Madison county is a typical upstate rural unit with a moderate area of 650 square miles, containing one city and many small villages. Neither its position nor topography could warrant a greater importance than as an agricultural section comparing favorably with any other county of similar size in the eastern dairy district. The great rail and highway corridor through the state passes along the extreme northern part, and only there was it possible for Oneida, largest community of 10,000 population, to rise.
President Madison is memorialized by the county's name. Previous to obtaining its own identity in 1806, it had belonged to the county of Tryon, which was set up in 1772 and then changed to Montgomery. After 1792 it was part of Herkimer county.
This section was at one time the seat of the Oneida Indians. In the earliest days of the famed Iroquois Confederacy, the settled tribal encampments were in Madison County only, near the headwaters of Oneida Creek, but this distinction was later shared with Oneida County. One of the first encounters which helped to alienate the Iroquois from the French took place in 1615, when Champlain attacked a palisaded village at Nichols Pond. In 1696 Count Frontenac, while raiding the neighboring Onondagas, dispatched 700 men to chastise the Oneidas. The antagonsim thus created helped to check the French expansion on this continent and presented to the English invaluable friends.
The war broke out in the next century. By then the main Oneida village had been moved downstream to a place still called Oneida Castle. There the creek is the boundary between Madison and Oneida Counties, and the general site extended into both. It is crossed by State Highway Five and the West Shore Railroad, which has given the "Castle" name to a small Oneida County depot.
Of all the Iroquois tribes, the Oneidas had the mildest and most amiable disposition. Several times they generously donated choice land to unfortunate Redmen, the first being the Tuscaroras who were driven from the southern states. These settled on the older Oneida clearings and when they moved away, sanctuary was given in 1783 to Stockbridge Indians who were crowded out of New England. Hence it is that the original Oneida homestead is today mostly in the town of Stockbridge.
Madison county can be compared to a square, 30 miles each way, with the northeast corner deeply torn off. This irregularity leaves it only 12 miles wide at the extreme top, where it is bordered by Oneida Lake. Going downward, the width increases at the expense of Oneida County on the east, until it attains its normal of 30 miles where Otsego County abuts. Chenango shoulders it squarely on the south, and on the west the border with Cortland and Onondaga is also straight, except for a short deviation in the very north.
The Castle site was chosen with true Indian sagacity for those advantages of terrain necessary to a primitive existence. Rolling highland deeply entrenched by many valleys, large and small, with exceptionally steep slopes, comprises nearly all of the shire. The summits often run up to nearly 2000 feet above sea level or 600 feet above the streams, and commonly form long ridges trending north and south. The longest valley is in the southeast and is occupied by the Chenango River. As the Castle was at the foot of this massif, the Oneidas had a fine hunting ground and streams teeming with fish at their backdoor.
At this point the character of the county changes abruptly. All along a line from the east to west, the hills subside into a complete flat, in those days mostly a swamp, which extends for six miles to the lake and gives the county its lowest elevation of 370 feet. The Oneidas thus had abundant opportunities for crude agriculture in rich soil, and for unexampled fishing. The shallow waters, 20 miles long and four to five miles broad, spawned an inexhaustable supply of pickerel, salmon, whitefish, bass and other varieties. Even today it is a favorite resort for fishermen, and commercial quantities of fish are shipped.
Until 1822 the Indians thrived after their fashion, but meantime, the Oneidas lands shrunk woefully by treaty, gift and sale. In that year the midwestern tribes invited their eastern brethern to come to a magnificient wilderness reservation at Green Bay, Wisconsin. A quarter of a century later the county was almost wholly a white man's land.
During the Revolution, Madison County was untouched by conflict. This was due to the fact that there were no settlers. There were only a few palefaces who were fur traders, and Missionary Samuel Kirkland, who frequented the Castle. It was mainly his influence which kept the Oneidas neutral and even helpful to the colonists. Not until 1790 did any settlements show signs of beginning.
The first improvement in Madison County was the result of the passing through of James and William Wadsworth, bound for the Genessee Country. They cut a road along a trail which ran from the Great Ford at Utica, Oneida County, to the Castle and the west. This immediately became instrumental in opening all of western New York, and its builders were destined to establish a family which has ever since been eminet socially, financially, and politically in that section. In 1794 this road was improved under state auspices as the Great South Genessee Road, and the first mail went through in 1797 on horseback. The Seneca Turnpike from Utica, through its suburb, New Hartford, was chartered in 1800. The first horse mailcoach rolled over it in 1803. A great influx of settlers to Madison County was promoted by these first highways.
Virtually all but the northern part of the county was embraced by the Twenty Towns, a vast tract purchased by Governor George Clinton from the Indians in 1788. The Unadilla River was boundary on the east and remains part of the county's border in consequence. What was probably the first settlement in the shire was made in the town of Brookfield, up from the river, by Captain Noxie and others in 1791. Every one of the county's 14 towns received its first pioneers by 1793.
