A Reflection on the 2017 Stuart Stein Heritage Tourism Internship with the History Center

At the beginning of the summer, it was not surprising to me that the proposed Tompkins Center for History and Culture quickly drew unanimous support. As a new-comer to Ithaca two years ago, the memory is fresh in my mind of looking for a destination with information on varied attractions, activities, history, and cultural networks in Ithaca and the surrounding region – the kind of destination the Tompkins Center aims to be.  

Since the county approval, I attended several planning and coordination meetings alongside of Rod Howe, Executive Director of the History Center of Tompkins County, where I met the myriad of individuals involved. Guided by the vision and collaboration of several non-profit organizations under one roof, the Tompkins Center will undoubtedly be an oasis of resources, engaging exhibitions, and a spectacular reuse of the historic Tompkins Trust building. Not to mention it’s in a prime location in the heart of downtown, accessible by all modes of transportation.

The Heritage Ambassadors pilot program, an initiative of the Tompkins County Heritage Tourism Implementation Plan, was simultaneously taking its test run with a dedicated and diverse group of volunteers. Each Wednesday evening for a period of six weeks, we hosted a panel of presenters – many of which were debuting organization partners in the new Tompkins Center.  Not only were these evenings a fabulous, informal setting to meet people in the community, it facilitated an open dialogue about the historical and cultural linkages to the built and preserved environments unique to this place.

The most rewarding part of my experience this summer was getting to know Ithaca beyond the college-town identity. While working on the launch of new walking and driving tours, I grew accustom to the nuances of Ithaca and the surrounding region I had previously overlooked. In the process, I was introduced to the invaluable work of individuals from several local organizations, such as Historic Ithaca, the Wharton Studio Museum, and HistoryForge. I got to know and understand the deep cultural connections to agriculture and sustainable practices in the urban and rural contexts of the county. I read and wrote of the trialed lives of individuals seeking this region as a place of refuge - from slavery, persecution, or famine - and about the lingering industrial footprint of early Ithaca that had drawn thousands to its workforce.

The individuals behind Ithaca Heritage have worked diligently to make this rich historical record available to everyone through events, programs, and tools developed by the Heritage Tourism Network. I encourage you to get to know your area in a way you haven’t before by taking advantage of our new self-guided tours, located under our Tours tab. We look forward to your constructive feedback with this on-going project!

Melanie Colter
Stuart Stein Heritage Tourism Intern


Recognizing our Municipalities


Tompkins County offers a unique geography and a mosaic of a center city, villages and rural towns. We have incredible natural beauty and an interesting landscape to discover. Each municipality has unique characteristics and cultural aspects. In order to appreciate the sum that is Tompkins County one needs to visits its parts. We, of course, invite visitors to explore not just Ithaca but all the towns and villages in the county and we also remind residents that they can be travelers in their own backyard. We sometimes forget that we can have adventures within our own borders. The municipal brochures are tremendous new resources that were updated to coincide with celebrating the county’s bicentennial. The brochures include points of interest and historic sites, timelines, residents of note, cemetery and census information.

Check them out at: http://www.tompkinscountyny.gov/tc200/recognizing-our-municipalities. Then go out and visit the sites mentioned in each brochure and learn about the fascinating history of the county’s towns.

Rod Howe

Executive Director, The History Center in Tompkins County

Ithaca-Inspired – Stories of Ithaca and Tompkins County’s Outsized Impact

About a million visitors a year come to Ithaca and Tompkins County. They come for a bunch of reasons - for Cornell and Ithaca College, our great Finger Lakes wine and cider, unique downtown, vibrant arts scene, ‘gorges’ parks and natural areas, and college town vibe. Many come just for ‘Ithaca’, for the special mix of things that make many people who have visited or lived here fall in love with this place.

