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When Hamilton County almost joined Fulton

Both Hamilton and Fulton County Supervisors opposed the final effort to dissolve Hamilton County. (Photo courtesy of Peter Betz)

Would you like living in a bigger Fulton County, one that includes a large slice of Hamilton County? This almost happened not once, but five times.

The suggestion to abolish Hamilton County originated in 1875 when State Controller Hopkins recommended dissolution. Hopkins annual report argued Hamilton County was nothing but an unnecessary tax burden to the state and absentee landowners and logging enterprises headquartered elsewhere.

“The county pays no taxes to the state,” he groused, “but depends on the bounty of the state at the expense of non-resident land holders, taxed for the expense of keeping up a county government.”

Hopkins complaint went nowhere, but the idea of divvying up Hamilton County between other counties resurfaced in 1883 when the Dec. 18 Rochester Union and Advertiser and many other papers published a state-inspired polemic disguised as news.

“It is reported movements will be made when the Legislature meets to dismember Hamilton County. The plan is to annex the town of Morehouse to Herkimer County, Long Lake to Essex, Indian Lake to Warren, and add Arietta, Benson, Hope, Lake Pleasant and Wells to Fulton. Aside from any other interests of the state in the Adirondacks, Hamilton County should be blotted out. As it exists, it is a burlesque upon the subdivision of the state into counties. It was organized long ago in 1816, but so insignificant has been its growth that it has long been tacked on to Fulton County for Assembly representation. It has nine towns, and the total population in the last census was 3,478.”

The number of registered voters, the article scoffed, was only 898.

This article also declared that the Legislature already had powers to dissolve Hamilton County, suggested Hamilton was a political nonentity due to low voter population, and since it exerted no influence in Albany, served to purpose as a county.

“The existing constitutional provision regarding Hamilton County,” it noted, “is that every county except Hamilton shall be entitled to one member of the assembly. The county of Hamilton shall elect with the county of Fulton, but the Legislature may abolish the county of Hamilton and annex the territory to other counties or county.”

Nothing came of this bluster either, but the idea reappeared 13 years later. The July 13th 1896 Gloversville Daily Leader informed readers, “The proposition to divide Hamilton County has been revived and will likely be prosecuted with a greater measure of success. Hamilton has an area of 1,700 square miles and is with one exception the largest county in the state, but has a population smaller than any other, being less than 5,000.” Again nothing resulted, but, like the chicken pox virus which hibernates beneath one’s skin for years before re-erupting, the issue wouldn’t disappear.

It resurfaced again in February 1905 when a ‘Bill of Division’ was introduced, sponsored this time by Herkimer County Assemblyman Abraham Steele. Failing acceptance, Steele reintroduced it in 1906. Steele’s proposal divided Hamilton between Herkimer, Franklin, and Fulton counties, with Steele no doubt hoping to annex the most taxable parts to Herkimer, but this attempt languished in the Internal Affairs Committee. Newspapers reported, “Assemblyman Steele’s bill to divide Hamilton County is dead. The resolution never left committee.”

The last, strongest attempt occurred during 1930, when another champion of division, former Amsterdam Assemblyman and Wells property owner E. Watson Gardiner “made an appeal to the state legislature.” While Gardiner’s plan resembled earlier proposals, he also offered choices: either divide Hamilton among counties already mentioned or (gasp!) annex the entire thing to Fulton.

It wasn’t, Gardiner asserted, about carving up a county merely to dissolve a government and enrich other counties with portions of its land and forests — it was about lowering both residents and non-residents tax burdens, and as an owner of Wells property, Gardiner also claimed to be deeply oppressed.

“The present population of Hamilton County,” his proposal asserted, “is 4,000, and its population has to pay just as much for its county government as does Fulton county with its 40,000 persons.

Agreeing with Gardiner, the Feb. 5, 1930 Elmira Star-Gazette editorialized, “County government is too expensive to warrant maintaining it in small counties when consolidation with other counties will reduce costs to taxpayers.”

Gardiner also reminded voters that Hamilton could still be dissolved by a Legislative act without a constitutional amendment.

Opposition gathered quickly. The March 22, 1930 Amsterdam Recorder reported that prominent Amsterdam attorney Charles Hardies, representing Hamilton County supervisors in opposing the measure, artfully demolished Gardiner’s proposal before a state senate committee. Citing statistics supporting Hamilton’s increasing importance as a year-round tourist mecca and calling it, “a growing, impressive community with a fine system of improved highways,” and also noting that neither Hamilton nor Fulton County Supervisors wanted the change, Hardies characterized the bill as “founded solely upon the personal reasons and desires of only a few.”

Watson Gardner’s annual Wells tax bill, Hardies revealed, was only $16.20. Hardies arguments doomed Gardiner’s effort. Amsterdam newspaperman Hugh Donlon who knew attorney Hardies well, described him as, “a bull who loved china shops.”

Hamilton County remains Hamilton County, and some things just aren’t meant to change. In Comptroller Hopkins 1875 report, he observed there was much truth in the remark of a Wells man who, when asked how Hamilton County citizens earned livings, declared, “We fish some, hunt some, lumber some, but our main reliance is on non-resident taxes.”

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