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Center History

The History of The History Center in Tompkins County

The History Center is one of Tompkins County's earliest organized institutions, and has lived a somewhat rough and tumble life since its inception in 1863.

On June 18, 1863, a group of prominent Ithacans gathered in the law offices of Douglass Boardman and Francis M. Finch at 91 Owego St. to discuss a pet idea of Ezra Cornell -- that of founding an historical society.

Recognizing the "necessity and utility" of such an association, the assembly appointed a committee chaired by Professor S.G. Williams to outline a constitution for the proposed organization. This resulted a short time later in the establishment of the Ithaca Historical and Scientific Society for the stated purpose of "collecting, preserving, and diffusing historical and scientific knowledge." Ezra Cornell was appointed the organization's first President (pictured left).

Information on this early organization is sketchy, although it is known that it ceased to function sometime in 1864.

Fast forward to October 1899, when 46 ladies and gentlemen met in the home of Professor and Mrs. F.D. Boynton to entertain the notion of resurrecting, in some form, the old Historical and Scientific Society. This expression of interest resulted in the formation of the DeWitt Historical Society on Nov. 28 of that year. It was named for Simeon DeWitt, a prominent early Ithacan and surveyor general of New York State.

This new organization collected materials relating to local history, placed markers at a number of historical sites in the area, and held monthly meetings with discussions and lectures. This group continued in existence until early in 1905.

Even in the face of two false starts, the notion of a local historical society in Tompkins County seems to have had enduring appeal. In January of 1934, a group of 12 local citizens met at the residence of Mrs. George R. Williams to discuss the possibility of reorganizing the defunct DeWitt Historical Society. In May of that year, a committee was appointed -- chaired by Romeyn Berry -- to coordinate the effort. In February of 1935, the Society was formally re-established to "encourage research into local history and to preserve objects and documents of historical significance."

At first, housed in a single room in a downtown commercial building, the reincarnated Society collected books and documents, mounted small exhibits, and published local history articles in The Ithaca Journal. In 1936, the county offered the Society space in the County Courthouse on Tioga Street (pictured left). This was followed in 1943 by moving to the old Tompkins County Courthouse on Court Street (below).

The 1940s and the '50s saw the expansion of the organization and the formalization of many of its activities and programs. This culminated in recognition by the state of New York in 1947, when the DeWitt Historical Society obtained a Provisional Charter from the Education Department, followed in 1952 by an Absolute Charter.

Growth and expansion continued in the 1960s; the more organized and refined collecting was continued, a series of short books on local history topics was inaugurated, and a quarterly newsletter was begun. In 1973, the historical society moved yet again -- this time to the historic Clinton House (below) and hired its first professionally trained director. The organization grew steadily during these years.

In the spring of 1993, the organization moved to its current location, in the old Dean of Ithaca Building on East State Street, recently remade into the Gateway Center complex. In this completely renovated and substantially larger space, the Society added a new credential to its name and created the "Tompkins County Museum."

After 10 years of progress in its State Street home, the organization catapulted itself into yet another phase of change: this time, to expand its awareness in the community and face head-on the financial strains caused by decreases in funding from state and federal sources. This led to the re-birth of the organization at The History Center in Tompkins County.

The story of The History Center has always been one of growth and change. By periodically re-evaluating the community's needs, as well as its own role in the community, The History Center continues be a central component to the cultural health and well-being of Tompkins County.

We moved in February 2019 from our Gateway Center location (pictured below) to the Tompkins Center for History and Culture. The renovated former Tompkins Trust building at 110 North Tioga Street houses the Downtown Visitor Center, Community Arts Partnership's gallery, and several other non-profit organizations. The exhibit hall will open May 10 and the Cornell Local History Research Library will open May 21.


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