New book tells about life at Cotton-Hanlon
When Carol Fagnan decided it was time to consolidate the town archives into one location, the well-loved Catharine town historian had a crew of helpers. As they worked, someone asked where "Little Italy" and "Little Russia" had been--names heard without connection to a specific location. It turned out these were nicknames given to groups of company housing at Cotton-Hanlon in Cayuta. And because the company had offices in the town of Catharine, her historian's curiosity was hooked.
Fagnan's new book, "Life at Cotton-Hanlon's Mill Site at Cayuta, New York" was recently finished. It will be officially launched on Dec. 3 from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Cayuta Town Hall. Books will be available and can be signed by the author and contributors, who will also be there for reminiscing. Kellie Kretchmer did the typing and design for the book.
Howard Hanlon and Burton Cotton began their business in 1921 with a handshake. At the time, most sawmills were portable operations, with equipment brought to sites to make lumber where trees were downed. They originally worked around West Virginia but in 1925 moved north to Odessa, New York, where Cotton had family, changing their operation to one where the equipment was stationary and timber was brought to the mill to be processed.
Because the operation, on the site of what is now Wagner Hardwoods (6307 NY 224 Cayuta) required dependable mill workers, some of that lumber was used to build small houses and then rented to workers and their families for $5 per week. The groups of houses on company grounds became communities. Children went to the two-room schoolhouse in Cayuta - now the town hall where the signing will take place. Families attended the nearby Assembly of God Church (now apartments on State Route 13) and the still-non-denominational Cayuta Church. A rod and gun club built next door to the mill was used for more Saturday night dances than sportsmen's gatherings. The company grounds expanded by purchasing adjacent land as it became available, acquiring additional housing to offer their workers.
Some had small farms. Most had gardens and canned their surplus vegetables. Many raised chickens and a hog or two each year, and purchased a quarter of beef in the fall. Workers were well-treated and well-paid by the standards of that time. "If you wanted work, Howard Hanlon would find work that suited your skills," Fagnan says. "Everyone liked and respected him. I've never heard one bad word about him."
She knows because she listened to many of those who lived at the mill site, transcribing their conversations and recollections. Fagnan found them by placing ads inviting people to contact her. Two summers ago, she held a meeting at Veteran's Park in Odessa, where ten people showed up. "You can't imagine how happy they were that someone was interested in this," she says, adding it amazed her to think she'd lived here for so long without knowing more about the mill communities.
People generously shared their memories and photographs, many of which are reproduced in the book. To her surprise, two current neighbors were among those who'd grown up at the mill. Fagnan says her old tape recorder, used to record those conversations, lasted just long enough to allow her to finish the book.
They remembered company Christmas parties where Santa gave each child a filled stocking and a gift, and every family received a ham. They supplied photos of themselves as children at Sunday School and posing with their teacher outside their small country school. The teacher looks stern, but that may have been the sun in her eyes. The book itself is a mid-century snapshot of life in this area from almost a century ago up to the early 1970s.
Families left mill housing when their circumstances changed. Perhaps having more children meant they needed more space. Or an opportunity arose to purchase homes of their own, or they retired, or they inherited a parents' home. The mill housing was re-purposed or moved to other locations. The communities there were a launching pad for many families, who loved the area enough to remain nearby.
The old Cotton-Hanlon company also has ties to many homes in the community. Look down at your floors, for instance. There's a good chance those floors, and some of the lumber in many an older house, was locally milled.
Fagnan's book will also be sold at the Schuyler County Historical Society. For more information about the Dec. 3 event, call her at 607-594-2062. Refreshments will be served. Some thought was given to including the long-boiled hot dogs several contributors fondly recalled from special events at the mill--but in the end, the consensus leaned towards embracing the holiday season with cookies.