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Homer in a Time of National Transition

The Cortland Academy, on Homer’s Village Green

Post-Civil War America was in transition. A different way of life was emerging in the 1870s. It was the so called “Gilded Age,” an age in which the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. It was an age giving rise to big business, new services, and the belief in technology’s superiority over Nature. That belief culminated in an avoidable disaster in 1912 involving an “unsinkable ocean liner” called Titanic.

In 1878, a special town meeting was called in Homer to elect a supervisor to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of S. McClellan Barber, son of Paris Barber. The result was 276 votes for A. Judson Kneeland and 127 for David H. Hannum. While Hannum, a clever horse trader, landowner, and banker, would be the inspiration for the colorful, folksy protagonist in Edward Noyes Westcott’s bestselling novel David Harum (published in 1899), he apparently was not all that popular with the voters of Homer in 1878. Could it have been his unfortunate conviction for fraud in 1868 and his attempt to gain money from the Cardiff Giant Hoax the next year (more fraud) that stuck in the public’s mind? His reputation would posthumously improve over time, once he was linked with the fictional Harum — proving the increasing power of the printed word in the “Gilded Age.”

Also, in 1878, the Town Board approached the Officers of the Episcopal Society about the possibility of purchasing the Episcopal meeting house (in the basement of which the Board had been holding meetings for 43 years) for the Town’s purposes. The Minutes for February 20, 1883, show that protracted negotiations had been abandoned. The next year, the Board held a public vote and moved to relinquish all claims to the basement of the church as soon as the Town, with or without participation of the Village, could secure a site and construct a building to serve as a firehouse and with “a large room to be situated on the first floor, fronting the street, to be used jointly by Town and Village, for town caucuses, Town meetings, corporation meetings or other public meetings….” In the 1890s, Board meetings were held at the First National Bank on Main Street, and annual town meetings were conducted at different locations: the Murray Building, the Porter Block, the “vacant store” in the First National Bank building, and the Hakes Block. Clearly, one permanent location to conduct the town’s business and from which to provide new services was needed.

At “the turn of the century,” the following businesses were headquartered in the city of Cortland and the Town of Homer exacted of them a “special franchise tax”: Homer & Cortland Gas Light Co., Cortland Home Telephone Co., Cortland & Homer Electric Co., and Cortland County Traction Co. This last business provided a new and popular service: electric trolley service, and it was taxed $7,500. It carried passengers between Cortland and the park in Little York.

History was made in Homer on February 17, 1903, when mechanical “U. S. Standard voting machines were used for the first time,” instead of paper ballots. The records show that “the taking off the returns from the machines was accomplished in 17 minutes.” The Town Board decided that three machines were to be purchased for $500 each. Consider the time-saving progress being made! Of course, this was to be trumped in 2009 when the town first used electronic voting machines.

Indeed, the first two decades of the new twentieth century witnessed the “progressive movement.” Americans were eager to correct economic, social, and political ills, and that desire for progress was keen in Homer, too. At the biennial town meeting of February 19, 1907, Fire Chief E. C. Darby and the Fire Council of the Homer Fire Department offered a resolution “in regard to a joint Village and Town Building” to be erected “upon the plot of ground formerly occupied by the National Hotel in North Main Street….” These reasons were cited for such a building: office space for Town and Village officials; safe repository of town and village documents; storage of “voting pharphanalia [sic]”; a jail “with better facilities for handling criminals;” “a suitable auditorium where public meetings can be held without the expense of paying rent, the lack of such a hall being felt most keenly in both village and town life”; “more capacious and easily accessible quarters for the companies of the local Fire Department;” and “a place for holding political caucuses, party meetings, and elections.” The eighth reason clearly shows the spirit of the times: “…Homer should have such a building to maintain its reputation as a progressive community [italics added], and to hold its own with other towns of similar size in this and neighboring counties….” A motion was made and carried “that the Town Board appoint a Committee of Five to look into the matter of a joint building.” M. J. Pratt, the Town Supervisor, along with George Klock, W. H. Foster, George A. Brockway, and Harry Hull comprised the Building Committee appointed on February 23, 1907. They thought it best to combine an engine house (fire station) with the Hall and to build it south of the Union Building (the lot where the David Perfetti residence now stands). They secured an option to buy for $3000.

The site the Fire Department wanted was selected, but plans would not include an engine house. For ninety years this site had been occupied by a hotel built by Enos Stimson. As of 1894, the bustling village had three hotels to accommodate travelers passing through Central New York State. Through the years, under changing management, each hotel had changed names and had experienced fires at different times, causing great confusion decades later for those trying to correctly identify photos and postcards of the fires. A “lower hotel” (only one balcony across the front) stood where the present fire station stands; it was destroyed by fire in 1934. The “upper hotel” (with a balcony along two sides) was known as the National at the time of its fire in November, 1904. On the northeast corner of Main Street and Water Street and at the eastern end of Clinton Street, the National had boasted of 52 rooms, a stable to accommodate 100 horses, and one flush toilet. According to the late Anna Hilton of The Landmark Society, during the 1904 fire, “the crockery was thrown from the windows” while the feather beds were “carried down the ladders.” At an estimated loss of $12,000, it is this hotel fire that opened up a space in which the Town Hall could be constructed.

The owner of this piece of property was Burdette H. Griffin, who had served the town as a justice of the peace from 1901 until his resignation was accepted on May 1, 1906. The Fire Council’s petition, also, stated that Griffin “has publicly announced his deep interest in this proposition and is willing to give the sum of $500.00 toward purchasing the site,” the value to be determined by a representative of the town, a representative of the village, and a third to be named by the other two.