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  • Thu, December 30, 2021 1:32 PM | Anonymous

    Despite pandemic constraints, 2021 was a rich and productive year in the Archives and Research Library. We served almost 600 people in our library and by email and phone from ten different states across the US, including Florida, Iowa, Washington, Tennessee, Georgia, Minnesota, New Jersey, and more. We created a brief video honoring the Council for Equality, Ithaca's own Civil Rights organization from the 1960s. A generous grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation helped us to revise and update our archival collections finding aids, those essential tools for researchers.

    We worked with numerous local partners to research and showcase Tompkins County's diverse history: The Village of Freeville, United Way, Discover Cayuga LakeIthaca Asian American AssociationFinger Lakes Land Trust, The Ithaca Voice, WSKG, WRFI, The Cherry Arts, Civic Ensemble, Caroline History Club, St. John's Episcopal Church, Friends of Stewart Park, and the Human Services Coalition. We also facilitated research for Cornell University Historic Preservation and Planning students studying the local built environment.

    Donations to the collection this year included materials from Club Essence, an African American women's group from the 1970s to the early 2000s; records of Ithaca's iconic Corner Bookstore; genealogy materials from numerous local and regional families; stereoviews of local scenes; records of the New York National Farmers' Union; materials from the Lehman Alternative Community School from one of its own students; an extensive collection of World War II items belonging to Robert Nobles of Ithaca, and more.

    More than a dozen volunteers and interns generously donated their time, effort, and expertise to facilitate all of this essential work. They include Nancy Leeming, Mary Tomlan, George Dillmann, Gene Endres, Elisabeth Shea, Janet Wagner, Alison Maceli, Ashley Miller, Alex Black, Shailja Gaur, Margaret McKinnis, Katherine Esterl, Raia Gutman, Maya Matunis, and Jessica Golden. We are more grateful to them than we can say.

    Donna Eschenbrenner

    Director of Archives & Research Services

  • Sat, November 20, 2021 5:56 PM | Anonymous

    Political Tompkins by Joe Mareane is the 4th in a series of historical writings published by the Tompkins County Historical Commission. 

    Purchase Political Tompkins through our online bookstore. All proceeds benefit The History Center in Tompkins County. 

    Preface - pgs. 4-5

    When I arrived in Tompkins County in 2008 to take the job of County Administrator, the liberalism of the area was a defining element of its identity. In fact, my going away gag gift from my previous job in nearby Onondaga County were a pair of Birkenstock sandals and a tie-dyed T-shirt. I soon learned, however, that politics in Tompkins weren’t always so Democratic or progressive. There was a time when the City of Ithaca and the County were among the most “rock-ribbed” Republican places in America. Moreover, the change from “red” to “blue” was relatively recent—well within my lifetime.

    The essay that follows began as a statistical tabulation intended to occupy a few days of the new cloistered era of the COVID-19 pandemic and satisfy my curiosity about the transformation of political preferences in Tompkins County. The plan was to track the results of presidential elections from 1828—the first time New York State engaged voters in the presidential election decision—through the 2020 election, plot the trend lines to see when major shifts of partisanship occurred, and then move on to other stay-at-home pursuits. 

    Despite the enormity of data available on the internet, I quickly found that the county-by-county results of presidential elections prior to the 1990’s were not easily available via a keystroke. With navigational help from Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen and the indispensable assistance of Jim Folts at the New York State Archive who ultimately found tabulations of every presidential election through 2012, the statistical foundation was laid.

    I’ve always believed that if the right numbers are looked at in the right way, a story emerges. With election results compiled and tracked, the story of the evolution of political preferences in the County became clearer and often far different than I would have expected. The fact that Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton won landslide victories over Donald Trump was not surprising, but Franklin Roosevelt’s successive 30-point losses to four different Republican candidates was. Even Richard Nixon did much better against John Kennedy in Tompkins than in the six neighboring, and presumably more conservative, rural counties.

    The statistics begged answers to why voters changed their preferences at certain times and not others; when voting patterns in Tompkins diverged from the mainstream; what developments at the local level might presage changes that would later affect the outcome of presidential elections; and how major electoral events, such as women’s suffrage and the lowering of the voting age, might have affected election results.

