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The DeWitt Historical Society was formed in 1935 as a revival of two earlier historical societies (1863-64 and 1899-1905) based in Ithaca New York. The first, the Ithaca Historical & Scientific Society, was started by Ezra Cornell, and lasted less than two years. The DeWitt Historical Society was formed in 1899 to promote Tompkins County history, and was named in honor of Simeon DeWitt, a prominent early Ithacan and city planner. This society met to hear papers, erect commemorative plaques, and started a collection of books and objects that was housed at the public library after the society disbanded in 1905.
In 1935 members of prominent local families revived the society "to encourage research into local history and preserve objects and documents of historical significance."
The society collected locally relevant objects, books, and documents, mounted exhibits, and published articles in the Ithaca Journal. It was housed in a room in a local bank before moving to the county courthouse in 1936, and has received support from the county ever since. From 1943-1973 the society, located in the old courthouse in downtown Ithaca, was open to the public on a regular basis, and sometimes had paid staff. Almost the entire collection was on display and could be handled by visitors. The Society collected heavily over those years, both items relating to Tompkins County history specifically, and more generalized artifacts. It published short books on local history and a quarterly newsletter all on its own press.
Video from 2018 featuring former Executive Director Rod Howe
In 1973 the Society moved from the old courthouse to the recently restored Clinton House (thereby tripling it's public space), and hired its first professionally trained director. Since then, the Society grew steadily; mounting several temporary exhibitions a year, and publishing articles on local history. During this time it refined it's collection policy to more accurately reflect the Society's original focus on Ithaca specific materials, to Tompkins County history more broadly. In attempting to do a better job of interpreting local history, the Society in the late 1970's and early '80's chose several areas of archival concentration: immigration, county artists, businesses, occupations and industries, and 20th century social history.
In March of 1992 the Society closed its doors at the Clinton House in order to move into the former Dean of Ithaca Building (now known as the Gateway Building) at 401 East State St. From 1992-1993 this space was completely renovated to serve as a museum and exhibition space. Doors opened to the public on March 19th, 1994.
For a few years the DeWitt Historical Society operated the Tompkins County Museum from the Gateway Building. In September 2004 the DeWitt Historical Society changed it's name to The History Center in Tompkins County to more accurately reflect its changing identity as a historical society, research space, and public museum space.
After more than two decades at the Gateway Building on East State Street, The History Center in Tompkins County relocated to the brand new Tompkins Center for History & Culture (110 North Tioga Street) on the Ithaca Commons. A heritage tourism center which opened to the public in May of 2019 with 11 partner organizations in the building. The building had been the former home of Tompkins Trust Company for many decades and was fully renovated to create unique spaces for each of the founding partner organizations.
This new space allowed for expansion of all current projects, adding an extensive Local Research Library, the Thaler/Howell Archives, and the Exhibit Hall, with regularly changing exhibits inspired by the extensive archival collections of The History Center.
The History Center in Tompkins County is thrilled to continue to connect history generation to generation, through connecting residents and researchers to our shared past through our education programs, exhibits, research opportunities, and collaborative programming.