How can we make local history a stronger part of the experience of visiting here? That’s the question I worked with local history and tourism experts on trying to answer by writing a Heritage Tourism Implementation Plan in 2016. In developing the plan, we knew out of the gate that we didn’t have just one main heritage story to tell. We aren’t a Gettysburg (Civil War Battlefield) or a Seneca Falls (Women’s History). Rather, we have a lot of unique stories that add up to a narrative about Ithaca as a place whose impact on the world, through the people that have called this place home, is truly outsized.

Here’s a taste.

·         Ithaca has been a hotbed of literary luminaries through the years. Alex Haley of ‘Roots’ fame was born here, Pearl S. Buck started her writing career here, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, E.B. White and Thomas Pynchon studied here, and Nabokov wrote Lolita here. And it continues today.  Check out the Spring Writes Festival in April to discover the current generation of Ithaca-based authors.  http://www.artspartner.org

·         Ithacans were the brains behind the A-Bomb. More than a dozen WWII physicists, including Manhattan Project scientists lived in the Village of Cayuga Heights in the years following the war. http://www.cayugaheightshistory.org/world-war-ii-physicists.html

·         The people of the Cayuga Nation, which is a part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, have called the land surrounding Cayuga Lake their homeland for hundreds of years. Modern day Ithaca is built on top of Cayuga burial grounds.  https://ithacavoice.com/2015/09/much-of-ithaca-built-on-top-of-indian-burial-grounds-cornell-prof-finds/

·         We made planes. Factories in Ithaca manufactured the Thomas Morse Scout, aka the “Tommy” as a training aircraft for WWI fighter pilots. Several buildings where the planes were made are still standing today including the Aeroplane Factory building on Brindley Street, and the building at S. Plain and Center St. in Ithaca now housing the Significant Elements store.  A local group is working on restoring an original Tommy plane to its original flying condition. The group plans to fly it in 2018, then put it on permanent display for all to see and enjoy. http://www.tommycomehome.org/

·         100 years ago Ithaca was a center of silent film production. The Wharton Brothers had a hand in over 700 silent movies and stars and starlets of the day visited Ithaca to make films with the surrounding gorgeous scenery as the backdrop. https://whartonstudiomuseum.org/

·         Cornell University’s founding 150 years ago based on egalitarian ideals, non-sectarian approach, liberal curriculum and its early admittance of African Americans and women, make it the birthplace of the American university. Learn more: http://150.cornell.edu/glorioustoview/

·         Three current and 25 former faculty members and 12 alumni of Cornell have been Nobel Prize winners. http://www.news.cornell.edu/content/nobel-laureates-affiliated-cornell-university

·         You’ve heard that Ithaca is brainy, but have you seen the Wilder Brain Collection in Uris Hall on the Cornell campus? It includes the brain of Edward Ruloff, a brilliant 9th century con-man and murderer whose brain was declared the largest on record following his execution. His namesake restaurant is just down the way in Collegetown if all that braininess works up your appetite. https://ithacating.com/2014/12/27/the-brains-of-uris-hall/

The stories behind these facts and so many others provide even more reasons to discover and love this place. With the History Center in Tompkins County and community partners, we’re working to tell them better, to uncover the people, events, places and narratives that have made Ithaca what it is today. Come and experience what has inspired so many people to love this place, and take your own Ithaca inspiration out with you into the larger world to make an impact.


Tom Knipe

Principal Planner / Tourism Program Director for Tompkins County, NY

The life of a Pub Crawler

Last year, when we were brainstorming the type of launch event we'd like to have, we discussed many possibilities. A neighborhood tour? Should we focus on the universities? Arts and culture have got to be present! At the end of the day, we knew we wanted to focus on the Commons, and we'd like for participants to interact with their surroundings in a way that they normally would, but this time with a little more focus on their histories. So, the Ithaca Heritage Pub Crawl was born! We're happy to report that is was a great day, full of great friends (locals and visitors alike!), wonderful stories and yummy drinks.

