November 29, 2021

Meet the builders

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Theodore Stevenson built 99 houses and three factories in the late 19th century in Cortland, and he laid out several streets, including the one that bears his name.

Their motives are lost to time. A bit of capitalism, no doubt — the desire and need to make a bit of profit. Perhaps a sense of destiny was behind their plans, the realization that the Cortland of tomorrow had to be built today. Maybe they just had a need to create, and a community was as good a canvas as, well, canvas.

Today, you see their names, although you may not know their stories: Stevenson and Squires, Brewer and Beard.

Some names are recorded only in history, although their legacy is as iconic as the buildings they left behind, the Keator Block, the Samson Building.

Wickwire and Beaudry, Smith (that would be Lyman Cornelius Smith) and Yaman and Ettling, Brockway and Samson — the greater Cortland area has so many visionaries that no one effort can catalog them all.

But look around. Their names remain — on buildings and street signs, on parks and pools.

These men and women may not recognize the Cortland of today, but the Cortland of today would not have come to pass but for their work a century or more ago.

James S. Squires (1819-1900)

A prominent building that stood at Main and Tompkins streets and a road in the city’s South End are among the lasting signs of the life of James S. Squires, best known as a bank official and homebuilder.

Squires was born Jan. 31, 1819, in Virgil and moved in 1853 to the village of Cortland. He died Nov. 21, 1900, at age 81, the year the municipality he helped grow become a city.

“His mercantile acumen began with a very limited education, progressed to selling onion seeds and investing the profits in the purchase of a lamb, which began a flock that would provide the wool for the tailor of his wedding suit,” according to an article by former city historian Mary Anne Kane published May 2, 2006, in the Cortland Standard. “His reputation for dependability grew when his country store was an economic casualty and he chose to work years to cover the $2,200 debt.”

He built a house at 44 Tompkins St., which he expanded in 1871.

“Squires resigned from a 15-year career as president of the National Bank at the end of 1883 to concentrate on his personal business interests,” Kane wrote.

His name was already attached to his building at Main and Tompkins streets, where he operated his real estate office at No. 5, Squires Block. The building was destroyed by fire in April 2006, and a similar style building was erected on the site.

Squires organized the Utica, Chenango and Cortland Railroad, which later became the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and developed homes in the neighborhood, creating James, Duane, Squires, Frank and Park streets, which included parts of his eldest sons’ names. A 1888 map shows homes on many of these streets with J.S. Squires as owner.

“While the latter years of his life did not bring him the rest and freedom from anxiety which he had fairly earned, he made no complaint,” according to his obituary in the Cortland Standard. “Cortland owes him far more in a multitude of ways than many are aware.”

Randolph Beard (1831-1899)

Originally a farmer, Randolph Beard would later be known for his furniture business turned funeral home. Beard established his furniture business on 9 Main St. around 1874, later becoming business partners with N. Jay Peck.

Beard and Peck were furniture dealers and funeral directors.

“All kinds of furniture repairing, finishing and upholstering are done by competent workmen in the several departments,” wrote Edgar Luderne Welch in his 1899 publication “’Grip’s’ Historical Souvenir of Cortland.”

“Mr. Beard has personal supervision of the undertaking business, which is equipped with all modern paraphernalia, including funeral car, undertaker’s wagon and ambulance,” Welch wrote.

Beard’s youngest son, Robert, joined the business as a clerk in the late 1870s when he was a teenager. By 1891, the funeral portion of the Beard & Peck business was called the Beard Funeral Home. Following Beard’s death in 1899, the firm of Beard & Peck dissolved in 1904, Peck continuing the furniture business as Beard’s sons moved the family funeral service to a new building at 26 Church St.

The funeral business was later established as R.H. Beard & Sons in 1917, moving to 18 Church St. in 1928.

Passed down through the generations, the Beard family continued to run the funeral home until 1967, when the Wright Funeral Home and Beard Memorial Home joined into one firm at the Wright location, at 9 Lincoln Ave. where the Wright-Beard Funeral Home still runs today.

Randolph Beard died in 1899 and is buried with his wife,Helen A. Knapp (1831-1906), at Cortland Rural Cemetery.

Dudley Corwin (1849-1916)

Dudley Corwin played a large part in building Cortland, specifically Main Street, said Tabitha Scoville, director of the Cortland County Historical Society.

Corwin was born in Charleston, in Montgomery County, and moved with his family to Cortland in 1854.

