News of Otsego County

Serving Otsego County, NY, through the combined reporting of Cooperstown's Freeman's Journal and the Hometown Oneonta newspapers.


Bob Brzozowski

4 Bresee Elves Return To Oneonta

4 Bresee Elves

Return To Oneonta

Present at the installation of Bresee’s Christmas figurines in the Oneonta History Center’s windows are, clockwise from front, St. James Manor Superintendent of Building and Grounds Tim Hornbeck, St. James Executive Director Kathy Clarkson, Breck Tarbell from the St. James maintenance staff, GOHS Executive Director Bob Brzozowski and John Pontius, who is on both the GOHS and St. James boards and organized the loan. How quaint! The doe is ironing. (Jim Kevlin/

By JIM KEVLIN • Special To

Joining the ironing doe is the seamstress doe, mending Santa’s cap.

ONEONTA — A quarter-century after Otsego County’s department store closed, the Magic of Christmas is still the Magic of Bresee’s.

Four of Bresee’s automatic elves plus two does – one ironing, the other mending Santa’s cap – are on display behind the Oneonta History Center’s plate-glass windows through Monday, Dec. 9, and “it’s been great,” said Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director.

“You see people stopping, or doing a double-take,” said Brzozowski.

Bresee’s magic is wrapped up in community and family, said Marc Bresee, who worked in the store during its final days.

Bresee’s was open late one night a week – Thursday, he said – and the Christmas display was installed only a week or two before The Big Day, so Yuletide Thursdays would be particularly brisk, he said, with 700 meals served.

Four of Bresee’s original elves are in the Oneonta History Center window through Dec. 9

After supper, everybody – young and old alike – would trek upstairs to visit Santa Claus, surrounded by his mechanical entourage.

The department store, which opened in 1899, closed in 1994, although Marc Bresee continued to sell furniture in part of the building. The building changed hands in 2003, and on Dec. 11 of that year the contents, including the Santa paraphernalia, were auctioned off at Lettis’ Auction on the city’s east end.
It was the first auction after Kevin Herrick bought the business, and since it was such a significant – even historic – local event, auctioneer Jim Lettis, a former Oneonta mayor, wielded the gavel with the new owner’s concurrence.

Most notable, Herrick remembers, were the mechanical horse – feed it with a nickel, and get a ride; same thing with mechanical Rudolph. The giant Crayola crayon – sold! – and giant dice.

Of the total, 14-some mechanical elves and figurines were sold to a couple in the Town of Davenport, and in 2010 they donated their collection to St. James Manor, Executive Director Kathy Clarkson recalled the other day, as she helped a crew of five put up the History Center installation.

Later, Marc’s wife Elaine donated additional elves that had been in their garage. “I thought I would put them on the porch at Christmas,” the husband said. “But we never did.”

Another member of the crew was John Pontius, who happens to be both a St. James board member and GOHS incoming president, (succeeding Corinne Bresee Smith, Marc’s daughter.)

“It came to my mind lots of people would like to see them,” Pontius said, adding he had been introduced to the Bresee’s Christmas legacy when he and wife Andrea moved their family here from Waterloo in the early 1980s. Clarkson was raised in the Town of Davenport, and Bresee’s was part of her family’s holiday routine.

While the figures were being installed, who showed up but Kelly Rogers, a one-time intern at St. James, now with Catholic Charities, who had darned the elves costumes when she was there. She and Clarkson examined the figurines, which are wood frames enhanced with papier mache limbs.

The limbs are powered by electric gear motors, Model F, manufactured by Bevel, and are tough to find, said St. James Building & Grounds Superintendent Tom Hornbeck, who said they date from the 1930s or ’40s, when the Bresee’s display was put together.

To keep the little motors from overheating, Brzozowski said, they are only being run about 10 minutes per hour. “We want to make sure they will be around for other people to enjoy in years to come,” he said.

The conversation during the installation turned to where all the pieces might have ended up.

The History Center has the mechanical Santa, which was installed at 183 Main St. over the weekend, as well as the mailbox where kids would post their letters to the North Pole. They were brought out over the weekend to join the St. James’ group.

Carla Balnis has a mechanical skating rink.

For years, the popular Rudolph was in the hands of Greg Noonan, Cherry Valley, who said he sold it to a local Rudolph enthusiast who is building it a new saddle, and has added a cape.

Marc Bresee reflected that the department store installation, in these days of sophisticated video games, may not be as appealing to the young as the young at heart.

“It’s the older generation that remember them from the windows at Bresee’s,” he said.

See them while you can. The History Center display will be in place during the city’s Santa Parade at 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, followed by the community tree-lighting at 5:30 p.m. in Mueller Plaza.

