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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Historic Homer: Gateway to Heritage Tourism in Central New York

Photo of proposed Lincoln Monument Project at the 
Homer Town Hall. Photo by David P. Quinlan. Concept 
by Sculptor Frank Porcu.
By Martin Sweeney
Copyright @2015. All rights reserved by author.

Holidays are much more than festive occasions on a calendar. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and Presidents Day provide an opportunity to set aside some time to remember persons and events of the past that have significantly shaped our values, traditions, and collective identity as a people. There are, however, some persons and events of the past that are worthy of on-going commemoration in a physical form. These persons and events often have public spaces set aside to honor them with plaques, markers, street names, preserved architecture, and statuary.

Residents of Central New York are or should be keenly aware that their region abounds with historical personages worthy of memorialization. Clinton Square in Syracuse has statuary recalling the famous public rescue in 1851 of William “Jerry” Henry from the enforcers of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Another runaway slave, Harriet Tubman, has her final residence in Auburn dedicated to her participation as a “conductor” in the Underground Railroad movement. Auburn, too, is the site of a statue of William Henry Seward, the secretary of state in the Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson presidencies. Nearby, Seward’s residence, brimming with artifacts, has been wisely preserved and is open to public inspection.

Further down the road, at Seneca Falls, the tourist finds the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. Here the first women’s rights convention was held in 1848. Here the names of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and other great figures of vision and conviction are recalled for assembling for the cause of women’s suffrage and abolition. Another attendee at the convention and Seneca Falls resident was Amelia Jenks Bloomer, the advocate for temperance and for an item of radical women’s apparel that bore her last name. “Bloomers” became synonymous with social reform and the movement for women’s rights. Her home in Seneca Falls is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Her birthplace, Homer, New York, now boasts of 220 structures listed in the Register.

Homer’s location in the center of the state and on the I-81 corridor makes it “The Gateway to the Finger Lakes” and to Syracuse for visitors coming up from southerly directions. Those who pass through Homer’s Historic District for the first time are amazed by its well-preserved architecture and by streets lined with stately trees and with American flags patriotically fluttering in the breeze. More than once the comment has been made about its Norman Rockwell appearance, and one visitor stated, “I thought I had driven onto the set of a Civil War era movie.”

This observation is appropriate when one realizes that since “Homer’s Celebration of Lincoln in Paint and Print” in 2009 during the national observance of the bicentennial of the Civil War president’s birth, no less than five Lincoln scholars have visited and spoken in Homer. The first was Harold Holzer, the esteemed author and editor of over forty books on Lincoln and a commissioner of the national Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission that enthusiastically endorsed the Homer week-long observance. He gave two lectures. This was followed by Jason Emerson, who spoke at the Phillips Free Library on his book The Madness of Mary Lincoln. Then, the late U. S. Senator and presidential candidate George McGovern came to promote his biography of Abraham Lincoln. Thus far, as part of Homer’s observance of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War, two other contributors to the vast knowledge of Lincoln have lectured in Homer. In September of 2011, retired Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Rhode Island and chair of The Lincoln Forum, the Honorable Frank J. Williams, spoke at the Homer Intermediate-Junior High School on “Lincoln and the Constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation.” Williams was followed in November by the award-winning Lincoln biographer Professor Michael Burlingame of the University of Illinois at Springfield. He spoke at Homer’s Center for the Arts, addressing the question “What New Can Possibly Be Said about Abraham Lincoln?” Williams has agreed to return to Homer in June of 2015 and to lecture again as part of a traveling exhibit on Lincoln and the Constitution during the Civil War.

What is it about Homer that magnetically draws experts on Lincoln? Why is it that Harold Holzer of The Lincoln Forum, a national organization devoted to all things dealing with the sixteenth president of the United States, has dubbed the Town of Homer “a new Lincoln mecca?” The reason is because the town lays claim to three native sons with direct connections to Lincoln’s life and legacy. Until the Lincoln bicentennial, not much was made of their roles by the bulk of the population of the town.

Though an historical marker stands on the birth site of Homer’s Eli DeVoe, few realized that private investigator DeVoe helped to thwart a possible assassination plot against Lincoln in 1861. The more famous detective, Allan Pinkerton, uncovered a conspiracy in Baltimore to murder Lincoln and prevent him from ever arriving by train to become the President. Lincoln refused to change plans after receiving Pinkerton’s report. When DeVoe infiltrated the cell of conspirators and independently corroborated Pinkerton’s fears for Lincoln, the President-elect avoided harm by sneaking into Washington, DC, on a different train. Ironically, both Lincoln and DeVoe were born in log cabins in 1809. One was destined to become a great President, and one was destined to save a great President.

