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 ( 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 and/or go directly to the History Forge site at:

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

HistoryForge Screen Shot 11 17 2017.png

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: 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.

·         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.

·         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.

·         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.

·         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.

·         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:

·         Three current and 25 former faculty members and 12 alumni of Cornell have been Nobel Prize winners.

·         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.

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 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?