A Glimpse of Old Freeville, New York
by Joan Manning, Freeville Village Historian, Retired
Those who first settled in what is now Freeville recognized the advantages of the area’s two creeks, Virgil and Fall, and often built their homes and businesses on the high ground between them. In 1798 Daniel White, a Revolutionary War soldier, began clearing land and built a cabin along Fall Creek near the present bridge on Mill Street. In the summer of 1800, he began to build a dam, and by 1802 the gristmill was completed. In 1801 Isaiah Giles arrived and settled on the hill up from the top of Mill Street (on what was later the Humphrey Williams place). Giles lost the claim to his farm when another settler proved it was defective. Giles eventually moved down on the creek and founded the Gilesville settlement and mill this side of Etna. Another early settler was a widow, Rhoda Willey, who came to this area in 1815 and settled in her cabin on a small knoll near Virgil Creek on the west side of what is now Johnson Street. She had four sons and three daughters. One son, Samuel, owned a number of enterprises: a sawmill on Virgil Creek, the White Gristmill and a sawmill behind that on Fall Creek, a hotel (later known as Shaver’s), the first store just west of the hotel (near the northeast portion of the lower four corners), and a blacksmith shop, and he had farming and dairy interests. On May 6, 1823, John C. Shaver settled on property that is now the site of the Marquis farm; the property remained in the Shaver family for a century.
In 1833 Daniel White’s son John built a large mill very near the present park on Mill Street (upstream from the mill his father had built) and with it a dam that is still in place. John’s mill flourished, at times employing as many as forty people. It was known for the Teco pancake flour that it shipped by rail throughout the country until after WWI, when orders began to dwindle. The mill closed in the 1930s. The dam, however, unlike most on Fall Creek, survived several severe floods, perhaps because of its built-in cofferdam, which relieves pressure from the main dam during high water. Through the 1940s the slash boards were put in during low-water times and taken out at high-water times by mill workers, local residents, and even members of the W. B. Strong Fire Company. When the boards were stood up length-wise against the walkway that runs across the dam, the water was held back and formed a large pond on the upper side of the dam. Today the slash boards are not used.
On New Year’s Day, 1870, the first train of the Southern Central Railroad came through Freeville. Its little depot was the first building in the new, upper Freeville. Shortly after that came the Ithaca & Cortland Railroad. The two crossed near the Ithaca and Cortland’s station, and thus by 1871 Freeville found itself a half mile from a railroad junction. Nine years later, the Midland Railroad Company began to run its trains from Freeville to West Dryden, Lansing, and Geneo, with the plan to continue to Auburn. Historian Albert Genung, in his “Historical Sketch of the Village of Freeville, Tompkins County, New York,” edited by R.D. Savage, 1987, wrote that the Midland used the Utica, Ithaca, & Elmira (later the E.C. & N.) station in Freeville, located a little west of Union Street. A cinder walk beside the track led from the depot to the vicinity of the old Lyceum Hall (later the Honey Butter Factory and today the site of Freeville Architectural Millwork). The station’s roundhouse and turntable were located behind the present site of the United Methodist Church. The railroad bed ran westward, a little south of the present Main Street, and crossed Route 366 at the western Village limits.
Mr. Genung noted that an interesting aspect of the railroads in those days was their local, almost neighborhood character. They were always ready to give a special train to any group who wanted to go somewhere for a day’s outing. Freeville people took advantage of such excursions and took trips to New York City and Coney Island, Niagara Falls, and Sylvan Beach on Oneida Lake, where a rail line was extended so that the glass factory in Freeville could obtain white sand from the beach there. The Lehigh Valley Railroad Company bought out the various local train companies in 1890. It eventually replaced the two little Freeville stations with a larger station built within the southwest angle of the junction. A broad wooden platform extended along the tracks and all around the station. In 1910 Lehigh built a stucco station in the northeast angle of the junction, which they tore down in mid-century.
From the late 1800s through the 1900s, Freeville had many cottage industries. The products sold (and made or raised) by early in-home businesses included hats, baked goods, yarn, chickens, ice cream, fishing tackle, guns, candy, and thread. There were carpet weavers, barbers, dress-makers, and a druggist in the village. At one time we had five active farms (today we have only one). Freeville has had a variety of shops, a furniture factory, several weekly newspapers, Riverside Park (with its steamboat, the Clinton) on Fall Creek behind today’s Fingerlakes Physical Therapy, a coal business, a feed business, several blacksmiths, a forge and wagon shop, at least five grocery stores (three at the same time in the 1920s and 1930s), a cinder block factory that produced 500 – 1200 blocks per day, two lumber yards, hardware stores, and a telegraph office. Over the course of a century, the village has had a library, several hotels, restaurants, telephone companies, gas stations, lumber yards, and electrical and plumbing businesses. There have been a fraternal lodge, antiques shops, art galleries, a tie-dyeing plant, a model train store, and a coffee house. And we had a champion baseball team.
The village has long been home to two churches. The Methodist Church was organized in 1848 and reorganized in 1874, when it filed a new Certificate of Incorporation with the county. It was built near the present 66 Main Street, below the lower four corners. The parsonage was built down the street at its present site in 1878, and in 1891 the church building was moved next to the parsonage. Freeville’s other church, founded in 1895, is the Temple of Truth, visible on a knoll on Rte. 38 among the cottages there. The Temple of Truth is a member of the Central New York Spiritualist Association, which meets in Freeville each summer.
By the 1880s Freeville had a small one-room school on the west side of Johnson Street between Main Street and Virgil Creek. At one time the school was attended by twenty-nine students. In 1889 Union School was established near the site of the present Post Office. New York State Regents were held there for the first time in January, 1899, and in 1906 Union School was made a full high school. By 1930 the eleventh and twelfth grades had moved to Dryden, and in 1936 the Freeville and Dryden High Schools consolidated. Our old wooden school building was abandoned, and the present brick elementary school was opened. A newspaper article said that the new building was “the finest one-story school in the State for design and construction.”
6. Naming the Village
It is not certain how the village got its name. Mr. Genung, in his “Historical Sketch..,” wrote that
“[at] first it was simply ‘White’s Mill’ and a little later it was spoken of as ‘White’s Corner.’ One story is that when the community had grown to … several families and was on the regular schedule of the circuit rider, some formal name was thought to be desirable. Most of the folks were in favor of letting it go on as ‘White’s Mill’ but Elder White himself vowed that in this new country the place names ought not to perpetuate some man’s name simply because he got there first. He observed that they were not beholding to any patron or big land company, that in this settlement every man was a freeholder – and he proposed that they call the place ‘Freeville.’ Eventually, it was so written down in the circuit rider’s record. The tradition is that the foregoing discussion about a name took place in a meeting held at Elder White’s house on the afternoon of August 8, 1810.”
Freeville is the only incorporated municipality in the U.S. with this name!
A note to readers: Kristen Olson, current Freeville Village Historian, invites inquiries about the history of the village or individual properties. You might be surprised by what you find–for instance, that railroad tracks ran close to your back door, that a large store where your house now sits was consumed by a fire that took a neighbor’s house along with it, or that your house was once a meat market or a newspaper office. You can leave a message for Kristen at firstname.lastname@example.org .