The following Monday, the does and elves will be returned to St. James for residents there to enjoy through the rest of the season, and replaced by winners of the city’s annual gingerbread contest.

Philo Vance Film Series Concludes With Lecture From Mystery Novelist


Mystery-Writing Editor

Places ‘Oneonta-Born’

Philo Vance In Context

Oneonta mystery writer Libby Cudmore assesses Philo Vance’s place in the golden age of detective fiction at this evening’s third installment of the Philo Vance Film Series at the Greater Oneonta Historical Society.  The talk preceded a screening of “The Dragon Murder Case,” based on one of the lesser beloved of S.S. Van Dine’s 12 novels featuring the detective that Van Dine (aka Willard Huntington Wright) created while living in his aunts’ home on River Street. At  left are GOHS Executive Director Bob Brzozowski and Father Ken Hunter, St. James Episcopal pastor and a mystery buff, who organized the film series.  Cudmore is also managing editor of Hometown Oneonta, The Freeman’s Journal and  Her “The Big Rewind” was published by William Morrow in 2016. (Ian Austin/
Oneonta ’49ers Became Wealthy, Shared It Here

Oneonta ’49ers Became

Wealthy, Shared It Here

GOHS Exhibit Also Highlights

Huntington’s Anti-Slavery Views

That Collis Huntington, who left Oneonta and made a fortune – not mining in the California Gold Rush, but selling gold miners the equipment they needed – may have feuded with his hometown from time to time, said Ed Rowley, top photo, left, an organizer of “Oneonta’s Forty-Niners,” which opened this afternoon at the Oneonta History Center.  “It’s a good story,” said Rowley, but any feuding couldn’t have been that bad:  When Huntington died, he left each of his local survivors at least $50,000 each, “more than a million dollars today.”  Huntington, who took four Oneontans with him – among them Carleton Watkins, whose scenic photos are second only to Ansel Adams – became one of California’s “Big Four,” credited with building the Central Pacific Railroad, the western end of the railroad that connected the continent in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah.  Others in top photo included, from left, organizer Sarah Livington, GOHS members Ed Leone and Jane Bachman, and Bob Brzozowski (Bachman’s husband), GOHS executive director and another of the organizers, as was historian Tom Sullivan.  Inset is a photo the bronze depiction of Collis Huntington that hangs in the city’s Public Safety Building at Main and South Market.  Brzozowski reported Huntington was “deeply offended” by slavery during sales trip to the South as a young man, and his will included large bequests for Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, and to build the library at Tuskegee Institute; both are historic black institutions.  (Jim Kevlin/

Historians Say Literary Mecca Out Of Danger
Philo Vance Home Safe For Now

Historians Say Literary

Mecca Out Of Danger

By LIBBY CUDMORE• Special to

The novel couldn’t have been written in the cupola: There’s only 3 feet of headroom. (Ian Austin/HOMETOWN ONEONTA & The Freeman’s Journal)

The River Street birthplace of detective Philo Vance may still be saved.

On Monday, June 10, Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, went through the 31 River St. home where William Huntington Wright – aka S.S. Van Dyne – wrote parts of his debut novel, “A Man of Promise.” Later, while recovering from a cocaine addiction, is believed to have written his first detective novel, “The Benson Murder Case,” a best-seller and the first of a dozen novels featuring dandy detective Philo Vance.

The house, owned by his maiden aunts Bertha and Julia Wright, was sold to the Salvation Army earlier this spring for $90,000. The original intent was to demolish it for a parking lot and, eventually, a new building for expanded programming, including the food pantry.

But when word of the home’s literary history got to Brzozowski, he began researching ways to save it. He arranged a tour with the Salvation Army, who took him around the grounds and through the house.
“Right away, we noticed that the entire house was dry, even though the weekend had been very rainy,” said Brzozowski. “Though obviously, there are other issues.”

At some point, the residence was chopped into apartments, but strangely. “There are two kitchens right beside each other,” said Brzozowski. “There’s one living space on the first floor and two on the second.”

Though no furniture was left, Brzozowski did find some “knick-knacks,” including a 1966 newspaper, a WWII-era canvas pouch in a tin box in the basement and a couple of “really interesting lamps.”
“There could have been stuff there that belonged to the Wright family, but it would be hard to detect,” he said.

But perhaps the biggest revelation of all is that the cupola, where legend had it that Wright did all of his writing, wasn’t big enough to accommodate the writer – or anyone.

“It’s maybe three feet from floor to ceiling,” he said. “It’s not like a room. He couldn’t even sit in here.”

There is, however, a garret on the second floor south side of the house. “I could imagine a writer working in there.”