    This essay attempts to shed light on those questions. While context for the elections is provided, it is only to give the reader a glimpse of the personalities and factors in the environment that may have contributed to the local response to specific candidates. A scholarly assessment of the myriad factors influencing the politics of a specific time and space is beyond the scope of this work and the talents of this writer. Speculations about factors that have contributed to the partisan leanings of the County are also shared. These should be taken only as the observations of one who has gained some familiarity with the political environment through a long career in local government, and not the disciplined work of a political scientist.

    Much of the research is based on articles and editorials in the various iterations of the Ithaca Journal that date back to 1828 and, thanks to the Tompkins County Historical Commission and Cornell University, are accessible online. Unfortunately, access to other papers and documents was severely limited by restrictions resulting from the Covid pandemic. 

    My hope is only to preserve data that might otherwise be difficult to access and provide a bit of insight into the unique political history and character of Tompkins County, including how it evolved from one of the “reddest” areas of the nation to one of the “bluest” of the blue.

  • Fri, November 12, 2021 1:24 PM | Anonymous

    George Washington Belt also Great Chain or Canandaigua Treaty Belt

    The George Washington Belt, also called the Great Chain or Canandaigua Treaty Belt is the friendship belt created from the Canandaigua Treaty or Pickering Treaty meeting in 1794. The thirteen human figures symbolize the original thirteen colonies of the young and newly formed democracy of the United States of America. The two smaller figures in the center represent the Indigenous "Keepers of the Eastern and Western Doors" of Haudenosaunee territory, and the house represents both the Haudenosaunee Longhouse and the U.S. Capitol Building, with the open door symbolizing hospitality and peace between the two nations. Each of the figures are linked by clasped hands to form a chain of friendship which represents the ongoing alliance between the United States and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

    The Canandaigua Treaty was intended to establish peace and friendship between the United States and the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and is considered the foundation of “modern” U.S.-Haudenosaunee relations. In 1794, more than 1,600 Haudenosaunee representatives met with Colonel Timothy Pickering, the U.S. representative selected by President George Washington, for a treaty council in Canandaigua, New York. The negotiations were mediated by trusted Quaker representatives selected by the Seneca. The treaty gave land claimed by the U.S. in the problematic Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1784 back to the Haudenosaunee and set new land boundaries agreed to by both nations. The treaty also recognized the sovereignty of the Six Nations to govern and set their own laws and firmly established a goal of "perpetual" peace between both nations. It was signed on November 11th, 1794 by sachems representing the Grand Council of the Six Nations. Notable attendants included Cornplanter (Seneca), Handsome Lake (Seneca), and Red Jacket (Seneca) who had distinguished themselves as sachems and leaders during the political negotiations and battles of previous years.

    Although the Canandaigua Treaty has been violated many times by the U.S. government and its citizens, it is still recognized as an active political agreement by both the Haudenosaunee and the United States. In observance of the original treaty promises the U.S. distributes $10,000 worth of goods to the Six Nations each year in recognition of Article Six, an obligation to "promote the future welfare of the Six Nations" in perpetuity. The annual Canandaigua Treaty Day Celebration on November 11th commemorates the treaty in Canandaigua, New York and serves to “polish the chain of peace and friendship” between the Haudenosaunee and the United States.

    Learn more at, and visit the Art of Wampum on display at The History Center for the month of November. 

  • Fri, November 05, 2021 5:40 PM | Anonymous

    The Haudenosaunee Confederacy is a matrilineal society organized by clans. Traditionally each clan is represented and led by a woman known as a clanmother. The Women’s Nomination Belt codifies the right of the clanmothers to nominate the chiefs who represent each Nation at Haudenosaunee councils. Clanmothers also gave names to newborn, and adopted clan members and were the heads of longhouses.

    Each Nation within the Haudensosaunee has a different number of clans. The clans are named after animals from three elemental categories: water, air, and land. For the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' (Cayuga) Bear, Wolf, and Deer clans represent land, the Turtle, Eel, and Beaver clans represent water, and the Snipe, Heron, and Hawk clans represent air. Clan members are considered relatives even if they come from different Nations. For example, a Bear clan member of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' and a Bear clan member of the Seneca (Onöndowa'ga:') would consider each other family. The current Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' Nation council and clanmothers represent six clans: Deer, Bear, Wolf, Turtle, Snipe, and Heron.

    Replica weaving of the Women's Nomination Belt by Rich Hamell

    Visit the ‘Art of Wampum’ on display at the Tompkins Center for History & Culture for the month of November 2021.

    Explore for a virtual version of the exhibit, and additional learning materials.

