Oneonta has a long, rich and interesting history.*
Around 1,000 AD the Mohawks and Oneidas established settlements in the area where they grew corn, beans, and squash. But, in the years between 1300 and 1700, the upper Susquehanna was generally abandoned, as the Native American tribes moved north into the Mohawk Valley. Those who later returned to the area were mostly refugees from the French and Indian War.
Today, Hartwick College’s Yager Museum houses an extensive collection of archaeological materials from the area.
During the Revolutionary War, Otsego County was a battlefield for bloody confrontations between Patriots, British, Loyalists and Indians. In 1779 General Clinton’s Continental Army passed down the Susquehanna River from Lake Otsego to join the forces of General John Sullivan, destroying most of the Native American settlements along the river as they passed. As a result of this campaign, the Indian’s strength was weakened in the region and it became more accessible to settlers.
In 1775, John Vanderwerker built a log cabin at the present entrance to Neahwa Park and upon returning from the war, built a saw mill and bridge on the Susquehanna in 1780. More settlers moved into the area and by 1800 several log cabins had been built. In 1808, John McDonald built a second bridge, replacing Vanderwerker’s, and the hamlet in the River Street area became known as McDonald’s Mills.
Because the early settlement of mostly Dutch and German origin had a reputation as a rough frontier community it acquired the nickname of Klipnockie, German for “tavern brawl.”
Eventually Oneonta, the Indian name meaning “place of open rocks” was settled on, probably referring to Table Rock overlooking Chestnut Street.
In 1822, Eliakin Ford came to Oneonta and became a leading figure in the town’s physical and economic growth. His first project was to build a stone store on Main and Broad Streets and a stone mansion where Community Bank now stands.
In 1834, the Charlotte Turnpike came through the village east via Chestnut and Main Streets. This shifted the center of town from the River Street area to the present business district of Main Street.
Along with Harvey Baker and Col. W.W. Snow, the first congressman from the area, Ford was greatly instrumental in the building of the Albany-Susquehanna Railroad (later the Delaware and Hudson Line). By the time tracks reached Oneonta in 1865 the town had already begun its evolution into a railroad center of national importance. In 1883, the first National Brakeman’s Union was formed here, eventually becoming the National Transportation Union.
As the railroad became Oneonta’s chief industry the D&H roundhouse grew to be the largest in the world, handling 72 passenger trains a day on two steam lines and one electric line which served the community and, until the early 1950s was still in operation.
By the turn of the century, Oneonta was a full-fledged rail town. The former Broad Street was lined with taverns, rooming houses and shipping companies and most of the community was employed by the D&H or railroad service industries.
At the turn of the century, cigar rolling also became an industry of some importance, with several million being hand-rolled each year.
Hops and their rail transport was also big business, as was the dairy industry, with this region once yielding more milk than any other area its size in the world.
Harlow E. Bundy tested and marketed a time recorder while postmaster in Oneonta. His brother Willard’s invention was subsequently used by George W. Fairchild, another native Oneontan, in his formation of Bundy Time Recorder, which later became the IBM corporation, after re-locating to Endicott. Numerous stockholders of this fledgling company greatly contributed to the wealth of this and many communities in the Upper Susquehanna Valley.
*Excerpted with permission from the Everything Oneonta 2016 Community Directory