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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Historical Connections: Homer, New York and Cornell University

by Martin A. Sweeney
Copyright ©2013. All rights reserved by author.

McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011

Twenty-four miles northeast of Ithaca, New York, in Cortland County is the Town of Homer with a village also bearing the name of the Greek poet of Antiquity. Those who have ventured down the Main Street of the village have noted the nineteenth century architecture, the stately trees between the curb and sidewalks, and the American flags patriotically fluttering in the breeze. More than once the comment has been made about the village’s Norman Rockwell appearance, and one first-time visitor stated, “I thought I had driven onto the set of a Civil War era movie.” Indeed, the community can boast of 220 structures posted in the National Register of Historic Places. One of those structures, a red brick residence built in the Federal style in 1819 and remodeled in the 1880s in the French Second Empire style, has a significant connection to Cornell University. Located at 81 South Main Street, with its distinctive steep Mansard roof, projecting dormer windows, and bracketed eaves, the edifice bears a plaque indicating it is the birthplace of Andrew Dickson White, the first president of the Ivy League university founded in Ithaca in 1868.

Being the geographical origin of Cornell’s founding president would be enough of a claim to bragging rights by the proud caretakers of Homer’s Historic District, but what seems to go overlooked are the other significant connections the Town and Village of Homer have with the university. Two other native sons of Homer, William Osborn Stoddard and Francis Bicknell Carpenter, have historic ties with Andrew D. White and the university.

The photo of the author portraying Lincoln's personal
secretary, William Stoddard, courtesy of Bob Ellis,
photographer of The Cortland Standard
Just around the corner from where White was born on November 7, 1832, is another brick house at No. 5 Albany Street, which was built by Homer silversmith and farmer, John Osborn. In front is a blue and gold New York State historical marker proclaiming to the passing motorist that it is the place where Osborn’s grandson, William Osborn Stoddard, was born on September 24, 1835. While Stoddard was a journalist, inventor, and author of a slew of adventure stories for boys, he is better known as the assistant personal secretary to President and Mrs. Lincoln at the Civil War White House.

Being neighbors and close in age, White and Stoddard became childhood chums. Together, the two lads explored the wildflower-covered banks of the nearby Tioughnioga (pronounced tie-off-ni-o-ga) River and swam in the millponds at the opposite ends of the village. Their fathers, Horace White and Samuel Prentice Stoddard, were both clerks at The Great Western, the Wal-Mart of nineteenth century Central New York owned by Jedediah Barber. The three-storied emporium on Homer’s Main Street claimed “no one could ask for an article which the Great Western Store could not produce.” The store did manage to offer “everything a farmer could raise or a skilled worker could make.”

A. D. White birthplace on Main Street, 
Homer, courtesy of David Quinlan
Both Horace and Samuel gave up their clerking jobs at the Great Western in the 1840s and moved their families north to Syracuse, a village of some five thousand people that was becoming a thriving hub of commerce because of its location on the Erie Canal. Horace found employment at the Onondaga County Bank, and Samuel opened a bookstore and publishing firm on Salina Street. Since both men initially bought homes on Fayette Street, their sons were able to continue their childhood friendships and to come of age together in the expanding community on Onondaga Lake.

Both lads attended a private boys’ school in the basement of the Congregational Church in Syracuse. Later in life, both of them extolled the fine instruction and modeling of Christian virtues offered by the “tall, handsome, pleasant-mannered” James W. Hoyt. Stoddard claimed Hoyt “possessed a rare talent for getting young brains at work to the best advantage.” White concurred with his classmate: “We doubtless agree in thinking that the lack of grammatical drill [in studying Virgil, Horace, and Xenophon] was more than made up by the love of manliness, and the dislike of meanness, which was in those days our very atmosphere.”

As a sign of their close camaraderie, young White presented Stoddard with a beautiful rifle with telescopic sights, which had been a gift from a friend of his father. He explained to Stoddard, “I haven’t any use for a rifle. You take it and use it as long as you want to, just as if it were your own. Take it home with you, flask, pouch, and all.” Stoddard did so. He kept it through several years and named the future president of Cornell University as the one deserving credit for his future reputation, even with President Lincoln, for being a crack shot with a rifle.

Under Hoyt, Stoddard showed great interest and ability in writing. Foreshadowing his future career, he printed a little weekly for school he called The Frolic Manual. In 1853 he went to New York City to see the first World’s Fair in America. He wrote a long account of the sights and sent it to the Syracuse Chronicle, where he found “my story was a good one and it was printed in full.” This increased his standing with his classmates at school.

Earlier, in October of 1851, Stoddard’s classmates were presumably equally impressed by the bruises he had sustained in violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 during the famous Jerry Rescue. A mob of Abolitionists forcibly removed runaway slave William “Jerry” Henry from federal authorities, and sixteen year old Stoddard “was lost in the rush but was close enough to see the axes and crowbars go up and down upon those wooden window bars” of the jail near Clinton Square. Stoddard’s introduction to Abolitionist activity had already occurred in Homer. As a ten year old visiting at his Grandfather Osborn’s farmhouse, he had stumbled upon a slave in the cellar and learned that Squire Osborn, pillar of the local Baptist Church, was participating in an anti-slavery organization called the Underground Railroad.

