October 25, 2021

Cortland names new historian

Kevin L. Smith/staff reporter

New Cortland City Historian Kathleen O’Connell stands in front of a monument to the county’s Civil War soldiers in Courthouse Park in Cortland. O’Connell says she gets a thrill from discovering the details of the community’s history.

Kathleen O’Connell has a fascination for history in the city of Cortland.

Whether it’s finding out the backstory of a building, business or even a person in the city, O’Connell wants to know all about it in full detail.

Cortland’s Common Council unanimously voted to name O’Connell the new city historian last week, replacing Elizabeth Wavle-Brown, who recently stepped down after being in the position since last August.

“She’s a walking encyclopedia when it comes to the city of Cortland,” Wavle-Brown said.

O’Connell grew up in Homer, and has lived in Cortland for 20 years. She has been a trustee for the Cortland County Historical Society for the past five years. O’Connell graduated from Homer High School in 1983. She has a dual degree in mathematics and psychology from SUNY Potsdam.

The interest in history, however, came purely from her family, who O’Connell said “are a bunch of history buffs.”

“I basically grew up with a love for history around me,” she said. “My family has a deep interest in the history of this city.”

O’Connell, 55, is the second in her family to become the city historian. Her aunt, Mary Dexter, held the unpaid position in the 1970s.

When Wavle-Brown resigned citing time constraints, she suggested O’Connell as her replacement. O’Connell had done two presentations at the Cortland County Historical Society, one on carriage and wagon manufacturers of Cortland in 1894, and the other on the business district of Main Street.

The inspiration for the talk on carriages and wagons, said O’Connell, came from the topographical map of the city of Cortland.

“I really enjoyed putting those talks together,” she said. “Things just evolve in business and the industry. At the same time, some things stay the same.”

Tabitha Scoville, executive director for the historical society, said O’Connell has a “photographic memory of what businesses or houses were here and when it was here.”

“She’s going to do a great job. She has an excellent memory,” Scoville said. “She can look at a building and tell you exactly what businesses were in it.”

O’Connell said she relishes finding the tidbits and details of discovery even more than the information itself.

A few years back, for example, O’Connell found out a house on Main Street in the 1880s was enlarged to fit within the structure of the buildings around it.

“If she doesn’t know about something, she knows where to look,” Wavle-Brown said. “She’s just that good.”

Eric Mulvihill, county historian, said he’s looking forward to working with O’Connell on various projects that will be determined at a later date.

“I’m glad the city has a new historian,” Mulvihill said. “It’s always good to have people in those positions because people have inquiries and interest in finding out more about the city’s history.”