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Unadilla Village

Unadilla Village Hall is located at 193 Main Street, Unadilla NY 13849; phone: 607-369-3421.

Beginnings [1]

The Settlement and Development of the Village of Unadilla: ca. 1790-1865

Prior to the American Revolution only scattered small settlements appeared within the upper Susquehanna River valley. Four small settlements occurred in the area of the present-day Village of Unadilla, including three known collectively as Unadilla located along both sides of the Susquehanna River near its confluence with the Unadilla River, approximately 6 miles southwest of the present village location. While the possibility exists that the present site was occupied prior to the Revolution, no concrete proof has surfaced to date.

During the American Revolution the area was the scene of widespread and repeated raids, first by Tories and their Iroquois Nation allies, then by American patriot soldiers, until along the upper Susquehanna Valley there remained nothing but burned-out desolation. Permanent settlement in Otsego County began again in the years between 1780 and 1800. Otsego County was formed in 1791, being set off from Montgomery County. At its creation the county contained but two towns, Cherry Valley and Otsego. The Town of Unadilla was one of three towns first organized after formation of the county, being set off from the township of Otsego in April of 1792. The site of Unadilla Village encompasses nine lots of the Wallace (or Banyar) Patent.

While the earliest known deed transfer records date to 1791 with the formation of Otsego County, it is known that settlement of the village site began during the 1780s. But even before the arrival of the early settlers, the location of the future village had generally been determined by the establishment of a ferry across the Susquehanna River near the mouth of Ouleout Creek (just east of the present corporate limits of the village) by Nathaniel Wattles of Lebanon, Connecticut. His arrival, and that of his cousin, Sluman Wattles, in the mid-1780s, signaled the beginning of a tide of Connecticut migration which followed an old primitive road west from Catskill on the Hudson to the Susquehanna. Until the first bridge was constructed in 1804, Wattles Ferry provided the strategic transportation link for westward-bound settlers. Early arrivals, after scouting the area, determined that the village should lie on the northerly side of the river, where a fast-moving, multi-channel stream flowing into the Susquehanna provided sufficient power for the mills they were to establish. A stone monument with bronze plaque commemorating the general location of Wattles Ferry and its importance in the founding of the village is located near the river, just east of Corwin (Hayes) Park, at the east end of the village.

Unadilla's early history is closely associated with the development of turnpikes in New York State's central and southern tier regions. The turnpike system, made up of a number of major overland routes, was the primary means of transporting goods and people through New York's interior during the early decades of the nineteenth century, prior to the development of canals and railroads. Between Catskill to the east and Ithaca to the west, the Mohawk Valley to the north and Binghamton to the south, Unadilla's strategic location at the intersection of two vital early turnpike systems contributed to its commercial prominence in the region during the first half of the nineteenth Century. The major road was the Catskill Turnpike which linked the Hudson and Susquehanna Valleys. The Susquehanna Turnpike, beginning in the Mohawk Valley, passed through Unadilla and continued to Binghamton, where it connected with the Delaware River Road to Philadelphia.

Building design and construction in the new village during its first 25 years strongly reflected the traditions of its transplanted New England settlers. Permanent residences appear to have been built, with only several exceptions, of frame construction, following standard center hall, side hall, or Cape Cod configurations. Some of these buildings were plainly detailed, including the ca. 1790 house of Dr. Gurdon Huntington (now demolished), while others including the 1804 Hayes and Noble Houses, the 1805 Abijah Beach House, and the 1815 Cone House (locally known as the White House) reflect the Federal style taste in their fine proportions and classically derived details. Clapboard siding, twelve-over-twelve windows, and attenuated cornices are particularly characteristic of these first generation buildings. Bridge-building technology also reflected New England practice. Ambitious covered bridges were constructed across the Susquehanna River in 1804 with a replacement constructed in 1817 following a flood, and in 1823. The 1817 and 1823 structures survived into the 1890s.

Lumbering quickly emerged as one of the community's earliest industries. Spafford's 1813 Gazetteer reported a total of 16 sawmills in the Town of Unadilla, five of which had accompanying grist mills. Within the village, mills were established near the mouth of the Binnekill and along Mill (then called Water) Street, sometime before 1800; and along Martin Brook as early as 1790. The earliest industrial (mill) center in the village, however, was concentrated along Mill Street and its cul-de-sac.

