November 30, 2021

The women who built Cortland

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

This marker was placed near the site of the first shelter that Rhoda Beebe, her husband and brother erected in Homer in 1791, the first European settlers in the area. Rhoda Beebe spent weeks alone as her husband and brother returned to Broome County for supplies. Pictured above are women pioneers Mary Alice Bellardini, left, and Alice Cately Ettling, right.

One of the first three European settlers of Cortland County: a woman, Rhoda Beebe.

One of the 19th Century’s foremost social thinkers: a woman, Amelia Jenks Bloomer.

A captain of industry, a ground-breaking political leader, a prominent community activist — all women.

Women have played a critical role in how Cortland County came to be, grow and develop, said Homer Town Historian Martin Sweeney.

And as America marks both its 244th birthday next week and the centennial in August of the adoption of the 19th Amendment — guaranteeing women the right to vote in the nation they helped create — that’s something to note.

So here are the stories of five women — Rhoda Beebe, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, Alice Cately Ettling, Florence Campbell Fitzgerald and Mary Alice Bellardini — who helped make Cortland County what it is.

Rhoda Beebe: 1765-1832

Beebe was the first woman of European descent to move to and settle in what is now Homer, Sweeney said.

Born in 1765, Beebe, her husband, Joseph Beebe, and brother Amos Todd moved from New Haven, Connecticut, to Windsor, in Broome County, then to Homer in 1791.

The three of them built a temporary shelter at a spot near what is now the intersection of Hooker Avenue and Route 11 and lived there for a year.

Beebe was tough. Legend has it that for six cold weeks between December 1791 and January 1792, Rhoda Beebe stayed by herself in a lean-to as her husband and brother left to get supplies.

Between foraging for roots to eat and wood to keep warm, a wolf came calling, prowling through her shelter. The wolf, though, seemed not to find anything of interest and left.

The story, and her willingness to travel to uncharted — for non-Native Americans — land help show her true character.

“She’s an example of courage and perseverance” that defined the founding mothers, Sweeney said.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer: 1818-1894

A common misconception, Bloomer never created the women’s clothing that bore her name, but she did establish and work for the newspaper that first advertised the clothing.

Born in 1818, Bloomer spent the first six years of her life in Homer. She attended Cortland Academy, which is now Homer Central School District, before moving to Seneca Falls.

File

Amelia Jenks Bloomer created The Lily, the first newspaper owned and directed by a woman.

It was there that she created The Lily, the first newspaper “created, owned and directed by a woman for women,” Sweeney said. It focused on women’s temperance, opposing alcohol consumption, and pushed for women’s rights, including the right to vote.

It was in that newspaper that Bloomer advocated for women’s dress reform through articles and illustrations with the outfit that would be known as bloomers.

She introduced Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Susan B. Anthony in 1851, beginning one of American feminism’s foremost partnerships.

Bloomer returned to Homer in the 1850s wearing the outfit she had been a proponent of and was met with ridicule from the locals, including a group of young boys who made fun of her. “Not only does change take a long time, it can be taxing on one’s life,” Sweeney said.

Alice Cately Ettling: 1851-1924

Born in 1851, Ettling would go on to own and manage and own a wagon-manufacturing business started by her father and played an important role in Cortland, said Tabitha Scoville, the director of the Cortland County Historical Society.

Ettling, a Tully native and daughter of wagon maker Shepard W. Cately, moved with her family to Cortland when she was young. She attended and graduated from the Cortland Normal School — now SUNY Cortland — in 1871 before marrying Henry Ettling, who died when she was 35.

Alice Cately Ettling started working with her father in his carriage business in 1888, which would later become Cately and Ettling, where she helped develop a device to lower and raise carriage tops.

Ettling

She was also the only woman to attend the National Carriage Builders Association banquets from 1889 to 1916.

After her father’s death in 1898, Alice Cately Ettling solely managed the business until 1916, when the automobile ended the wagon industry.

She also was involved in many local organizations including the Tioughnioga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and played a role in organizing Cortland’s chapter of the American Red Cross.

“Alice Ettling was an enterprising and successful businesswoman at a time when business was very much a male-dominated world,” Scoville wrote. “She was not afraid to be the only woman at the carriage shows because she knew the value of her products. She carried on as a single parent when her husband died and as the head of a successful company when her father died. She was truly an inspiration to a new generation of Cortland County women.”

Florence Campbell Fitzgerald: 1920-2019

Fitzgerald played a big role in helping to create a support program for soldiers during the Vietnam War, said Mindy Leisenring, the former Cortland County Historical Society director. But she had a role in many of the institutions that made Cortland County what it is in the past 60 years.

In 1963, she was elected to the Cortland County Board of Supervisors — what is now the Cortland County Legislature — after serving as an alderwoman for Cortland’s 6th Ward, where she played critical roles in the creation of Yaman Park in Cortland. She also served on a committee that worked to create Tompkins Cortland Community College.

She was the first elected chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors in 1969, and only the second in the state.

Fitzgerald

What Fitzgerald may most be remembered for is the Home for the Holidays program, which helped bring home Cortland soldiers on leave at Christmas in 1970 and 1971 and at Easter in 1972.

More than $10,000 was raised to bring back 16 servicemen in 1970, with more raised the following year to bring back 19 servicemen.

“I could never have made it home for Christmas if not for the people here,” Air Force Sgt. LeRoy Washington told The New York Times in 1971. “They want to see us. They’re a great bunch of people.”

The following year — 1972 — saw three more servicemen from Saigon come home for two weeks leave at Easter time.

Mary Alice Bellardini: 1933-

The history of the village of Homer can’t be complete with a mention of Mary Alice Bellardini, Sweeney said.

Bellardini moved to the village in the 1950s and became heavily involved in many aspects until her departure to North Carolina on June 16.

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Bellardini

In 1974, she helped found the Landmark Society of Cortland County, an organization that promotes the preservation of Cortland County’s historic character, like downtown Homer, according to the Cortland County Historical Society.

She was the village’s first female mayor from 1987 to 2001, during which the village saw tremendous growth, Sweeney said.

She worked to preserve historic buildings, created the summer concerts on the green series, worked on the revitalization and beautification of the Main Street area.

She was elected president of the New York State Conference of Mayors in 1995 and appointed by Gov. George Pataki in 2000 to New York State’s Quality Communities Interagency Task Force.