Welcome! The History Center is requesting that all visitors continue to wear masks inside the Tompkins Center for History & Culture. Our visitors include young audiences and others who are unable to be vaccinated. We appreciate your respect and awareness in following our Health & Safety Protocols to keep all our visitors safe. 


<< First  < Prev   1   2   3   Next >  Last >> 
  • 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

  • Fri, April 16, 2021 6:28 PM | Anonymous

    Mabel Webb Van Dyke (1870-1965) was the youngest child of Frederick and  Lucina Barton Webb. She studied voice at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music (now Ithaca College) and later became a music teacher, mother of two, foster mother of 21, Sunday School Superintendent, avid quilter, weaver, and also worked as a nurse for Dr. Benpamin (sic) F Lockwood of Brooktondale for 20 years. She lived in her family home on Level Green Road in the town of Caroline for nearly 80 years before moving in with her son-in-law in her 90's.

    Mabel was the granddaughter of Peter Webb who was born enslaved and brought to New York as a child. Peter later bought his freedom, and raised eleven children with his wife Phyllis. A 1962 Ithaca Journal article quoted Mabel as saying "I have never hesitated to talk about my grandfather...he was a slave, but from his wonderful character I can see how we have all been helped to grow." Her grandfather's manumission papers, and notes about Mabel's life and other members of the Webb family and descendants are currently on display at The History Center in Tompkins County on the Ithaca Commons.

    Learn more about the Webb family here:

    Explore more resources for Black Women's History Month here:

  • Fri, April 16, 2021 1:25 PM | Anonymous

    The National Park Service is conducting a study to determine the feasibility of designating the Finger Lakes region of New York as a National Heritage Area (NHA). This website is intended to familiarize the public with the feasibility study process and share what the study team has learned about this special place. As you scroll through these pages, please consider what you value about the Finger Lakes region and how it is a unique place within the cultural and historic fabric of the United States of America. The National Park Service study team needs your help to better understand the cultural heritage of the Finger Lakes and needs your opinions on the appropriateness of designating and managing a National Heritage Area if it is created.

    This is a hugely exciting opportunity for our region, and if passed would have long lasting impacts in 14 counties, and for hundreds of cultural and historical institutions like The History Center in Tompkins County and Historic Ithaca. The National Park Service is offering a public comment period through June 1st, and we'd like to encourage all members of the public to take some time in the next six weeks to submit a public comment on why the history and heritage of our region deserves to be highlighted and preserved. 


    History Center staff are available for brainstorming, and can offer support from our collections (contact regarding research options). 


  • Tue, March 09, 2021 8:25 PM | Anonymous

    Agda Osborn, a graduate of Cornell in 1920, was an integral part of the Ithaca community, helping to found multiple different local organizations. After graduating from Cornell, she resided with her husband, Robert Osborn, in the Osborn mansion on the corner of Buffalo and Aurora Street. Her home still stands today as the William Henry Miller Inn. In an article written in the Ithaca Journal soon after her death at age 99, she was described as being “known for her unbreakable spirit, selflessness and incredible volunteer service to Ithaca.” 

    Osborn was a member of the city’s first planning board, as well as the Common Council, and the Southside Community Council. Due to her heavy involvement in these organizations, one article stated that the downtown Commons owe their beginning to her. She also helped to start five local organizations that are still a part of the Ithaca community today: The Hangar Theatre, Family and Children’s Service, the Cornell Women’s Club, the City Federation of Women’s Organizations, and Historic Ithaca. Osborn was involved in Ithaca’s community in less official ways as well, illustrated by her annual Victorian tea which she held in her house for Ithaca High School sophomore English classes for over 20 years. Osborn’s legacy lives on today through the Agda Osborn Award which is presented annually by Ithaca’s Family & Children’s Services to a community volunteer.

    Learn more about Agda's life through the Agda S. Osborn Collection V-59-1-1 available in our archives. Contact regarding research options. 


