"Civil Warriors" Uncovers African American History

Historic Ithaca and The History Center in Tompkins County, (together under the Ithaca Heritage banner), along with the Southside Community Center and PhotoSynthesis Productions, have joined forces to co-host a special screening of feature film Civil Warriors. The screening is a part of local Black History Month and Ithaca Loves Teachers - Winter Recess events being held in the area. The main screening event is at the Southside Community Center (305 S. Plain Street, Ithaca), on February 24th, from 6:00-8:00 p.m., with a $5 suggested donation to benefit Southside’s community programs. There will be light refreshments served and a talkback after the screening with directors Deborah C. Hoard and Che Broadnax. GreenStar Co-op and Wegmans are sponsoring the event.

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The theme for Black History Month this year is “African Americans in Times of War,” which provides especially auspicious timing for a screening of Civil Warriors, from Ithaca-based film company PhotoSynthesis Productions. Set during the American Civil War, Civil Warriors depicts the lives of two black families from Ithaca, whose men enlist to serve in the war effort against the Confederacy and to take up arms in defense of their own liberty.

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The United States Colored Troops (USCT) was the first mobilization and recognition of black soldiers as an organized unit in the Union Army. They were empowered to use deadly force and fight in battle, as opposed to serving as laborers and cooks, which up to that point had been the ceiling for black recruits in the war effort.

Civil Warriors presents the experiences, thoughts, and reflections of the characters bound up in this war. It meditates on the implications of arming black men during the time of chattel slavery, treating them as equals under the law, and what the war means to them personally and to their families. The film depicts one of the first major conflicts in which African Americans took part as agents of their own liberation, rather than as the objects over which to be fought.


The military service aspect is only one of the several ways Civil Warriors carries significance for black history, for Ithaca and Tompkins County, and the nation as a whole. Although the story told in Civil Warriors has national significance, it is firmly rooted in local history.

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Civil Warriors is a story about black agency and self-determination, and Ithaca is its setting. It draws much of its power as a series of spoken-word monologues filmed at historically significant locations around Ithaca. Indeed, one of the filming locations is the St. James AME Zion Church, a historical conduit for black political organizing and one of the settings in which the story takes place. Add to that Ithaca’s role as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the significance of the setting is magnified. As noted above, Civil Warriors will be showing at the Southside Community Center, a vital community institution in Ithaca’s historically black Southside neighborhood down the street from St. James AME Zion.

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In further service to the local history theme, the production team and much of the cast are Ithacans, and much of the research for the film was conducted locally, including at The History Center in Tompkins County and Historic Ithaca (as well as at the National Archives!). The screenplay itself was adapted from a play by local playwright and Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen. Local musicians performed the score, including the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, a community singing outfit dedicated to preserving Negro spirituals and African American sacred music. Dorothy Cotton was part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle and served as education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), one of the primary actors in the civil rights movement of the 1960s (she now calls Ithaca home, to our great benefit!).

Civil Warriors is a truly local film, which places it firmly within the Ithaca filmmaking tradition established in the early twentieth century, before the industry moved out West. Given Ithaca’s history as the birthplace of moviemaking, it’s only appropriate that Civil Warriors was created and composed here, using local talent by a film company that still calls Ithaca home, and whose mission includes a focus on social justice.


The making of Civil Warriors relied on scholarship, research, and analysis to get the details right, and the information readily available didn’t always tell the whole story. This particular problem is increasingly common in American classrooms in which the Civil War is taught. Students are often fed sanitized narratives about the human costs of slavery, and revisionist textbooks are starting to appear with outright omissions of fact with regard to the scale and scope of this barbarous practice. It’s not uncommon to find schoolkids who believe the Civil War fixed racism completely, and who are unable to make connections between the events of the past (e.g. the Thirteenth Amendment) with the circumstances of today (e.g. the prison-industrial complex).


Civil Warriors boasts a companion educational curriculum for 11th grade classrooms, co-written by Lehman Alternative Community School Social Studies teacher Bronwen Exter and Ithaca College Director of Programs and Outreach, as well as Civil Warriors narrator, Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell. The curriculum addresses the need to teach students how to assess the quality of source material, to draw lessons from historical events, and to make informed observations about how the past informs the present. The goal is to produce learners who are able to take up the work of documenting stories and history from their own communities, and who are able to participate in civil society with clear, informed eyes.

