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The Arson Girl Of Cortland County

Location #1: Solon Pond at Cheningo Solon Pond Road, Cincinnatus, NY
(42.618587, -75.9239401)

“Somewhere down past the reaches of human unhappiness and unthinking revolt- buried deep in the monotonous toil of a sterile hilltop farm- is the girlhood of Irene Baker. She had lost her childhood in the endless tedious grind of labor- lost her girlhood hopes of joyous life in the anxious despair of one who dreams too intensely but achieves nothing. When a person feels such hopelessness, they often think of doing something dramatic, a risky gamble to change their fortunes.”

Gladys von Black, Syracuse Harold

Thus begins the story of Irene Baker.

On a near barren little farm, atop of little “Second Hill,” a stone’s throw from Solon Pond, lived Irene Baker. One desolate road, often unpassable, through lonesome marshes, led to the meager home that Irene shared with her chronically ill mother, six siblings, and father.

Her mornings began at 4 a.m. when she milked the family’s ten cows and tended the small menagerie of chickens, pigs, and horses, all before a pitiful breakfast of coffee and bread. She then dutifully dressed her siblings and prepared her usual egg sandwich and fruit for lunch before making the mutinous trudge to school. Most days, she headed directly home to milk the cows again, deliver the milk to the market, assist with evening chores and help her mother prepare dinner, all before collapsing exhausted into bed.

This was no life for a budding 17-year-old girl, especially one who had just recently witnessed the spectacular hustle and bustle of city life in Syracuse. She longed for a life filled with excitement and a closet filled with more than four tattered dresses, an old pair of sturdy shoes, and her sole prized position, a light blue hat that she had declared “right pretty.” She loved music and dreamed of seeing a movie- and was just desperate enough to hatch a wild plan. Anything, in her words, “get away from them hills.”

The year prior, a disgruntled resident threatened to “burn down the entire hill.” This terrified her father and the other local farmers. Irene suspected that this fear might be enough to convince her father to move the family. She drafted a crude note for her father to find: “We told you to move once. We mean business. I will help you.” She signed E.R., leaving it for her father to find, and promptly set fire to the nearby Lee Barn and Lark houses.

Alas, her plan backfired when instead of fleeing, her father contacted the N.Y. State Troopers, who quickly surmised who the budding arsonist was.

Despite all buildings being saved and no persons injured, in September of 1929, Irene Baker was arrested and charged with third-degree arson. Sitting in jail awaiting her sentence, Irene, in an unexpected flash, became the poster girl for forlorn girls everywhere, with the assistance of a little sensational journalism. Suddenly showered with public sympathy, a humane officer took Irene on a shopping trip. There, Irene picked out fresh undergarments, silk stockings, and an expensive, vibrant new dress that the young girl could have never afforded. To finish the ensemble, Irene spent considerable time choosing just the right hat at the cost of a whopping $5! While awaiting her hearing, a Syracuse woman even offered to adopt Irene. Irene had stolen the public’s heart.

At her jury hearing in October, the merciful court took pity on Irene. She was placed on probation with the promise that the county would assist her in finding a new home where she could receive “some of the comforts and pleasures that you (Irene) never had.” The packed courtroom collectively held its breath as Justice Joseph Senn required just one condition. “…If you ever have a nice home of your own, (remember) your brothers and sisters and other boys and girls who haven’t the things you want. If you can, will you do something for them?”

”Yes, Judge,” Irene tearfully whispered. “I will.”

A month later, the stock market crashed, sending America into the Great Depression. Sadly, the rest of Irene’s story is lost to history. We can only hope she found the happiness she so deeply desired, a girl willing to set her world on fire to find it.

Location #2: School House District #2 at Cheningo Solon Pond Rd, DeRuyter, NY
(42.594301, -75.901653)

This dilapidated, haunting building is all that is left of the one-room schoolhouse Irene Baker was most likely to have attended. Even to this day, it remains a long and lonesome walk from where her family farm once stood, overlooking Solon Pond.

Records show that most teachers did not last more than a year or two before moving on to more attractive districts. A 1922 photograph of the school documents merely nine students enrolled at the time. This tiny building functioned as a school until its doors were shut in 1943.

It now stands, a twisted and decaying reminder of the tears and laughter the children shared within its walls all those years ago.

1. Johnathan Croyle, “1929: ‘The Arson Girl of Cortland’ Takes Drastic Steps for a Better Life.” Newyorkupstate, 27 Sept. 2019,