    This article was written in February 2021 by Writing Intern Kate Delaney

  • Tue, February 23, 2021 5:19 PM | Anonymous

    Martha Van Rensselaer, was one of the first two full time female  professors hired by Cornell University. Born in 1864, she was inspired by her mother’s involvement in the suffrage movement. After working as a school commissioner in Cattaraugus County, she was passionate about improving the lives of rural farming families. This led to her accepting an invitation in 1900 from Liberty Hyde Bailey of Cornell to create a program specifically for rural women in the area. After more than 20,000 women enrolled in the program, Cornell realized how important home economics courses were and went on to offer these courses full time in 1908. Van Rensselaer worked alongside Flora Rose, who had been employed by Cornell in the previous year, to co-run the Department of Home Economics. The department flourished under their guidance and by 1919, the department expanded into the School of Home Economics. 

    Van Rensselaer worked diligently to ensure the knowledge she was teaching students at Cornell was accessible to women everywhere. She co-wrote A Manual of Home Making, in 1919 which was widely read. She also often held talks for the Ithaca community, the contents of which were often written about in the Ithaca Journal which aided in further circulating her ideas. Van Rensselaer was also very active outside of the education realm, illustrated by her work as director of the Home Conservation Division of the United States Food Administration during World War I. She was a member of the 1930 White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, which advocated for the education and health of children in the United States. Due to her involvement in so many national level organizations she was named one of the twelve most important women in America in 1923 by the @League of Women Voters.

    Back home in Ithaca, Van Rensselaer lived with her co-director, and life partner Flora Rose for 25 years until her death in 1932. Van Rensselaer and Rose’s relationship was well known, marked by one colleague's reference to them as “Miss Van Rose”. After her death, Cornell dedicated a building in the college of Human Ecology to her, and at it’s naming ceremony, Rose described Van Rensselaer as having “indomitable zeal, unswerving purpose, courage, a great interest in people and an understanding and respect for them”. 

    Learn more about her life through our Ithaca LGBTQ History Walking Tour.


    This article was written in February 2021 by Writing Intern Kate Delaney

  • Thu, February 04, 2021 8:15 PM | Anonymous

    In a community famous for its educators, Beverly Jane Martin was a standout. Respected teacher, principal, community leader, and social justice warrior, Beverly Martin lived all her life in the same house on Second Street in Ithaca. She attended the Ithaca City Schools and received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Cornell, the latter in Elementary Education. Upon graduation she began teaching 6th grade at Central Elementary School, the start of a long, illustrious career spanning 36 years. Ms. Martin eventually served there as principal, and later became Director of Affirmative Action for the district, a position that was expanded to Director of Affirmative Action and Intercultural Relations Services. She was a member of numerous local and national organizations, including Club Essence and the Council for Equality, and was a lifetime member of the NAACP and the National Urban League. She served on the boards of a variety of community organizations, such as GIAC, the Southside Community Center, and United Way of Tompkins County. Ms. Martin was the recipient of many local and national awards for her dedicated service to education, and in 1991 received the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission Award. She was beloved by her students and was an influential mentor to several young teachers embarking on their careers.

    In 1992, the year before she died, Central Elementary School was renamed the Beverly J. Martin Elementary School in her honor. When accepting this well-deserved tribute, she said, “To have a school named after you in your lifetime really takes your breath away.”


    Explore Black history in Tompkins County and learn about leaders and innovators of color from our shared history. 


    Research assistant to The History Center in Tompkins County, Louise Matosich wrote a Then & Now column for the Ithaca Journal in 2007 remembering her friend Beverly. Read for a personal account and joyful memories of Beverly J. Martin. Originally published Saturday, February 24th 2007. 