We made Civil Warriors for many reasons, but our biggest hope is that it can help make a difference in how educators and students approach the study of history, the analysis of contemporary society, and the task of telling their own stories.

In the words of Civil Warriors narrator Bradwell: “History is not just what we choose to retell. History is also what we choose to recover."

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This post was written by Ken C. Hill, Community Manager/Outreach Coordinator at PhotoSynthesis Productions, writing on behalf of the PSP/Civil Warriors team.

Tompkins Center for History and Culture Awarded $1.365 Million by NYS


The New York State Regional Economic Development Council’s (REDC) Southern Tier region awarded two grants totaling $1.365 million to The Tompkins Center for History and Culture (TCHC) during award ceremonies in Albany on December 13, 2017.

$1,060,000 is from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) Arts and Cultural Facilities Improvement Program and will be used to develop buildings owned by Tompkins Trust Company on the Ithaca Commons’ bank alley into the Tompkins Center for History and Culture.

The second grant, for $305,000, is from Empire State Development’s (ESD) Market New York Program and will be used for tourism promotion by way of some construction costs and promotion of the TCHC, which includes the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) downtown visitors’ center, thereby creating a destination spot to “engage the public in a vibrant exploration of our unique community through history, heritage and cultural lenses. Further, it will act as a hub for visitors to be oriented to local and regional tourism opportunities. (REDC announcement)”

The Tompkins Center for History and Culture will house the CVB’s Downtown Visitors Center (a division of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce) and The History Center on the first floor. The Wharton Studio Museum, the Dorothy Cotton Institute, and the Community Arts Partnership will also be integral components of the project. Historic Ithaca and the Discovery Trail will also be affiliated with the Center, and the newly rebuilt “Tommy” bi-plane will be on permanent loan in the exhibit area. Most project partners will also have office space on the second and third floors. 

Rod Howe, Executive Director, The History Center in Tompkins County, said “Our trustees were looking for a bold and innovative move to better connect people with our local history and culture and with each other to enhance a sense of community and place.” The desire to relocate The History Center spurred this project and won support from the County Legislature. Tompkins County is purchasing the buildings from Tompkins Trust as the Trust Company will be moving to its new building on the 100 block of East Seneca Street.

County Legislator Chair Mike Lane said “I am delighted that the REDC awarded this grant to support our community’s new cultural center. The Legislature is certain that this investment will benefit the citizens and businesses of Tompkins County as well as visitors to our community.”

 “The Tompkins Center for History and Culture will be a project that serves to educate our community about our heritage, while offering visitors to the area another cultural asset to explore,” said Jennifer Tavares, Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce President. “Our organization is excited at the potential of this partnership, grateful to Tompkins County and Tompkins Trust Company for their support, and looking forward to creating a first class visitor center and gift shop in the new space.”

“TCHC is an exciting addition to the Commons and a place where anyone – visitor or resident – can delve deep into the County’s unique history, or use it as a spring board to venture out and about and explore Tompkins County. Wharton Studio Museum is thrilled to be a partner,” said Diana Riesman, Executive Director of the Wharton Studio Museum.

Tompkins Trust Company is expected to move to its new headquarters in early spring and code work and reconstruction on the new Center will then begin. STREAM Collaborative is doing the design work, Tessellate Studios is designing the new exhibit area and Iron Design has developed the logo, website and marketing collateral. The Tompkins Center for History and Culture is expected to open in early 2019.

Press Release, December 28, 2017

Contact:           information@tompkins-center.net

Rod Howe:   607-273-8284 ext. 5

Jennifer Tavares:   607-273-8070

Ithaca is ICY, Part 2: The Frozen Lake

Cayuga Lake as a Frozen Ice Rink

By Louise Bement, Town of Lansing Historian

Collection of The History Center in Tompkins County

Collection of The History Center in Tompkins County

Cayuga Lake does not freeze its whole length very often, but when it does, people take advantage of the winter sports enjoyed on the smaller lakes of New York State.

Ad from the Ithaca Journal, December 2, 1896

Ad from the Ithaca Journal, December 2, 1896

There are records of its freezing from Mr. Davenport’s diary of Trumansburg Landing in February 1856, 1868, and 1875. Barbara Bell reported the 1912 freeze in her “Fifty Years Ago” column in the Ithaca Journal. Later years are recorded in Louise Bement’s diary in 1977 when the lake froze from Ithaca to Taughannock; and in 1979 when it froze about all the way (but at Union Springs there was still some open water).

