The History of New York State
Book IX, Chapter VI

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam




On April 8, 1808, four and a half townships were taken from the county of Onondaga, erected as the new county of Cortland. The name was derived from that of the first Lieutenant-Governor of the State, General Pierre Van Courtlandt. The boundaries of the new county differed little form those of the present which are: On the north by Onondaga County; on the east by Madison and Chenango; on the south by Broome and Tioga; and on the west by Tompkins and Cayuga. It is about 26 miles in extent from north to south and so from east to west, having an area of 485 square miles.

The surface of the county is made up of hilly ranges, broad, level plains, and an elevated plateau in the northern section with a ridge on the extreme north side which is he dividing point of the waters which flow to Lake Ontario and those who go to join the Susquehanna River. the highest peak in the county is Mt. Topping. The Truxton and Owego hills average about 2,000 feet above sea level, and the plateau about a thousand feet. less. There is much good arable land in Cortland, with the more fertile, and first used, soils lying in the valleys. After the great forests of hardwoods a had been reduced, farming became the great industry and still stands at the head of the occupations of the county. The Tioughnioga is the main streams of the district, being the entry way in the early days and the main highway over which the products of the land were exported and the need supplies brought in. As early as 1814 it was established by the Legislature as a public highway. To its waters came the settlers from all around, and scows and boats were loaded at Port Watson (now in the village of Cortland) and floated down the Chenango, thence to the Susquehanna to the Pennsylvania ports on this stream. The Indian seems to have loved the Tioughnioga, but for its fish and cane waters, rather than for a home. Perhaps this was because the two tribes in this region could not trust each other. Tradition has it that the Lenapes had a tone on the river near the present site of Homer, which was destroyed by the tricky Mingoes. The lakes, the Otselic Valley, the little streams which are found in all parts of Cortland not only drew the pioneer, but in these later days have attracted the summer visitor and the region is full of hotels and country homes of those who make the county their annual vacation place.

The settlement of Cortland County was relatively late, for there were no permanent residents before 1791. Joseph Beebe, his wife, and Amos Todd, his brother, built the first homes on the Tioughnioga in that year just north of Homer. The streams farther south had many small settlements by this time, but once a knowledge of t his up-river section became wide spread among the incoming immigrants, the increase of settlers was rapid. John Miller came to the site of the city of Cortland the next year; Joseph Chaplin to Marathon in the same year, in 1792, Thaddeus Rockwell in 1793. By 1797 there were more than a hundred people in the valley and by 1810 the population of the town of Homer was given as just short of three thousand.

Growth was manifested in other lines. In 1798 the first school was opened with Joshua Ballad as teacher, this school to be promptly followed by others in other sections. In Homer, in 1801, two church organizations were formed; there had been religious services held since 1794. A medical society was created in 1808. Meanwhile industries were being established, a gristmill in 1798 being the first, but a sawmill soon followed. Maple sugar, whiskey, gypsum, potash were some of the industrial products shipped from the county before there was one.

Cortland county was erected in 1808, and the organization perfected that summer. In 1810 came the fight for the honor of being appointed the shiretown, with the village of Cortland the winner. Ephraim Fish represented the county as its first member of the Assembly. John Keep held the first court. The first county buildings was erected on Court House hill, a wooden structure with a steeple. The year was 1812 and the cost $1,600. The county was putting off its swaddling clothes and taking on the airs of a precocious child. It had arrived.

The War of 1812 had the same retarding effect upon the expansion of this district that it had on all the up-State counties of that day. Cortland ceased playing the child and became a mature man. There was little real set back but it was a period of settling down and finding itself. During this time a jail was built (1818) and a county clerk's office erected. Road conditions were improved. The old State road of 1794 passed through the towns of Willet, Virgil and Marathon, to which was joined Cortland town in 1806. Then followed a decade of turnpikes with stage routes established between the larger places. The Cortland to Syracuse stage road finished in 1850, had passenger coaches on it which would take on from one place to the other in six hours. New industries came to the county in these years. In 1815 the first practical nail making machinery in the State was installed by William smith in the rear of his sawmill. This was a self feeding device that received the metal at one side and turned out perfect cut nails, all marked with an S, at the other. Sheep had been brought to the region and wool carding and weaving (knitting) had come into use in 1824. Paper mills were started about the same time; pottery in 1829, of clay brought from New Jersey, by way of the rivers. An agricultural implement factory was established in 1832. Nearly all of these developments we in the towns of Cortland and Homer.

