Town of Eaton History

 When Joshua Leland arrived in Eaton in 1793 he ventured no further 
than the ponds just within the town's eastern border. Full of fish and 
surrounded by woodlands, the lakes seemed to be an ideal setting to 
build his home and settle his family. Within two years he had 
established the first sawmill and gristmill in Eaton between the two 
small lakes which were soon to be known as Leland's Ponds. Unfortunately, 
the terrain of the town was such that in many of its low lying areas 
which were fed by natural springs or creeks, water tended to pool but not 
to drain efficiently. Leland's enterprise dammed up the ponds and a swampy 
area grew around them, creating conditions that were ripe for the breeding 
of malarial mosquitos. When Leland discovered his mistake and the attendant 
health hazard had begun to take its toll, he quickly dismantled the dam and 
his days as a miller were over. An enterprising man nevertheless, he soon 
thereafter established a potash factory and Lelarnd's Ponds became the site 
of the first "industrial" settlement in Eaton. 

Shortly after the mill failed and many settlers moved farther west into Eaton, it was considered worthwhile to try and develop the geographical center of the town as its industrial nucleus. This idea was short-lived, however, as the growth of the Skaneateles Turnpike (Rte. 26) through the southern part of the town and the Cherry Valley Turnpike (Rte. 20) through its northern section, carried travelers, settlers, and commerce away from the center of Eaton. Villages and settlements along these turnpikes grew and flourished.

Joseph Morse arrived in Eaton shortly after Leland and chose to settle in the valley at the confluence of the Chenango River and Eaton Brook (also known as Alder Brook). This valley was very fertile and ripe for the type of development Morse had in mind. At a time when other enterprising pioneers were settling and establishing farms and sawmills along these rivers, Morse alone built and operated over a 50-year span, a saw- and gristmill, distillery woolen mill, foundry, as well as a wooden pump and pipe manufactory. Later, his most important, though collaborative effort, the portable steam engine works of Wood, Taber & Morse (1859-1890), was established. Morse is even credited with assisting financially in the building of the Skaneateles Turnpike which ran through what was soon to be known as the village of Eaton, where he had originally settled. This turnpike became a well-traveled route, bringing other settlers to the village so that soon Eaton was the site of several industries including the first mowing machine and hay rake factory, which enjoyed great success.

As Morse was settling in the village of Eaton, Thomas Morris arrived in the town and bought land along the Cherry Valley Turnpike to the north. He soon cleared and sowed his first crop of wheat. The small community that grew around him was known as Morris Flats, so named for the man and the terrain. As the village grew, several small industries opened and present day Morrisville was on its way to becoming one of the more important communities in the county.

In 1817 Morrisville was named the county seat taking the title from Cazenovia. Morrisville's central location in the county made this move desirable. A courthouse was soon erected and the village grew in political and commercial prominence as well as becoming the central gathering point and home of most county organizations. An academy for the education of young people which opened in 1831 later became the Morrisville Union School, operating until 1936. Two foundries were built in the village, one specializing in the manufacture of iron stoves, a new idea on the frontier. Just south of Morrisville one of the first woolen mills was built in 1822. A sewing silk factory was established but quickly failed due to the costs of producing the silk. A cheese factory, distillery, gristmill, and tannery were all very successful additions to Morrisville's commercial sector.

With numerous natural lakes, reservoirs, rivers and creeks throughout the town, sawmills and gristmills sprang up in all parts of Eaton. Most of the smaller villages such as West Eaton, Pierceville, and Pratt's Hollow were built around these mills in addition to woolen mills, cheese factories, distilleries, machine shops, tanneries, cotton mills, and foundries. The relatively rapid growth of the villages of Eaton and Morrisville and the growing prosperity of these smaller hamlets earned Eaton the reputation of a major industrial center of the region for the first half of the l9th century. At the peak of production, the town of Eaton's industries employed hundreds of workers many of whom traveled from other parts of the county to work.

Another important development during this period was the construction of the Chenango Canal. Only a small section of the canal traversed the eastern edge of Eaton but it was fed in a large part by the numerous lakes and reservoirs in the town including Leland's Ponds and Woodman Pond. Also at this time, railroads were being laid through the towns most notably the New York and Oswego Midland (later known as the New York, Ontario and Western). This line passed through the village of Eaton and enjoyed some boom years, but eventually folded in 1957 after earning the nickname of the "Old and Weary." However, for several decades the canal and railroad furthered the growth of industry in Eaton, primarily as major transportation alternatives for manufactured goods to larger markets.

The town of Eaton enjoyed over 50 years as a major industrial center. However, its demise as such can be traced to a number of factors. The national economic crisis of 1857 was one of the first in a series of hard blows to the area. Many businesses never recovered from this "depression" and closed their doors. There was increasing competition in the area and markets were limited by the growth of larger industrial centers mainly to the north. Ironically, one of the most successful manufacturing enterprises in Eaton, that of the portable steam engine works of Wood, Taber & Morse, contributed to Eaton's industrial decline. The business was so successful that manufacturing plants operating on power provided by these engines could move away from a dependence on water power and relocate to larger industrial centers. Finally, the valley suffered numerous natural disasters including fires and severe flooding.

Due to these and other contributing factors, Eaton's population reached a peak in 1855, then declined for some time before a resurgence leveled this trend. Many businesses did survive, however, including several woolen mills, cheese factories and tavems. Morrisville continued to enjoy some prosperity and prestige until 1907 when the county seat was moved to Wampsville. Morrisville then gained a new focus in 1908 when the New York Agricultural School was founded by a special act of the Legislature. It was granted the land formerly occupied by the county government and other surrounding lands were purchasers to expand the campus to 200 acres. The first classes were held in home economics. In 1921 a teacher's training course was included in the curriculum and by 1933 industrial courses were added. In 1941 the name was changed to the New York Agricultural and Technical Institute and in 1965 it became a college.

Date: Sunday, November 15, 1998 09:26 PM

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