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The Leonard Road Tragedy

Updated: May 15, 2022

As a child, I remember visiting the vacant property of my great-grandmother, Rose (Hollenbeck) Leonard. She was the daughter of Jasper Hollenbeck and Mary McGinnis. She had died in 1974 but her property remained vacant for a number of years after her death.

The street sign said "LEONARD RD" but it was more like a long dirt driveway in the woods. At the end of the 800-foot driveway/road, the dense woods disappeared and a small, white, one-story house with green hills in the background appeared straight ahead. There were no other homes in sight. We collected some souvenirs during one visit.

My father explained it was the home of his grandmother, who had inherited the land from her father and had given the road its name, "Leonard Road". He pointed out that the house wasn't the original house built on the property and briefly retold the sad story of how the original farmhouse had burned down with his young uncle, Billy, inside.

Years later, I found these newspaper articles that tell the story. The first was published in the evening edition of the Cortland Standard, on Saturday, April 2, 1949. It was the day of what I call The Leonard Road Tragedy.

Two days later, the Cortland Standard, printed a follow-up to the story.

According to the newspapers (see more below), the tragedy happened before dawn on April 2, 1949. Rose (Hollenbeck) was the mother of two grown sons. Her oldest son, Billy, had been undergoing treatment at Binghamton State Hospital. According to Rose's account, he had just returned home the day before the fire and his behavior caused her to "become worried". The 56-year old woman went to stay at the home of a neighbor for the night. She looked out the window early in the morning and saw her home ablaze from a distance and called for help.

That was the night Rose lost her eldest son, her home, and probably all of her family photos and everything she cherished. The cause of the fire was not determined, but since snow on Mother's Day is not uncommon in that area, it's probably safe to assume the fireplace might have had something to do with it. We will probably never know for sure, though.

Rose still had one son, 25-year Robert Leonard, pictured here in a photo taken at the old home on Leonard Road some years later. She had a new home built and lived there another twenty years or more. In her final days she went to Highgate Manor Nursing Home in Cortland, where she died on April 12, 1974. Her son, Robert's mother-in-law, Vena, spent her final days there as well, dying in 1986.

Albany Times Union, April 2, 1949 cover page:

"Find Man's Body in Ruins of Fire" Marathon, April 2 (AP) - Firemen late today found the body of William Leonard, 29, in the ruins of his home at Berry Hollow, which was destroyed by fire this morning. Cortland county Coroner Donald B. Glezen issued a verdict of accidental death.

Amsterdam Records, Amsterdam, NY, Mon., April 4, 1949, p. 5: "Marathon, N.Y., April 4 - The body of William Leonard, 29, was discovered late Saturday afternoon in his fire razed home at nearby Berry Hollow. He had been reported missing following the early morning blaze. Leonard's mother, who had spent the night with neighbors, told Sheriff Clifford Barnes her son had been acting "strangely." Leonard had returned home Friday from a Binghamton Hospital where she said, he had undergone treatment. Cause of the fire was undetermined, the sheriff reported."

Binghamton Press, Mon., April 4, 1949 [Link]

Corning Evening Leader, Mon. April 4, 1949, p. 12: [Link]

Auburn Citizen Advertiser, April 4, 1949 [Link]

Rome Daily Sentinel, Mon., April 4, 1949 cover page [Link]


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