The most significant period of growth in the region occurred during the first half of the 19th century, paralleling improvements in overland transportation. Between 1800 and 1820 the population of Otsego County more than doubled, and between 1820 and 1860 it doubled again. Unadilla paralleled this growth, and rapidly developed into a rural commercial center distinguished by stores, churches and residences along its primary thoroughfare. From the beginning the development of the village was linear in nature, paralleling the Susquehanna River for nearly 1 1/2 miles. There never developed the true central core or village square seen in numerous other rural village in New York and New England. Rather, there grew up an intense rivalry between the "uptown" and "downtown" commercial factions, which exerted a great influence on the development of the village throughout the nineteenth century. This rivalry saw the private development of at least one road leading directly to the "uptown" business center (Martin Brook Road), and the private financing of the second bridge spanning the Susquehanna River and a short road leading to the "downtown" business core. The two business centers remain today, separated by several blocks of residences.

By the 1820s and 1830s, the architectural character of the burgeoning village began to reflect a degree of taste and sophistication characteristic of some of the more prominent and permanently established centers of trade and transportation in Central New York. The wealth and status of the merchant families were expressed in large and stylish homes lining both sides of Main Street. Frame construction remained the preferred manner of building, however, several significant buildings were constructed of locally-fired brick or native stone toward the end of the 1830s. The majority of the residences built during this period were designed in variations of the Federal style, differing slightly from earlier examples of the style in their larger scale and more elaborate detailing. Toward the end of the 1830s, the Greek Revival style became manifested in new construction, achieving its greatest popularity in the 1840s and 1850s.

Stylistic considerations aside, most of Unadilla's second generation of houses conformed to one of two standard house plans of the period; the two-story side hall house with a three-bay facade, and the two-story center hall house with a symmetrical five-bay center entrance facade. Prominent examples of the side hall house type of this period include the Federal style 1823 Roswell Wright House (National Register listed 1988) with its Composite order portico, and the John Eells House, built of brick ca. 1835. Greek Revival style examples of this house form include the ca. 1837 Joel Bragg House and the ca. 1840 Frederick Sands House. Surviving center hall examples include the ca.1825 Charles Noble House and the original portion of the ca. 1825 Arnold Sherman House. The Hotel Bishop, built of brick in 1832 as a residence and later expanded, was originally designed with a five-bay center entrance facade and parapet wall at the gable ends. Its Federal style facade is still discernible within the larger, late nineteenth century composition. Pictorial evidence of two elaborate Greek Revival style residences from this period demolished in the twentieth century, the ca.1840 Ca. D. Fellows House, and the ca.1850 Arnold B. Watson House, reinforce the impression that Unadilla remained affluent and keenly aware of trends in architectural style well into the mid-nineteenth century.

Unadilla continued to function as a prosperous local market and business center through the 1850s and 1860s despite a decline in the relative commercial importance of the turnpikes. Local services ranging from milling to banking continued to fulfill a vital economic function in the immediate region, allowing the village a modest growth despite its indirect access to New York's canal network and early railroad lines. Architecturally, construction in the village began to reflect the influence of nationally popular picturesque and romantic styles, including variations on the Gothic Revival and Italianate styles. Significant examples of the former style, marked by steeply pitched roofs, scroll sawn bargeboards and applied details derived from Gothic sources include the ca.1850 Vanderlip residence on Cottage Lane, the ca.1850 Cramer House at the corner of Bridge and Fellows Streets, and the elaborate Gothic Revival remodeling of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, completed between 1845 and 1854. The Italianate style, distinguished by its cubic massing and broad, bracketed cornices, is represented in the village by "Northwood," the residence of Col. S. S. North, banker and developer of the Unadilla Water Works, and the ca.1850 residence of Rev. Lyman Sperry. The Italianate style remained popular in Unadilla and other New York villages through the 1870s. The octagon fad of the 1850s, inspired by the publications of Orson Squire Fowler, is represented in Unadilla by "Lily Vale," a small but largely intact Octagon house built for Selek Fancher ca.1855.

The Social and Economic Development of the Village of Unadilla During the Railroad Era: 1865-1941

The 1851 charter for the construction of the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad provided the means for a strategic link between the two major trunk lines through the State, the Erie Railroad at Binghamton, and the New York Central at Albany. With it came the potential for a highly profitable line carrying coal from Pennsylvania to the industrial centers of the upper Hudson valley and Champlain basin. By 1865 construction of the 142-mile line reached Unadilla; the railroad was complete by 1869 with the construction of the extensive tunnel at Beldon, 25 miles southwest of Unadilla. The original stone freight depot, constructed in 1866 survives; the original small stone passenger depot was replaced with the present larger frame structure in 1903.