William Osborn Stoddard was born in the Village of Homer in 1835. The house still stands at No. 5 Albany Street, one of the earliest brick houses built in Cortland County. Not until 2009 was there a New York State marker erected curbside to announce the birth site of the assistant personal secretary to Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. Stoddard was responsible for opening the President’s mail each day and for making the introductions as the Lincolns greeted those who came to White House receptions and dinners. It was Stoddard who, at Lincoln’s bidding, made handwritten copies of the President’s draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. In the 1870s, it was Stoddard who testified before a Congressional committee and lobbied for the Government to accept as a gift the oil painting of “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the Cabinet.” The image of Lincoln with sad, drooping eyes has become iconic.

The painter responsible for capturing on canvas what he called the “moment of moral grandeur” was Francis Bicknell Carpenter. Born in Homer in 1830 (there is a marker), he studied portraiture under Sanford Thayer in Syracuse and made a name for himself painting the movers and shakers of nineteenth century America, including five Presidents. Prints made of his paintings of Lincoln and his book Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln: The Story of a Picture were bestsellers after the shocking assassination in 1865 elevated the president to secular sainthood in the public’s mind.

DeVoe, Stoddard, and Carpenter are Homer’s “Lincoln Trifecta.” Lincoln scholars appreciate the opportunity to visit the place where these three were born and raised and to ask “Why Homer? How do you explain that this dot on a map named after a blind Greek poet produced so many prominent names in the early nineteenth century? Did the stars align just so?”

Celestial bodies may not have aligned, but geographic, economic, educational, and religious forces did. Nestled in the heart of the state, Homer developed a robust, pioneer agrarian economy which benefited from its location on the Tioughnioga River and its proximity to the Erie Canal passing through Syracuse. These accessible water routes permitted a brisk trade of products in Homer – products that passed through The Great Western Store established in Homer by Jedediah Barber as the Wal-Mart of the early 1800s. In the1850s, more wealth in the area was stimulated by the construction of the railroad through Homer. It connected Syracuse and Binghamton and provided freight and passenger service for the merchants and farming folk of Homer.

Another significant source of revenue was from boarding out rooms to students from Central New York and further afield who came to the prestigious Cortland (later Homer) Academy. Built on the west side of the Green and chartered in 1819 by the state, the school attracted the best and the brightest to its progressive, co-educational curriculum. By the 1840s, it was graduating such luminaries as Theodore Munger, the Yale theologian and abolitionist; Dr. Stephen Smith, founder of the New York City Board of Health; and Amelia Stone Quinton, co-founder of the Women’s National Indian Association. Both Stoddard and Carpenter studied under Supervising Principal Samuel B. Woolworth before Woolworth moved on to become the secretary of the New York State Board of Regents.

Education and religion were intertwined agents of reform in the 1800s. Right next door to the Academy was (and still is) the Congregational Church, which experienced the Second Great Awakening in the form of its pastor from 1821 to 1833, the Reverend John Keep. “Father Keep” was a proponent of temperance, co-education, and abolition. He taught that slaves and social ideas should be unfettered. This radical thinker went on to help establish Oberlin College in Ohio as a co-educational school open to all “irrespective of color.”

It is amazing how, in an age devoid of email and the social media, Keep, Carpenter, Stoddard, Munger, and another native son of Homer, Cornell University’s co-founder and first president, Andrew D. White, managed to carry on communication with each other and with others. Through handwritten letters (now a dying art in the computer age) they maintained an active dialogue and collaboration on matters of art, social issues, and political affairs. For them, human freedom and dignity was a moral imperative worthy of discourse.

Today, in Homer, near the firehouse on Main Street, is a steel girder from one of the New York City towers brought down on 9/11. It is an appropriate site for a lasting memorial to the first responders of that infamous event and to American resilience in the face of attacks upon our freedom. At the other end of the village’s Main Street commercial establishments stands the stately Town Hall constructed in 1908. Here has been proposed another memorial to freedom. Known as the Lincoln Monument Project, this memorial will consist of six pieces in bronze by the renowned sculptor Frank Porcu to commemorate the three native-sons of Homer – Carpenter, Stoddard, and DeVoe – who contributed to the life and iconography of “The Great Emancipator.” The project calls for the installation of life-sized statues, plaques, and a bas-relief of Carpenter’s famous painting of the moment when Lincoln first broached freedom of the slaves to his full Cabinet – a moment that Carpenter, in his bestseller, called “an act unparalleled for moral grandeur in the history of mankind” (pp.10-11). The municipal building is an ideal spot for using public art to inform residents and visitors to Homer that the community once played a significant role at the intersection of local, regional, and national history. What a gateway to and boost for heritage tourism and to revitalizing the regional economy of Central New York State.

About the author: Mr. Sweeney, the Town of Homer historian, is the author of LINCOLN’S GIFT FROM HOMER, NEW YORK; DEATH IN THE WINTER SOLSTICE: A NARRATIVE OF A TRUE MURDER MYSTERY IN HOMER; “Historical Connections: Homer, New York and Cornell University” in the 2013 issue of NEW YORK HISTORY REVIEW; and co-author with David Quinlan of “Lincoln’s Empire State Bastion: Homer, New York,” in the Spring 2011 issue of The Lincoln Forum Bulletin.

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