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History of the Town of Otisco

The following was copied from Vol. I, pp. 922-932 of Onondaga's Centennial, edited by Dwight H. Bruce and published by Boston History Co., 1896.


This town was not formed until several years after the first settlements were made. The date of its organization is March 21, 1806, when it was formed of parts of Pompey, Marcellus and Tully. It is about five miles long and a little more than four broad, and is situated southwest of the center of the county, bounded east by La Fayette and Tully, south by Spafford and Tully, west by Otisco Lake and Spafford, and north by Onondaga and a small part of Marcellus. Its surface consists principally of the high ridge between the valleys of Onondaga Creek and Otisco Lake. The hills are generally steep and their summits rolling, and 1,600 to 1.700 feet above tide. Otisco Lake, on the west border of the town, is in a valley 1,000 feet below the summits of the hills, is a beautiful body of water five miles long, in the midst of picturesque scenery, and 772 feet above tide water. Bear Mountain, so called from the number of bears infesting its forests in early years, is in the northeast part of the town, and is one of the principal elevations. The original forest was heavy and consisted chiefly of deciduous trees upon the hills, with some hemlock and pine in the valleys. The clearing of the land was accomplished only by arduous labor, but when ready for cultivation it was found to consist of sandy and gravelly loam, fertile and well adapted to general farming. Large crops of wheat, corn, and other grains have rewarded the industrious agriculturist. With all but three towns in the county of greater acreage the census of 1855 shows Otisco to have held second place in the production of maple sugar, and of apples, and third place in the number of bushels of spring wheat. In this respect the town has been underrated by those not conversant with the facts. Clark wrote of it almost fifty years ago:

Its present appearance would compare favorably with any town in the county. Its inhabitants are hardy, industrious, frugal and independent, attentive to their own business, out of debt, and have the means of sustaining themselves. Not a pauper or a lawyer is there in the town, nor a man unable or unwilling to pay his school bills. Gospel and schools are well supported, hard times are unknown. It is said a hundred dollars could not be lent in this town. None are very rich and none are very poor.

The conditions of agricultural communities have changed since that was written, and yet in many respects the description is true to-day.

Otisco contains military lots which were originally in the towns of Pompey, Marcellus and Tully, numbered and drawn as follows:

Nos. 55, 71, and 86, of Pompey, drawn by John Uthest, alias Joost Hess, Thomas O. Bryan, and John Bogg respectively. Numbers 3, 4, 5, 6, 13, 14, 15, and 16, of Tully, drawn consecutively by Gen. James Clinton (the first two), Joshua Kelly, Lewis Dubois, (13 reserved for Gospel and schools), Capt. William Ball, Martin Decker, and William Peak. Nos. 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 91 92, 93, 94, and 95, of Marcellus, drawn consecutively by John Wilmot, Lieut. William Pennington, Christian Baker, Jacob Wyshover, William Smith, Lieut.-Col. Ebenezer Stephens, Capt. Peter I. Vosburgh (part of 91), Gilbert Utter, Edward Walker, Abraham Wilson, Holmes Austin, William Thuttle, Obediah Hill, Ichabod Ailing, Ensign Robert Provost.

Although a few Revolutionary soldiers lived in this town, as recorded in Chapter XV, it is not known that any of the grantees of these lots ever settled on their lands.

Settlement in Otisco territory began in 1798 when Oliver Tuttle and his son Daniel, and possibly his son William, came on horseback from Cincinnatus, in what is now Cortland county, and began improvements on lot 97, near the head of Otisco Lake. While they were thus employed the father was taken very sick and was cared for by Daniel until able to sit on a horse, when they returned to Cincinnatus. The journey was made through the forest, without roads, and the first dwelling was reached at Homer.

It was four years before they returned to Otisco, and they then found several families of settlers. Oliver Tuttle built the first frame house in 1804, Tyler Frisbie, who had the statement directly from the sons of Daniel Tuttle, and also from the sons of Mr. Alpheus Bouttelle, who settled in Otisco in 1804, from the town of Pompey, has no doubt but Mr. Tuttle was the first settler of the town.