Corwin’s father — Polydore B. Corwin — set up a business as a builder and contractor in the village after having previous experience building in Blodgett’s Mills — what Blodgett Mills was called at the time.

At 15, Dudley Corwin began to learn how to be a carpenter and by 25, he was an independent contractor “with a solid reputation for his skill and reliability,” Scoville wrote.

His work became highly valued and he was responsible for building the Squires Block, the Keator Block, and both the First and Second National Bank buildings.

“His quality of work was excellent and always done on time,” Scoville wrote. “It was said that (Dudley) Corwin made plans that ‘never go awry.’” He, like Stevenson, also built homes, including his own, at 13 Union St.

Dudley Corwin also owned as many as 20 houses.

He married twice, first to Mary Stevens who gave birth to four children by the time she died in 1887. He then married Antoinette Briggs in 1888 who gave birth to another child.

Dudley Corwin died in 1916 and is buried at Cortland Rural Cemetery.

Theodore Stevenson (ca. 1851-1912)

Many people in Cortland’shistory can be pointed to for having helped build Cortland figuratively.

Theodore Stevenson helped to build Cortland, literally, as he was responsible for building approximately 99 buildings, three factories and city streets, Scoville said.

Stevenson, from Troy, came to what was then the village of Cortland in 1872 quickly began to make a name for himself. He first started selling fire insurance out of an office over the First National Bank building.

As business ramped up, he moved to 22 1/2 Main St. in 1876 and then to the Burgess Block after 1884.

Stevenson’s building in Cortland began around 1880 when he built a two-story home on Groton Avenue, Scoville said. The next year, he built a three-story mansard roof home at 7 Church St., which was said to be the first home in the village with steam heating.

In 1882, Stevenson bought land in the village and laid out Hubbard, Garfield, Pomeroy, Crandall, Franklin and Excelsior streets.

He also laid out Stevenson Street, if you were wondering.

Stevenson built many houses and buildings along those including four houses on Hubbard Street and three houses on Pomeroy Street, which each had 22 rooms.

As for commercial buildings, Stevenson “built a three-story, 40- by 100-feet building with a large wing in the rear, and that became the Excelsior Top Co.,” Scoville wrote.

In 1883, Stevenson built a three-story block, 75- by 225- foot building for the Howe Stove Co. and a three-story brick and frame building on Elm Street for the Carriage Top and Rail Company in 1887.

Throughout his time in Cortland, he served as the president of the Cortland Desk Co., the Howe Stove Co., and for the Carriage Top and Rail Co., Scoville said. He also served as a village trustee.

Stevenson died in 1912 two weeks after a stroke.

“His death in 1912 marked the sunset of a man of extreme industry who played a large part in shaping the east side of the City of Cortland as we know it,” Scoville wrote.

Edward H. Brewer (1851-1924)

Born in Cortland, E.H. Brewer learned the trade of harnessmaking with his father, Henry, who established a harness factory in 1834. Edward learned the principles of thrift, earnest and devotion to business from his father, founding the Cortland Carriage Goods company in 1884, a biographer noted.

“The factory is commonly known as ‘Brewer’s Factory,’ for it is very largely due to the personal, untiring and far-seeing efforts of Mr. E.H. Brewer that such as industry has been developed,” wrote Edgar Luderne Welch in his 1899 publication “’Grip’s’ Historical Souvenir of Cortland.”

The company was incorporated in 1897, but as carriages and wagons went out of style, Brewer’s company needed to change, said Cortland city Historian Kate O’Connell.

Later joined by the Cortland Forging Co. and the Crandal- Stone Co. of Binghamton, the business evolved into the Brewer-Titchener Corp. in 1917 — one of the largest manufacturers of automobile parts in the country.

“The Brewers moved into automobiles to continue working,” O’Connell said. “Some companies didn’t transition, but the Brewers were able to transition and stay in business until 2015.”

For many years, Brewer was vice president and director of the Cortland County Traction Co., chairman of the board of directors of the National Bank of Cortland, director of the Second National Bank, chairman of the board of trustees of the First Presbyterian church, was a former president of the Cortland Hospital, a trustee of Rollins College at Winter Park and was known for being actively engaged in the work of the local YMCA and YWCA.

He married Eda Aroa Ainslie and had six children — Edward A., Robert L., Donald A., Lee, Mrs. R.P. Higgings and Mrs. F.F. Woolley. Edward H. Brewer died in 1924 at age 73 and is buried at Cortland Rural Cemetery.

Staff reporters Valerie Puma and Colin Spencer and City Editor Kevin Conlon contributed to this report.