Town of Middlefield

A Brief History of the Town of Middlefield, NY

The Town of Middlefield is located in the heart of the Leatherstocking Region of New York State. It runs along the east side of Otsego Lake, the beautiful "Glimmerglass" of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. It is a gently hilly area divided by the meandering Cherry Valley Creek and Red Creek as they wind their way to the Susquehanna River.

In the mid-eighteenth century Middlefield was divided into several large tracts of lands, called land patents, which took their name from the individuals who purchased them through Royal Land Grants. The Godfrey Miller Patent encompassed much of the northwest portion of Middlefield, the John Bowers Patent was on the southwest, and the Volkert Outhout, or Long Patent, was a narrow strip of land running the entire length of the eastern side of the town. The Long Patent straddled the Cherry Valley Creek as it runs its course through Middlefield, and was acquired by George Clarke, lieutenant governor of New York, in the 1740s.

A mere twenty years after John Lindsay settled with a small group of people in Cherry Valley, the first pioneers entered the area that later came to be known as Middlefield. Among these early settlers were Alexander, Benjamin, Daniel and Reuben McCollum, Samuel and Andrew Wilson, William Cook, Andrew Cameron, and Andrew Cochran. They settled in Newtown-Martin, an area of Middlefield which became the hamlet of Middlefield Center, located on the road leading west out of Cherry Valley.

During the Revolutionary War the area was under constant threat of Indian attack since the Indians were aligned with the British. In 1779 the settlement at Cherry Valley was nearly wiped out by Indians in what is known as the Cherry Valley Massacre. Although the region was virtually evacuated at this time, after the conclusion of hostilities eager settlers flooded back to the area. Among these post-Revolutionary War settlers were some notable men who shaped the early history of Middlefield.

In the 1780s Benjamin Gilbert purchased a farm in the Middlefield Center area. When he first arrived, he taught school in Cherry Valley, but later used his skills as a surveyor to make his fortune. He became acquainted with the notable men of the area such as William Cooper, the founder of Cooperstown, and George Clarke, the great English land owner, and grandson of the man who acquired the Long Patent. Clarke built his palatial residence, Hyde Hall, on Mount Wellington, overlooking Otsego Lake. Gilbert went on to become the second sheriff of Otsego County and a representative to the New York State Assembly. He also served as Supervisor of the Town of Middlefield from 1803 to 1809 and from 1812 to 1816.

Col. Moses Rich, who settled in the southern portion of town, known as the hamlet of Westville, is credited with setting up the first saw mill in 1795. He later added to his holdings by setting up a grist mill and in 1798 opened a tavern. In the early part of the nineteenth century he helped his son, also named Moses, establish a mill in the hamlet of Clarksville, later known as the hamlet of Middlefield.

Others among these early pioneers were: Reuben Beals, Bernard Temple, William Compton, Whitney Jurill, Stephen and Thomas Pratt, William Cook, Daniel Moore, William Temple and John Parshall. Some of these early settlers deserve special note. Dr. Obadiah Dunham settled in the area below Bowerstown in about 1755. He was born in Pownal, Vermont in about 1731. Dr. Sumner Ely, who settled in Clarksville in about 1810, was the brother-in-law of Jedediah Peck, Judge William Cooper's great nemesis, and married Hannah Gilbert, the daughter of Benjamin Gilbert. Finally, there is Joshua Pinney, who settled in Clarksville in about 1803 and started an early tavern. Pinney was also instrumental in establishing the first school in the hamlet in 1807, as well as a store, a tannery, a distillery, and the Baptist Church.

Indeed, the religious community in Middlefield banded together at quite an early date. In 1802 the Reverend William Colbert preached probably the first Methodist sermon in Middlefield Center at the home of Daniel McCollum. In 1832 a Methodist congregation built their church in the hamlet of Middlefield at a cost of $2000 on land donated by George Clarke of Springfield.

The Baptists were building their congregation at the same time as the Methodists. Elder Benjamin Sawin preached in the hamlet of Clarksville in about 1806. By 1810, when the Baptists established the First Baptist Society in Middlefield, they were regularly meeting in the schoolhouse Pinney had helped establish on the hill overlooking the hamlet (across from the present Baptist Church). In 1826 they built their present church, again on lands donated by George Clarke. Their church design was based on the designs of Asher Benjamin, the noted Boston architect.

It was also in about 1806 that the Presbyterians built their first church in Middlefield Center. They formally organized in 1821 and by 1843 needed to erect a new church for their membership of some eighty-nine people. Later in the century the Presbyterians built a small chapel in the hamlet of Bowerstown.

The early nineteenth century saw some significant business activity in the town. In 1815 the Phoenix cotton mill was established and its original building was replaced in 1835 by a stone building. It became a woolen mill about 1866. Middlefield Center became home to a shoe last factory which was one of the largest in New York State. Also, in 1828, the Otsego County Farm, or Poor House, was set up along the Susquehanna River to help care for those who had fallen on hard times. Business growth coupled with population growth induced the United States Postal Service to open offices throughout the town. Post Offices were established in Clarksville (renamed Middlefield so as not to conflict with an earlier Clarksville in Albany County), Middlefield Center, Westville and Lentsville.

Despite all this business activity, though, argriculture remained the backbone of the economy. The early settlers grew a variety of grains, particularly wheat, for sale. However, as the 1820s dawned, farming began to steadily convert to dairying and its ancillary products such as cheese making. This diversity in agriculture almost completely vanished as hop growing mania swept Otsego County. Farmers quickly took to this cash crop, hoping for fantastic profits in a risky business: fortunes were made and lost. As soil exhaustion took its toll on the land, farmers returned to dairying as the century ran its course.

With the coming of the Civil War, many men from Middlefield were mustered in to the 121st Infantry Division of the Union Army, although others enlisted in the 42nd, 43rd, and 76th Regiment. These men saw action at Antietam, Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Wilderness and Salem Chapel.

After the Civil War the population in the town stabilized from its Civil War era decline. One of the results of this trend was the need for a larger schoolhouse in the hamlet of Middlefield. This schoolhouse was built on a rise of land near the mill in the hamlet. It opened in 1875 and ran until 1954 when it was centralized with the Cherry Valley district. Forty years earlier, four small school districts had consolidated at Middlefield District No. 1 and several had consolidated at Westville District No. 2. A new building was erected in Westville to accommodate these students.

The ravages of fire took their toll in the twentieth century with three major fires ushering in an era of decline in Middlefield. In 1934 the American Hotel in the hamlet of Middlefield suffered the loss of its main section and in 1942 the store of Charles Hearn, also in the hamlet, was gutted by a fire that started in the Roberts house next door. Mrs. Roberts barely made it out alive after re-entering the house to retrieve her purse. Finally, when the Morton house lost a wing to fire in 1955, a group of men banded together to form the Middlefield Volunteer Fire Department. From their first headquarters in a converted garage, they have come to occupy a modern three-bay firehouse.

Although many people and businesses left Middlefield by the mid-twentieth century, the town has witnessed a resurgence in activity as the century came to a close. The Old District No. 1 Schoolhouse became headquarters for the Middlefield Historical Association and host to a variety of activities in the summer, the two churches in the hamlet of Middlefield formed a cooperative parish and began alternating services at both buildings, and, in the 1980s, the hamlet of Middlefield was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Throughout its history the town of Middlefield has remained a picturesque and quiet rural town. Referred to as the "Land of Steady Habits," its residents have been industrious and content in the place they call home.

Photo: Methodist Episcopal Church & Parsonage, Middlefield.

Photo: Methodist Episcopal Church & Parsonage, Middlefield.