THE HISTORY CENTER BLOG
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Building the Past: HistoryForge, Ithaca, and Beyond
HistoryForge Project Director
Social Science History Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, Illinois
Presented on November 18, 2022
This paper is in honor of Bob Kibbee, the founder of HistoryForge, who passed away in May.
HistoryForge is an interactive digital history project that allows people to visualize and explore their local history through the individuals who lived there and the buildings and neighborhoods they lived in. HistoryForge is also a volunteer-driven community history project. Lastly, HistoryForge is an open-source application developed by The History Center in Tompkins County, designed to be utilized by communities across the United States.
HistoryForge starts with volunteers transcribing historic census records into searchable databases and constructing historic map layers. Census records form the main framework for information about people on HistoryForge. Volunteers transcribe the handwritten manuscripts of the U.S. decennial censuses into our census databases. Data entry forms are built to respond to the specific fields in each census and to encourage a quick and accurate transcription. When the enumerator’s handwriting is hard to decipher, transcribers use city directories and other historical resources to record alternative name spelling, addresses, and other information, wherever possible. We find that the local advantage in terms of resources and name recognition and a little extra effort make a big difference in our resulting transcription.
Maps serve as the foundation for visually displaying the rich historic demographic data from the census and other sources. Volunteers use MapWarper, an open-source application, to geo-rectify and mosaic historic maps. We chose MapWarper because it is a user-friendly option with a smaller learning curve for people without GIS backgrounds. There is a free online version of MapWarper, but to maintain control over our maps, we have installed a version on our server.
As volunteers transcribe census records into HistoryForge, they attach each person to a building based on their address. This process enables the development of an authority record for each building. The building record then “houses” residents for each census year along with additional information about the building from the maps and other sources, and photographs when available. The building record is the mechanism that enables the platform to map people to their location.
Census transcription began as and continues to be a community social event that brings together local history enthusiasts a few times a month over their shared appreciation of local history. In our transcription sessions volunteers work in pairs with one person reading the information from the handwritten census manuscript and the other person entering it in the data entry page. These sessions are also used for training. New transcribers are paired with experienced transcribers to learn the process including things like how to find the census sheets online and how to interpret the handwriting. Transcription sessions moved to Zoom during the pandemic and are now continuing in person. Trained transcribers also work on their own from home.
Once an initial historic map layer has been constructed and the records from one census year have been entered, community users can begin to use HistoryForge to explore their local history. On HistoryForge, users can search on any of the fields in a given census year like race, place of birth, and/or home ownership. This allows users to learn about the individuals who lived in the community as well as the larger community context in which they lived. For example, searching on Italy as the place of birth in multiple census years shows how Ithaca’s Italian immigration increased dramatically in the early 20th century. Search results including people’s names, addresses, and occupations also show how the employment, residential, and familial patterns of Ithaca’s Italian immigrants changed over time. They also encourage additional exploration into a person’s life or an occupation.
HistoryForge began in 2016 as the brainchild of Bob Kibbee, a retired Cornell librarian who specialized in census data, maps, and geospatial information. He envisioned creating a platform that paired the rich historic demographic data from the manuscripts of the U.S. censuses with that of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases. Working with another History Center trustee, a software engineer with a PhD in History, they conceptualized and built the initial prototype for HistoryForge. Using volunteers from the community who transcribed census records for the City of Ithaca, New York, home of The History Center, the initial development focused on that city. The goal from the beginning was always to build an open-source application that could be utilized by any community in the United States.
In 2019 the History Center received a two-year Public Engagement with Historical Records Grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC) of the National Archives. This grant advanced the formal development of HistoryForge from an Ithaca-based project into a functional open-source platform which could be replicated in other communities.
Under the grant we redesigned the user-interface, formalized procedures for transcription, map layer construction, and volunteer training, and created user manuals for the various parts of the project. We also expanded our model site, HistoryForge Ithaca, to include additional census year data entry pages and datasets (1900-1940), building records, historic map layers and photographs. By the end of the grant the site had five complete datasets of the U.S. population census for the City of Ithaca comprising over 83,000 census records as well as almost 6,000 building records, eight historic map layers, and over 400 photographs.