Although the major industries of the area continued to revolve around farming and to some extent lumbering, the coming of the railroad provided the means for diversification within those industries. Notable in this diversification was the building of the H.Y. Canfield Condensery at the end of the Mill Street cul-de-sac. H.Y. Canfield was a local inventor who developed one of the first processes for condensing milk; a thriving business was operated from this site for many years. The three-story brick industrial building he constructed for the condensery in the 1880s is extant, presently a part of the York Modern complex, which has operated a road rake manufactory at this location since 1921. This enterprise has since taken over all of the old mill buildings at the Mill Street cul-de-sac.

Other industries to locate along the rail line included the J.W. Van Cott & Son Company, which began business as a feed store at the corner of Clifton & Sperry Streets in 1892. Retail lumber and associated materials were soon added; the associated Unadilla Silo Company was incorporated in 1909 and has produced distinctive silos used across the state and the country to the present time. Another industry long associated with Unadilla was cigar making. John Viney was a long-time cigar maker; later the firm of W. Mulford & Son operated for many years, from the late nineteenth century through the early decades of the twentieth, located in the Mulford & Siver Block on Main Street. Reported to have been one of Unadilla's largest employers, the featured product was the "Chauncey Olcott" brand, selling for 10 cents. The Tie Company was founded by Marzy Ward who about 1887 originated the idea for a quick releasing reusable device used with a rope for securing bundles. This company, located at several sites since 1887, has been located on Depot Street since 1937.

The Catskills and the surrounding area long have been a favorite vacationing area for city-dwellers, and the advent of the railroad brought the tourism industry to the Unadilla area. While the two largest resort hotels were located outside the village proper, two major hotels are located along Main Street, the Bishop Hotel (earlier known as Kingsley's), and the Unadilla House. Smaller hotels sprang up near the depot; and several private tourist homes were in operation during the early decades of the 20th century. The increase in tourism gave rise to several photography studios, of which the Jordan Photo Studio on Watson Street is the only surviving example.

The railroad and accompanying increase in manufacturing facilities fostered a period of growth in the village and an increased population and demand for housing in the latter decades of the nineteenth century. The vernacular or "folk" Victorian housing which sprang up along the streets north of the railroad line reflect vernacular manifestations of the late nineteenth century styles. Some are of gable front and wing plan; some exhibit elements of the Italianate, Queen Anne, Stick, or Gothic styles in their detailing.

A continued pattern of growth through the early decades of the twentieth century also took place along Main Street and the side streets south of Main. The building program in this portion of the village continued the established pattern of large gracious homes associated with the wealthier residents. These homes reflect the national architectural styles popular during the Victorian era, particularly the Italianate, Queen Anne and Shingle styles. Early twentieth century styles are also represented, most notably the Colonial Revival, the American Foursquare, and Craftsman Bungalow styles.

Major fires during this period devastated both the downtown and uptown business areas. The Great Fire of 1879 destroyed five downtown business blocks and several residences and barns, but resulted in the construction of brick commercial blocks with iron supported storefronts, richly detailed with arched window openings, richly-corbelled parapets, and cast iron cresting. Individually the buildings exhibit various combinations of the Italianate and Victorian Gothic styles, but together they contribute to a cohesive and highly distinctive ensemble of period commercial buildings of regional architectural significance.

Brick blocks also replaced two of the commercial buildings destroyed in the 1903 fire, which demolished nearly a block of commercial and residential structures.

As a consequence of the fire of 1879, the Unadilla Water Works was established in 1886 by Col. S.S. North to provide water for both domestic use and fire protection. Constructed in two phases, the system was comprised of reservoirs, dams, filtering and distribution lines, and had an eventual storage capacity of 5 million gallons. The stone dams of the Martin Brook Division were famous as specimens of engineering skill and fine workmanship, withstanding several major floods since their construction. The Water Works in general were acknowledged as the best state-of-the-art system of any village in the state.

  1. Multiple Resource Listing, Nomination Document, 1992, prepared by Patricia Sheret, Village Historian, Village of Unadille, Historic and Architectural Resources in the Village of Unadilla, Otsego County, New York, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
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