In 1912 there were skating contests and parties at Aurora where the ice was the smoothest. People put chairs on sleds and rode on the ice, and there were horse races. John Townsend, an early Schuyler County car dealer, offered rides in his Maxwell with the top down. He had chains on the rear tires and a bear skin lap robe for passenger comfort.

The Illston ice house on West Clinton Street was the longest-running ice house in Ithaca, in operation from 1876 to 1950. An Ithaca Daily Journal ad from may 8, 1897 touts the ice house's artesian well for producing ice "free from any contamination" compared to ice cut from the Inlet or Fall Creek.

The Illston ice house on West Clinton Street was the longest-running ice house in Ithaca, in operation from 1876 to 1950. An Ithaca Daily Journal ad from may 8, 1897 touts the ice house's artesian well for producing ice "free from any contamination" compared to ice cut from the Inlet or Fall Creek.

The lake did not have to freeze completely for ice harvesting to take place. Most years Cayuga Inlet froze, and ice was cut with big saws into huge blocks, which were packed in sawdust and stored in ice houses for year-round sale. There were commercial ice houses near where Dey Street meets Route 13, and smaller ice houses on people’s farms.

Jacob Rhodes’ diary of 1886 records that on January 26, he drew a load of ice for his father and then helped pack the ice. On January 27 he drew five loads. He paid $4.50 for the cutting of the ice. January 28 he and Caleb worked packing the ice, but it rained some and the ice was “spoiling.”

Farmers would get together and cut the ice, marking off the blocks to be cut with lines scratched into the ice. They would load the ice onto bobsleds and take it to their ice houses.

George C. Schemp wrote about skating on the lake in 1934:

“In 1934 the weather got real cold and went down to minus 35 degrees, so the lake froze over. The first time in my life to have it happen. A good friend of mine, Mike Strek, agreed with me that we should skate from Stewart Park all the way to Lansing Station. We planned to do this during Christmas Vacation and decided to do it on a weekend, thinking we could get a ride back from Lansing Station with my parents.

 So on a cold Saturday morning we walked to Stewart Park and, by sitting on a log, we put on our skates. It was rough going from the park to Estys as it had snowed a little which had melted, then froze again, which made little ripples in the ice, making it rough. When we approached Estys it smoothed out, as smooth as glass, and we really took off. We thought we were going thirty miles an hour because we were going so fast.

 Just before getting to Ross’s Point I heard a large crack and slowed my skates to a stop. This caused me to slide out into the water between two large pieces of ice. I did not go all the way into the lake as I stopped myself with my arms, which I spread out on top of the ice. Mike was closer to the shore so he had no trouble. I called him to help me so he found an old dead limb which he slid out to me. Then he pulled me out and I slid to shore. We walked on the shore about a half a mile before we found solid ice.

 The ducks caused the open water by Ross’s Point by swimming behind the point and not allowing the water to freeze. We started skating again and met my brother, John, with six ducks he had pulled out of the ice on his way up to meet us. We ate a lot of duck for a while.

 When we got to my grandfather’s house at Lansing Station my skates were frozen solid, so I had to walk with skates on up to the house from the lake. After I thawed out I was able to undress and wrap myself in an army blanket. What a way to go home after skating to Lansing Station. However it was a lot of fun and a great experience I will never forget.” 

Ithaca is ICY—Winter Carnivals in Tompkins County

Isaac Sobers' horse and cutter, Verne Morton Collection, The History Center in Tompkins County

Isaac Sobers' horse and cutter, Verne Morton Collection, The History Center in Tompkins County

Tompkins County’s 2017 cold season has started off with a whimper, so it’s hard to believe that the first winter carnivals are upon us, with both Trumansburg (December 2) and Ithaca (Ithaca's Ice Festival is December 7-9) celebrating theirs in early December. Winter carnivals are long-standing area traditions that celebrate the activities that come with plunging temperatures—ice skating and hockey on frozen ponds and sometimes even Cayuga Lake, sledding down great hills of snow, making snow forts and even ice sculptures, and of course enjoying seasonal comfort foods.

