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Bringing history to life

Nick Graziano/contributing photographer

Homer Historian Martin Sweeney looks over historical documents in his Town Hall office last week.

One moment in history can spark a lifelong passion: a moment that’s captured in a blink of an eye and opens your mind to a realm of wonders.

For Homer native Martin Sweeney, the town historian who was recently named village historian, that moment happened in seventh grade, while researching the history of Homer for an essay contest.

He came across the wealthy Schermerhorn family of Homer. Sweeney said he read how the father took his daughter and his daughter’s friend from Homer to Washington to meet President Abraham Lincoln — someone Sweeney had a great interest in since becoming enthralled with the Civil War in fifth grade. He heard, because of their wealth, the Schermerhorn family had an extraordinary horse-drawn carriage.

Sweeney would pass the Schermerhorn house every day while walking to high school, and one day his curiosity got the better of him. He opened the barn door and inside, the carriage was still there.

“For me, it was like, wow, this is real,” Sweeney said. “This thing called history is real. This thing called the past is a story.”

Between finding the carriage and winning second place in the essay contest, Sweeney said he knew in seventh grade what kind of career he wanted. He thought about what he could do with history, and decided to work toward becoming a history teacher.

It wasn’t hard for Sweeney to continue studying the history of Homer once he went to college, because he got his bachelor’s and master’s degree in secondary social studies at SUNY Cortland. And in 1981 he got his master’s in public administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

He taught junior high social studies in the Homer School District from 1970 to 2009. When he sees any of his 4,000 former students, there is one thing they often remember: Sweeney would play music from the era he was teaching about and would dress up as someone from that era, too.

One year he dressed as a 1960s hippie. Another, he was a Soviet Union general. And many others, including a 1920s gangster.
“I try to make it (history) come alive,” he said.

When he dressed as a Soviet general, to introduce the Cold War, he said he mocked democracy and one kid became very defensive.

“I thought, this is great, this is great! I got him so P.O.’d that he’s gonna stand up,” Sweeney said. “It is not necessarily what I intended, but I thought this is a teachable moment. Go with this. It was great.”

His class was never boring, said Luke Biondi, executive director of the Central New York Living History Center. Biondi was in Sweeney’s eighth-grade social studies class during the 2006-07 school year. He said Sweeney had a unique way of presenting the material, and he remembers Sweeney dressing as Abraham Lincoln.

“He was that one teacher that you will remember for years to come just because of the impression he would make on his students,” Biondi said. “He had a big influence on what I went on to study in college, which eventually led me back home to the Living History Center.”

Toward the end of Sweeney’s teaching career, he made a bucket list for retirement. One idea was to serve on the Homer Board of Education, which he has served on for seven years and another was to become a historian.

In 2008, he was asked by the town to fill the vacant position, and this year he was selected to be the historian for the village of Homer, too — a decision he said was a “no brainer.” Everything he has studied about the town included the history of the village, too.

Now he can share his love for the history of Homer and continue to make it real for the community.

The historian has four tasks, Sweeney said. The first is to preserve the local past, such as artifacts, architecture and documents. Second is to educate the community about the history of Homer.

“We’re such a socially mobile society that people have no idea; they can say, ‘Hey I’ve lived here and raised my kids for the past six years, I had no idea Homer had a connection to (Abraham) Lincoln,’” Sweeney said. “It is my job to tell them.”

The third requirement is to promote local history and show its value, Sweeney said.

“How can you tell where you’re at, how can you tell where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?” he said.
And the fourth is to celebrate local history through various events.

Homer Town Supervisor Fred Forbes said Sweeney goes far beyond the duties of a historian, making the community aware of all the history the town has to offer.

“On a scale of one to 10, he is probably a 13,” Forbes said. “It would be difficult to come up with anyone close to Martin’s experience.”

Sweeney’s passion project at the moment is establishing a monument in Town Hall honoring three men who played an integral role in Lincoln’s life: portrait painter Francis Carpenter; William Osburn Stoddard, a personal security guard for Lincoln and his wife; and Eli DeVoe, a detective who thwarted an assassination plot on Lincoln.

The monument, which would include plaques, paintings and statues, would cost about $420,000. Sweeney is trying to raise the money, but he knows it will be a challenge. However, if he is able to achieve his goal, Sweeney said the monument would cover all four of the requirements of a historian in one project. It preserves Homer’s history, it educates the community, it promotes the history and celebrates it.

The monument is the kind of project that could bring history to life for someone else, who has that one moment that sparks a new interest in history.