Common Council Adopts New Comprehensive Plan


Comp Plan Focuses On

‘Zombies,’ City Arts Scene

Bob Brzozowski, GOHS executive director and a member of the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, read from their final report as Common Council voted to adopt the updated Comprehensive Plan. (Ian Austin/

By JENNIFER HILL • Special to

ONEONTA – An office to market the city as a destination for arts and culture, the reuse of “zombie properties” and continuing the Downtown Revitalization Initiative were all recommended as part of Oneonta’s updated Comprehensive Plan, adopted unanimously by Common Council during their meeting this evening.

“You’ve given us a road map that will use over the years,” said Mayor Gary Herzig. “It’s given us a clear vision…an action plan and some real goals.”

The city formed steering committee in 2017 to update its Comprehensive Plan, implemented in 2007, because “Oneonta was at the tipping point,” Herzig said, “where we found ourselves with new opportunities and resources to reinvent Oneonta and thrive in today’s economy.”

River Street House Where Fictional Det. ‘Philo Vance’ Was Born Is Endangered

River Street House Where

Fictional Det. ‘Philo Vance’

Was Created Is Endangered

Salvation Army Plans To Raze It,

But GOHS May Object To Plans

S.S. Van Dine’s detective novels – aka Willard Huntington Wright – were frequently made into movies in the first half of the 20th Century starring such famous actors at William Powell and Mary Astor.

By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to

ONEONTA – Hidden behind a row of overgrown trees on River Street is a literary legacy.

GOHS Executive Director Bob Brzozowski strolls past 31 Railroad St., where famous “Philo Vance” mysteries were being written a century ago. (Ian Austin/

As S.S. Van Dine, Willard Huntington Wright (1888-1939), wrote 12 novels starring dandy detective Philo Vance – and Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, believes that they were written here.

“We know his novel ‘The Man of Promise’ (196) was partially written in the cupola of 31 River Street,” said Brzozowski. “It’s set in Greenwood, which is based on Oneonta. H.L. Mencken called it ‘the Great American Novel’. We believe he wrote some of the Vance novels here as well.”

The heritage will remain, but the house, neglected for year, is about to succumb to the ravages of time.

The Salvation Army, whose local operation is growing, bought the property in March, first to build a parking lot, then expanding its building.

“We need more room,” said Maj. Sharon Harford, the veteran commander who is retiring at the end of May. “We want to expand our food pantry, and the city is looking to us to create a warming station for the homeless when the temperature drops.”

Dog Park, Housing Top Comprehensive Plan

Dog Park, Housing

Top Comprehensive Plan

Council member Russ Southard, Sixth Ward, converses with Mayor Gary Herzig and GOHS executive director Bob Brzozowski about the future of Oneonta as a second open house was held to gather community input on the city’s Comprehensive Plan earlier this evening. Curated recommendations, including a dog park, green-energy initiatives, increased moderate and low-income housing, as well as enhanced arts and recreation offerings, were put forth for visitors to support with check-marks and sticky notes.  The study will also be available online through the city’s website, and once the feedback is gathered, the Steering Committee will compile the results to take to Common Council, who will take a vote. Herzig anticipates action on the final plan will begin in early 2019. (Ian Austin/

Fall Run Through Cooperstown


COOP LOOP RACE – 1 – 3 p.m. 5K & 10K race of moderate difficulty through scenic Cooperstown. Includes costume contests. Cost, $25/adult for 10K race. Begins & Ends at Clark Sports Center, Cooperstown. 607-547-2800, ext. 111 or visit

TASTE OF FOOTHILLS – 5:30 p.m. Enjoy dinner from local vendors followed by show featuring ‘extraordanist’ Craig Karges. Cost, $20/person. Foothills Performing Arts Center, Oneonta. 607-431-2080 or visit

Brzozowski Named Recipient Of Annual GOHS Morris Prize

Brzozowski Named Recipient

Of Annual GOHS Morris Prize


ONEONTA – Robert Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director and past president, will receive the GOHS’ 18th annual Albert E. Morris Award for contributions to local history on Sunday, Oct. 28.

Bob Brzozowski and his family moved to Oneonta in 1996 from Milwaukee, where he was active in Historic Milwaukee, Inc. The Bachman-Brzozowski family joined GOHS in 2000.

In January 2003 the late Sally Mullen named him to a vacancy on the Board of Trustees.  In October 2003, he was elected president of the board and served in that capacity for five of the next six years.