Chauncy Rust, said by Clark to have been the first settler, moved his family from La Fayette in April, 1801. Mr. Rust was from Northampton, Mass. During this year and the following a large number of settlers arrived, principally from Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the whole town filled up rapidly.

Among others of the first settlers were Jonathan B. Nichols, Charles and Benoni Merriman, Solomon Judd and Lemon Gaylord, in 1801; Otis Baker, Noah Parsons, Nathaniel Loomis, Amos and Isaac Cowles, in 1802; Benjamin Cowles, Josiah Clark, Daniel Bennett, Elias and Jared Thayer, Henry Elethrop, Samuel, Ebenezer and Luther French, Jared and Noah Parsons, and Erastus Clapp.

Joseph Cady Howe moved from Chesterfield, Mass., into that part of Pompey which is now La Fayette in 1799 and three years later he, his brother, Zara Davis Howe, and Apollos King moved into the the (sic) south part of Otisco. About this time Josephus Barker, Judah Hopkins, Oliver Bostwick, Timothy Everett, and Charles Clark settled in the east part, and Uriah Fish, Thomas Redway, Daniel Hurlburt, settled in the northwestern part.

These early settlers came "with the Bible in one hand and the spelling book in the other," and laid the foundations for the development of a virtuous and vigorous people. The first religious meeting held in the town was at the house of Chauncey Rust in September, 1801, and from that time they were steadily maintained, and on the 9th of May, 1808, Rev. Hugh Wallis, of Pompey, presiding, Charles Merriman, Rachel Merriman, Samuel French, Benjamin Cowles, Phineas Sparks, Oliver Tuttle, Abigail Tuttle, Ebenezer French, jr., Amos Cowles, Luther French, and Solomon Judd, organized the Congregational church of Otisco, and the society adopted as it (sic) name, "The Washington Religious Society of Otisco." Its first church edifice was a frame structure standing on the farm now owned by Irving W. Bardwell, a short distance north of Otisco Center. The only means for heating this building during the whole time it was used for worship was by the use of little foot stoves brought thither from the scattered homes of the congregation. In the year 1816 a larger church was built in the center of the village on a desirable site which the society still retains. From the building of the second church down to 1855 it would be difficult to find a rural community more general in attendance at church, a larger and better trained choir, a more generally attended Sunday school, or a larger or more intelligent society of young people. In the fall of 1805 Rev. George Colton was called as their first minister, but he remained only a few months. December 9, 1807, Rev. William J. Wilcox, of Sandisfield, Mass., was invited to the pastorate which he accepted and continued until March 15, 1821. The subsequent pastors of the church have been Revs. Charles Johnson, July 19, 1821, to September 3, 1823. Richard S. Corning, November 15, 1824, for nine succeeding years. Levi Parsons, May 1, 1834, supply one year. Levi Griswold, stated supply nearly a year and pastor two years. Sidney Mills, stated supply two years from April 1, 1839. Thaddeus Pomeroy, two years from December 14, 1841. Clement Lewis, stated supply two years. Addison K. Strong, supply in June, 1846, and pastor nine years. Levi Parsons (son of the before mentioned pastor of that name), two years. Medad Pomeroy, five years from 1858, succeeded in the following order by J. M. Jenks, Alvin Baker, James S. Baker, Isaac O. Best, R. C. Allison, Edward Strong, John Brash, Henry B. Hudson, J. J Munro, J. E. Beecher, F. B. Fraser and Addison K. Strong again, who returned to the church early in 1894 and remained until his death. The present church was built in 1892. The membership is 110.

