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