By Charley Githler
Tompkins County was formed from pieces carved out of Seneca and Cayuga counties in 1817, with Ithaca as its county seat. Yet to the visitor of what was then a small but boisterous hamlet, such a lofty designation might have seemed downright shocking.
Ithaca is known today for its festivals, institutions of higher learning, and stately 19th century architecture contrasted hard by shiny new glass buildings. There are art house movie theaters, stores that specialize in artisanal olive oils and great restaurants. One could be persuaded that the city is a center of culture and learning.
Ithaca’s reputation 200 years ago was considerably different. A village of a few hundred, known for brawling, intemperate alcohol consumption, rowdiness, licentiousness and myriad other forms of “wickedness,” it had earned a nickname to reflect its notoriety… “Sodom.”
It was geopolitics that gave Ithaca its first commercial boost. The embargo of all things British in the War of 1812 cut off the supply of Nova Scotia gypsum – a chalky lime compound used in fertilizer and plaster – making Ithaca a key transit point for the gypsum supply from near the Onondaga salt works. Great quantities of gypsum were being floated down Cayuga Lake to Ithaca, where it would then be carted by land to Owego and the Susquehanna River. Suddenly, a horde of transient boatmen, carpenters, teamsters, coopers, wheel-makers and other miscellaneous laborers, sometimes as many as 200 of them, descended on Ithaca.
It had been a quiet rural hamlet, only very recently a frontier outpost. The Catskill Turnpike (basically Route 79) came through the village, the Ithaca-Owego turnpike (basically Route 96 south of Ithaca) had opened in 1811, and there was a post office, a hotel, taverns, stores, mills and a tannery. Still, it was a village of only 400 in 1816, and as much of what is now downtown continued to be swamp, roads were muddy and there was frequent flooding. Pigs roamed freely and smoke from potash fires often hung low in the valley. There were still a number of Native American burial mounds. And yet, there were houses, and businesses, and hopes for the future. It was a village only starting to find its identity and the arrival of a couple of hundred footloose, temporary laborers wreaked havoc on the peace and quiet of the community.
According to the History of the First Presbyterian Church of Ithaca, “This influx of boatmen and teamsters, who were engaged in their work seven days in the week, with no intervening day of rest, and very little if any religious influence exerted upon them, soon made the place as proverbial for its wickedness as it was for its rapid growth and the increase of its business facilities.”
Resident Peleg Cheeseborough remembered those early days many years later.
“A common amusement was to get two persons drunk or sober seated on the floor of Gere’s Tavern [at the corner of Aurora and Seneca Streets] with feet braced against each other and with hands clasped to a stick to see who could draw the other up,” Cheeseborough said. “While thus engaged one or more pails of water would be thrown at them and with ropes properly arranged the two persons would be entangled and drawn out doors for further applications of water. The town was one of the hardest possible, and very commonly known as Sodom.”
With the only public officer in the village being the postmaster, the more respectable elements of village society banded together into a de facto police force, judge and jury called The Moral Society. At first, drunks and brawlers were placed in a crate, without the niceties of due process, where they would be doused with water. More serious offenders might be made to run a gauntlet of local men on either side, who rained blows on the prisoner. As time went on, the Society’s net was cast to include traveling patent medicine salesmen, braggarts, loudmouths, eventually price-gouging store-owners and inevitably non-conformists in general.
A turning point came in February 1816, with the arrival of Rev. William Wisner. A charismatic presence in a community of a few hundred can have a powerful influence, and it seems Rev. Wisner was just such a presence. Putting a lid on the forces of evil was slow going at first.
On his arrival, the church “had twenty nominal members, of whom five were intemperate [drunks], and some others were so grossly immoral that six of the male members and two females had to be cut off from the communion of God’s people.” An angry mob tore down the schoolhouse where he preached. When the meetings then moved to a barn, the doors were nailed shut, with the congregation inside. Still, in ones and twos and then family by family, the community was being transformed into lawfulness and respectability.
At the same time, in 1817, Tompkins County was created, and in exchange for recognition as the new county seat, residents raised the money to build a small, wooden Greek Revival courthouse and jail on Mill Street (now Court Street). An Ithaca newspaper had recently started, and the Bank of Newburgh opened a branch office. By 1818 the population had grown to over 600, and Ithaca was shedding its rowdy reputation. The village was on its way to becoming an estimable transportation and business center, and within a very few years, its rough and rowdy reputation would be a fading memory.
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This article is part of a series looking back at the history of Tompkins County.