Most importantly, the grant instituted a new testing partner program engaging three institutions to implement HistoryForge in their communities and evaluate its replicability. These three sites: the Local History Discovery Center of the Seymour Public Library District in Auburn, New York the Chemung County Historical Society in Elmira, New York, and the Oberlin Heritage Center in Oberlin, Ohio. After training by The History Center’s team in early 2021, each site followed the documented model of HistoryForge Ithaca: recruiting volunteers, constructing map layers, and hosting transcription sessions to build HistoryForge Auburn, HistoryForge Elmira and HistoryForge Oberlin.
To further expand HistoryForge’s scope and functionality, we applied for and were awarded a Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities which started this October. [See Slide A]
One of the main challenges we are working on is that of mapping census records without street addresses. Rural communities which did not have standard house numbering systems until the mid-20th century or later present a unique challenge. Street addresses were first included in the U.S. census in 1880. To enable adoption by a larger range of communities and make it possible for all communities to map census data prior to 1880, we have started new approaches and workflows for locating and mapping households without street addresses on the census.
Tompkins County illustrates some of the challenges in mapping historic data for rural communities. The county is in the west central part of the state, known as the Finger Lakes region. It is comprised of nine towns, six villages, several hamlets or unincorporated areas, including one called “Podunk,” and the City of Ithaca.
The City of Ithaca had a different historical trajectory from the rest of the county. Ithaca was established by New York State’s Surveyor General and owner of the land, Simeon DeWitt, in the early 1800s as a village with a commercial center surrounded by small plots of land for rent. The founding of Cornell University in 1865 further hastened Ithaca’s development in contrast to its rural neighbors. Cornell professors, coming from universities in other locations, pushed for Ithaca to adopt modern conveniences such as street paving, electricity, and standardized street numbering systems. Consequently, there are several resources that are helpful for mapping census records in the City of Ithaca: street numbers which were recorded in city directories from the 1860s forward and which were listed on the census records beginning in 1880, as well as Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases and other maps that record street numbers. The street names and numbers have not remained entirely consistent. Ithaca renumbered all of its streets in 1899 and has renamed and renumbered others since then, but the resources available have made it possible to translate historic addresses into current ones.
In comparison to the rest of the county, Ithaca was unique. Rural neighboring towns did not undertake a concerted effort to provide their residents with standardized street numbers until the 1950s and 1960s. Similar historic mapping resources and directories are limited. For example, only two of the towns had Sanborn Atlases, both limited in area. There were, however, maps and atlases covering the county which can be helpful for this project because they record property owners and residents. These include county maps from the 1850s and 1860s, a farm directory with map published by the American Agriculturist in 1914, and a series of rural directories with maps that covered each town in the county in the 1920s and 1930s initially called the “Clock System” and later revised as the “Compass System.” These systems, which focused on rural areas, primarily in New York State, did not rely on the existing street names which changed based on who lived there. Instead, the mapmakers assigned each rural residence with an “address,” a combination of numbers and letters based on its direction and distance from a given population center. Another very important resource for identifying where people lived: local knowledge. In rural towns where some current residents’ families have lived for generations such knowledge is easier to come by. Local knowledge also leads to the discovery of local resources which have been collected in town archives and people’s homes.
How then to map the census records in the rest of Tompkins County? Prior to April 1, 2022, our goal was to start with the 1940 census and work our way back. We planned to take advantage of local knowledge and have community members transcribe census records and help locate the residents, including their parents, grandparents, or other relatives. In addition to local knowledge, we would use historic and current resources to determine the present-day addresses for their residences wherever possible to map them. The 1940 census provided a few stiff challenges in the rural areas of Tompkins County: most places in the county did not have house numbers (although one enumerator did record the only available address-type information: each household’s rural delivery route), and several enumerators failed to record some or all of the street names in their district, though such street names generally existed. It was my hope that the 1937 “Compass system” map and directory for the county would be a helpful resource for locating many of the census residents on a map so we could then ascertain the current addresses of those buildings.
We started with the Town of Caroline, New York, a few miles southeast of Ithaca, because of their active and passionate local history group, the Caroline History Association. Transcription of the 1940 census was completed but our plans changed dramatically on April 1st, 2022, when the National Archives released the manuscript records of the 1950 census. This release provided two important boosts to this project. First, it expanded the local knowledge we could harness to community members who grew up in the towns in the 1950s to locate their childhood homes and those of their relatives as well as the homes of their friends and neighbors. Second, and even more importantly, the 1950 census itself contained an important new requirement for recording the location of dwellings in rural areas.
