A Look Back At … 100 years ago – Tompkins County in 1917

By Charley Githler
Tompkins Weekly

When Tompkins County was formed in April 1817, the land was still being cleared of forest and Ithaca was little more than a rough hamlet of a few hundred souls. One hundred years later, in April 1917, Tompkins County – with a population of 35,000, a little less than half of whom lived in Ithaca – was moving headlong into modernity.

Photo from The History Center in Tompkins County
The inside of Barton Hall on the Cornell campus, which served as a drill hall during WWI.

The 50 years after the Civil War saw spectacular changes, especially in what had become the City of Ithaca. There were now telephones, electric street lighting, streetcars, two railroad lines, a hospital, movie theaters, a movie studio, an airport, a sewer system, a department store, record players, and automobiles. Streets were being paved, there were paid firefighters, water was a public utility and, of course, Cornell University had been founded.
Still, Ithaca had one foot planted squarely in the 19th century. Movie stars lived in town, but most of the city’s roads were still dirt. There was a city airport, but you were just as likely to see a horse-drawn vehicle as an automobile on any given roadway. There were two overnight trains with sleeper cars to New York City, but people still raised chickens and rabbits in town, and there remained hundreds of private wells and outdoor privies within city limits. The Ithaca City Police blotter tells of instances of officers escorting gypsies to the county line. Dozens of Civil War veterans still lived in the county.
Everyday life was changing, though. Cornell was, by 1917, the city’s major employer, though there were many other businesses and industries. Ithaca was now known more as an education center than a manufacturing or transportation hub. There were two daily newspapers (plus the Cornell Daily Sun), three telephone companies (stores advertised their 4-digit phone numbers in the newspaper), seven bakers, two Turkish baths, nine pool halls, 51 grocers and 17 meat markets. The pier in Renwick (now Stewart) Park was part of a lively waterfront, with passenger steamboat service on the lake.
Ithaca was an established city, with the amenities of city life. In a time before home radios, theaters were a booming business and Ithaca had its share downtown. The 800-seat Lyceum at 113 S. Cayuga hosted mostly stage productions in 1917, as did the 1,600-seat Strand, which opened in April at 312 E. State St. The 1,300-seat Crescent Theater had opened in November 1916 and was a movie house. The building still stands at 217 N. Aurora St. and is the city’s oldest surviving movie palace structure. Around the corner at 118 E. Seneca St. was another movie house – the 1,200-seat Star Theater.
Beginning in the 1880s, there had been a surge of church construction, and within the three decades before 1917, the Greek Orthodox (1884), First Unitarian (1893), First Baptist (1890), Methodist (1909) and Immaculate Conception (1896) churches were all built downtown, each still an imposing and solid landmark in 2017. In additon, 1917 was the year the cornerstone of Calvary Baptist church was laid on North Albany Street.

Photos from The History Center in Tompkins County
Inside the Thomas-Morse Airplane factory in Ithaca.

It was also the heyday of railroad passenger service. Ithaca had two rail lines and two stations in the city (the Lehigh Valley station is currently a branch office of the Chemung Canal Trust Company near Island Health & Fitness, and the Lackawanna station is the current Ithaca bus terminal) that each provided multiple daily trains. Both lines offered direct service to New York City (Hoboken in Lackawanna’s case). In addition, the New York, Auburn and Lansing Railroad, also known as the Ithaca-Auburn Short Line, Tompkins County’s only inter-urban rail line, was still limping along in 1917. The automobile would soon drive the Short Line under, and eventually both passenger lines as well, but it was the golden age of railroad travel.
The Ithaca streetcar network was still thriving, although the tracks and cars, after 35 years of use, were showing signs of disrepair by 1917. Ridership of close to 5,000 people a day would soon be reduced by automobiles and bus service, and the company (Ithaca Traction Corporation) would be in receivership by 1924. Still, in 1917, 5 cents bought a ride on the basic loop (from the Lehigh Valley train station through Cornell campus via State Street, to Cayuga Heights and back to State by way of Tioga Street) with cars running approximately every 40 minutes.
By 1917, Ithaca’s Fire Company, with both motorized (since 1912) and horse-drawn vehicles, dozens of hydrants and a system of fire alarm boxes, had modernized.
The city had taken over the private water system in 1904, making it a public utility. Treatment improvements, virtually nonexistent before that, were quick in coming, using a sand filtration system, sedimentation basins and chlorination. In 1905, water metering was put in place.
The modern world was hardly ubiquitous, though. For many people, the 20th century was slow in coming. This was the decade in which many houses in the city got electricity, but it was by no means 100 percent. Plenty of homes in the city still had no central heating and used coal-oil or kerosene lamps. The iceman still had customers and came twice a week.
There was much that would have been familiar to residents from decades earlier.
Every day at 11 a.m., a steam whistle from the pump house on Lake Street broadcast the weather forecast to the city (one long blast meant fair weather, two long blasts meant rain or snow). The whistle also blew every day at noon. Drug stores had soda counters. Men and women wore hats and laundry was hung out to dry. Boys loafed at the train stations in the west end of town.
Nonetheless, Ithaca was as modern as any city its size, partly because of the presence of thousands of Cornell University students, partly because of the existence of the movie industry in town.
In fact, the most exciting aspect of Ithaca in 1917 might have been the presence of Wharton Studios. Even in those early days, movies had an enticing whiff of disrepute, no doubt the legacy of the general notoriety of theater people. The Wharton Brothers Movie Studio leased a 45-acre portion of Renwick Park, including several buildings, and had been in the business of producing movies (three- and five-reelers) since 1914. It meant a steady stream of stars came to town and stayed for various lengths of time while filming, including Lionel Barrymore, Harry Houdini, Pearl White and Irene Castle. The studio used local venues – Renwick Park, Cayuga Lake, Cornell University, and downtown Ithaca – as open-air sets. The newspapers often published the locations where filming was expected and there was usually a small crowd of spectators. There were opportunities for extras, too.
“The movie makers were all over the place at various times,” remembered one resident. “In the morning a scene was planned, and if the light and weather was correct, out would go the actors and crew.”