Through formal education and life experiences, White and Stoddard were ready to depart Syracuse for higher education. White left for Geneva College and then went off to Yale. There, he attended classes with another childhood friend from Homer, Theodore T. Munger. Munger went on to be a distinguished theologian and Abolitionist. Stoddard went off to the new university at nearby Rochester and then traveled out to Illinois, where he became co-editor of The Central Illinois Gazette and made the acquaintance of a politically ambitious circuit lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.

Stoddard worked for the nomination and election of Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States and landed a position as the assistant personal secretary to Lincoln and the First Lady from 1861 to 1865. In that capacity, and at Lincoln’s bidding, Stoddard made two handwritten copies of the Emancipation Proclamation from the President’s draft. Cornell University is in possession of a copy of the document written “by a secretary.” Judging by the style of handwriting, it is one of the two copies made by the hand of Homer’s native son, William O. Stoddard.

Another son of Homer was born August 6, 1830, a few miles north of the village. His name was Francis Bicknell Carpenter. He was a prominent portrait painter working in New York City in 1863 when he learned of Lincoln’s document that would initiate the process of freeing slaves and would culminate later in the Thirteenth Amendment’s abolition of slavery. Carpenter described the proclamation as “an act unparalleled for moral grandeur in the history of mankind.” He determined that he would render a painting of Lincoln and his cabinet at the moment when the proclamation was first read that would “give freedom to a race.” Furthermore, it was his desire that the painting should become “the standard authority for the portrait of each and all especially Mr. Lincoln.” He got his wish. From February to July of 1864, the man who had already painted the visages of three sitting presidents – Tyler, Fillmore, and Pierce – was, in Lincoln’s words, “turned in loose” at the White House and given “a good chance to work out your idea.” The artistic skills that had begun in a one-room schoolhouse in Homer and had been encouraged by a benefactor, Jedediah Barber’s son Paris Barber, came into full blossom with Carpenter’s completion of “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the Cabinet.” Lincoln told Carpenter, “I believe I am about as glad over the success of this work as you are,” and he deemed the portraiture to be “absolutely perfect.”

After Lincoln’s assassination, Carpenter hoped that the nine foot by fifteen foot oil painting would be purchased by the national legislature and placed in the Capitol Building. Much to his chagrin, Congress showed no interest in appropriating the $25,000 requested, and the tough economic times of the Panic of 1873 did not help. However, it was Stoddard who on behalf of “his warm personal friend of long standing” arranged for a wealthy philanthropist to pay the artist $25,000 and lobbied successfully for Congress to accept “the national picture” in 1878 and to have it displayed in the Capitol Building. Since then, the figure of Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator” with what Stoddard referred to as “the sad, far-seeing eyes” has become universally iconic.

The same artist that painted Lincoln has a direct tie to Cornell University. When Stoddard’s friend, Andrew D. White, became the first President of the university – a land-grant college under the Morrill Act signed into law by President Lincoln -- Carpenter was present for the institution’s opening in 1868. And it was Carpenter whom White commissioned to do the portraits for the university of Louis Agassiz, Goldwyn Smith, James Russell Lowell, and George William Curtis. Ezra Cornell posed, too. In the law school library, his image can be seen standing, with his hand upon a document bearing his time-honored wish of 1868: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

In 1869, when the progressive, co-educational Academy on Homer’s Green celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, Carpenter was in attendance, and the gentleman selected to give the main oration was Andrew D. White. From 1871 to 1891, Carpenter worked on the only other painting he ever did on a grand scale. Depicting the signing of the Treaty of Washington on May 8, 1871, he called it his Arbitration Painting. To celebrate its completion, a dinner in Carpenter’s honor was held in New York. The Reverend Dr. Theodore Munger was one of the twenty-seven guests, and the toastmaster for this special occasion was none other than Andrew D. White.

White, Carpenter, and Stoddard, three sons of the same community in Central New York, lived through tumultuous times of civil strife and human bondage – times that the nation now recalls during its Sesquicentennial observance of the American Civil War. Each man left autobiographical writings and reminiscences as part of his legacy. These have served as primary sources for scholars of nineteenth century American history, politics, and culture. Through the life-long friendships and working bonds they formed with each other, these men of arts and letters forged a link between Homer and Cornell University based on more than geographic proximity. The connection is part of the rich fabric of history to be found in the Finger Lakes region of Central New York State.

About the author - Mr. Sweeney, a retired history teacher, writes mostly historical non-fiction. Besides the book on Homer’s connection to Lincoln, he wrote DEATH IN THE WINTER SOLSTICE: A NARRATIVE OF A TRUE MURDER MYSTERY IN HOMER (Cortland County Historical Society, 2012) and co-authored with David Quinlan “Lincoln’s Empire State Bastion: Homer, New York,” a scholarly article published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Lincoln Forum Bulletin. This scholarly article focused on the religious and secular forces in nineteenth century Homer that influenced Lincoln iconography.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting....I am from Homer, NY but currently live in Nashville, Tn. Found this while researching an upcoming trip to Gettysburg with my brother and sister who still live in the homer area. The author was my history teacher and our a side note. I understand that the woman who coined the term "bloomers" for ladies under garments and the man who invented the gyroscope was also from Homer...Great place to grow up.