By Charley Githler
Tompkins County is getting ready to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of its creation in April 1817. Local organizations are planning dozens of events and exhibits to celebrate this milestone year.
When western New York was being settled 200 years ago, the boundaries of counties and the municipalities in them were subject to frequent revision. The creation of Tompkins County was part of the rapid transformation of this part of the country in the decades after the American Revolution. Change and possibility were in the air and, if one sets aside the fate of the indigenous population and the sometimes heedless transfiguration of the land, it’s a remarkable story.
The County Forms
When New York’s constitution was ratified in 1777, it recognized the 14 counties that had been in existence since the early colonial days when the colony of New York had moved from Dutch to British control. Over time, through acts of the legislature and as settlement moved westward, some 48 more counties would be created. Generally, when an area had about 1,000 residents, a new county would be carved out of existing counties. Tompkins County’s turn came in 1817, when it was created from pieces of Cayuga and Seneca counties. Over time, the lines delineating the county would be adjusted, as other counties would in turn take from us, but the boundaries as we know them today became settled by 1854 and have not changed since.
A deal was made. The state legislature provided that Ithaca, then a village of barely 500 people, would be the county seat, but that in the event a building site for a county courthouse and $7,000 to build the structure could not be obtained, that the new county was to be re-annexed to Cayuga and Seneca counties. The conditions were quickly met, though, thanks in no small part to Simeon DeWitt, who donated the land. (That deed was the first to be recorded in Tompkins County.) Within a year, a relatively simple wooden ‘Hall of Justice’ was constructed, of colonial design, with a bell tower on the south end facing DeWitt Park, and Tompkins County was in business. The building contained a court, and a jail, and the new county boasted a judge, a surrogate, a sheriff, a district attorney, a county clerk and a board of supervisors.
What’s in the Name?
Daniel Tompkins, for whom our county is named, never actually set foot in Tompkins County. Having recently served as governor of New York during the War of 1812, he had just been elected James Monroe’s vice president when the county was created. It was a propitious time to have good name recognition.
Only recently a frontier outpost, Ithaca was still something of a raw village in 1817, with a reputation for mud and rowdy behavior. Still, it was the natural choice for county seat. The embargo in the War of 1812 had made Ithaca a transit point for the gypsum supply near the Onondaga salt works, suddenly bringing population and commerce. Furthermore, it was a crossroads of the Catskill Turnpike (basically Route 79 and State/MLK Jr. Street) and the Ithaca-Owego turnpike (basically Aurora Street and Route 96 south of Ithaca). There was already a post office, a three-story hotel, taverns, stores, mills, a tannery, dozens of frame houses and a busy waterfront.
The signs of solid respectability were soon in coming, too. The Bank of Newburgh bought a lot for a branch office in 1815. The sum of $201.50 was set aside for the support of paupers in 1817. There was regular stagecoach and mail service. And there were already at least two weekly newspapers at the time of the county’s formation. The August 24, 1819, American Journal contained a posted notice from merchants Thomson & Porter requesting that “all persons whose accounts are of more than 3 months standing settle them by 1st of October by cash, cattle or produce.” The same issue instructed members of the 183rd Regiment of New York Militia to “rendezvous at J. Grant’s coffee-house [which later served as the village meeting hall and voting place] in the village of Ithaca on Tuesday the 31st of August at 9 o’clock.” In 1819, just 12 years after Robert Fulton’s Clermont ran up the Hudson, the Cayuga Steamboat Company was organized to run steamboat service on Cayuga Lake. They’d be up and running within the year.
Remains of the Old Days
It was a long time ago and a different era, but remnants remain in Ithaca. The layout of the streets downtown remains the same, and a few of the early buildings are still with us. The Barr Building at 211 E. Seneca St. dates from 1815. The Bank of Newburgh Building, now at 106 E. Court St. dates from 1820, as does the Beebe-Halsey House at 308 N. Cayuga St. The 1854 “Old Courthouse” on Court Street is on the site of the original courthouse built in 1818. These echoes from the past are the focus of many of this year’s bicentennial celebrations.
Tompkins County, the same 492 square miles, now has a population of approximately 101,000, and its various historical organizations are planning quite a number of events to celebrate the bicentennial. Historic Ithaca is celebrating Tompkins County’s bicentennial by partnering with the county municipal historians to offer a series of “walk & talks” highlighting hidden treasures of the built environment throughout the county, on Saturdays this summer. Three are already set and more will be added to the calendar soon – check www.historicithaca.org or call (607) 273-6633 to learn more.
The History Center will be hosting an exhibit called Altered Landscapes – Preserved Landscapes. Looking at both the natural and built environments, it will highlight how Tompkins County has changed, and stayed the same, over the centuries, and will be the culmination of a special project with TC3 multi-media students.
The History Center has a link to resources related to the bicentennial at thehistorycenter.net/tompkins-countys-bicentennial, which includes a link to the Tompkins County Bicentennial Commission’s numerous bicentennial activities and exhibits. Also in the works are a new quilt based on one in The History Center’s archives, talks at municipalities around historic structures, heritage tours that focus on the county’s history, WHCU radio spots, and much more to come.