wealthy.

Dansville Mayor Peter R. Vogt chuckled about the City-By-The-Sea serving as stand-in for his hometown, offering, “I guess it would have to be the buildings [that] capture that age.”

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Vogt's great-great grandmother, Agnes Allen, was a charter member of the original Dansville chapter of the American Red Cross, as was her husband, Samuel Allen. Despite those family connections, Vogt was not aware of the series or its Dansville story line until a reporter brought it to his attention.

“Now that I have heard about it, it has piqued my interest,” he said. “Anything that puts us on the map, as it were, is certainly a good thing and a noteworthy event. Dansville does have a special place in Clara Barton’s life."

All that glitters: Examining 'The Gilded Age'

The series, created by Julian Fellowes of "Downton Abbey" fame, blends real people and fictional characters depicting life during the “Gilded Age,” the period of prosperity and materialism from the 1870s to the 1890s.

This March 26, 2019 photo shows Julian Fellowes posing for a portrait in New York.  The "Downton Abbey" creator is the producer of "The Gilded Age," which streams on HBO and HBO MAX. (Photo by Brian Ach/Invision/AP)

The phrase comes from the 1873 satirical novel “The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today” by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. The title mocks the superficial splendor that disguised the rampant social and political corruption of the era.

The show continues this dual theme in the Barton episode. “Old money” New Yorker Agnes van Rhijn explains to her niece that “charity has two functions.” The first is to help the poor. The second is “to provide a ladder for people to climb into society who do not belong there.”

Barton's journey to Dansville

According to an official biography on the American Red Cross’s website and a local history page on the Dansville Public Library website, Clarissa Harlowe Barton, a New England native, began her legacy of volunteer service during the Civil War when federal troops arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1861.

Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.

According to the Red Cross, “Barton perceived an immediate need in all this chaos for providing personal assistance to the men in uniform, some of whom were already wounded, many hungry, and some without bedding or any clothing except what they had on their backs."

Barton started by taking supplies to the soldiers, then appealed to the army to allow her to bring medical supplies to battlefields. A surgeon reported, “‘I thought that night if heaven ever sent out (an) . . . angel, she must be one — her assistance was so timely.’”

Barton became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” a term used in the HBO series.

Following the Civil War, Barton toured the country, raising money to locate missing prisoners of war. The Dansville Library reports that Barton lectured in Dansville in 1866, a fact Barton noted in her diary, describing “an eight hour journey from Rochester to Dansville by way of Avon and Wayland; a distance of 45 miles by train and coach. That evening, Clara noted the particulars of the event as follows: ‘…Went to lecture at 7 1/2. Hall seated 400, about full, pleasant audience. Received 50 dollars. Came home and retired at 11.’”

During this time, Barton also traveled through Europe. She was inspired by the work of Swiss humanitarians who achieved the International Red Cross Treaty “to protect the sick and wounded during wartime without respect to nationality and for the formation of national societies to give aid voluntarily on a neutral basis,” according to the Red Cross website.

Barton returns to Dansville

As Barton lobbied a succession of presidents — Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield and Chester Arthur — to approve an American Red Cross, exhaustion led her back to Dansville. The Dansville Library reports, “In 1873, Clara returned to America once again exhausted and in need of rest. She was encouraged by friends to seek the care of Dr. James Caleb Jackson, founder of Our Home On the Hillside, in Dansville, New York, a renowned water cure and health institute.”

The Dansville Library said Barton often returned to Dansville between 1876 and 1886, “and so it was that even before the United States Congress could ratify the articles of the Red Cross treaty, Clara’s friends and neighbors in Dansville, anxious to honor her in a special way, established the first local society of the American Red Cross, August 22, 1881.”

In the episode, Mrs. Russell asks, "Why did (Barton) choose Dansville?"

"I think Dansville chose her," a Barton confidant replies.

The Dansville Red Cross chapter was needed immediately. According to the library, “The first three fledgling Red Cross groups at Dansville, Rochester and Syracuse were not one month old when they were called to action. Five thousand people were left homeless by a forest fire which destroyed hundreds of acres of farmland in eastern Michigan. The Red Cross flag made its first appearance here in Dansville at this time when the residents of the small community collected $300 for the relief of the Michigan fire victims.”

From left, Allen Turner, Peter Vogt, James Love and Barry Haywood in front of the Clara Barton chapter of the American Red Cross.

The HBO show includes a Barton-led tour of the Dansville Red Cross site and the treatment of local fictional fire victims that makes Mrs. Russell blanch at the sight of blood. It also alludes to the compromise that the fictional Clara Barton may have made in order to secure donors. Barton, played by actress Linda Emond, acknowledges the compromise.

“Before you think me a simpleton, I am well aware that Mrs. Russell is using the charity ladder to climb into the ballrooms of New York. I can still be grateful she chose my charity to be that ladder.”

"The Gilded Age" airs on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max, both of which require a subscription.

The nine-episode series runs through March 21.

Madonna Figura Simon contributed to this story.

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