    Explore for more information about Indigenous history in Tompkins County.

  • Wed, November 03, 2021 4:57 PM | Anonymous

    Gabriel: A Novel of the American Civil War by Matthew J. Watros is a piece of historical fiction that follows the story of the author’s ancestor, Gabriel Ballard, and his experiences in the Union Army.

    Ballard, who lived in Dryden, New York with his family, enlisted in the army at the age of 19 in 1862. From there, he travelled south with his infantry to Georgia where he participated in the Atlanta Campaign in the spring of 1864, but not without making many stops along the way.

    Watros, basing his book off family letters, Gabriel’s personal diary entries, and other primary sources, creates a narrative that details everything from family life, love, war, trauma, death, and social issues during the Civil War. He forms topics of slavery and the true causes of the war into personal stories, never shying away from the uncomfortable sides of history. Being a veteran himself, Watros creates a layer of intensity and emotion surrounding the war that can only be explained by those with personal experience. He also includes visualizations to help the reader create a better picture of Ballard’s experiences - with maps and charts to clarify where Ballard travelled. Gabriel is sure to captivate any reader who is interested in seeing the Civil War from a more personal viewpoint, and it is a great reminder that both sides of the war had moral downfalls through today’s lens. 

    Buy Gabriel

  • Tue, September 21, 2021 3:28 PM | Anonymous

    It’s been a year in the making but the amazing volunteers for The History Center’s community digital history project, HistoryForge, have finished transcribing the 1940 U.S. Census for the City of Ithaca! These 19,730 census records mark the fifth complete census entered in HistoryForge.  HistoryForge now has all the records for the 1900-1940 Census for the City of Ithaca. All of the information for each census is fully searchable. You can search for individuals, addresses, places of birth, occupations, industries, or any of the attributes in a census at

    The 1940 Census provides an important snapshot of our community at a pivotal time. It captured information about how the Great Depression impacted the American public. With many people moving to find employment, it attempted to record that migration by asking where each person had lived five years earlier. Using HistoryForge to learn more about the population of Ithaca we can see that while most (about seventy-five percent) people on the 1940 Census in Ithaca had lived here in 1935, Ithaca also attracted individuals who, five years earlier had been living in almost every state in the nation as well as a wide range of countries.

    Employment was, of course, the concern of the day, and the 1940 Census attempted to gather detailed information about employment and unemployment. Exploring industries in the 1940 Census in HistoryForge reveals some of the New Deal programs that bolstered the local economy. Ithacans worked for several local Work Projects Administration (WPA) projects including construction, soil conservation, landscaping, the State Hospital, a park project, a sewer project, and a sewing project.  Some also worked for the National Youth Administration (NYA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  

    The 1940 Census was the first census to ask questions about people’s income, as well as their highest grade of school completed. This was also the first census to include a five percent sample. Five percent of the population were asked additional questions including whether they or a close family member were a veteran and the war or military service, and whether they had a social security number or old age or railroad insurance.

    The 1950 Census won’t be released by the National Archives until next April. (Watch this space for an exciting exhibit/event surrounding this release!) In the meantime, HistoryForge volunteers have started transcribing the 1880 Census. The next year of transcription will give us a compelling new information for exploring Ithaca: 1880 went deep into the history of the village, while 1950 brings us closer to the modern city. The HistoryForge team is also interested in expanding beyond the City of Ithaca! To do this, we need volunteers from local communities in Tompkins County who want to transcribe the census from their town. If you would like to help in this project in any way fill out a volunteer form: and check our upcoming Virtual HistoryForge Transcription dates.

    Written by HistoryForge Project Coordinator - Eve Snyder (

  • Fri, August 27, 2021 1:43 PM | Anonymous

    The mid 1950s through the late 1960s was a tumultuous and violent time for civil rights workers in the US. Freedom Riders were attacked as they tried to integrate inter-city busses. Black churches were bombed, and peaceful protestors were attacked by police with fire hoses and snarling dogs. This era was also renowned for powerful civil rights organizations across America, especially in the deep south, where such notables as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worked for equality for Black Americans.

