Summerhill originated as the eastern half of the Town of Locke, a portion of the Military Tract (frontier land given by Congress and the State to veterans of the Revolutionary War as payment for their services). This section had formerly been a hunting and fishing area for the Onondaga Indian Nation. Separated from Locke on April 26, 1831 as Plato, it was discovered that the name was already in use. On March 16, 1832, Plato became Summerhill, a name suggested by Irish settler Daniel J. Shaw, after a place near Dublin.
The surface of the town is rolling and has an elevation of 1,300 to 1,400 feet above tide. Fall Brook, flowing south through the eastern part forms a valley 300 to 400 feet below the summits of the hills, which is the only considerable break in the general level of the surface. This stream, after leaving this County, flows about twenty miles of its course through Tompkins County to the vicinity of Ithaca, where it plunges by a succession of falls (the principal one being over one hundred feet high), a distance of over four hundred feet, within a mile, presenting a series of grand displays scarcely equaled in the State by a stream of its magnitude. Lake Como, formerly known as Locke Pond, or Summerhill Lake, is a pretty sheet of water, three-fourths of a mile long by one-half of a mile wide. Its low shores rise gradually to the highlands upon the east and west. Located in the northeast part of town, the lake discharges its waters into Fall Brook.
The first permanent settlement was made by Hezekiah Mix in the year 1797 on lot 37, the site of the present town hall. Among the early settlers were two families whose sons would achieve national fame.
Millard Fillmore, 13th President of the United States, was born January 7, 1800 on present day Fillmore Road. In 1831, as a member of the New York State Assembly, he drafted and obtained passage of a statute abolishing imprisonment for debt, and the creation of a bankruptcy law. As President, his signing of the Compromise of 1860 helped to preserve the Union and postpone the Civil War for eleven years. He also sent Commodore Perry to Japan to open its ports to American trade, and reorganized the postal service to provide cheaper mail rates.
Congressman Elbridge G. Spaulding was born February 24, 1809 on what is today the Montgomery Road. A banker and former treasurer of New York State, Mr. Spaulding's financial expertise aided him in drafting the National Currency Bank Bill and originating the Legal Tender Act, which created national paper currency. Originally intended as a military measure to provide means for carrying on the Civil War, this act continues to enhance commerce today.
Although crossed by two major highways, the Albany Turnpike and the Salt Road (one of the main routes for hauling salt produced in Syracuse to towns in southern states) Summerhill remained rural. By the 1920’s, dairy farmers in the remote sections of town found it impossible to ship their milk to a Grade A market over poor rural roads. With the passage of the Hewitt Reforestation Bill of 1929, New York State purchased these farms and planted them to trees through the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Today, approximately one-third of Summerhill is in reforestation. The State Department of Environmental Conservation maintains the trees, occasionally harvesting pulp wood, and keeps the land open to hunters and hikers.