The Otselic Valley was named by the Native-Americans for the wild plums that grew here. The translation of Otselic is "place of the wild plum". Wild plums are few and far between these days, but we have a clump of wild plums here on Swallow Valley Farm. For those of you who know trees, it looks like young cherry but has a two to four inch thorn. In the early spring, delicate white blossoms on the plum trees often look like late snow.
The upper Otselic Valley was used by the Native-Americans for a hunting ground and the Oneida Nation had seasonal hunting camps in the Otselic area. One such site lies along the river just south of our barn and over the years many Native-American artifacts have been found. Game was a bit more diverse back then featuring possibly deer, elk, moose, bear, wolves, mountain lions, and even, believe it or not, wood bison. Flocks of the now extinct Passenger Pigeon landed here to feed and nest. The only remnant of that era, when flocks numbered in the millions, is the name of nearby Pigeon Hill.
The Otselic Valley today has more cows than people and the forest claims back more acres each year from the abandoned farms of yesteryear. Wildlife abounds and species long absent are returning to the relatively undisturbed forests. Beaver and Turkey are again abundant and Bear have been sighted in recent years. Today there are more species of breeding birds in the Otselic area than almost anywhere else in the state of New York. Over 120 species of birds (soon to listed here) breed in the Town of Otselic every year. White-Winged Crossbills have nested in the extensive evergreen forests and the Louisiana Waterthrush returns every year to the rocky gorges to make its nest along the the cold mountain brooks.
With thousands of acres of seldom visited forests and few observers, one can be sure that there are more breeding species to be discovered.
The Otselic Valley was settled two hundred years after the original colonies. Until the American Revolution, the Iroquois Indian Nations controlled Central New York and the British honored their territorial sovereignty. Knowing that the American Colonists were committed to settling on Indian land, most of the Iroquoi Nations allied themselves with the British. Even though the local Oneida Nation fought for the American Colonies, they knew their land was lost when the colonists won and many moved to Canada. The new American government wasted no time in putting the new territory to use. It had no money to pay its soldiers, so former Indian land in what is now Central New York was given to Continental Army officers as back pay. The soldiers wanted cash, so they sold their land on the streets of Boston and New York City. Land brokers bought up the land and sold it to the first settlers. These were chiefly New England "Yankees," who needed land in a now "crowded" New England. These new settlers, often groups from the same church, skipped over the largely Dutch settled Hudson Valley and established a little part of New England in Central New York State.
One portion, however, was not given out as military pay and opened directly to settlers. This area was called Chenango Twenty Towns and comprised the northern half of Chenango County and the southern half of Madison County. Otselic was Town #7. The first settlers arrived in Otselic around 1800. The population peaked at about 1,800 residents in 1875 and Otselic probably was at its economic and cultural zenith in the 1890s.
The hamlet of South Otselic was originally called Maple Grove. Today, it is usually referred to as "South Ot". Some of the "old timers" and "natives"still call South Otselic "The Burg".
Unlike most of the small hamlets that dot Central New York, South Otselic was not another farm town. South Otselic has always been a hub of entrepreneurial activity and cultural interest. At the turn of the century, South Otselic was home to many businesses, mills, tanneries, creameries, print shops, blacksmiths, and hotels. Local residents formed the Gladding Rope Factory to meet the need for rope and cordage.
By 1871the Town of Otselic floated a bond which brought the New York and Oswego Midland Railroad, the "Butter and Cheese Express", through Otselic Center to DeRuyter and west.
In the 1920s, group of local residents realized the need for a bank to foster economic development and founded the South Otselic National Bank (now merged with NBT). Other residents formed a local library to further reading and many locals attended colleges such as Cortland and Cornell.
Local residents successfully lobbied the state of New York to build the South Otselic Fish Hatchery.
More than a few of the residents of "The Burg" lived in big, fine houses and enjoyed considerable affluence.
The "State Lands"
Today Chenango County has 75,000 acres of state forest land. About 6,000 acres lie in the Town of Otselic. The story of these lands is a unique perspective on the socio-economic cycles of rural America. In the 1920s and 30s rural farm abandonment reached massive proportions. Thin soils, the Great Depression, and the modern attractions of the urban areas combined to empty the rural landscape as effectively as any natural disaster.
As a result of this abandonment, the State of New York passed the Hewett Act which authorized the State to purchase one million acres of abandoned farmland in Central New York for forest and related use. A common refrain heard among the struggling hilltop farmers was "the State pays cash".( often only a few dollars per acre). Ultimately, over 700,000 acres were purchased and are often referred to as the Reforestation Lands. Not as well known as the Catskill Preserve or the Adirondack Preserve, the Hewett lands are many parcels interspersed with private land. These lands are used for timber production and forest related recreation. Today the forest reclaims the homesteads that dotted the hilltops, a telltale lilac bush or a stone wall is all that remains.
Swallow Valley Farm
We call our farm Swallow Valley Farm for the numerous Swallows that fill our spring and summer with their busy flight and reassuring chatter. However, originally our farm was the Thompson Farm, occupied by the Thompson family since the nineteenth century. In recent years, Lillian Thompson, born in 1881, was well known as "Queen Lil," the high school English teacher. She was "an old maid schoolteacher", who did not tolerate incorrect English. She passed away in 1973.
Her mother was descended from the Bunkers of Bunker Hill fame and her father was descended from Sir Francis Drake. Her father's cousin was Ezra Cornell from the adjacent town of DeRuyter, who went on to found Cornell University. At the turn of the century, Lillian's parents sent her to college (Cortland Normal School, now S.U.N.Y. Cortland) to be a teacher and sent her brother to Cornell to become an electrical engineer. At the turn of the century, culture and education were very much a part of rural small town America.
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