“Winter festivals can be a particularly joyous opportunity for communities to come together and forget about their to-do lists,” notes folklorist Hannah Davis, the upstate regional representative for the New York Folklore Society. In winters past, carnivals would have been a welcome break from agricultural chores, including carving blocks of ice for food preservation. Millie Sherwood grew up on her family’s farm in Freeville. She recalled her wonderment about ice carved in winter surviving through the summer:

“The ice for the refrigeration before electric refrigerators . . . came from blocks cut during the winter from the pond on the farm and nestled away under layers of sawdust in the icehouse until called for in the summer months. To this day I cannot quite fathom how ice can last for months encased in nothing more exotic than sawdust, but there it was in August, to be hoisted out and cut into the right size for the icebox, then swung by the large ice tongs into a little red wagon to be trundled home and put to good use. Of course there was always a bit chipped off for us to munch on along the way.”

Though ice carving had its practical uses, it has also been a festive feature of winter carnivals. The long-standing and vaunted Montreal Winter Carnival has inspired a number of regional imitators. The January 1884 carnival, for example, consisted of “ten thousand blocks of ice . . . used in the construction of the ice palaces,” reported the Ithaca Daily Journal.

Such winter festivals have roots in both native and immigrant traditions. “Some wintertime events, like Christkindlmarkts and similarly styled craft sales, are easy to attach to the traditions of European immigrant groups,” explains folklorist Davis. “But every community has seasonal celebrations. The Haudenosaunee, for example, gather to play snow snake, a throwing game, in the winter months.”

Read on for some noted winter carnivals that have marked the winters of seasons past in Tompkins County.

Ad for Junior Week Winter Carnival, Cornell Daily Sun, February 6, 1905

Cornell’s Winter Carnival

From the early 1900s through the 1940s, Cornell hosted an active Winter Carnival on Beebe Lake during Junior Week. It involved ice skating and tobogganing and included ice hockey and ice skating exhibitions.

Ithaca Journal, February 4, 1965

Ithaca Journal, February 4, 1965

Ithaca’s Winter Weekend

Beebe Lake skaters (above) prepare for Ithaca’s first Winter Weekend in February 1965. The festival included a roster of active winter activities, including ice skating races, a snow and ice sculpture competition, hockey games, and a figure skating exhibition.

Ithaca Journal, February 2, 1987

Ithaca Journal, February 2, 1987

The State Park’s Winterfest

The Finger Lakes State Park sponsored an annual Winterfest in the late 1970s to 1980s at Robert H. Treman State Park. Activities included cross-country ski lessons, ice sculptures, and sleigh rides.

Ithaca Journal, January 19, 1984

Ithaca Journal, January 19, 1984

Winterfest in Trumansburg

Trumansburg’s WinterFest has been staged for 22 years. On the town’s Main Street visitors enjoy food, music, and shopping. Past festivals have offered sleigh rides, a tree-lighting ceremony, and a visit from Santa.

Groton Winterfest

The Groton Winterfest first took place in 2002 and included carnival fare and kids crafts.

Ithaca’s Light in Winter

Though defunct, this mid-winter festival merged art, music, and science to shine a light on the season. It began in 2004 and even included an ice-climbing exhibition on a cliff near Vann Natta’s Dam on Six Mile Creek that year.

Share your photos of winter carnivals past to include in the winter carnival gallery. Email to pat@historicithaca.org or post on Facebook @IthacaHeritage with the hashtag #WinterCarnivals.

Caesar, the Ithaca Kitty, a Tompkins County Heritage Ambassador

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Caesar Grimalkin, a gray tiger cat with seven toes on each white front paw, lived with Celia and William Hazlitt Smith and their two-year-old daughter at 116 Oak Ave. in Ithaca, NY. William was an attorney and Celia was skilled in sewing and toy design. One evening in 1890, Celia pointed to where Caesar sat and said, "You know, I could make him, in three pieces." She set to work with scissors and muslin, and soon had a cat form. Her sister-in-law Charity Smith, an artist, painted the blank muslin.

Caesar became known as the “Ithaca Kitty” and was very popular across the United States. He was sold in major department stores and was at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Even though Caesar had seven toes on each of his front paws, they thought that his extra toes didn’t look normal enough and did not add them to the stuffed kitty. Last year The History Center brought Caesar back and gave him all his toes since we are a community that celebrates diversity. He is again a polydactyl cat!