A great impetus was given to the industrial life and growth of the county by the establishment of new and better systems of transportation. The turnpike had, in a measure, displaced the Tioughnioga, and the river had been abandoned as a freight highway. The opening of the Erie Canal to the north in 1829 hindered rather then helped Cortland, but the railroad in 1854, the Binghampton, Cortland and Syracuse, was medium of enlarged opportunity and growth. Other railroads soon followed, giving greater ease of access to the inhabitants of the outer regions, as well as to those within the snug county to wider markets. Until the railroad period, the growth within Cortland had been of the slow establishment of clearing lands, starting industries, creation of schools and churches, in other works, the establishment of the foundations on which might safely be built the future prosperity. When the railroad came Cortland saw the most phenomenal expansion, in all respects of its history.

The story of Cortland County now naturally becomes the tale of the various towns. Some of these developed certain lines, others went their way in radically different directions. Agriculture remained the great occupation of the county, but manufacturing plants multiplied, and some of their products made the county famous. Dairying gradually took the place of grain farming; horticulture became of increasing importance, and the day of the motor car and truck is creating other changes in the life of the county.

One place has outrun others, in many respect, the shire city and largest borough, Cortland City. The natural surroundings are hers, for it would be hard to find a spot more fitted to the growth of a city than the elevated plain at the confluence of seven valleys, with the beautiful Tioughnioga River flowing through its borders. The Indians called this stream the "Bank of the Flowers." The city is about equidistant from Binghamton and Syracuse; the trading place for a large and rich agricultural district. Five lines of rails lead through as many of its seven valleys. It was wisely laid out in the beginning with broad streets which are paved and kept in shape, and the city is proud of the completeness of its utilities and conveniences. In the day of the horse drawn vehicle, Cortland was known as the "Carriage City," and while it still continues to be a leader in the production of the many things that go to make up a wagon or carriage, the entrance of the automobile has changed the direction of this industry, and it is making the parts of the motor cars.

The village of Cortland was incorporated November 5, 1853, with a population of about 1,500. By the time of the new special charter of 1864 there had been an increase in numbers of only 500. In 1876 the figures were nearly 3,500; in 1882, 6,000; and in 1920, 13,294.

The city of Cortland received its charter on March 16, 1900, under the signature of Governor Theodore Roosevelt. Its present industries are carried on by some 65 factories, many of which are the expanded establishments of long funded firms. The wire and wire cloth business started in 1873, has become probably the oldest and strongest industry in the county. The carriage and wagon factories already mentioned largely began after the Civil War, but made the name of Cortland known throughout the United States. It specializes in wagon and automobile parts today. Other important products of the city are: Iron forgings, wall paper, furniture, corsets, abrasive wheels and know goods of many sorts. Motor trucks are turned out by one company, and dairy supplies as well as the milk products make up a good part of the factory life of the municipality.

Cortlandville town was organized in 1829, being formed from the southern half of Homer. It is the district immediately surrounding the city, and has not changed its boundaries since 1845, when additions were made to it from the town of Virgil. John Miller was the first settler (1792) and the first school was started three years later. The town is so admirably located, scenically, among the hills, and agriculturally with its fertile valleys, and so associated with the metropolis and court city of Cortland that it has always stood with the leaders in the county. It has a population aside from the city, in 1920 of 3,237.

