Madison County's only city is getting ready to celebrate a birthday this month. Oneida turns 111 on March 28th. While today its slogan refers to the city as "a little bit of America at its best," it had to work to earn that title, playing important roles in keeping boats on the Erie Canal afloat and literally becoming a must-stop destination for rail travelers passing through the area. Our Sarah Blazonis tells us about Oneida's journey to becoming an incorporated city and how it's fared in the century since.
ONEIDA, N.Y. -- A historical marker on Farrier Ave. in the City of Oneida lets visitors know it was on this spot the Oneida Depot and Railroad Station originally stood. It was from this spot that generations of men and women left their hometown to serve their country in conflicts like World Wars I and II, and presidential candidates like Harry Truman and John Kennedy made campaign stops. But historians say this site represents so much more. It represents the birthplace of the city, and it all started with a man named Sands Higinbotham.
The year was 1839, and the first railroad from Utica to Syracuse was under construction. Officials wanted to lay tracks across Higinbotham's land.
"He agreed to let them have it if the trains that came through would stop here for 15 minutes," said David Alvord, Oneida City Historian.
"He had such an invested interest in the City of Oneida and its prosperity that he knew the railroad would be the push to make this into a prosperous demographic area," said Sydney Loftus, executive director of the Madison County Historical Society.
The depot stop wasn't the only feature drawing people to the area. Five years before, the state built a feeder for the Erie Canal parallel to what would become Main St.
"Between the railroad and the canal, that gave local farmers access to markets far beyond this area," said Alvord. "So people started building stores for the farmers to shop in."
Historians say the population continued to grow with the addition of factories and the village's first industry -- a foundry.
In 1896, the legislature passed a law separating the village from the Town of Lenox, and Oneida was officially incorporated as a city on March 28, 1901.
After this and leading up to the world wars, Oneida had a diverse industrial base.
"We made things like carriages, cement blocks, cigars, coffins, chucks," said Alvord.
It was in the 1970s that the city began to change. Industry moved away, and the shops that were once located along Main St. moved to shopping centers on the outskirts of town.
Still, the Oneida Chamber of Commerce says the city is thriving today. Its 140 member business are mostly small, but its close-knit neighborhoods, school system, and health care center help keep it vibrant.
Steps have also been taken to protect its past. The state established a historic district along Main, Dodge, and Broad Streets and Washington Ave. back in 1983.
"There are plans for taking care of items that are given to institutions and that they're truly there as an educational institution for children to learn, for families to learn," said Loftus.
Meaning the past will likely be visible in Oneida's present for generations to come.