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Early Residents and the Organization of the Town of Homer

The first residents of the valleys and hills carved by the glaciers in Central New York were the Onundagaono members of the Haudenosaunee, or “people of the long house.” They were not unfamiliar with the densely forested hunting land here, where deer, wolves, bears, and panthers were among the denizens of the woods. The first settlers of European descent to arrive in what would become the Township of Homer and the County of Cortland were Joseph and Rhoda Todd Beebe and her brother, Amos Todd. Originally from New Haven, Connecticut, they journeyed up the Tioughnioga (pronounced tie-off-ni-o-ga) River to take possession of Lot No. 42 in New York State’s Military Tract. This Tract of 1.75 million acres of wilderness was parceled out into lots as payment for soldiers who fought successfully in the Continental Army for independence from Britain. Because Robert Harpur, a clerk in the office of the State Surveyor General, was enamored of the Greek and Roman names he came across in his classical education, names like Virgil, Tully, Solon, Cincinnatus, and Homer were assigned to locales in the area. Occasionally a few names from British literature, such as Dryden, Locke, and Milton were scattered in as well.

Arriving in the autumn of 1791, it is believed that the first three intrepid pioneers built a temporary shelter near the spot now marked by a large boulder and plaque erected in 1924 at the intersection of Hooker Avenue and Route 11 at the north end of the village of Homer. Like the Native Americans before them, these pioneers were able to demonstrate an ability to adapt to the harsh wilderness of central New York. Twice, according to lore, Rhoda Beebe was required to fend for herself. When the men went off to fetch runaway horses, a wolf had poked its nose into the rude shelter, but fortunately it merely sniffed and chose to leave her unscathed. Another time, in winter, when the men went down to Windsor, NY, for provisions, Rhoda’s food ran out before they returned and she was forced to subsist on roots and tree bark. Eventually, these settlers made their way to their Lot at the top of West Hill, cleared it, and started farming on what is now part of the Sweeney farm on Route 90. Agriculture has remained a significant occupational pursuit within the town, though many now commute to jobs nearby in light industry and higher education.

Back in 1793, when George Washington had started his second term as President of the young Republic, there were six families in the area, all from New England. The Beebes and Todd were joined by John Miller and his sons, Silas and Daniel; John House; James Mather; and James Moore. Darius Kinne came late in 1793, and others soon followed.

Like any fledgling culture trying to survive, the citizens of the newly independent Republic knew the importance of organization and government at the grassroots level. In 1794, Onondaga County broke off from Herkimer County. On March 5th of that year, Homer, derived from the name of the Greek poet, was organized as a huge township of Onondaga County and included what is now Cortlandville, Solon, Cincinnatus, Virgil, Harford, Lapeer, Taylor, and the southern halves of Truxton and Cuyler. The few residents of this 300 square mile township were to be served by town officers appointed by three Onondaga County judges.

On April 5, 1795, these town officers met at the home of “Squire” John Miller. The next year, the first election of a Homer Town Board was held. Only white males who owned property were legally eligible to vote, and the property qualification would remain until the new state Constitution of 1822. The “Squire” was elected the first supervisor of the Town of Homer. John Keep was “judge;” Amos Todd was the first “collector;” and Peter Ingersoll was the first town clerk. The clerk position continued to be an elected post until 1963 when it became an appointed position and has remained so. Today, the Town Clerk is responsible for maintaining town records, maintaining a record of local laws, issuing licenses and permits (such as marriage licenses, dog licenses, and conservation licenses), collecting town and county taxes, and taking the minutes at all Board meetings.

The early Town Minutes were handwritten (some more legibly than others), and writing continued until typing was used in 1943. The Minutes for the 1790s reveal some interesting job titles. There was a “constable,” or law enforcement officer, and a “fence viewer” whose paid responsibility was to see that all fences constraining livestock were kept in good repair by their owners. The “poormaster” took the indigent into his home and was allocated public funds for their needs (early welfare program). The “pound keeper” maintained an enclosure to keep stray animals — cattle, sheep, and swine — until they were claimed by the owner and compensation made for any damages sustained. The “sealer of weights and measures” was paid to attest to the accuracy of all scales and weighing devices used in commercial transactions.

By 1795, there were 29 families in the town. Four years later, there were fifty-two families. The first male child to be born in the town was born to the Moores, and, appropriately, they named him Homer. The first female child was Betsey House. The first wheeled vehicle in town was an ox cart brought in by John Hubbard in the spring of 1795, and the first frame building was a barn put up by Col. Moses Hopkins in 1798.

Annual town board meetings were held at board members’ homes until Tuesday, April 7, 1801. That meeting was held “at the meeting house in Homer” which was also “the school house on Lot No.45.” Lot No. 45 was the “Common,” or what would become the “Green.” The same edifice was used for both worship and schooling. Buildings were multi-functional even then. Later the structure was moved and now serves as the rear portion of the private residence at No.87 South Main Street.

Some of the resolutions drafted by the Town Board in the 1790s included: “no inhabitant of this Town shall bring in or take the care & charge of any cattle belonging to any inhabitants of any other Town (bulls excepted) upon the penalty of one Dollar per head ….;” “that the inhabitants of the Town build a bridge across the river at the mill;” and “all four footed beasts shall run at large…horses excepted.” This last resolution was replaced in 1812 by this one: “That horses, cattle, sheep & hogs be not suffered to run at large within half a mile of any meeting house, mill stone or tavern.” In 1801, the board voted to “give 4 Dollars for every wolf shot” and one dollar for bears killed during the months of May through August. Later, panthers were added to the list. In 1802, one Elijah Hayden, for the offense of swearing in public, was fined a sum of thirty shillings to be handed over to the poormaster. Look at the money the Town could bring in today by reinstating that ordinance!