September 28, 2021

History, step by step

New cemetery trail points to McGraw’s revolutionary roots

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Sharon Stevans, a New York Central College researcher, left, and Melinda McCool, McGraw Central School District superintendent, walk the New York Central College Cemetery Trail on July 19.

Daltyn Busby of McGraw said it’s crazy that McGraw was the site of a New York Central College, a revolutionary school that had Black people and white, men and women, learning side by side in the same classrooms in the 1850s.

The school had African-American professors, as well, preeminent scholars of their time, said Sharon Stevans of Cortland, a researcher of the college.

“To think about where they were back then and where we are now!” said Busby, one of the handful of McGraw and Solon teens from McGraw High, who helped install historical signs on the new New York Central College Cemetery Walking Trail.

The trail has four history signs along a three-quarter mile path behind the school parking lot, leading up to a burial site where some of the college students are buried. It is now open to the public. An inaugural walk along the trail will take place 10 a.m. Aug. 7, led by Stevans and village Historian Mary Kimberly.

Stevans also will give a talk, “Myths & Conceptions of the New York Central College” at noon Aug. 4 at the Cortland County Historical Society’s lunch and learn series.

The college was located near the site of the current McGraw High School from 1848 to 1860, largely funded by Gerrit Smith, a Peterboro abolitionist. It was the first integrated college in America to hire Black professors in the United States, Stevans said.

“It’s a dream come true,” said Stevans, of Cortland, who worked on the project with Kimberly. The two funded the $5,000 project. Kimberly used donations from the memorial fund for her husband, Carl. McGraw School put in in-kind donations, installing the signs under the guidance of Tom McCall, director of facilities.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

McGraw High School students Jaydon Bassett of Solon, left, Nathan Stiles of Solon, Logan Monroe of Solon, Caleb Knickerbocker of Solon and Daltyn Busby of McGraw set new signs at the New York Central College Cemetery Walking Trail, located behind the McGraw school parking lot.

“We coordinated installation and the design of the trail,” McCall said. Kimberly had a bench made by
Tom Niggli of Marathon, in honor of her husband. Niggli donated his labor. Niggli said the bench will be painted next year.

The project was a three-year effort.

Stevans and other volunteers in the McGraw Historical Society created a documentary, “A Beacon on the Hill,” with Kimberly, her husband Carl before he died, and filmmaker Melanie Arnold. People can google VIMEO, “A Beacon on the Hill” to check out the documentary.

Stevans set out to learn how to make historical signs from a workshop by the National Park Service. She came up with descriptions of the school, its teachers, its history and photos and enlisted Max Hoeschele, a Cortland native and graphic designer, to design the signs.

“I think this is pretty cool that this is on our school property,” said Nathan Stiles of Solon. “People will be able to read about what this was about.”

School district Superintendent Melinda McCool went to school at McGraw and the college was never taught during her school days, she said while viewing the trail July 19. After the documentary came out, teachers grabbed onto it and started teaching about the college and times Stevans said the college was located a little behind and to the right of the current school.

Smith put his money behind the college’s 167 acres and repeatedly bailed it out over the years. It
opened in 1848 and educated 1,000 students before closing in 1860. Stevans said it closed because of financial reasons, not because of a smallpox outbreak in 1850 that killed two students.

She hears all sorts of wild stories about the college, which is inspiring her Aug. 4 talk at the reopening of the Cortland County Historical Society’s luncheon series after the pandemic.

The trail wends up to a burial ground, a mix of white and Black students and staff. There are nine full and partial stones there.

“My gosh, it would be so nice if people came and they could get information about the school,” Stevans said. “It was the first college to hire Blacks in the country. They had Black and white women and men together in the same classroom.”

“These were people that were doing revolutionary things. This guy right here from Ohio, he chose to be buried here,” Stevans said, looking at the gravestone in the burial ground at the top of the trail. The 21-year-old student died in 1851.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Sharon Stevans of Cortland talks about a grave marker at the burial grounds at the New York Central College Cemetery Trail.

“We have 40-some acres around here with all sorts of nature trails,” McCall said. The college cemetery trail is primarily a there-and-back trail.

“I have a plaque coming, dedicated to Carl,” said Kimberly, sitting on the new bench. Her husband grew up and lived his whole life in McGraw, other than his college and military years.

Carl Kimberly was passionate about McGraw history. The couple made a presentation on the history of the college and then Carl Kimberly got acquainted with Stevans, who also got excited, spurring the documentary.

“We would talk to (people) about the college,” Mary Kimberly said. “So many had never heard about it.”


If You Go

What: “Myths & Conceptions of the New York Central College”
Who: Talk by Sharon Stevans
When: noon Aug. 4, lunch and learn
Where: Cortland County Historical Society, 25 Homer Ave.
How: Call the historical society to sign up. It will be available via Zoom.


Walk The Trail

What: Inaugural walk of the New York Central College Cemetery Trail
When: 10 a.m. Aug. 7
Where: McGraw High School grounds. Meet in the parking lot
Other: Wear long sleeves, pants and sturdy shoes.