Cortland’s Manufacturing and Commercial History
8 April 2009
Cortland is the county seat (and main city) of Cortland County in the middle of New York State. The city is on a river, called the Tioughneoga. In the early 1800’s goods’ were sent to and from Cortland on barges called arks. Then the railroad came in the mid 1800’s, making Cortland a manufacturing center. Cortland in the 1950’s was a very successful town in spite of it’s being small with only 20,000 people living there. Back in the 1950’s, there were a lot of big manufacturing companies that gave a lot of jobs to the Cortland citizens. When zoning laws changed, so did everything for businesses from factories to ice cream shops that were here.
One of the big employing manufacturing companies was Smith Corona. Smith Corona manufactured typewriters as one of their main products. When America started to improve inventions, and computer technology got more advanced, we no longer needed the typewriter. Smith Corona was late changing their products. So what happened was that Smith Corona closed down their factory and moved to Mexico where labor was cheaper.
Another big employing manufacturing company at that time was Brockway Motor Company. They were a big truck manufacturing company. Brockway Motors was founded in 1875 as Brockway Carriage Works by William Brockway. In 1909, his son George Brockway turned it into a truck manufacturing company. A Brockway truck factory was in Cortland from 1912 till 1977 when it closed down in June. In August of 1956, Mack Trucks Inc. bought Brockway, and it remained a division of Mack Trucks until it closed down and moved to Pennsylvania.
One of the leading industries in Cortland in from the late 1800’s to 1970’s was the Wickwire Brothers wire drawing mill. The Wickwire Brothers were noted for their production of the wire hardware cloth for use as window screens. Their wealth is noted by their several mansions that the Wickwire family owned. Two of those mansions are now the 1890 House Museum and the SUNY Cortland Alumni House.
In 1900 the city of Cortland was accounted for as the 41st city of New York state. Since the city of Cortland is the county seat of Cortland County it is known as “crown city.”
In the mid 1900’s there were several hotels on Main Street. By the 1950’s there was only one: The Hotel Cortland. Now there are no hotels on Main Street. They have all moved due to the change in zoning laws that opened up farmland for manufacturing and commercial purposes. Many stores that were on Main Street, for example the J.C. Penney department store, moved to the suburban area. These stores moved because they were able to turn the farm fields into big parking lots. When they did, they made the amount of land that can be farmed smaller due to these strip malls on the outskirts of town in the countryside.
There used to be several different men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing stores on Main Street. For the men, there were such stores as Fabrizio’s and A. Louis’s men’s store. For women,there were Leonard’s and Lib-Mar among others. For the children, there was the Brother and Sister Shop. Now there is only one small dress shop on Main Street called Divas. Since there is only one clothing store left on Main Street, many people drive far distances to get clothing. This is one reason why the earth is getting very polluted, and that is causing global warming. If there were stores closer to home, many people would most likely shop in their towns. This would keep money and business in our towns. Instead of the money leaving our towns, which makes a big affect on how much money the towns have to spend on services and repairs of the roads and buildings, municipalities would have money for the repairs and services needed.
Until the 1970’s there was a beautiful movie theater with a stage that was on Main Street, but it got torn down to be turned into a parking lot for a bank. Now there is a small multi-plex theater on the outskirts of town.
Cortland became a center of manufacturing with the arrival of railroads. Its main employers after World War II were Brockway Trucks and typewriter manufacturer Smith Corona, which at one time employed over 16% of the local population. Today the list of missing manufacturers is hard to ignore: Wickwire Brothers, Rubbermaid, Overhead Door Co., Wilson Sporting Goods, Durkee Bakery and Thompson Boats, as well as Brockway and Smith Corona all are gone today and the impact to the City and its downtown is very hard to ignore.
In the 1990’s, Rubbermaid was a big factory. However, because of the contract it had with Wal-Mart, Rubbermaid had a choice to either expand their company and try to build on the land that the people lived on or to move away. They choose to move, since nobody would have wanted to give up their house, for which I don’t blame them because they shouldn’t have to. The company moved in order not to lose their contract with Wal-Mart.
In conclusion, the town of Cortland once had it all. Then it lost a lot due to the change in the zoning laws and international trends in manufacturing. It has taken a big toll on the downtown area of Cortland. It also has taken a toll on the amount of jobs there are now in Cortland.
Cortland County Sesquicentennial books, 1958
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