It’s easy to find simple facts about Middlefield, New York. The Census Bureau estimates the town’s population in 2009 is 2,451, an increase of 2.31% since 2000. The estimated median household income in 2007 was $49,296, compared with $39,625 in 2000 (but still below the New York State figure of $53,514). The median age is 45.1 — older than the state and national figure — but for young people still in school Middlefield spends more per pupil than do most places.
But to know how Middlefield is doing today it is good to understand where it has been. It’s also advisable to make a distinction between the Town of Middlefield (64.4 sq. mi.in Otsego County) and the hamlet of the same name, formerly known as Clarksville. You can meet the founders of Clarksville/Middlefield and follow the first 3/4 of a century of its growth in “Middlefield and the Settling of the New York Frontier” by Dominick J. Reisen. It is subtitled “A Case Study of Development in Central New York, 1790-1865” and traces activity in Middlefield from the designation of tracts of land recently brought under jurisdiction of a newly-established state and republic to the days when young men left their comfortable rural community to preserve a nation split by the Civil War.
Reisen’s research allows us to meet the pioneers who came to a wild setting, cleared the forest and began the work of making the land productive and the community prosperous. His study is filled with details of life on what’s been called America’s original frontier; e.g., it took seven to ten days of labor for a settler to clear one acre. There are vivid portraits of the individuals who brought commerce, agriculture and order to the community. They include George Clarke, the British land speculator who gave the place its original name; the beloved Dr. Sumner Ely, the town’s first physician and later town supervisor; and Joshua Pinney, the tavern keeper turned temperance advocate, who established the first school in Middlefield. It seems that almost anyone who did anything had the effect of contributing to the hamlet’s development.
Although the hamlet was on the outskirts of the frontier, wild by any definition, it would be a gross misstatement to characterize these people as backward, uneducated and poor. Indeed, by every measure, the leaders of this hamlet had proven themselves to be just the opposite. They were enlightened, educated and visionary. They displayed a high regard for fashion as seen in the tastefulness inherent in the architectural styles which they followed in building their homes. Additionally, some of them were amassing wealth far beyond the reach of the common farmer. All factors pointed to launching Clarksville toward a prosperous future.
— from “Middlefield and the Settling of the New York Frontier”
Middlefield had to struggle for a decent road network and from the earliest days was often overlooked in favor of its more famous neighbor, Cooperstown. But those residents who attained a degree of prosperity would express it by building a fine home, and to this day Middlefield is a showcase of tasteful architecture. There are detailed decriptions, and several photographs, of the gems of Middlefield habitation. As basic needs were met the residents organized churches and other institutions, including a Masonic lodge (the study of Freemasonry is one of the principal interests of the book’s publisher, Square Circle Press).
Reisen carries the history of Middlefield through many economic swings and shows how developments elsewhere in New York State influenced it for good or ill. The opening of the state’s canal system and later the advent of railroads — both of which bypassed Middlefield — condemned it to a small town status. But the fact that Middlefield never grew too big or too quickly, and the good documentation of events from the 1790s through the Civil War era, have allowed Mr. Reisen to reconstruct seventy-five years of community life, and reflect the development of central New York.
Historian Dominick J. Reisen joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about his hometown, whose story can serve as a standard for other local historians seeking both the uniqueness of a locale and the broader historical picture.