For the first time, census enumerators were given detailed instructions about how to record addresses in areas without street names or house numbers. For buildings without house numbers, they were to “write the street or road name and give location by direction from intersection with another street or road.” If there was no street name or house number, enumerators were told to “describe the location so that someone else would be able to locate the house on a map,” and to “Use the ‘Note’ if you need to.” The enumerator’s manual and workbook elaborated further with the example: “1st house on right after fire house, going north.” This emphasis on providing a written record of the enumerator’s route and an identifying location for each residence, as well as the resulting information recorded by the enumerators, which I like to call “locational breadcrumbs,” has proven extremely helpful. As a comparison, on the 1940 census for the Town of Caroline, 690 of the 1,737 residents were recorded without street names. In the 1950 census, only 172 of the 1,885 residents were missing street names.
These instructions also allow us to easily recreate the route of Phyllis E. Whittaker, enumerator for the first enumeration district of the Town of Caroline in the 1950 census. Following the directions in the manual, Whittaker noted her initial starting point and route at the top of the first census sheet: “Proceeding S-E on State Highway No 330, from intersection with route 79.” In the first column Whittaker recorded “State Highway No. 330” as the street name, and in the second column for house number she wrote “2nd house on left.” We can tell on this Enumeration District map the reason she started on the second house was because the first house was in the neighboring town of Dryden. Whittaker then proceeded down that street to the first intersection, continuing to record house numbers in increasing number from her point of origin. This enumeration district was particularly fortunate to start with. Some enumerators in the county were not as careful in their locational notes, neglecting to adequately indicate street names or house locations. Others chose to use mileage to differentiate house locations, leveraging the power of their odometers as they drove from house to house.
As we began transcribing the census records, volunteer transcribers were instructed to pay special attention to the locational breadcrumbs, capturing that information in a specific format to be used to determine the current addresses. Once the first ED of the 1950 census was transcribed, I downloaded the data into a shared spreadsheet sorted by serial number, the number assigned to each household in order of visitation (similar to family or household number in previous censuses) to approximate the enumerator’s route. The spreadsheet included identifying information for each person such as their name, relation to head, age, occupation, and industry. It also contained identifying location information such as the Agricultural Schedule No., to indicate farm households, and the locational breadcrumbs formatted as street name and location followed by house location, i.e., “Slaterville Road toward Slaterville from Besemer corner, 6th [house] on left.”
I began experimenting with the best way to determine the current addresses for these buildings by literally following the enumerator’s route in my car. While I realized the same could be generally accomplished on Google maps with an assist from Google Street or Satellite View, I wanted to travel the enumerator’s path to get a feeling for some of the physical terrain she would have traversed and to consider the obstacles she might have encountered. I also thought it would be easier to determine whether a house had been built prior to 1950 in person rather than using google maps. I was wrong.
To get closer to the point where I could tentatively assign a current address to the residents of the 1950 census, I worked with the Tompkins County Department of Assessment to create a list of residences built in the Town of Caroline by 1949 which I sorted by street name. This got me closer. Still, things did not always go to plan: some houses had been demolished or moved since 1950, while others had been turned into apartments and were now taxed as commercial and therefore not part of my list—something I had not initially considered. One last source proved extremely helpful, the Town historian gave me a copy of a 1957 street directory, created when the streets were first numbered. To my spreadsheet I added a column for recording addresses from the 1957 street directory and one for the current address from the list of residences built by 1949. Using the enumeration district map, a 1940 highway map which included buildings which I had geo-rectified and added as a map layer on HistoryForge, Google Maps, and the list of houses built before 1950 I worked to determine an initial list of the current addresses for the 1950 residents. Members of the Caroline Historical Association joined me at a local fire hall where we projected the spreadsheet and Google Map images of the current area on a large screen, where they verified some of the addresses and helped to determine others.
The workflows we are developing for addressing the census records in the 1950 and earlier census in Caroline and other parts of the county will provide an invaluable resource for this project. The results of census transcription will also prove to be an important historical resource to trace the development of this and other communities in Tompkins County. Once completed, the census databases in HistoryForge Tompkins will not only be able to show where people lived but how the population composition of these towns and this county changed over time.
