Words and Pictures
Oneonta Historical Society History
by Mark Simonson, Oneonta City Historian
First printed in The Oneonta Daily Star, March 2, 2009.
The Oneonta area became a bit more history conscious 70 years ago this past weekend. It was February 28, 1939 that the Upper Susquehanna Historical Society held its first meeting at the St. James parish house on Main St., Oneonta. We know it today as the Greater Oneonta Historical Society.
Postmaster Chester A. Miller was elected first president at a public meeting with 75 area residents on that Tuesday evening. The Society covered a fairly large region at the time, so representatives of the board came from nearby communities. Three vice-presidents were nominated at that meeting, including the Rev. Yale Lyon of Unadilla, the Hon. Alva Seybolt of Oneonta, and N.V.V. Franchot of Morris. Charles Beams of Oneonta was elected secretary, William C. McRorie of Milford was elected treasurer, and Miss Rosanna Bagg of Oneonta was the first curator. Nine trustees were selected to round out the board.
Mr. Seybolt reported for the committee named to draft the society's by-laws and constitution. "The object of this society," said Seybolt, "will be to gather and preserve the history of the area, including documents, papers, and articles of historical value and of historical interest."
The Society was an active group, holding regular meetings and hosting guest speakers at their first "home" in Huntington Memorial Library. By 1954, the area had become markedly more interested in local history, and crowded the little space they had at the library. By April, the Society's membership was quickly headed toward the 400 mark.
A plea began in a September letter to the editor of the Oneonta Star, by Dr. Edward Parish, then president. Specifically, Parish was lobbying for the use of the Wilber garage, behind the George I. Wilber Mansion on Ford Avenue. It was owned by the City of Oneonta at the time. The appeal went to the mayor and common council for approval. An August 1956 Oneonta Star article showed the issue was still being debated by city officials. The museum was finally opened in January 1963. That would become "home" for a few years.
The Historical Society was then moved inside the Wilber mansion, where they had an office for many years but held public meetings at various sites. The search always continued for a permanent home, yet it was never successful.
The number of members in the Historical Society decreased significantly in the 1980s and the meetings were quarterly instead of monthly. Rumors began that the Society had disbanded and the collections sold, but that was never the case. Documents and archives went into storage in several places.
The Society had hit their lowest point in the mid-1990s. Many communities affiliated with the Upper Susquehanna Historical Society were forming their own societies.
Norma Hutman changed the downward direction, as she became President in 1996 and directed the name to be changed to the Greater Oneonta Historical Society. Ms. Hutman recruited new trustees and officers and renewed the goal of finding a permanent home -- free of any ties to city government. Membership, which had fallen to 30 by 1998, began a steady rebound. A new logo, a train bursting into the foreground of a drawing was designed by Tony Mongillo.
Under subsequent Society presidents Grace Smith and Sally Mullen, and a task force to find a home, headed by Loraine Tyler, a candidate building was chosen and closed on in March 2001, 183 Main Street. This had been home to former businesses such as Galinn's Jeweler's, the Jo-Ann Dress Shop, and Laskaris' Restaurant.
The Greater Oneonta Historical Society's History Center underwent massive renovations on the exterior of the building and the street level floor between 2001-05. A grand opening ceremony was held in 2005. Over the next several years the Society will be proceeding with renovations on the second and third floors of 183 Main St., including a ballroom on the top floor.
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