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Swart-Wilcox House: "We're Amazed It's Still Standing"

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ONEONTA, N.Y. -

With no street address, the oldest house in Oneonta sits on what's left of the land bought by Revolutionary War soldier Lawrence Swart, who built the home in 1807.

Swart may have built the house, but it would be the Wilcox family who lived there the longest. Over 100 years, in fact. Newlyweds Henry and Phoebe Wilcox came down the hill from Franklin to settle in the house in 1867. But for Phoebe, a woman up with the times, there were a few things that needed improving. That includes a brick fireplace that took up the entire back wall of the kitchen.

“When Phoebe moved in, we can just hear her saying ‘I’m not moving into that house until you do something with that fireplace. I’m not cooking on a fireplace in 1867,'" says Helen Rees, President of the Friends of Swart-Wilcox, the group behind restoring the house. 

Phoebe got her way and the bricks from the fireplace were recycled and used to insulate the walls of the home. No one knew what was inside the walls until work needed to be done on the foundation. Crews found they couldn't lift the house because it was so weighted down with bricks.

While Phoebe liked her modern conveniences, Henry did not. He made that clear when the city began using his tax dollars to install electric street lamps.

“He was quite upset and he made a broadside ‘How to Make Business good in Oneonta.’ He was sued, he ran into legal problems with the city," says Rees.

Henry Wilcox was so reckless with money his own wife wrote him out of her will. He was so worked up over street lights, but other matters caught him completely off guard.

He wrote this in his diary, the entry dated May 8, 1867:

Came from Franklin to Oneonta. Found my wife sick. She was delivered of a son. He weighed about 9 pounds, born about noon this day.
— Henry Wilcox's Diary 5/8/1867

That's right. Henry Wilcox was in shock that his wife gave birth to their first child, their oldest son Fred. We don't know how aware Wilcox was when Phoebe had their second child, Mert. As for the brothers Wilcox, it appears they took after their father.

“Eccentric is the word we use," says Debby Clough, Secretary of the Friends of Swart-Wilcox.

Together, Mert and Fred lived in this house until the 1970s without electricity, heat, or running water. A potbelly stove was their only source of heat. A wood stove, but they never chopped wood.

“They would carry the tree trunk, put it in the fire, put the other end on a chair, and all day long as the fire burned, they would scooch the chair forward and scooch it a little forward until finally it was all burned up. We’re amazed that the house is still here," says Rees.

Still standing, but the house suffered extensive smoke damage. 

"All of the walls, all of the windows, they were just covered in black," says Rees.

47 years after the last Wilcox lived in the house, bits and pieces of their lives still remain. Henry's diaries, Phoebe's sewing machine, and burn marks on the floor from Fred and Mert's stove.