HistoryForge's motto is “Local History Starts with you.” I have used Ithaca and Tompkins County to illustrate the scope and the power of the system as well as the challenges we encounter in historical GIS projects. This project also demonstrates the value of partnership with community history groups, and the power of volunteers to bring history to life. How will you engage with local history? I encourage you to explore HistoryForge Tompkinswww.tompkins.historyforge.net to see what it has to offer.
The locals know that the annual Best of Ithaca awards are a time honored tradition. Ithaca Times readers submit their write-in ballots to nominate the "Best of" our local community in the categories of: Food & Drink, Entertainments, Essentials, People, and Places.
The History Center was deeply honored this year to have been nominated as the "Best Keeper of Local Knowledge."
While a number of local historians have received an award in the "Best People" category before, this is a rare instance of an organization being recognized.
Our archives are ever expanding (thanks to the generosity and historic preservation spirit of our community) and we are deeply grateful that with our new space at the Tompkins Center for History & Culture, expanded open hours in both the Exhibit Hall & Research Library, and our growing online presence we are able to share and connect ever more people to the wealth of local knowledge and community history we want to share and preserve for everyone!
Thank you to all the Ithaca Times readers who nominated us, and congratulations to all the 2022 awardees!
Gene's Ithaca Journal Obituary - A Tribute from 92 WICB
Dad arrived in Ithaca in Fall, 1939 to attend Cornell’s College of Agriculture. As the war in Europe had just begun with Germany’s invasion of Poland, and amidst growing concerns that America would be drawn into conflict, Dad, like several students at the time, took part in both basic and advanced Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC) training at Cornell. Then with the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, it was clear that Dad, alongside many classmates, as well as his two brothers, would soon be going off to war.
At his Cornell graduation in May 1943, graduates were asked to stand if they were headed off to war, and Dad reported that more than half the graduates stood. Dad left for Officer Candidate School (OCS), was then commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, and after extensive training was deployed overseas in August 1944, first to New Guinea as a Reconnaissance-Survey Officer, then on to combat in the Philippines. In July 1946 he was returned to the US and assigned to the Active Reserve as a Captain. Dad served several positions in the Reserves, with weekly meetings, and attended “army camp” every summer, which was when Sol Goldberg shot the photo. In October 1971, Dad was assigned to the Retired Reserve, as a Lieutenant Colonel, after 28 years with the US Army.
He received both a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star, as well as two Campaign Ribbons and two Battle Stars. He taught in the Ithaca City School District after the war, retiring in 1980.
In the words of my cousin Tim Marchell given as Dad’s eulogy: As Tom Brokaw wrote in his book, those who grew up in America during the deprivation of the Great Depression and who served in the military or worked on the home front during WWII, were known as members of “The Greatest Generation”…they gave new meaning to courage, sacrifice, and honor. They served their country with valor, then came home and transformed it. Lou Preston in his life within and beyond the Army, was a model member of the Greatest Generation.
This article was written by Martha Preston in honor of her father Lou Preson, for the 2022 Tompkins County Veterans exhibit on display at The History Center.
Top Photo: Photograph by Sol Goldberg of Col. Louis Preston with family. The History Center in Tompkins County General Photograph Collections.
Bottom Photo: 1945 - Lou Preston and fellow solders pose for a picture while deployed in the Philippines. Preston is seated in the middle of the front row.
ITHACA NY –The History Center in Tompkins County announces their next major exhibit ‘Knot Sew Fast: Patchwork of Tompkins County’, to open on February 3rd 2023 at their Exhibit Hall on the Ithaca Commons. Knot Sew Fast pulls from the extensive textile and fabric arts collections held by The History Center to lay out the stories these functional artworks tell about Tompkins County history.
Piecing together the story of quilts encourages us to consider shifts in technology, industry, transportation, and materials over generations of local life. As we unravel (figuratively) each quilt we consider the hands that did the work, and the stories they captured in every knot and stitch. In addition to historic quilts displayed from four of the nine townships of Tompkins, there will be interactive patternmaking stations in the Exhibit Hall; an invitation for our modern audience to try their hand at replicating patterns from ancestral woven Haudenosaunee belts to modern-day art quilts.
Quilts are a unique measure to explore history as the practice of quilting was a skill developed and practiced equally by historic Ithacan city-dwellers, as well as our rural township communities of Trumansburg, Groton, Dryden, Lansing, Caroline, Newfield, and Danby. The merging of this functional skill, and the hundreds of hours and handwork displayed in each quilt shares narratives about community, history, home, and skilled labor.