Tour History Of Oneonta Revitalization


WALKING TOUR – 7 p.m. Downtown Revitalization Then & Now along Main & Market Streets with Gary Wickham & Bob Brzozowski. Oneonta History Center, 183 Main St., Oneonta. 607-432-0960 or visit

ART CLASS – 3 – 4 p.m. Entertaining class for kids to learn Mask Making based on Thaw Gallery Yup’ik masks. Free. The Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown. 607-547-1400 or visit


Walk Through Oneonta Armory


WALKING TOUR – 7 p.m. Bob Brzozowski & Jim Hawver lead tour of former Armory, built in 1905, on the State & National Registers of Historic Places. Asa Allison Jr Municipal Building, 4 Academy St., Oneonta. Call 607-432-0960 or visit

TEA TASTING – 4 – 7 p.m. Nini Ordoubadi, founder of Tay Tea, presents her hand-blended artisanal teas. Enjoy a variety of iced teas and tea cocktails perfect for summer enjoyment. The Green Toad Bookstore, 198 Main St., Oneonta. Call 607-433-8898 or visit

In DRI Era, Historical Society Opens Urban Renewal Exhibit

In DRI Era, Historical Society

Opens Urban Renewal Exhibit

Against a backdrop of aerial photos from the Urban Renewal era, Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, welcomes visitors to “Urban Redevelopment: Oneonta’s Downtown in the ’60s and ’70s,” this afternoon at the opening reception.  The aerial photos, showing the City of the Hills before and after a few dozen downtown buildings were demolished, was designed to provide historical perspective as the city moves forward with its DRI, the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative.  The aerials were in the former Common Council conference room, and became available when the space was converted into City Manager George Korthauer’s office.  At right is an architect’s drawing of a 10-story apartment house proposed for what is now Muller Plaza. (Jim Kevlin/





GOHS Board Member Bill Pietraface presents Senator Seward with a commemorative statuette reflecting Oneonta’s love of baseball and proximity to Cooperstown, and praises him for “hitting a 250-grand slam.” (Jim Kevlin/

Grant Will Largely Complete

15 Years OF GOHS Strivings

Applauding Senator Seward’s announcement are, from left, GOHS member Wayne Wright, the retired NYSHA library director, GOHS President Corinne Bresee Smith, past president John Carney, and Carney’s daughter Caralee.

ONEONTA – State Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, this afternoon joined Greater Oneonta Historical Society officers in announcing a $250,000 state grant to largely complete the renovations of the second and third floors of the Oneonta History Center, 183 Main St.

The history center, Seward said, “is a showcase for the city’s past and a key component of the downtown revitalization taking place in Oneonta.”

In thanking the senator, GOHS President Corinne Bresee Smith expressed her organization’s gratitude, calling him “a native son of Oneonta (who) knows the value of our past and is invested in the vitality of our future.”

Housing Dominates Talk At First Comprehensive Plan Meeting

Housing Dominates As

Planning Gets Underway

Seth Clark of Peter Clark Student Housing tells his colleagues on the City of Oneonta’s Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee how the loss of Center Street School resulted in the decline of that Center City residential neighborhood.   When he was growing up there, his family’s neighbors were primarily tenured professors at the college, he said.  Now, fellow committee member and Realtor Joan Fox pointed out, lower-paid adjuncts sometimes can’t qualify for mortgages.  That led to discussion of a range of housing issues, including faculty and executive recruits choosing not to accept college or hospital job offers because of the lack of housing, and professors choosing to commute from the Albany suburbs, New Hartford and Vestal, rather than moving here.  Amid this shortage, it was noted, there are 100 vacant houses in the city.  Listening are committee members Rachel Lutz Jessup of Destination Oneonta, the local manger of the Bank of Cooperstown; Bob Brzozowski, Greater Oneonta Historical Society executive director, and Fox. The committee had its first meeting Monday evening, led by Elan Planning’s Nicolette Wagoner and Susan Caruvana, who helped with Cooperstown’s Comprehensive Plan last year, and are also working with Richfield Springs and Schenevus.  They have already planned housing and parking studies as part of the comp plan’s development.  The city’s master plan update, which will take about a year, is paid for mostly by a state grant obtained by Otsego New CEO Sandy Mathes. (Ian Austin/

Full Story In This Week’s Hometown Oneonta

On Newsstands Wednesday Afternoon

Mayor Herzig Appoints Comprehensive Plan Committee

Mayor Appoints Committee

To Revise City’s Comp Plan

Mayor Gary Herzig announces the nine members of the steering committee for the city’s updated Comprehensive Plan (Ian Austin/
Council Member Russ Southard, Sixth Ward, will serve on the committee.


Special to

ONEONTA – Council member Russ Southard, Sixth Ward, Greater Oneonta Historical Society Executive Director Bob Brzozowski, developer Seth Clark and Destination Oneonta’s Rachel Jessup were all named this evening to the Steering Committee to update the city’s comprehensive master plan.

“This is the group that will facilitate the update to the 2007 comprehensive plan, incorporating the City’s vision, addressing the railyards and the Downtown Revitalization Initiative,” said Mayor Gary Herzig.

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