Story and photos by James P. Hughes
Passing by Owego on the Southern Tier Expressway, a panorama of nondescript backs of brick and frame buildings appears across the broad Susquehanna River. The village’s “rear view” is unremarkable, but don’t be fooled. That glimpse is only Act I of a performance and Owego is far more than a one-act play. Drive over the Court Street Bridge into the center of town and you’ll be introduced to the remaining (and more engaging) acts of Owego’s village presentation, and there are many.
Straight ahead, the 1872 Tioga County Courthouse dominates the landscape. Parks, historic monuments, and a pedestrian riverwalk overlook the Susquehanna. To the right of Courthouse Square, a bustling commercial area spreads out with specialty shops, restaurants, and services; not just a few scattered stores but a host of curious spots to explore. An avid shopper can spend hours amid Owego’s colorful storefronts with catchy names: Fuddy Duddy’s, The Left Bank, Black Cat Gallery, The Laughing Place, Hand of Man, Katie’s Kreations, and many more.
The Early Owego Antique Center hosts more than 90 vendors and some 20,000 square feet of hidden treasures. Several other local shops cater to the serious antiquer as well, each with a distinctive style. A must stop for book lovers is the three-story Riverow Bookshop where visitors are encouraged to become “immersed in the wonderful, unique scent of accomplished books, creaky hardwood floors and a journey that dates back through classic literature.”
Around the next corner is a shop offering cooking classes and kitchen gadgetry, another specializes in olive oil, and there’s a stained glass studio. For a village of just under 4,000 residents, Owego’s business district is extensive and endlessly surprising.
Steeped in History
By 1787, the first settlers had arrived; Owego would become one of the first and most significant of Southern Tier towns. Its name evolved from Ah-wa-ga (“where the valley widens”), a Cayuga settlement on the site. It was vacated in 1779 under the onslaught of the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition against British Loyalists and their Iroquois allies.
Owego’s early importance is evident in its classic 19th and early 20th century homes lining Front Street and other avenues. Many of them were originally inhabited by eminent families involved in the region’s early business and politics. At 317 Front Street once resided West Point graduate Henry Martyn Robert, a soldier, engineer, and author. The name may not ring a bell but his written work should be familiar. For well over a century, Robert’s Rules of Order, his manual of parliamentary procedure, has been the standard framework for meetings from the highest levels of government to church or scout gatherings.
A brochure designed for a self-guided walking tour of Owego’s historic homes is available at the village hall. Walking tours are also provided for Owego’s Courthouse Square and Evergreen Cemetery. The courthouse, surrounded by notable monuments and memorials, dominates the center of town and is the tallest building in Tioga County. It’s an impressive towered structure with arched windows and limestone features reminiscent of a grander era.
Other period buildings surround the square, among them the old Owego Academy constructed in 1827. John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937), considered by many to be “the wealthiest American of all time,” attended the academy during the early 1850s. He lived on a modest farm just three miles from town. Young John and a brother walked to and from school each day. From very humble beginnings, Rockefeller went on to become a world-renowned business magnate and philanthropist. More than once in his later years “John D.” arrived in a chauffeured limousine to visit Owego and his birthplace in nearby Richford. He stayed at the old Ahwaga Hotel, and it’s said he strolled about town visiting childhood friends, his school, his former home, and other familiar sites.
Sitting high above the village is Evergreen Cemetery, dating back to 1851. It is the final resting place for generations of Owego’s citizens. Its contoured landscape, steep winding roads, and century-old wrought-iron hitching posts make me wonder how people made the climb in the horse and buggy days.
Owego’s rich heritage is on full display amid the cemetery’s stylistic architecture, stone walls, and flowering shrubs. Stories of those interred at Evergreen are endless and fascinating. Elizabeth Chatfield (1844-1917) was the personal secretary of Susan B. Anthony. It’s claimed that Lieutenant Benjamin W. Loring (1824-1902) assisted in carrying the mortally wounded Abraham Lincoln from his box at Ford’s Theater. From the cemetery’s summit, expansive views of the village, the Susquehanna, and the rolling hills beyond make the uphill trek to Evergreen well worth the effort.
Around and About
As another holiday season approaches, so does one of Owego’s most colorful celebrations, Lights on the River. The village lights up on the first Friday each December with bustling activity: carriage rides, visits with Santa, strolling musicians and carolers, live reindeer, ice sculpture, and much more. Trees and buildings shine with Christmas brilliance, and in the evening fireworks light up the sky high above the riverside.
Every June thousands gather to welcome summer at the annual Strawberry Festival, an Owego tradition for almost four decades. Along with a parade, music, food, vendors, and contests, there are more fireworks and, of course, unlimited fresh strawberry shortcake.
After or during shopping and historical pursuits, a stop at a local eatery is a must. The choices are many, from a Dagwood Club at the Owego Kitchen to Chicken Bartolucci at Front Street’s Cellar Restaurant. Owego also boasts the unique Calaboose Grille, housed in a former jailhouse, where you can dine “behind bars” at a cozy table in one of its many former jail cells. The wide menu reflects the surroundings. There’s an Al Capone burger, a Prison Yard Parm, and a deli sandwich chosen from The Parole Board.
River paddlers and fishermen regularly pass by broad Hiawatha Island, prominently planted in the center of the Susquehanna. Its 112 acres of wooded land have always played an important role in the history of the Owego area. In the latter decades of the 19th century, the island’s grand hotel was a center of pleasure and relaxation for steamboat travelers up and down the river. When that splendid era had passed, Hiawatha gradually reverted to farmland and today is part of the Waterman Conservation Education Center. Hikers exploring its trails and wild terrain may stumble across remnants of the island’s historical past.
Enjoy Owego’s presentation – all of its acts. With no shortage of things to see and do, cross over the bridge and spend a leisurely day in town, but be aware: it may take more than one.