In order that their children might be educated the pioneers of Otisco provided a school soon after the first settlement. The first teacher in the town was Lucy Cowles, afterwards the wife of Rev. George Colton. The school house was built of logs in 1804. Luther French, afterwards a physician, two of his sisters, Lucy, who married Bela Darrow, and Anna, who married William King, and Timothy Everett were among the early teachers. Lucy was teaching in the first log school house at the time of the great eclipse in the summer of 1806; some of her pupils came a distance of three miles. In later years Charles and Lyman Kingsley, Nathaniel Bostwick, still living at Onondaga Valley, Warner Abbott, B. J. Cowles, and E. V. P. French were leading teachers. Later still came Halsey W. Noyes, Harvey C. Griffin, Emerson C. Pomeroy, Eveline T. Howe who married Harris Kingsley, Ruth Cox who married Dr. Simeon S. French, and her sister Susan who married a Rev. Mr. Gardner and is living in Battle Creek, Mich. Probably the teacher who was most efficient in lifting the calling to the dignity of a profession in this town, and who is to-day the peer of any person in the State in mathematics, a good scientist and linguist, and an excellent teacher in all respects, is Edwin A. Strong, now filling one of the chairs of science in the Michigan State School at Ypsilanti.

While the early settlers of the town were thus establishing religion and education in their town, they labored six days in every week in clearing and tilling their lands, or in connection with the early mercantile and manufacturing operations. At the same time the population increased, neighbors became more accessible to each other, and the beginning of the small hamlet was made.

In the war of the Revolution, Leavett Billings served his country three years. He was in the battle of Monmouth, and often made the remark that he "never was so glad to see the backs of any men as he was those of the British when they turned to run."

Ebenezer French, jr., went twice with his father as minute men; was with the army at Long Island, and also at the surrender of Burgoyne, and at the celebrated crossing of the Delaware he had a hand hurt so that amputation of one finger was necessary. In his regular enlistment he was in Col. Artemus Ward's regiment of Massachusetts troops. In the Shay rebellion he enlisted to aid in the execution of the laws.

Christopher Monk enlisted with Massachusetts troops, and afterwards settled and died in Otisco. Israel Frisbie and Apollos King were both in that war, and these five are laid at rest in the Southern Cemetery of this town.

Others who shared in the Revolution were John Ladue, in the New York troops; Elon Norton, in Colonel Swift's regiment of Connecticut troops; Chauncey Atkins, Samuel Stewart, sr., and Capt. Eliakim Clark.

In the war of 1812 the following persons enlisted from this town: Dr. Luther French, as surgeon; Otis Baker, Charles Kingsley, Daniel Hurlburt, Amos Goodell, Samuel Stewart, jr., Thomas Redway, Ira Newman, John Van Benthuysen, Samuel Kinyon, Robert Johnson, Robert Rainy, and Heman Griffin. In the war of the Rebellion the town maintained its repute for patriotism and answered the calls for soldiers promptly and freely.

The first town meeting was held at the house of Daniel Bennett, April 1, 1806. Dan Bradley, of Marcellus, was chairman, Judah Hopkins was chosen supervisor; Josephus Barker, town clerk; and Noah Parsons, Lemon Gaylord, and Josephus Barker, assessors. An extra town meeting was held in the month of August following, at the school house near Daniel Bennett's tavern, at which a committee of three was chosen to ascertain the center of the town, in order to centrally locate the public buildings.

Near Otisco village Jesse Swan settled in 1809 and opened a store and a tavern; these were situated about a mile south of the present village site. Charles Clark settled on the farm where he lived so long in 1809; he built a saw mill, and a fulling mill, and lived to nearly a century.

Joseph Baker, a native of Chesterfield, Mass., where he was horn in November, 1778, followed his brothers, Erastus, Lemuel, and Thomas to Pompey West Hill in 1804. In 1810 he removed to Otisco, where he died June 8, 1855. He married Betsey Danforth and they had eleven children. After her death in 1840 he married the widow of Capt. Timothy Pomeroy, of Otisco. He was a farmer, and cleared many tracts of land for others.

Dr. Jonathan S. Judd began practice in his profession in Otisco in 1806, and Dr. Luther French two or three years later. They were both men of consequence in the town. Dr. Ashbel Searl was a student in the office of Dr. French, and after finishing his studies he remained in the town in practice until 1850, when he removed to Onondaga Valley, where he continued in business. Dr. Horatio Smith came a little later, but left the town about the same time; his son, Willis G. Smith, studied with his father, and in due time practiced with him, and remained after his father went away. Dr. Simeon S. French, son of Dr. Luther French, grew to manhood in the town, and studied medicine with Dr. Parks, of La Fayette. After five years of practice in his native town and Onondaga he moved to Battle Creek, Mich., and after fifty years of practice there is still in the harness. He was a surgeon in the late war, where it was his privilege to save many limbs from amputation.