The earliest Madisonians settled in the hills. For years, farms which today are poorest, brought the highest prices. One reason is that the lowlands were ill-drained and boggy. The pioneers also believed that the heights were less liable to early frosts.
Hardship attended those early years. Actually, the log cabins were neither picturesque nor water proof, being shacks with a roof of bark slanting from front to within a couple of feet of the ground in the rear. Oiled paper was used in lieu of glass and sliding boards served as shutters. The primeval forest consisted of beech, elm, basswood, chestnut, maple, oak, and hemlock, and in places there was much pine. The basswood was the most serviceable as it could be split easily into rough slabs. When a settler made his "betterments" he burned the felled trees except those which were eventually hauled to a nearby sawmill for timber to be used for a frame house and barn; then he planted his crops among the stumps.
Even as late as 1816 a bad year could force famine on the folk. It was that year which brought the famous "Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death", the like of which has not been seen before or since. Frost occurred and snow fell in every month of the year. Crops were virtually ruined, and corn, at two dollars a bushel, was so poor that it was thrown to the pigs and even they rejected it.
The county was rapidly settled, growth being stimulated by three main roads which crossed from east to west. In addition to the Seneca Turnpike, there was the Hamilton and Skaneatleles, begun in 1811, which ran from Plainfield, Otsego County, through the Madison villages of Brookfield, Hamilton, Eaton, Erieville, and New Woodstock. The most important for the shire was the "Cherry Valley Pike", which traversed the country, passing through the hamlets of Madison and Morrisville. Chartered in 1803, it was a great artery from Albany. The Conestoga Wagon, forerunner of the "Covered Wagon", but sagging in the middle to keep the contents from jostling out, was a frequent sight. Six and eight horse "hitches" and very wide tires permitted heavy loads to negotiate the grades and mud. The song of the highway, it is recorded, was the strident squeaking of many ungreased axles.
Farming in early Madison County was mostly tillage, and large yields of grains and potatoes were possible in the good soil in spite of the declivous slopes. Flax was grown, rotted, and woven after treatment by hetchel and swingle. The first hop farm was started in 1808 by John Cooledge in Madison. He collected a few plants here and there until finally he had developed enough to harvest. Most farmers ignored the crop but when Solomon Root sold two tons of hops for $1000 in 1815, the rest needed no more incentive. A culture of hops centering in Waterville, Oneida County, was established, which lasted until Prohibition.
Skanawis, the Long Swamp, supplied many of the cedar poles needed for the clambering hop vine. Accurately described by its later name of Nine Mile Swamp, it became notorious for the Loomis Gang of horse thieves which lived at its head, where it extended into Oneida County. For 20 years until broken up in 1865, these banditti preyed on farmers for miles around and acted as "fence" for similar bands elsewhere. Barn burnings and attempts at assassination kept the district effectively terrorized. The swamp was a perfect covert for concealing the animals until they were dyed or otherwise disguised and ready for sale at distant places. The saga ended on a genuine vigilante note. An uprising of enraged farmers from both counties killed the leader and burned the lair.
The steep Madison hills early induced sheep raising. Woolen goods at first were of home manufacture, the hand cards, spinning wheels and looms being kept busy all winter in every farmhouse. Carding machines quickly superseded the hand cards, though many complained they "chopped up the wool and that the yarn was not nearly as good as that spun from the handmade rolls." The number of woolen factories that were soon built was unusual for this part of the state. Even after the War of 1812, purchase of cloth was not great, the homemade materials prevailing.
Dairying came into vogue gradually. The depressive effect of the Erie Canal, which opened the western part of the state as a granary for the east after 1825, was not felt as sharply as in the Mohawk Valley shires. The Erie Canal benefitted Madison County less than the adjacent ones as it crossed the swampy flat at the extreme top, but it furnished impetus for the growth of Canastota Village, with a population of 4000.
Hamilton Village, population 1700, became the leading community of the lower portion of the county when the Chenango Canal opened in 1836. This canal reached its summit in Madison, just above Hamilton, dropping 706 feet to Binghamton by 76 locks and 303 feet to Utica by 38 more locks. Solsville, Bouckville, and Earlville, were other places on the narrow, shallow ditch which profited. The immediate area furnished seven natural and artificial bodies of water as feeders. The Chenango Canal was suspended some years ago, but Hatch's Lake in Eaton and Lake Moraine in Madison are still useful as cottage resorts. The county has been a plentiful source of Erie waters; these were supplied not only by the Chenango Canal which emptied into the Erie at Utica, but by Cazenovia Lake and the Erieville and DeRuyter Reservoirs.