  • Mon, February 01, 2021 8:00 AM | Anonymous

    Of all the kinds of local history that we preserve at The History Center, one of theTwo small black and white images of a young black woman working at a desk. Images are of Dorothy Bliss working at the DeWitt Historical Society in the 1950's. more interesting ones is our own. We document the work we've done, and, when we can, the people who have come before us. So we were especially delighted when a former colleague, Dorothy Bliss, emailed last year asking if we wereinterested in a donation of her records from her time here at The History Center in the mid-20th century. She had collected Ithaca Journal articles, photographs and other memorabilia, and also offered a brief narrative introduction to an autobiography she was writing. We were excited to receive Dorothy's materials, not only because they offer insights into a long-past era, but because Dorothy is African American, and her observations on race relations in mid-20th century Ithaca are invaluable.

    Dorothy Simmons Bliss (Mrs. Wayne Bliss) started working at the DeWitt Historical Society (as we used to be known) in 1956 as a secretary to the curator, typing, taking dictation, mimeographing materials, and cataloging and labeling artifacts. At first she made $31.60 per month, a modest amount which gradually increased. At the time she was a wife and the mother of two young children, and she became adept at juggling the responsibilities of her family with working outside the home. On her work days, she wrote, "I would run practically all the way home during the noon hour so I could see that everything was okay with my children when they came home for lunch." In addition to her work at the DeWitt Historical Society, she took on freelance typing jobs for a variety of clients, often working for African American Cornell graduate students. Dorothy was glad for the example these high achieving scholars set for her children, and welcomed the encouragement they gave them.

    Dorothy candidly relates the struggles and indignities she suffered at the hands of her boss, as well as others. "He thought that our race was moving too fast and that I was not ready to move up to more prestigious employment. My progress was slowed." One white researcher complained about having to sit near Dorothy as she did her work. But Dorothy was determined to control her anger and maintain her dignity despite this disgraceful affront. She movingly recounts her reaction: "I swelled up inside and didn't cry in her presence. But oh dear what does one do?" She then shares a source of strength and comfort: "So many have described having to bear up under insulting situations to put food on the table. Maya Angelou would write a poem entitled 'Still I Rise,' published in 1978. I would like to have given it to this woman right after she made her remark to me." Dorothy's situation is emblematic of what so many Black people have faced, and echoes the cries of today's Black Lives Matter movement, as well as Black people through the ages in America. It's painful to acknowledge that The History Center (then the DeWitt Historical Society) can't claim to have been any different than other employers of the time. That our atrocious behavior wasn't unusual doesn't diminish its shame. We're grateful to Dorothy for putting a spotlight on this sordid part of our past, and we're deeply sorry for what she experienced at our supposedly enlightened institution.

    Dorothy worked here until 1960 and later went on to work at Cornell University. Last year she celebrated her 100th birthday and is currently working on her autobiography. Her materials are part of our Black History Collection, and when her autobiography is published it will be added to a Dorothy Bliss Collection.

  • Sat, January 23, 2021 2:26 PM | Anonymous

     The Balloting Book, and Other Documents Relating to the Military Bounty Lands in the State of New York, 1825 contains a frontispiece that is a map of the Military Tract as it existed in 1792. It shows the five easternmost Finger Lakes, Lots on 28 Townships laid out geometrically, and two reservations - the Onondaga Reservation at the foot of the Salt Lake and the Cayuga Reservation on either side of the north end of Cayuga Lake.  The book documents the military enlistment policies of the Continental Congress and the State of New York and the subsequent fulfillment of land grant obligations to the veterans of the Revolutionary War.

    On the fifth page one finds an “Extract from the Journal of Congress” dated September 16, 1776, relative to the formation of the Continental Army that states “eighty-eight Battalions be enlisted as soon as possible, to serve during the present war….”  It goes on to list the number of battalions expected from each of the thirteen colonies. New York was expected to raise eight battalions.  Furthermore, it states that “twenty dollars shall be given as bounty to each non-commissioned officer and private soldier, who shall enlist to serve during the present war.” In addition, it is noted, “that Congress shall make provision for granting lands…to the officers and soldiers who shall engage in the service, and continue therein to the close of the war, or until discharged by Congress.” The re-organized Continental Army of 1776 consisted of 36 battalions 768 men each, of which 640 men each were rank-and-file.  Note: The Revolutionary War enlistments therefore, began in 1776 and did not end until 1783 - seven long years of hardship and military service.