In 1819 Lamberton Munson migrated from Massachusetts and settled in the south part of the town on the Hamilton and Skaneateles turnpike. Neighbors of his were Thomas Lyman, father of John, and ex-District Attorney Frederick A. Lyman, Ira, Richard and Ebenezer Pompey, Luther Colton, Abraham Wilkin and Joseph Baker. Of these Mr. Lyman located about a mile south of the Center, in February, 1822, after traveling from Northampton, Mass., with a team. They used a sleigh part of the distance, when the snow went off, and they had to buy a wagon to continue the journey, which required ten days. Mr. Lyman was father of five sons and seven daughters. John and F. A. are the only sons now living.

Alpheus Bouttelle settled in Otisco Valley previous to this and later came Alvah Munson, Levi Rice and Oren T. Frisbie. Farther down the valley and near Amber were Ladowick Hotchkiss, Squire Willard and Seneca C. Hemenway. At Amber, where a little hamlet gathered, lived Killian Van Rensselaer, who was an influential Mason of that time and doubtless to him may be given the credit of establishing some of the higher bodies of that order in so small a place. Alanson Adams was a merchant at Amber for fifty years, where Mr. Griffin is now located; A. J. Niles also carried on business there many years. Julius, George D., and Nelson Bishop were reputable farmers at Oak Hill, while Heman Griffin conducted a hotel on the western slope of that hill as long as the stages and their passengers made it profitable. Stephen Wilbur, now living on the hill, is the oldest native living in the town. Saul Bailey, the wealthiest man in the town, lived a little to the north of the hill and George W. Card.

About Otisco Center on various farms at an early day lived Seth Clark, Zephany Merriman, Jabez Whitmore, Josiah Everett, Peleg Corey, Phineas Sparks, Sturgis Sherwood, Daniel and Ichabod Ross; the last two were brothers and it is a curious fact that they lived in separate houses on their undivided farm, that no difference ever arose between them. If one started to plow a field the other kept out. In an early day on the small stream leading into Christian Hollow, east from the Center, were four mills, one woolen and three saw mills, all of which have disappeared.

Aaron Drake was a wagonmaker at Amber in early years. James L. Niles was a lifelong resident of the town and died in June, 1894; he served five years as supervisor and was a son of Albert and Polly Niles, who settled early; he was a brother of A. J. Niles, before mentioned as merchant and postmaster at Amber, and who died in March, 1893. Benjamin Kinyon was a native of the town and was born May 16, 1815; he lived on the family homestead to about 1888, when he moved into Amber village and there died May 30, 1894. Otis Baker was an early settler who was much respected; he came to the town in 1802 and died September 18, 1864, at the age of eighty-four years.

Otisco has contributed eighteen physicians to the medical profession, and to the names already given of early doctors may be added those of Drs. Samuel Kingsley, Luther Cowles, Elisha Merriman, Daniel Frisbie, Theodore C. Pomeroy, and W. W. Munson.

The clerical profession has received thirteen natives of the town, prominent among the early ones being Marcus and Vinal Smith, Austin Wilcox, Medad and Lemuel S. Pomeroy, and later Dr. Alvah L. Frisbie, of the First Congregational church of Des Moines, Iowa; Edward Strong, son of the late Rev. Dr. A. K. Strong, whose father was also a clergyman; Charles C. Hemenway, pastor of the Presbyterian church at Auburn; Frank Bailey, Henry W. Tuttle, and David G. Smith.

