December 1, 2021

Looking back at Cortland

City historian leads tour through time, downtown

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

City of Cortland Historian Kate O’Connell, second from left, leads a walking tour through historic Downtown Cortland Saturday morning. Donning raincoats and grabbing umbrellas, the tour group walked along Main Street, stopping to learn about historic buildings and their changes over the years.

Huddled under umbrellas, a half-dozen people listened closely as City of Cortland Historian Kate O’Connell shouted to be heard over the sound of pouring rain and Main Street traffic.

The weather may not have been ideal for the Cortland County Historical Society’s first walking tour through
Downtown Cortland, but the tour group that included five tourists and the tour guide came prepared with rain boots, jackets and an upbeat attitude.

The two-hour tour began at Bailey Place Insurance, going south on Main Street for a quick stop on Tompkins
Street before looping back down Main and east on Central Avenue toward Church Street to learn about the library and Courthouse Park, before looping back to finish the tour where they started.

O’Connell led the tour with laminated notes in one hand and a leopard-print umbrella in the other. Stopping after half a block, she would point out buildings with a unique history — whether it be the designs of the building, the businesses or families that once were housed there, or a particularly smoky ending to the top three floors.

Many of the Main Street buildings began as businesses in the 1800s, often erected by the same architects leading to similar styles.

“Something to consider about our Main Street is that we sit around a hill,” O’Connell said. “Think of Homer Ave. and Owego Street, they originally were connected right up over the hill, and early businessmen said ‘No, we want them to come someplace,’ and closed the overpass, forcing them to go around and come down to Main Street where all the businesses were.”

In 1914, the original post office was built at 88 Main St. — but before that, picking up mail was a little more complicated.

“You had to know who your postmaster was to go to the post office, and postmasters were generally business
owners, so you’d go to wherever their store was,” O’Connell said.

A big focus for the historic tour was the fires that changed Main Street.

“There have been a number of fires that have changed the landscape of what Main Street is,” O’Connell said. In the first two blocks, she mentioned at least five fires that wreaked havoc on old buildings with wooden framing.

Along Main Street, if you see a building that is only one or two stories tall in between a three- and four story building, it’s likely a fire damaged the top levels, requiring renovation or replacement, O’Connell said.

Fire caused spaces where an opera house was built. Another was at the now Asian Delicious restaurant at Clinton Avenue, one at 35 Main St., one the old Garrison Block building and the Wickwire building.

“One of the big takeaways I had when researching was when the Garrison Block building and the original Wickwire building burned, they broke the bell ringing for help,” O’Connell said. “They heard it all the way in Homer and sent people, but the bell eventually broke after 15 minutes of ringing it so hard.”

“This tour is in conjunction with a speaking engagement where I covered the business district of Cortland, complete with pictures and maps,” O’Connell said. “Over the course of this past year, we’ve wanted to do something that not everybody has done.”

“I’m trying to learn more — it’s one of the things I’m doing in my older age,” said Laurie Pickerd, who has lived in Cortland since 1976. “It’s fantastic, I walk down here probably at least three times a week, but I don’t necessarily notice everything or know what they are.”

As the tour came to an end, Pickerd said she was most intrigued by how many fires there were just on Main Street. “It’s incredible, and knowing that people just took care of it and kept trucking along.”