The first railroad was the Syracuse and Utica, now the New York Central, which opened in 1839 along the general line of the Erie. The city of Oneida speedily grew up at the spot chosen for a depot near Oneida Castle. In 1870 the Midland Railroad, from New York to Oswego, penetrated the county and later became part of the Ontario and Western. The Cazenovia and Canastota, afterward absorbed by the Lehigh, was built. In 1872, the Syracuse and Chenango Valley, later a West Shore line, managed a difficult diagonal route through the county, requiring a 1600 foot tunnel near Cazenovia.
Rivalry over the location of the county seat existed from the very earliest days, but finally, in Feb. 1810 Cazenovia was incorporated as a village and the county seat was set up there. In 1817 it was transferred to the more centrally located Morrisville. During subsequent decades, the upper part of the county gained in population and influence, and another change was planned, but the claims of Canastota and Oneida were equal. The ultimate solution was a compromise. A new courthouse was placed between them at the scattering of houses called Wampsville, on the West Shore Railroad. The Courthouse faces the track half a mile away from Route Five.
Until 1840, Madison County continued to grow in population, reaching 41,000. Thereafter, a slight decline occurred despite decided increases of such communities as Oneida City. During this century the population has remained a steady 39,000. 1970 population is 62,251.
The agrigcultural equation today involves 3100 farms worth $20,000,000. They aggregate 337,000 acres of which 185,000 are harvested. The preponderant factor by far is dairy products, since 30,000 cows account for $6,900,000 out of an $8,500,000 agricultural total. Sheep became a curiosity long ago and only 2500 swine were recently enumerated. Truck farming thrives on the wet muck bordering Oneida Lake. Onions and celery are stressed. This tillage, with Canastota as the center, yeilds $400,000 a year.
Manufacturing has always been subordinate to farming, the present ratio of five to eight based on commodity value being a general indication for decades past. The abundance of sizeable streams, with exceptional fall, invited primitive industry of varied kinds to spring up in practically all parts of the county as soon as it was settled. These small plants have long since disappeared. There were tanneries, cheesebox, chair, woolen, and carding plants.
The city of Oneida is the chief center of industry as its 18 plants normally employ more than 800 workers or a majority of those engaged in industrial employment in the whole county. Caskets and burial vaults prove to be quite the opposite of a dead business, as they require the largest factory. There are limestone quarries in Munnsville and Perryville. They are the only two of consequence, though the Helderberg series of limestone crosses the county. It belongs geologically to the Denovian as well as Silurian periods and bed-rock consists almost wholly of various shales.
Two localities were distinctly Quaker in early times but all that remains is the memory and the name of Quaker Hill in Brookfield. Seventh Day Baptists were prominent in several sections and even today much of Leonardsville, on the Unadilla River, rests from labor on Saturday. The most distinctive religious sect, however, was the "Perfectionists." John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 gathered his colony of those seeking salvation via the communistic route, into Oneida Community, four miles south of Oneida. The estate straddled Oneida Creek and lay partly in Oneida County but the main houses were in Madison. There they practiced a species of eugenical free love that Noyes dubbed "complex marriage." The most interesting feature is that it worked out amazingly well, and financially it achieved the renown of becoming the most successful of 62 communistic experiments ever tried in the United States. To a purely agricultural activity, industry was joined when animal traps were made by the Perfectionists which were used for 70 years by the Hudson Bay Company. Then the colony turned to silver smithy. In 1872 the prosperous communists completely reorganized and became capitalistic, each member receiving stock in a concern that today is the Oneida Community, Ltd., vendors of silverware throughout the world.
The most famous Madisonian was Gerrit Smith, the abolitionist. His father, an early partner of John Jacob Astor in the fur trade, while one of the first merchants in Utica, acquired 1,000,000 acres in central New York and founded Peterboro, town of Smithfield. Smith's activities included writings which were largely influential in turning the north to anti-slavery. He was a Congressman in 1852 and a close friend of that John Brown "whose soul goes marching on."
That the Underground Railroad, which spirited escaped slaves to Canada, operated in the county was revealed in 1934 in a unique way. A curious cave was discovered in Eaton, south of Petersboro, when a streamshovel taking out gravel above Alder Creek, uncovered a low passage leading to a round room, eight feet in diameter and about the same in height. The hideout was lined with dry masonry and was roofed with flagstone.
Thirteen men said 13 prayers, gave $13 and 13 books and founded Colgate University at Hamilton, according to tradition. The institution thus launched in 1817 was the Baptist Education Society which established the Hamilton Literary and Theological Seminary. This was incorporated as Madison University in 1846. This is the school which has become Colgate University. Note: The above information was taken from a Highway Map of Madison County, NY. At that time Lyle H. Matteson was Co. Supt. of Highways and the history was provided by George S. Morath. While I may be in error by using this information, no copyright notice was found on the document.