The cultivation of the soil has always been the chief occupation of Otisco men. What little manufacturing the town ever had has disappeared, with the exception of a saw mill or two. For many years a large business was carried on at Otisco Center in the manufacture of grain fanning mills. The first grist mill in the town was built by Charles Merriman in 1806; the only one of the kind now in town is situated by a small stream west of the Center and owned by Daniel Gambie. Mercantile business, too, has only been sufficient for the needs of the community. Daniel Bennett is given the credit of keeping the first store in town in 1802 and Michael Johnson the first store in 1808. Since then there has always been one or two stores at the Center and at Amber, the merchants usually acting as postmasters. Lester Judson now carries on a store at Otisco Center, and Mr. Griffin at Amber. The first postmaster in town was Dr. Luther French in 1814 at Otisco Center. There are now four post-offices in the town, at the Center, Amber, Otisco Valley, and Zealand, near the head of the lake.

Among the prominent farmers of the past may be mentioned:

Thomas Radway, Oliver Bostwick, Otis Baker, Elisha Cowles, Thomas Parent, Stephen Pomeroy, Nathaniel B. Searl, Captain Pelton and Philander S. Munson. The pioneers for a few years had to go to Jamesville or Manlius to get their wheat ground for family use, and to Albany to find a market. It is related that Thomas Parent once drew a load of wheat to Albany, but found the price so low that he brought it all the way back to Otisco. Some of the later successful farmers are Geo. D. Redway (who has on his farm lineal descendants from a flock of fourteen sheep that were driven into the town in 1806 by Thomas Redway), Willis C. Fish, Marcus Hotchkiss, Solomon Wheeler, William Hurlburt, Jno. W. Baker, Edward M. Kingsley, Irving W. Bardwell, Samuel N. Cowles, Lewis Ellis, I. T. Frisbie. Farm products of the town are now largely marketed at Tully.

Willis Gaylord was nine years old when his father moved into Otisco. He was prominently connected with the Albany Cultivator and the Genesee Farmer, two of the leading agricultural papers of that day; he was also an able contributor to the general literature and scientific journals of his time and remarkable for his love of and perseverance in the study and mastery of Virgil. He possessed natural ingenuity, which led him to construct an organ which was in use many years. He was physically incapable of hard manual labor, by reason of an early affliction, but his mind was active. He made palm leaf hats, bound books and otherwise occupied himself. He wrote a history of the war of 1812 which was submitted to Lewis H. Redfield, but he declined to publish it; he afterwards, however, admitted his mistake in not accepting it. He died at Howlett Hill, March 27, 1844, aged fifty years.

Willis Gaylord Clark and Lewis Gaylord Clark were twin brothers, sons of Capt. Eliakim Clark, cousins of Willis Gaylord, and were born in Otisco in April, 1808. Their boyhood was marked by more than the usual juvenile pranks and generally of an original type. They were noted for wonderful memory and would repeat sermons once heard almost verbatim. Each won for himself a name in the world of letters. Willis wrote many essays, some fine poems and was a correspondent of leading English magazines. He was made editor of the Philadelphia Gazette, but found time to write the celebrated "Ollapodiana Papers" which were published in the Knickerbocker Magazine, of which his brother Lewis was then editor, and continued as such many years. Both brothers gained a national reputation.

Carrie M. Congdon, writer of "Guardian Angels," and other poems, lived in this town. The work of her pen was produced under great trial and discomfort; she died young.

As the town increased in population the need of further church societies was felt and on the 18th of August, 1824, a meeting of citizens was held at the Lake House, then kept by David Moore, and proceeded to organize the Amber Religious Society. The church was erected with the understanding that it should belong to no one denomination, but should be for the use of any that desired it. Miles Bishop, Barber Kenyon, and Samuel Kenyon were chosen a building committee and empowered to select a site and build a church. Robert Kenyon and Isaac Briggs with the committee formed the first board of trustees of the church. The building was of wood and cost $1,300. The Methodists only kept up regular service. In 1866 the hill on which the church now stands was lowered and the church rebuilt at a cost of $1,450.

The third religious organization in the town was the Maple Grove Methodist Episcopal church. In 1832 a class of twenty-eight members was organized at the Seeley school house by Peres Case, a local preacher. Regular services were continued in the school house until 1850 when the present church was erected; the sight (sic) was donated by Amos Abbott. The society was incorporated February 27, 1850, Warner Abbott, John Case, Lewis Pickett, trustees. The church was rebuilt and rededicated in 1876 and stands on a beautiful spot among the farms of northeast Otisco.

