Then and Now – Cortland

The original Squires Building circa 1900
by Tabitha Scoville, Cortland County Historical Society Director

The city of Cortland is often called the Crown City because it is at the center of seven valleys, and it sits slightly above them like the peak on a crown. With a population of about 19,000, it is the Cortland County seat.

There are 15 townships in Cortland County, and all of them have some fascinating tales, famous sons and/or daughters, as well as beautiful scenery and buildings.

The original Squires or Clock Tower Building (above), at Tompkins and Main Street in Cortland, was built on the remnants of the Eagle Store which was established by Roswell Randall in the 1820s. James S. Squires, an entrepreneur and self-taught man from the nearby town of Lapeer, purchased the site and in 1883, erected the building, which would be his enduring legacy. The magnificent structure cost $40,000. It housed seven stores, eight offices, and 10 flats. The new building embraced the remains of the old Eagle Store. The truly distinguishing feature of the building was the illuminated turret clock. For 130 years, this building stood as a testament to the vision, work ethic, and civic engagement of its builder, James S. Squires.

A fire destroyed the Clock Tower Building in 2006, but the iconic clock was saved. It was restored and is currently on exhibit at the Central New York Living History Center. A new building (below) replaced the Squires building and stayed close to the design of the original. It also has a clock tower, and it complements the Cortland Standard block on the opposite side of Tompkins Street. The two buildings form a gateway to the historic homes on Tompkins.

Famous Facts about Cortland County

Did you know that the original Betty Crocker hails from Willet, in southeast Cortland County? Adelaide Fish lived there and graduated from Cincinnatus, another Cortland County town. She went on to become the picture perfect homemaker in the realm of radio and television for a straight 15 years.

The New York Jets put Cortland on the map in recent years when they moved their training camp there.

Ronnie Padavona, otherwise known as Ronnie James Dio, heavy metal singer-songwriter, grew up in Cortland, where there’s a street named after him.

Elmer Sperry, inventor of the gyroscope and numerous other important items was born in Cincinnatus and grew up in Cortland.

Amelia Bloomer, dress reformer, and suffrage and temperance advocate, was born in nearby Homer. She lived there until she was about 6 years old.

John J. McGraw, major league baseball player, manager, and Baseball Hall of Famer, hails from Truxton. The Giants even came to Truxton to play a charity game.

During the part of the 19th and 20th centuries, Cortland County was a major manufacturer of both corsets and wagons/carriages.

If your family has any roots in Cortland County, you should be sure to add the Cortland County Historical Society to your list of places to do research.

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