The largest town, from the standpoint of population and the original town in many ways, is Homer, which included Cortlandville until 1829. It was erected March 5, 1794, when a part of Onondaga County. The first settlers were Amos Todd and Joseph Beebe who came in 1791. The earliest school in this section was opened in 1798. It is a noted dairy town although the soil is adapted to nearly all the crops which can be grown in this part of the State. The village Homer is the mercantile center of this agricultural area and shipping point and factory district. The latter has eighteen concerns making carriages and their parts, bottled milk, fishing tackle, shirts and other article of wearing apparel. Population, in 1920, town 3,554; village, 2,363.

McGrawville, or McGraw, as the postal authorities insisted on naming it in 1898, is a thriving community five mile east of Cortland. The corporate limits of the village do not include all its residents, so that it is known by the longer name, which was derived from Samuel McGraw who migrated to the locality in 1803. Besides being the home of many retired farmers, it has a factory quarter which produces, among things, corsets, and their laces, and paper boxes. It is probably best known through the State as the former home of Daniel Lamont, the former Secretary of War. Blodgett Mills, two and a half miles southeast of Cortland was founded in 1804, and South Cortland, are pleasant hamlets.

Marathon town was formed from Cincinnatus in 1818. It was first called Harrison in honor of General Harrison, but because there were other towns of the same title, it was change to its present form in 1828. It is a dairy district with quite a number of fruit trees grown. Industrially it manufactures road machinery and leather, the latter being found in the village of the same name.

The town of Preble was taken from the military township of Tully on April 8, 1808. The name came from Commodore Preble. It was settled by James Cravath and John Gill in 1796, and evidently others came promptly for there as a school there in 1801. The population in 1920 was 678.

Scott, named in honor of General Scott, was formed from Preble April 14, 1815. Peleg Babcock and his brother Howard were the pioneers, coming in 1799. It is one of the more isolated sections, having good farming land, but only in recent years appreciated at its worth. Population, 645.

Solon is another interior town whose progress has be delayed by the lack of transportation. The motor truck is changing this condition, and a new census is expected to show an increase over its 1920 population, of 498.

Freetown is a third of these interior areas, no longer isolated. Cyrus Sanders, the first settler, must have been a brave man to thrust his way into the wilderness of trees which was the section now known as Freetown. The forest is, for the most part, gone and in its place are the dairy farms as its successor. The population in 1920 was 485.

Taylor, settled by Ezra Rockwell and his son, who came from Lenox, Massachusetts, in 1793, is now a dairy and general farming section. Its civil erection was not until December 5, 1849, when it was taken from Solon. Population, 1920, 647.

Truxton, named after the commodore of that title, was formed from Fabius on April 1808. Samuel C. Benedict was the first to build his home in this district, 1793, and by him was the first school of Truxton founded. The area was one of fine hardwood timber, which led to its early industries, being those connected with wood working. There is no longer timber to supply this industry, but furniture is still one of the principal articles manufactured in the village of Truxton. Population, 1920, 920.

Cuyler, erected November 18, 1858, settled in 1794; Harford and Lapeer, originally parts of the township Virgil, the former settled by De Wolf in 1803, and the latter by a colored man, Primus Grant in 1799, are all three agricultural towns, with dairying as the principal kind of farming. Most of the milk produced is sent by motor truck to the larger cities.

Willett is in the southeast corner of the county, has an acreage of nearly 16,00, the most of which is under farm fence. Horticulture has been given a great deal of attention in recent years. The first settlement was made in 1797. Population (1920), 592.

Cincinnatus, although the earliest settlement was started by Thaddeus Rockwell in 1793, was somewhat neglected by the pioneers of that day, as too rugged and not suited for farms. It was off the beaten track, so that not until after the Civil War was there any marked increase in its population. Located in the Otselic Valley, it is now one of the most productive sections in the county. The village of the same name is the mercantile and industrial center. Population, 1920, 941.

Virgil was originally a large section of the county but lost most of its area to form Harford and Lapeer. Joseph Chaplin was the first settler (1792). Population, 1920, 1,065.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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