    In Ithaca, the struggle for equal rights was spearheaded by the Council for Equality, Ithaca's own home-grown, grass-roots social justice organization. Founded in 1959, the organization did their work here until the late 1960s. They were an education and advocacy organization, working to inform the larger public about what life was really like for local African Americans, and, more importantly, to advocate for them. According to their mission statement, they were a "bi-racial, private, non-profit organization," which was concerned to "study, improve, and change discrimination on whatever level it is found in Ithaca." Their membership was a diverse blend of young and old, Black and White, women and men. Some were affiliated with Cornell and Ithaca College, but there were members of a local carpenters' union, at-home mothers, teachers, and more. Their work was done through their committees, primarily employment, education, and housing. At its height, the Council for Equality had more than 200 members. Beverly J. Martin and James L. Gibbs were two of its greatest luminaries. Their work impacted the lives of African Americans in Ithaca and beyond.

    The History Center has created a brief video highlighting the history of this significant organization and it will premiere on Saturday September 11th at 10:30 on Facebook and our YouTube channel. Join us remotely for a watch party with archivist Donna Eschenbrenner. She will be available afterwards by Zoom for questions and conversation.


  • Fri, July 16, 2021 3:47 PM | Anonymous

    William Higinbotham

    by Rebecca Doyle

    William A. Higinbotham was born on October 25, 1910 in Bridgeport, Connecticut to Robert and Dorothy Higinbotham. His father’s position as a Presbyterian minister brought the Higinbotham family to Caledonia, New York in 1917, where they would live for the next 14 years. William was interested in science from a young age. He enjoyed building radios as a teenager and excelled in his high school physics class. At Williams College, he majored in physics and graduated in 1932, and, unable to find a job afterwards due to the Great Depression, he began graduate work at Cornell University. In 1937, his father died of a heart attack and by 1940, William’s widowed mother, 2 brothers, and sister joined him in Ithaca. William worked as a technician in the Cornell Physics Department but soon left for MIT, where he was invited to work at the Radiation Laboratory. While there, he designed radar display technology for military use during World War II. 

    Reverend Robert Higinbotham, William’s father

    In 1943, he was recruited to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory. As leader of the Electronic Group in the Weapon Physics Division, William developed timing circuits for the first atomic bomb.  In 1945, he witnessed the Trinity Test—the first drop of an atomic bomb in history. This experience, combined with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the loss of two of his brothers to the war, took a huge emotional toll on him. Along with other Manhattan Project atomic scientists concerned about the destructive power of what they had helped create, Higinbotham co-founded the Federation of American Scientists later that year. Some of the group’s successes were the defeat of the May-Johnson Bill, which would have kept nuclear research under military control, and the passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which established the US Atomic Energy Commission, a civilian-run regulatory agency that strove to protect public health and the environment from the effects of nuclear radiation. William Higinbotham held leadership positions in the Federation of American Scientists throughout the rest of his life.

    The Trinity test weapon and mushroom cloud

    In 1947, he began working at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, which was founded by the aforementioned Atomic Energy Commission, where he could pursue his scientific interests but remain free to lobby for nuclear nonproliferation. While there, he developed electronic equipment for particle accelerators and digital computers, but he is perhaps most famous for creating what was arguably the first video game. Brookhaven held annual visitors’ days  for the public to see the scientific work taking place there. In 1958, Higinbotham was put in charge of creating an exhibition for the lab’s Instrumentation Division, which he was the head of. He wanted to make an exhibit that would be more exciting and interactive than the usual, rather dull ones. Inspired by a computer manual’s instructions for calculating bullet and missile trajectories, he created Tennis for Two (a forerunner to Pong) in just a few days. The game was played by two players who held separate controllers and featured real-time motion on its display, both of which were major innovations. Visitors loved the game, standing in long lines to get a turn to play. Despite this success, Higinbotham never felt the need to patent Tennis for Two. If he had, the patent would have belonged to his employer, the federal government, and it was just a bit too early for video games to take off. 

    Instrumentation Division Exhibit at Brookhaven and a GIF created from a video featuring a reproduction of Tennis for Two (

    William Higinbotham remained at Brookhaven until his retirement in 1984. He served as a consultant until his death in 1994, at age 84 in Gainesville, GA. Today he is remembered lovingly as the “grandfather” of modern video games and for his devotion to the cause of nuclear arms control.