St. Patrick's church was erected in 1870 on the north border of Otisco village, under the supervision of Rev. F. T. Purcell, of Skaneateles, who had charge of a mission here for some time. On December 25, 1886, the church was destroyed by fire, but was rebuilt in 1889 on a site adjoining that of the Congregational church on the south.

About thirty years ago the Reformed Methodist people organized a society in Otisco and they now have a church about a mile south from Otisco Center. The society is prosperous.

The population of this town at different dates is given in the following figures:

1835, 1,863; 1840, 1,906; 1835, (sic) 1,701; 1850, 1,804; 1855, 1,725; 1860, 1,848; 1865, 1,696; 1870, 1,602; 1875, 1,532; 1880, 1,558; 1890, 1,326; 1892, 1,311.

Following is a list of the supervisors of the town, as far as now obtainable:

Joseph D. Hopkins, 1806; Jonathan B. Nichols, 1807; Joseph Barker, 1808-17; Jonathan B. Nichols, 1817-21; Joseph Barker, 1821-22; Jared Parsons, 1822-25; Warner Abbott, 1836-37; Richard Pomeroy, 1838; Simeon T. Clark, 1839: Jared Parsons, 1840; Nathaniel B. Searle, 1841; Asel S. Bissell, 1842; Benjamin J. Cowles, 1843-45; Solomon Wheeler, 1884-86; James Henderson, 1886-88; M. Meara, 1888-89; Samuel N. Cowles, 1889-90; James L. Miles, 1890-93: Henry Tuffley, 1893-96.

Otisco is not fruitful of early recollection and incident, though there are some authenticated traditions connected with its history. Among them is that of an Indian family said to have lived somewhere in the vicinity of the foot of Otisco Lake, the paternal of which and all of his children were thickly covered with a coating of hair, like that of a bear. The family was supposed to be possessed of an evil spirit and was shunned by all other Indians. This tradition still has firm believers among the Onondaga Indians, who once had a trail to the lake whither they went to hunt and fish. The Otisco Lake was a picturesque sheet of water until the State, in 1863, converted it into a feeder for the Erie Canal, since which time it has been subject to heavy draft at times during the summer, lowering the water and materially widening its shores. A dam for this purpose was constructed across the outlet. It might fairly be supposed that in such a mountainous region in connection with the fact that not far from the town there is much limestone, that good quarries of building stone would be found, but there are none. The ledges are mainly composed of red and brown shale. There is however, a singular deposit of Marcellus goniatite or "horn rock," on the road from South Onondaga to Otisco. The "horns" are like those found along the east shore of Skaneateles Lake, near Glen Haven. They are said by geologists to be the remains of molluska, deposited when the region was covered with water, like the crustacea which make the present beds of marl, from which cement is made, here and there over a large belt of country. There are geologists who class these "horns" with coral. Their origin is not definitely known; at least geologists disagree in their opinions. It was said fifty years ago of this town, when there was "not a pauper or a lawyer in it, not a man unable or unwilling to pay his school bills," that its condition was described by a Chinese aphorism:

Where spades grow bright, and idle swords grow dull,
Where jails are empty, and where barns are full,
Where church paths are by frequent feet outworn,
Law court yards weedy, silent and forlorn,
Where doctors foot it, and where farmers ride,
Where age abounds, and youth is multiplied,
Where these signs are, they truly indicate.
A happy people and well-governed State.

Though the last half century has wrought changes in Otisco, as elsewhere, it is still a town of superior characteristics. Its population, always small comparatively, has slowly dwindled, it is true, since 1840, as the population of most other towns has fallen off and mainly been added to that of the city, but it must always remain possessed of its own peculiar advantages and maintain more or less of the sterling character which its pioneers brought to it.

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Designed and created by Kenneth Jennings Wooster, this page was contributed to the Onondaga County USGenWeb page on August 13, 1998. No changes are to be made without permission of the author.

Kenneth Jennings Wooster
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