Monday, July 22, 2019

That Time the Town of Baldwin Almost Dissolved

by Erin Doane, Curator

As I was researching the Town of Baldwin for its upcoming exhibit (on display August 1, 2019-January 31, 2020), the town historian showed me an article written in 1959 about how the town almost dissolved in 1923. In the early 1920s, the town began paving many of the roads within its limits to make them more suitable for increasing automobile traffic. I can see the logic that improved roads might bring more people and businesses into the town, but the municipality was already unstable financially. The budget was unbalanced, there were no reserve funds, and the taxes were high. Adding the cost of paving on top of the general cost of maintaining 63 miles of roads and numerous bridges pushed Baldwin deeper into debt. There were no major industries, stores, utilities, or even a railroad line in the town, so the tax burden fell heavily onto farmers.

Aerial view of the village of North Chemung in the Town of Baldwin, c. 1950s
The first mention of the possible dissolution of Baldwin was in a Star-Gazette article on May 14, 1923. In order to help relieve the town residents of their high taxes, the Chemung County Board of Supervisors discussed the idea of combining the towns of Elmira, Ashland, Chemung, and Baldwin as one unit. By the end of the meeting, nothing had been decided.

One week later, on May 22, another article in the Star-Gazette reported that a petition was presented to the county Board of Supervisors. The petition read as follows:
The undersigned, residents and freeholders of the Town of Baldwin, your county, respectfully petition that your Board take such action as will bring about the annexation of the said Town of Baldwin to the Town of Chemung, in your county, or that the said Town of Baldwin be so partitioned that a part thereof may be set off to each of the Towns of Erin, Van Etten and Chemung in your county, and that your board will take such action as will accomplish this result.
The article then listed 100+ names of Baldwin residents who supported the petition.

Star-Gazette headline, May 22, 1923
These two new propositions – either combining Baldwin and Chemung into one town, or dividing the land of Baldwin up among the three towns of Erin, Van Etten, and Chemung – were left in the hands of the supervisors of the towns of Baldwin, Erin, Chemung, and Elmira. They were to research options and report back to the board of Supervisors at their next meeting.

An editorial appearing in the newspaper on the same day explained how the petition was unlikely to succeed. “Changing long established town boundaries or discontinuing towns entirely and incorporating them with other towns is an extremely hard thing to do,” it stated. Beyond the legal and logistical issues of such a drastic change, Baldwin had the highest taxes in the county (higher even than the city of Elmira). No other town would willingly take on that burden. As a result, the petition quietly died in committee.

This effort by the Town of Baldwin was not for nothing, however. By presenting such a sweeping demand before the Board of Supervisors, the town pushed the county into honestly considering the tax problems it was facing. For years, Elmira had been helping Baldwin cover its tax shortfalls as no other solutions had been implemented. After the petition for dissolution was presented, the board approved a county-wide tax levy that provided $2,000 (around $30,000 today) to Baldwin to help ease its residents’ suffering. 

Map of Chemung County, 1989

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