    Higinbotham family grave and final resting place of William

    Written by Rebecca Doyle - HistoryForge Intern - Spring 2021


    Bibliography and Image Sources:

  • Thu, May 27, 2021 1:07 PM | Anonymous

    The History Center in Tompkins County Announces New Exhibit:

    Breaking Barriers: Women's Lives & Livelihoods

    Ithaca, NY - The History Center in Tompkins County (THC) is excited to announce its new exhibit "Breaking Barriers: Women's Lives & Livelihoods" will open July 2nd 2021. This exhibit has multiple components: a temporary (July 2021-February 2022) physical display of six interactive exhibits at The History Center Exhibit Hall on the Ithaca Commons, selected virtual exhibits available at, and public access to selected interviews from the Women's Voices in Tompkins County: Oral History Collection. The physical and virtual exhibits will open to the public on Friday, July 2nd following two weeks of closure in the museum (June 13th-31st) for the installation of the new displays. Due to COVID-19 we are limiting the number of visitors in the museum and encourage guests to make reservations in advance at

    "Women continue to break ceilings and have continuously increased representation across communities. While we appreciate the obstacles they have overcome and the achievements women have made, it is important to look back and explore the stories of those women who have been overlooked. This exhibit celebrates the lesser-known stories of these pioneers in hopes of empowering those who visit.” - THC Curator & Design Specialist Cindy Kjellander-Cantu

    Breaking Barriers: Women's Lives & Livelihoods explores the lives of women in public and private spheres across the centuries through six interactive exhibits: Haudenosaunee Influence on Women's Rights (Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation), The Overlooked History of Women Working (HistoryForge), Serial Style (Wharton Studio Museum and Cornell Fashion + Textile Collection), Women's Social Clubs and Organizations, and Overcoming Barriers to Vote: Woman Suffrage Movement in Tompkins County. These exhibits will connect visitors with the rich and varied lives of women in Tompkins County through exploring the stories, artifacts, and community legacies they left behind. Learn more at

    The Breaking Barriers exhibit is presented and made possible by Chloe Capital. Despite recent progress, less than 2% of female funders receive venture capital investment. Chloe Capital is investing in the next generation of women entrepreneurs and innovators across the United States. The company's mission to decrease gender and diversity gaps in entrepreneurship and venture capital is a natural fit to celebrate women changemakers in Tompkins County. Find out more about Chloe Capital at

    The History Center in Tompkins County is proud to partner with the following women-owned businesses in Tompkins County to support this exhibit: AdrinA·DietraHound & MarePickleball ManiaThe Second Knob, and Hopshire Farm & Brewery

    About The History Center in Tompkins County

    The History Center in Tompkins County (THC) 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. THC 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, a collaborative visitor center and event space on the Ithaca Commons home to twelve independent non-profits and community organizations.


    Please share and forward the press release and Digital Press Kit to your community contacts and local organizations to help us get the word out!


  • Thu, May 20, 2021 4:28 PM | Anonymous

    The History Center in Tompkins County will continue to require all  visitors to wear masks in accordance with the building policies of the Tompkins Center for History & Culture. Because our museum is in a shared building with 12 other local non-profits, and our visitors include families with young children who do not yet qualify for the vaccine, and visitors who may be medically ineligible for the vaccine, we will continue to require masks inside the building for the continued safety of all our visitors, volunteers, and staff. We will not be checking the vaccination status of visitors and appreciate the continued support of our community and out of town visitors in following our building guidelines by wearing their masks while visiting the museum. 


    We are grateful that our organization was able to re-open the Exhibit Hall in August of 2020, and has been open to the public for over 10 months with strict safety measures in place to ensure safe and worry free visits for everyone! We are happy to announce that we are now accepting bookings for groups of up to 20 people, which can be reserved at during any of our open appointment slots. Please review our up to date Health & Safety Protocols and practices at We will continue to monitor both state guidance and local practice and will evaluate and update policies as needed. Any questions may be directed to Ben Sandberg at

    Thank you for supporting The History Center and continuing to explore and engage in local history with us!


    [IMAGE DESCRIPTION] Square image with navy, light blue, and yellow frame. Text reads: Mask Update - Masks are still required inside the Tompkisn Center for History & Culture. Image of the Ithaca Kitty wearing a blue surgical mask with a speech bubble reads "Thank you for supporting worry free visits for everyone!" with a seven-toed pawprint. History Center and Tompkins Center for History & Culture logos in bottom right corner. 


    #TompkinsHistory #MuseumsforMasks #Covid19 #NYtough #IthacaisOpen #IthacaNY #IthacaCommons #DowntownIthaca #TompkinsCounty #NYhistory #NYmuseum

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