History, Honor and Heart in Homer

“Do unto the other feller the way he’d like to do unto you, an’ do it fust.”
–Spoken by the title character
in Edward Noyes Westcott’s
David Harum (1898)

______________________

A stroll through the village of Homer today, with its period black street lamps and handsome architecture, suggests days gone by, a time when horse and buggy trotted past stately homes with manicured lawns and formal gardens.

In one of those homes lived a colorful 19th century character, David Hannum. Hannum was a local banker who dabbled in horse trading, nurtured land deals and became embroiled with showman P. T. Barnum in the famous Cardiff Giant Hoax. Writer Edward Noyes Westcott, familiar with the crafty gentleman, incorporated Hannum’s homespun, cracker-barrel philosophy in the title character of his national best-selling novel David Harum published in 1898. The similarity between the fictional David Harum living in Homeville and Homer’s shrewd and affable David Hannum is undeniable.

A tour of Homer’s historic district meanders past striking homes and buildings in classic styles – Greek revival, Victorian, Queen Anne, Italianate and Romanesque. Over 200 village structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Many, including Hannum’s former Federal-style home at 80 South Main St., are adorned with metallic plates denoting the year of construction. With a charming village green and Victorian business district, Homer offers a rare moment to peek at the past, a place to sample the essence and appeal of small town life in the 19th century.

A historic connection

The village’s rich history goes well beyond the flamboyant Hannum. Homer has a noteworthy connection to Abraham Lincoln, not from a direct visit but through the endeavors of three local gentlemen. “Each Homer native – a journalist, a portrait painter and a detective – served the president in a unique and substantive way,” says Town Historian Martin Sweeney. Sweeney chronicled the fascinating tales of all three men in his book Lincoln’s Gift from Homer, New York. The first, journalist William O. Stoddard, was an early supporter of, and became a trusted secretary to, our 16th president. Stoddard was an acclaimed writer and inventor in his own right, and a confidant of the somewhat difficult First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln.

The second, noted artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter, created an iconic painting, “The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the Cabinet.” With Lincoln’s encouragement, Carpenter depicted the president and his Cabinet members studying a first draft of the famed document. It hangs today at the United States Capitol, as it has since 1878.

Finally, detective Eli DeVoe slipped undercover to disrupt a subversive assassination plot on Lincoln prior to his inauguration. “Without this third gentleman,” asserts Sweeney, “there would have been no President Lincoln, and no fulfillment of the American abolition movement.”

An honorable community

Homer has always been, and still is, a spirited community. “Its streets retain the echo of many lives over many generations,” a travel brochure asserts. From past to present, those generations have never just rested upon a proud history – they have preferred to build on it. “We may be quiet and quaint,” says Homer Mayor Genevieve Suits, “but we’re far from ‘sleepy’ – we strive to be active and vital.

“Small business is the key to preserving the integrity of our village,” continues Suits, “and we’re fortunate to have many dedicated people working to that end.” Shops like Lily Lanetree, Bev & Company, Main Street Antiques and the Olde Homer House have sprung up along Main Street, helping to make the village a “shopping destination.” Dasher’s Corner Pub recently opened as a comfortable eatery at the corner of Main and James. The fully renovated restaurant brings back memories to locals of Dasher Cox’s, a popular Homer dining landmark of days gone by.

Homer Men and Boys Store has been a village mainstay since Roland “Frog” Fragnoli opened its doors in 1951. Fragnoli, now in his 80s, was just 19 at the time. Specializing in hardy clothes for work and play, the store carries one of the state’s largest stocks of brand name rugged wear – no tuxedos and patent leather shoes here. “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it” is Frog’s motto. In 2009, along with a proclamation declaring him an “icon on Main Street” and a “poster boy for American retail,” Fragnoli received a ceremonial “key to the village.” Comedian Bill Murray has visited the store more than once to purchase imprinted shirts for his son named … you guessed it, Homer.

A heartfelt atmosphere

A year-round string of celebrations and events, many of them centered about the classic village green and bandstand, keep things lively in Homer. Surrounded by churches and public buildings, it’s the perfect spot for weekly summer band concerts and a farmers’ market. That’s only the beginning – enjoy Blue Grass on the Green, the annual Firemen’s Field Days, or the Sock Hop and Vintage Car Show. Then there’s the village Winter Fest (with a bonfire, snow sculptures, even a human dog sled race), Holiday in Homer (100 plus vendors all selling handcrafted items), and Chautauqua week (classes, speakers and the arts all in the Chautauqua tradition).

Magic on Main, a bistro-like event, joined the list of community celebrations in 2011. Driven by small business owners, a business block on Main is closed down for this “soiree in the street,” a summer evening of food, beer, wine, magic and music. “Candlelit tables lining the thoroughfare help create the atmosphere for a relaxing family event,” says Doc McQuade, owner of the Lily Lanetree shop. “This year we expect several thousand to attend. It’s a great promotion of what Homer’s downtown can offer.”

Homer has nurtured an appreciation for the arts dating back to Barber Hall of the mid-1800s. Later, the old Keator Opera House hosted music and melodrama into the early 20th century. In 2005, tradition continued when the Center for the Arts of Homer was established in the former First Baptist Church at the edge of the village green. Under the direction of Daniel Hayes, the center draws crowds from near and far to a wide range of musical performances. Its 400-seat theater, a comfortable spot enhanced with stained-glass windows, has hosted local, regional, national and even international performers. The center has venues for local dramatic performances, ballet and ballroom dancing instruction, and art gallery exhibits … in short, something for everyone.

Take the opportunity to experience Homer and what it offers – a rich history, distinctive shopping, community events on the green and a haven for the arts. Locals love their town and know how to sell it. “Homer is closer than you think, and it’s more than you expected.”


by James P. Hughes