Caesar, an urban cat, has already called attention to the City of Ithaca. He has now also become an ambassador for celebrating our county’s rural heritage. Caesar will be at the November 18 Celebrating Rural Heritage event and will continue to visit rural sites over the course of this next year and will certainly plan to attend next Fall’s celebrating rural heritage weekend.

You can follow his adventures through social media using #IthacaKittyvisits. If you spot Caesar out and about, please take a picture of him to post (and be sure to use the hashtag). Caesar likes to be photographed in the City of Ithaca and in all of Tompkins County’s towns, hamlets, and villages.

Rod Howe, Executive Director, The History Center in Tompkins County


The founding of the “Friends of the Ithaca City Cemetery” by Julee Johnson

In 1995 I visited a friend who’d just been appointed as the director of the Cornell in Paris Program. Seeing Paris had always been a dream of mine so Jeff’s move to France was the opportunity I’d been looking for to travel to the City of Light. Being a inveterate planner and as this was early in the Digital Age, I took myself to the Tompkins County Public Library, then still on N. Cayuga St., to find out all I could about the major tourist attractions. At the time TCPL’s collection held the guidebook Permanent Parisians, which included 19 walking tours of Paris’s cemeteries and monuments to the dead. A highlight of the book, and of Paris, is Père Lachaise, the first “garden” cemetery, designed in 1804 with a park-like setting and open for burial to anyone, regardless of race or religion. Its famous dead (Chopin, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, etc. etc.) number in the hundreds on its Wikipedia page, and the remarkable sculptures of both notable and now obscure residents make the place a veritable outdoor museum. I took a Xerox of almost the entire book with me to Paris and spent a wonderful spring day strolling its street-like paths, discovering the final resting places of prominent people (Gertrude Stein! Maria Callas! Richard Wright!) and marveling that this place, dedicated to the dead, was so alive and vibrant with visitors numbering in the thousands every day.


Fast forward to 2010, when a friend and fellow cemetery enthusiast, Ellen Leventry, and I went on Historic Ithaca’s Halloween tour of the Ithaca City Cemetery. We learned about the cultural, social, economic, and political history of this 16-acre greenspace on the edge of downtown and its transition from early village burial ground to Victorian “garden of the dead.” While lacking the ornate, even ostentatious tombs found in Père Lachaise, the Ithaca City Cemetery (earlier known as the “old burying ground,” Mount Repose, and Silvan Hill) is the final resting place of hundreds of local luminaries, and each headstone and monument contains a wealth of information about how people lived and died for over 200 years of Ithaca’s history. There’s a neighborhood feel to this cemetery, for not only is it easy to get to and constantly filled with dog walkers and visitors searching for genealogical information, but its occupants resided in nearby houses and shaped the Ithaca we know today.  Edward Esty, Henry St. John, and many others left their mark on Ithaca, the remnants of which are still seen in the city’s streets, buildings and businesses.

The Ithaca City Cemetery has been, since its inception, municipally owned and maintained so its fortunes have risen and fallen with the city’s budget. One of the earliest recorded actions taken by the newly incorporated Village of Ithaca, in 1824, was to take bids for a fence to be built alongside the “old burying ground” to keep livestock away from the headstones. And located so close to downtown, surrounded by the Fall Creek neighborhood and the Cornell campus, can be a disadvantage as vandalism and littering takes its toll. This unfortunate aspect of the cemetery was on display, too, during Historic Ithaca’s tour. But instead of being discouraged, Ellen and I were inspired to do something about it. On the following Memorial Day, 2011, joined by another friend, we spent the day in the cemetery picking up trash, clipping ivy away from the face of the vaults, and, in general, giving the cemetery a makeover.

We didn’t return to the cemetery again for a year but on that Memorial Day, 2012, we brought with us more tree and bush trimming equipment, trash bags, and recruited another friend to help with the clean up. But it wasn’t until the following spring that our annual get together became more organized. Historic Ithaca’s staff was working with County Historian Carol Kammen to identify a community activity that she could support and they decided upon the City Cemetery as the ideal project. This conversation happened at the same time that Ellen and I attended a hands-on workshop sponsored by the Genoa Historical Association in the Wilcox Cemetery on Rt. 34, north of Lansing. The Association, with the financial help of the Town, hired monument conservator Jonathan Appell of Hartford, CT to teach participants the properties of various stone types, the impact of weather and other depredations on stone, and the basics of conservation, from cleaning and resetting to leveling and repairing broken headstones.