Knot Sew Fast will encourage a slower recognition of the diversity of textiles and patterns, as well as the hands and minds that created them. The exhibit will be on display from February 3rd 2023 through mid-August 2023. Follow @TompkinsHistory and http:// thehistorycenter.net/knot-sew-fast for updates.
About The History Center: The History Center in Tompkins County is a generation-to-generation education and research center focused on engaging the public with the history of Tompkins County (located in the ancestral and contemporary lands of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' Nation) and the Finger Lakes region. The History Center helps people use the tools of history to understand the past, gain perspective on the present, and play an informed role in shaping the future. The History Center is located within the Tompkins Center for History & Culture. Learn more at thehistorycenter.netand follow @TompkinsHistory on any platform.
Learn more at thehistorycenter.net/Filipino-History
Tompkins County's first recorded residents of Asian descent date to the mid 1800's. Records for the City of Ithaca show small but increasing populations from Asian, Asian-Indian, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) nations from the 1890's into the twentieth century, although multi-generation AAPI immigrant families did not appear consistently until after the 1930's. These records can be explored at historyforge.net, please note that a category for "Filipino" was not in the U.S. Census until 1920.
Filipino students were attending Cornell University as early as the 19-teens. A 2021 article found that Cornell's third president Jacob Gould Schurman (President from 1892-1920) supported American imperialist control of the Philippines. Editorials published in the Ithaca Journal during the 1920's by Filipino students enrolled at Cornell demonstrate pushback against the paternalistic and imperialist views promoted by university staff and America at-large during the period.
Beginning in the 1970s, the Asian immigrant population of Tompkins County began to grow more expansively, with more people arriving from the Indian subcontinent as well as from Southeast Asian countries, especially Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia; learn more at thehistorycenter.net/AAPI-Heritage-Month.
Tompkins County's most notable Filipino-American resident of the last century is undoubtedly Florence Finch. Florence was awarded the Asiatic-Pacific campaign ribbon in 1945, the first woman to receive the honor, as well as the Medal of Freedom in 1947. In 1995 the Coast Guard named their Pacific headquarters building in Hawaii after her for her impressive efforts during WWII. Florence lived in Ithaca from 1955 until her death in 2016.
In 2017 long-time Ithacan and Filipino-American Mimi Melegrito accepted a Congressional Gold Medal for her late father, Greg Melegrito as part of a long overdue recognition for the efforts of Filipino Americans during WWII.
The History Center is actively seeking more local histories of Filipino-Americans from Tompkins County. Please connect with us to share more narratives.
The celebration of Filipino American History Month commemorates the first recorded presence of Filipinos in the continental United States, which occurred on October 18, 1587, when “Luzones Indios” came ashore from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza and landed at what is now Morro Bay, California. U.S. Congress formally recognized October as Filipino American History Month in 2009.
Part of the expansion of the HistoryForge project to include all of Tompkins County and not just the City of Ithaca, included solving the issue of finding early maps documenting the rural townships of Tompkins. A starting solution came in the form of the Clock & Compass Map system developed by John Byron Plato in the 1920's (learn more at Mark Monmoniers Book Talk on 10/8).
We recently completed the digitization of these materials and addition to the New York Heritage Digital Collections database as part of our ongoing partnership with the South Central Regional Library Council. We are thrilled to have the digitized "Clock System Rural Index" papers and maps for Groton Township, Caroline Township, Danby & Newfield Towns, Ithaca & Enfield Towns, Ulysses Township, Dryden Township, and Lansing Township now available to the public.
Learn more about this unique mapping system in Monmoniers new book 'Clock & Compass: How John Byron Plato Gave Farmers a Real Address' available through The History Center's online bookstore for $20.
If you are interested in joining the HistoryForge team as a volunteer, please reach out to Eve Snyder at email@example.com
Tompkins County and Ithaca has a longstanding history of being at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights. A student led protest at Morrie's Bar in 1968 may have been the first gay student sit-in in the United States; and the Student Homophile League formed at Cornell University in 1969, was the second public gay student organization in the country.
The first formal statement about bisexuality made by any religious or political group in the United States happened in Ithaca in 1972. The General Conference for Friends, brought 1,400 members and friends of Quakerism to Ithaca College for their annual convention. Over 130 people showed up to the bisexuality workshop, and the statement was drafted over the following days.
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