October 20, 2021

Historian recounts Homer Academy and school growth

History lesson

Travis Dunn/contributing photographer

Martin Sweeney, historian for the town and village of Homer, lectures on the background and formation of the Homer Academy to a lunchtime audience Wednesday at the Cortland County Historical Society.

William Osborn Stoddard may have gone on later in life to become Abraham Lincoln’s assistant personal secretary, but as a kid, Stoddard was a little punk who once got a good switching for throwing spitwads.

While Stoddard insisted on his innocence, Martin Sweeney, who discussed the history of Homer schools at a Wednesday talk at the Cortland County Historical Society, finds Stoddard’s protestations — that someone else did it — highly dubious (“Oh, sure,” said Sweeney).

After all, he said, Stoddard as an adult 30 years later would gleefully brag about getting away with a particularly nasty prank, in which he brought a box full of bees, wasps and hornets into the school, which he then slid under a nearby unoccupied desk. The lid he popped off with a stick. Chaos ensued, in which the delinquent who caused the outrage escaped undetected.

These and other anecdotes Sweeney, historian for the town and village of Homer, shared as he traced the origin and development of the Homer Academy, of which the school that Stoddard attended was one of the early 19th century precursors.

Sweeney gave his talk as part of the county historical society’s summer Lunch & Learn series, which will continue every Wednesday from 12:10 to 12:50 p.m. until the end of July.

The earliest incarnation of a school in Homer was housed in one building off the Commons, or what is today the Village Green; this same building was church, town hall and school. “Talk about multifunctional architecture,” joked Sweeney. “They were way ahead of the times.”

But educationally, not so much. The level of education provided by this school and the ones that soon followed was incredibly low, Sweeney said; for years local schools didn’t go beyond the eighth grade. The schools were so bad that one local merchant, the minimally-educated Jedediah Barber, who had in his younger days taught in a oneroom school house in Onondaga County, proclaimed that in the future “he did not want to hire teachers the likes of which he had been.”

Barber and others pushed the state to give the school a charter so they could build something better. It took two years for the state to respond, but the request was granted in 1819, though for a different name: Cortland Academy (not to be confused, Sweeney said, with Cortlandville Academy).

This state charter helped the town set up a school that attracted teachers educated at Amherst, Dartmouth, Hamilton and Williams.

The school, located just off the Village Green where Homer Central Elementary School now stands, offered three curricular tracks — classical, scientific and teacher training. Whereas the earlier schools barely covered the three Rs, administered with sometimes brutal corporal punishment, the Cortland Academy offered “Latin, Greek, French, German, seven sciences, mathematics through calculus, philosophy, history, bookkeeping, English, art and music,” Sweeney said.

The school quickly began to attract more students, but things really took off in 1830 when Samuel Woolworth was hired as administrator, Sweeney said. During his 21-year reign, Woolworth expanded a school of fewer than 200 students to an enrollment of more than 300, bringing in out-of-state tuition-paying students from as far away as Iowa and Wisconsin. The influx led to residents renting out boarding houses for students, which was a boost to the local economy, Sweeney said.

This was not a free school, but Woolworth did introduce “an egalitarian idea” whereby the school took in one student tuition-free each year from each town in the Cortland County; these students, however, were confined to the teacher-training track and had to teach in common school for one year after graduation.

Woolworth was also notable for another reason: After leaving Homer, he would go on to serve on the first state board of regents and prove instrumental in developing the first board of regents examination.

While free education would not come to the state until 1867, the Cortland Academy would become free for local students in 1873, said Sweeney, when the Homer-area schools were consolidated and the Cortland Academy became the Homer Academy and Union School, a name that would later be shortened to Homer Academy.

Tabitha Scoville, director of the Cortland County Historical Society, said she expects a big crowd at next Wednesday’s Lunch & Learn lecture on the notorious 19th Century Loomis Gang to be presented by Sue Greenhagen, historian for the village of Morrisville and town of Eaton. Scoville said street parking for the event is limited but parking is also allowed in the nearby Methodist Church lot on Maple Avenue.