Here's how it went down. Our wonderful and historic pubs hosted 20 guests at a time, and the groups rotated in 30 minute intervals (the ol' swig and go). At each location, we were greeted by a docent who gave the low-down on each building, focusing on histories of both the buildings and the businesses they house. Drink tickets in hand, we got our fill of local heritage and delicious cocktails. Each group had a team leader or "shepherd" who lead us from bar to bar, making sure we were on time (and headed in the right direction). We couldn't have had such a great day without the volunteers who were so knowledgable and just a fun time!

The key to all of this, of course, was our historic pubs who graciously sponsored, hosted, and fed us for the afternoon! With bars like these: Bandwagon PubThe Chanticleer, Simeon's Ithaca, Bar Argos and The Watershed, how could we go wrong? It was a wonderful chance to explore the new and old (I mean, the Chanti turned 70 last year!) establishments and hear all about how they fit into the Ithaca culture and experience. Which, we here at Ithaca Heritage, are totally all about. 

Photo by Logan Sweet

Photo by Logan Sweet

photo by logan sweet

photo by logan sweet

Overall, it was a lovely sample of the kinds of events we plan to hold throughout the year. We've had so many requests for another crawl, we're excited to expand our narratives even further with other businesses and historical tid-bits in mind already! Stay tuned and check back regularly to our Events Page for other ways to dive into the heritage of Ithaca and Tompkins County!

Listen to the WICB recap of the Pub Crawl by clicking here!

photo by logan sweet

photo by logan sweet

Why become a heritage ambassador?

Tompkins County is gearing up to be more proactive in promoting this unique place as a heritage tourism destination. We have an interesting and varied history and some of that history directly relates to our geology and topography. “Ithaca is Gorges” meet “Ithaca is a place where history is made every day.” Ithaca has name recognition that we want to parlay into a benefit for all the corners of the county.

Heritage Ambassadors will be an important component for engaging the public, both county residents and visitors, with our local history. Heritage Ambassadors will be knowledgeable about the history and rich heritage of Tompkins County and eager to orient visitors to the assets available to explore this unique place.

We expect that the process of becoming a heritage ambassador will connect folks who do not know each other. To be truly successful we will seek ambassadors who represent our diversity and who are interested in learning the stories of the broad range of individuals who lived here in the past and who live here now. But not just the stories of people but also of places, buildings, industry, organizations and movements.

Over time, building a network of heritage ambassadors will also serve to build community. There is a community development element involved in being an authentic heritage tourism destination. How can we tell our stories to visitors if we do not know each other’s narratives?

Of course we seek to anoint all county residents as heritage ambassadors as we encourage family, friends and colleagues to visit Ithaca and Tompkins County. But being a Heritage Ambassador with capital letters will involve some extra time – studying, reading, exploring and questioning. We promise that it will be fun and interesting.

Heritage Ambassadors will commit to volunteering for at least three events/year (e.g., HistoryForge Days, Old House tours, Heritage tours, CVB events, Discovery Trail events).

 The 2017 Heritage Ambassadors Pilot Training Program will start on Wednesday, June 21 and will run through 6 consecutive weeks through July 26 from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM.


 Session 1. Overview of program, getting to know each other, heritage tourism overview

Session 2. The People of Tompkins County

Session 3. The Land of Tompkins County

Session 4. The Architecture of Tompkins County

Session 5. The Cultures of Tompkins County

Session 6. The Enterprises of Tompkins County and graduation


Contact Rod Howe at director@thehistorycenter.net if you are interested in learning more.



Welcome to Ithaca Heritage. We've got a lot in store in next couple months.

Some things to keep your eye on:
- Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts are live! Follow along, it'll be fun.
- Our tours are only available through the PocketSights app, go ahead and download it now.
- One of our launch events is approaching, have you registered for it yet?
- We're developing a bunch of new tours, just need to do some test runs before they're perfect, but here's a sneak peek of one of the newest locations...


Can you guess where it is?