Sullivan County Historical Society History Preserver Award 1996
Otto Hillig (1874 ~ 1954)
The following biographical sketch is taken from an article written by Mr. Delbert Van Etten, the Town and Village Historian of Liberty.
Otto Hillig was born in Steinbruechen, Germany in 1874 and when sixteen years of age came to the United States as a poor German immigrant. He first worked as a street car conductor in Brooklyn, later as a bartender and still later as a laborer in a brewery in Ellenville. When about twenty-one years of age and virtually penniless, he moved into the Liberty area and while working on a farm near White Sulphur Springs supposedly found a photo magazine and decided to try his hand at photography. He went on to become the most famous photographer in Sullivan County and the owner of the best equipped studio between New York City and Buffalo. He produced over the years vast numbers of pictures of the county’s development and portraits of its inhabitants. By 1914 he was able to build a studio at 84 North Main Street in Liberty. The building, though modified over the years, is still in use and lies within the bounds of the Liberty historic district.
Besides being a highly successful photographer, Mr. Hillig had a venturesome spirit. He owned one of the first automobiles in the county and in 1916 he and another local individual made a transcontinental trip across the country in an automobile, at a time when such a trip was practically unheard of.
In the early 1920’s he was one of the pioneers in aerial photography and as an outgrowth of his interest in aviation he purchased in 1929 a ticket for $9,000 to be one of twenty-two passengers for a history making flight around the world on the German Graf Zeppelin. Unfortunately, his berth had been previously sold to someone else. Though he sued the Zeppelin Company, the litigation was lengthy and by the time he settled out of court, he just about broke even.
His next dream was to fly the Atlantic in his own plane. He found a young Danish pilot, Holger Hoiriis, and commissioned the construction of a Wright-powered Bellanca monoplane at a cost of $22,000. The plane had a 300 horsepower engine and attained a top speed of 132 miles per hour. Painted red and silver, it was named “Liberty” in honor of his adopted home town.
The flight began from the Liberty Golf Course, touched down in Newfoundland and began the cross-Atlantic flight on June 24, 1931. Hoiriis and Hillig (later referred to as “the first trans-Atlantic backseat driver”) had no radio, no life saving equipment and little food. Because of a fog, they flew over Spain and France before they discovered where they were and landed in Krafeld, Germany with five gallons of gas to spare. Continuing on their trip, they received a tumultuous welcome from 60,000 Danes, another ovation from Hillig’s home town in Germany, and equally warm welcomes in New York City and back home in Liberty.
His next project in 1932 involved the purchase of the top of Washington Mountain and the construction of a castle similar to one near his boyhood home in Germany. He spent much of his time there, entertaining his many friends at picnics and never tiring of telling of his trip across the ocean. In 1936, riding on the crest of the Roosevelt landslide, he was elected to a one-year term in the State Assembly, but in fact he had little interest in politics.
Hillig died September 12, 1954, having sold his business in 1947. He left an estate of $100,000 divided between eleven churches, six Masonic lodges, eighteen relatives and twenty-five friends. Later, the castle was largely destroyed by vandals, but there still remain as memorials, a beautiful stained glass window in the Lutheran Church in Liberty and a large boulder located on the Liberty Golf Course with a plaque which recalls the start of his trans-Atlantic flight.
His adventurous life is worth remembering for its own sake, but in the long run he will be primarily remembered and appreciated as a History Preserver whose legacy of photographs and postcards provides the most complete history available of Sullivan County in the first half of this century.