Doing more than clearing brush and picking up trash had long been our goal so bringing Jonathan to the Ithaca City Cemetery for a workshop became our next challenge. This was only made possible with the sponsorship of Historic Ithaca and financial support of Carol, the City of Ithaca, and Cornell University. Now calling ourselves the Friends of the Ithaca City Cemetery, “clean up” days had expanded to include at least one other public event, and usually more, during the year. In late September, 2013, Jonathan taught a day and a half long workshop in the Ithaca City Cemetery attended by a large group of city and local town public works employees, historians, and people responsible for maintaining private or family burial plots. The take away from that event was that everyone enjoys getting their hands dirty, that cleaning and resetting headstones can be done by most anyone with a firm grounding in the basics, and the more people in a cemetery – and the more time they spend there – benefits the entire neighborhood by increasing awareness and appreciation and decreasing incidents of vandalism. These aims remain the goals of the Friends and Historic Ithaca.

Following the success of the conservation workshop, fundraising for the many conservation projects that need to be undertaken in the cemetery became the next goal. The Friends worked with Historic Ithaca’s staff to develop a creative event that would attract all kinds of people from the nearby neighborhoods and even outside the county. We came up with the Cemetery Sprint, held every October on Halloween. The Sprint is a 1-mile timed race on the paved paths in the cemetery that, because of its site on East Hill, is very challenging. It’s followed by a fun run/walk along the same course that’s ideal for families with kids. Costumes are encouraged and prizes awarded. Now in its 4th year, the Cemetery Sprint is an October fixture, as are Historic Ithaca’s weekend tours.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the Friends and the cemetery may contact Christine O’Malley (christine@historicithaca.org or 607-273-6633). Join us at any of the events this October to see why so many people work to preserve this special place.

Julee Johnson

HistoryForge: Connecting the Generations

Helen Henry, Irene Suzey, Susan Stephens, Fitch Stephens, Roger Williams, Caroline Williams, Gertrude Haviland, Clara O’Hara, Katherine Grover, Frank & Mary Woolley, Jean Halsey, Orison and Eveline Cook, Edward Curtis, Connie Curtis, Ida Kellogg, the McPherson family, the Northrup family, the Merrill family, the Morrison family, and Anne & George Green lived at one of the following residences in 1910: 127 Linn Street306 N. Cayuga St., 308 N. Cayuga St., 130 E. Court St., 125 W. Green St., 233 S. Albany St., 234 S. Albany St., 224 S. Geneva St., 501 W. Green St., 111 Cleveland Ave. or 119 Cleveland Ave.

These are the addresses and the people who are featured in the October 7, 2017 HistoryForge Day in Ithaca.

What makes history come alive for you? For me, one way is learning about people who lived in specific homes. HistoryForge provides us with a platform to learn about the lives of these 1910 residents. From the census we have some basic information. Add to that knowledge about their houses, neighborhood and the events of the time and one can start to piece together partial narratives. Were they long-term residents, what did they do to earn a living, what were their lives like? We are provided with an opportunity to engage with the past and to be inquisitive about the lives of Ithaca citizens from an earlier period. HistoryForge is developing into a valuable resource to ask questions and to explore the connections among people, buildings and community. Learn about HistoryForge on The History Center’s website https://thehistorycenter.net/historyforge and/or go directly to the History Forge site at:https://historyforge.thehistorycenter.net/.

Rod Howe, Executive Director of The History Center in Tompkins County

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

Melanie Colter

Melanie Colter

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


Melanie Colter is a graduate student in Historic Preservation Planning at Cornell University with a focus in equity planning and adaptive reuse. She came to Ithaca in 2015 by way of Albuquerque, New Mexico where she worked for the Albuquerque Museum. Previously, she worked for five years in the visual arts, digital media, and marketing in her home city of Indianapolis, Indiana. During that time, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Herron School of Art and Design at Indiana-University Purdue-University Indianapolis (IUPUI). As the 2017 Stuart Stein Heritage Tourism intern, she is engaged with enhancing and developing historical walking tours, sponsored by the Heritage Tourism Network, on the new digital platform, PocketSights.

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?