Photo from The History Center in Tompkins County
Military exercises on the Cornell Arts Quad in 1917.

Cornell University had enjoyed a recent growth spurt to 5,000 students (up from 1,870 in 1900) and there had been a great deal of recent construction on campus, including Bailey Hall (1913), most of the Veterinary College (1913), Risley Hall (1913), Rand Hall (1912), Goldwin Smith Hall (1906) and Rockefeller Hall (1906). Schoellkopf Field on campus replaced Percy Field (where Ithaca High School is today) as the football and baseball venue for the university.
Five years earlier, Cornell had belatedly begun to provide on-campus housing for its students, though most still lived in frat houses or rooming houses in Collegetown. The university, then as now, lent a certain energy and vitality to Ithaca when it was in session. Though cars were no longer a novelty, automobile traffic was more noticeable during the school year, and in those days the students came downtown for social activities and shopping.
In 1917, Tin Pan Alley and piano sheet music were still the driving forces of American popular music. Victrola sales at Lent’s Music on North Aurora Street were increasing, though most middle-class homes still had a piano. Song hits that year included “For Me and My Gal,” “Over There” and “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” and while piano sheet music sales were healthy, recorded music was by then big business, too. Most notably, “Livery Stable Blues,” widely considered to be the first commercial jazz recording, was released in March and became an overnight sensation.
There is a temptation to romanticize the past, but the truth is that life was often a struggle for poorer families a century ago, and there was a decided hierarchy of neighborhoods in Ithaca.
The easternmost blocks of the Central neighborhood tended to house the wealthier residents. East Hill and Cayuga Heights had been subdivided but were only just starting to be developed in 1917. Other neighborhoods – the Northside, Southside and particularly the West End, were less fancy. West End homes shared space with businesses, warehouses, the Inlet and the railroad tracks. Flooding was a yearly problem, often still accompanied by outbreaks of typhoid. There had been a polio epidemic in 1916. And, despite some efforts to clean up the area, the region along the Inlet known as the “Rhine” – occupied by “squatters, drifters, poachers and canal people” – persisted.
Even the townships of Tompkins County, though still fundamentally rural and agricultural in nature, had seen change. Rural free mail delivery had come to every farm in the towns after the turn of the century, and all the villages had telephone service. Though automobile ownership was still a luxury for most, there were some who had bought Model Ts, and the sense of isolation was melting away. Electrification was still years away, though, for almost all Tompkins County farms.
Of course, it was in the first week of April 1917 that the United States entered World War I. It would ultimately claim the lives of 43 Tompkins County men and bring about long-lasting social, political and economic changes before it was over in November of the following year.
The short-term changes brought on by the declaration of war were indeed astonishing.
President Wilson signed the congressional declaration of war on April 6, and within a week 575 Cornell undergraduates had registered for military service. By April 17, the Cornell Daily Sun was covering President Wilson’s proclamation that failure to report treasonable activities would itself be considered an act of treason. On May 1, the Ithaca Daily News was reporting that the federal government had taken “control of all wire service” and that the War Department was censoring all telegraph and telephone lines. The September 27 Cornell Daily Sun reported the roundup of 100 German aliens who were to be held without bail. In the same issue was Rothschild Bros. Department store’s now-daily advertisement that it carried all manner of uniforms.
The Selective Service Act, enacted on May 18, required all men ages 21-31 to register for the draft on June 5. A total 1,500 Tompkins County men reported that day to 12 election districts and filled out an 11-question form.
On Cornell’s campus, students, faculty and administrators signed a petition asking the U.S. War Department to establish an aviation ground school at Cornell. The petition was granted and the U.S. Army School of Military Aeronautics at Cornell University was born. Cornell became one of six universities to host a ground school.
Schoellkopf Hall, adjacent to the former Alumni Field, initially served as a barracks, but applicants to the ground schools – one needed only to show up to be admitted – grew beyond the originally allocated 25 students to 320 by September. And so the cadets moved their quarters to the new Armory and Drill Hall, built in 1915. (In 1940, the building was renamed Barton Hall.) Uniforms and military parades became a common sight almost overnight.
Including alumni, 6,850 Cornellians would serve in World War I, of whom 237 were killed. Cornell provided 4,598 commissioned officers to the war effort, more than any other institution, including West Point. Cornellians earned at least 526 decorations and citations during the war.
The war meant jobs, too. The Ithaca Board of Trade had invited the Thomas Brothers Aeroplane Company to relocate from Bath, NY, and set up shop on Brindley Street three years earlier. (The building is still there, labeled “Aeroplane Factory.”) The company’s sturdy T-2 Trainer biplane became the foundation of their fast-growing business, and they would merge with Morse Chain in 1917 and become a major source of warplanes.
A hundred years ago, Tompkins County was in an America when the life expectancy was in the 50s, a minority of people finished high school, and the great majority of births still took place at home. The 19th century lingered in many ways, and even in the City of Ithaca, the rural world was just down the road. It was a nation on the brink of going to war, though, and the accelerating pace of the changes of the previous 50 years would be eclipsed by the transformations of the next 50.