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Homer Grows Rapidly in the 1800s

Jedediah Barber

In its early years, the Town held special meetings for the purpose of laying out the roads in the town. The early Minutes show the Board to be almost entirely focused on dividing the Town into Road Districts and establishing the boundaries of “Publick Roads.” Trails through the forests and swamps would become designated roads duly noted in the records. A marking point for delineating one such road in 1797 was simply “a yellow birch tree.” The designated direction of a road could be appealed. A panel of three judges made the final decision. The town’s “commissioners of highways” laid out the roads, directed repairs, and constructed bridges. Each road district had a “pathmaster” who supervised road maintenance and had the power to annually assess each male resident several days of labor on the road. The records list their names and the number of days assessed. Clearing the woodlands and maintaining the dirt roads, especially after the damages of storms, was crucial to this growing agrarian community in the center of the state.

In 1798, Solon broke off from the township, and Virgil did so in 1804, but the population of the town of Homer grew rapidly. The 1810 census shows the number to be 3000, scattered over an area of gently rolling hills and valleys. Besides farmers, there were teachers, preachers, merchants, millers, tanners, carpenters, masons, innkeepers, four physicians, and at least one lawyer, Horatio Ballard, who had arrived in 1803.

In 1808, Cortland County, of which the Town of Homer was a part, separated from Onondaga County. By act of the State Legislature, Cortland County was officially born on April 8, 1808. Soon after this event, a farmer and silversmith, John Osborn, arrived and set up a residence and a shop. It was in his house on the Albany Post Road (now No. 5 Albany Street) — the first made of brick — that a grandson named William Osborn Stoddard was born in 1835. Stoddard would later go on to serve as an assistant personal secretary to President and Mrs. Lincoln at the Executive Mansion (now called the White House) during the bloody American Civil War.

In 1813, during the War of 1812 with England, in which several citizens of the town participated, the Town was divided up by three “school commissioners” into some 27 school districts. The Minutes for 1815 show that $300 was to be raised for the support of the schools and $200 raised for the support of the poor. Also, it was mandated that “every pathmaster be a fence viewer.” Consolidation of governmental functions was apparently of concern back then, too. Among the votes taken in 1822 was one calling for Rufus Chafee to “clean the meeting house this week for $2.75.” Among those in 1823 was one calling for the prosecution of Ira Hammond in a case of child support.  Apparently, “derelict dads” is not just a modern phenomenon.

In 1818, Amelia Jenks Bloomer was born in the Village and spent her childhood here. Later, she moved to Seneca Falls, attended the Woman’s Rights Convention there in 1848, and became an advocate for women’s rights. She popularized a style of women’s clothing called “bloomers.”

As one peruses the Minutes of the 1820s, one begins to spot the names of Rufus Boies, Townsend Ross, John Keep, and Noah Smith. These were prominent men of the day who secured a charter in 1819 for an academy on the Common. Among the first trustees of the Academy was Jedediah Barber, the owner of the Great Western, a mercantile emporium on Main Street that was the Wal-Mart of 19th century Central New York. Farmers of the region brought agrarian products, like pork and wool, for “Uncle Jed” to send down the waterways to Baltimore, and bought from him manufactured goods they could not make for themselves, like nails, tumblers, and wallpaper. Portraits of Barber and the other academy trustees would later be captured forever in oil on canvas by a young Homer native, Francis Bicknell Carpenter. Later, Carpenter would come into national prominence by painting the likenesses of five U. S. Presidents.

In 1829, the southern portion of the township separated from Homer, and the Town of Cortlandville was created. Former municipal historian, the late Curtis Harris, once pointed out that a vote taken in 1829 to poll the feelings of the residents of the town about the proposed division had the following outcome: 616 against, 120 in favor, and 38 blank ballots. Harris concluded that the division was made and that “the passage of that law in the face of such an overwhelming local expression against the division suggests the perpetration of dastardly political skullduggery.”

The Minutes for April 16, 1833, show that the location of Town Meetings changed. They would be held in “the Basement Story of the Episcopal Meeting House.” That church with white clapboards had just been built the year before and still stands to this day on the Homer Green. The church would be referred to as the “Town Hall” in 1849. In 1835, Andrew Dickson White, born at the intersection of the Albany Post Road and Main Street in Homer, was baptized in this church, unaware, of course, that he was destined to become the first President of Cornell University in nearby Ithaca and a U. S. ambassador to Germany.

By 1835, a community within the township, also named after the Greek poet, was expanding around a “Common” lined with churches and the Academy. In that year, the Village of Homer was incorporated. Today, with a population of 3,291, it is the largest community in the Township. The hamlets of East Homer and Little York are also included in the Town.

Former town historian, Josephine Brown, once noted that during the 1830s “it appeared that the town supervisor changed about every year — as the tax levy increased a supervisor was out of a job.” Such has been the nature of the relationship between the elected official and the electorate.

In 1831, the amount of bills allowed against the Town by the Board of Supervisors was $539.33. In 1849, under Supervisor Fred Ives, the town had an end of the year balance of $2.09. Samuel Sherman took over the post the next year, and the amount raised by tax was $3,125.89 for county expenses, $250 for highway expenses, $394.15 for the school district, and $250.58 for town expenses. In 1860, Giles Chittendon was town supervisor, and the tax levy was $7,919.56. In one decade, taxes had nearly doubled. Now, the town tax levy is six figures, or $501,902, and total appropriations for 2012 amounted to $1,670,893.