    The distribution of bounty lands was left up to each new state at the close of the war. In New York State various acts were passed beginning in 1783 that reaffirmed the State’s commitment to provide bounty lands, but they did not specify where those lands would be.  At one point in time, lands in the Adirondacks were proposed, but these lands were rejected as “unfit for settler agriculture.”  Settlers, land speculators, and the state government’s eyes of course were all on the lands west of the 1768 “Boundary Line.” This line, negotiated by Sir William Johnson with the Haudenosaunee of the Six Nations,  designated “Native Lands” to be west of the line  running up from the Susquehanna River  to follow the Unadilla River northward to the juncture of Canada Creek with Wood Creek, about eight miles west of Fort Stanwix” (present day Utica region).  The agreement was: settlement allowed to the east of the line, but trespass when on Six Nation lands to the west.  The settlement included a direct payment of over 10,000 pounds/sterling put in the hands of the Sachems of the Iroquois. The lands we are referring to, of course, are those of the central /eastern Finger Lakes. 

    A series of negotiations between the New York State government and the Six Nations took place between 1783 and 1789. These negotiations involved the State in the purchase of lands west of the “Boundary Line” from representatives of the Six Nations. Because the power to negotiate treaties with the Six Nations had been given to the Continental Congress, those negotiations have been deemed illegal by many scholars of history and are the basis for contemporary tribal land claims today.  

    By 1789, the State was ready to direct its Surveyor General, Simeon DeWitt, to complete the survey of the purchased lands, and to map them, including the demarcation of the Cayuga and Onondaga Reservations lands. This mapping then became known as the Military Tract. Records contained in the Balloting Book indicate that over 2,000 veterans were eligible to apply for a bounty land grant. The names of the eligible men are listed by the Companies and Regiments in which they served. Reading through them one can note the ethnic diversity suggested by their surnames.  Also, one can find the names of 12 “Indians” who had been given commissioned officer rank in the Continental Army and were eligible for grants each of 1200 acres or more. The tribal allegiances of these men are not specified. 

    Of course, after seven years, some veterans had died.  Others had moved on with their lives and had established themselves and their families in comfortable situations and were not interested in pioneering anew.  Many were quite willing to sell their allotment cheaply to newer arrivals or land speculators.  The rather complicated process of allotment is described in great detail in the Balloting Book.  The deeds were made out to the veteran, but could be picked up in Albany by the veteran’s designate. One can find in the section titled “The Book of Delivery” for example, our Town of Ulysses’ Abner Trimmins, receiver of Lot 2, had Dr. Reuben Frisbee pick up his deed for him.

     According to the research done in 2016 by Mary Ellen Gleason, Registrar of the Chief Taughannock Chapter of the NSDAR, some 305 men who were Revolutionary War veterans lived part of their life in Tompkins County after the Revolutionary War and many are buried in local cemeteries.  However, only about eight of these men actually took up land through the balloting procedure. The rest bought their land from “unscrupulous land speculators who had bought Lots from impoverished veterans for almost nothing.”  Do you know what Lot you are living on today?

    John Wertis is the Ulysses Town Historian

    Photo caption: The map in the Balloting Book of 1825 shows the individual lots that were drawn to distribute to veterans of the Revolutionary War.

<< First  < Prev   1   2   3   Next >  Last >> 

Physical Address

Located inside the Tompkins Center for History & Culture

110 North Tioga Street

(On the Ithaca Commons) 

Ithaca NY, 14850 USA

Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' Territory


Exhibit Hall Wednesday-Saturday 10am-5pm - CLOSED Sun-Tues

Cornell Local History Research Library & Thaler/Howell Archives - By appointment only. Please contact


Email: Refer to Contact page for individual emails, General inquiries to

Phone: 607-273-8284


Find us on social media @tompkinshistory

© Copyright 2021 The History Center in Tompkins County

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software