A Look Back At ... 50 Years In - Tompkins County in 1867

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By Charley Githler

Tompkins Weekly

Tompkins County (and its county seat Ithaca) underwent remarkable changes in the first 50 years after its formation in 1817, but it was nonetheless a time quite different from our own. The remnants of that time are still visible to the discerning eye, but with Cornell University on the brink of opening and a host of new technologies about to burst on the scene, big change lay ahead for our county in the year 1867.

The Village of Ithaca had grown into a solid and respectable community in the preceding 50 years. There was a village hall (1843), a new courthouse and jail (1854), Ezra Cornell built and donated a library on the corner of Seneca and Tioga streets (1866), there were two public elementary schools (Fall Creek and where GIAC is), two weekly newspapers, telegraph service, the Ithaca Academy (where DeWitt Mall is) and the Ithaca Gas Works (1853). There were hotels and banks, constables and a poorhouse. It was a growing manufacturing town, making clocks, cigars and paper. A train came to Ithaca every day. A passenger could be in Buffalo in 12 hours, by steamboat and rail. Well, not in the winter, but the point is that Ithaca had come a long way from being the muddy little hamlet with a hastily constructed wooden courthouse that won it the designation of “county seat” in 1817.

Yet, it was an era in many ways more like the previous century than the next one. Despite intense interest in electricity, we hadn’t yet figured out what it might be good for. In a village like Ithaca, it was a dim, smoky time of itchy eyes, dark factories and early bedtimes. Most people and businesses illuminated with candles or kerosene lanterns, but even the gas lamps of those who had connected to the Ithaca Gas Works were only as bright as a 25-watt bulb.

Horses were ubiquitous. Ithaca, with a human population of 7,000, was home to at least 1,000 horses. In the 1867 Ithaca directory, 36 citizens identified themselves as blacksmiths. There were also dozens more who were curriers, carriage and wagon-makers, teamsters, harness-makers, and those in the hack and livery businesses. Hitching posts lined downtown streets. Galloping in the downtown district could land you a $10 fine. This was before any streets were paved, though parts of State Street and some stretches of the county roads were planked. With each horse depositing gallons of urine and 20 pounds of manure each day, this equine population had an impact on sanitation, which was a problem in no way unique to Ithaca.

With mostly wooden buildings, and innumerable fireplaces, candles, lanterns and gaslights, fire was a constant threat. There were seven fire companies, including a hook and ladder company. It was still a requirement that every building have a leather bucket of water on hand for every fireplace, and there were 12 cisterns, in various states of repair and cleanliness, located at intervals downtown to be used by the fire companies when necessary.

In 1867, the Ithaca-Owego Railroad, Tompkins County’s sole rail connection, ran to, as opposed to through, Ithaca, with a time-consuming switchback arrangement on South Hill. Still, that allowed Ithaca to be an important trans-shipment point during and for a period after the Civil War, especially for Lackawanna anthracite coal. There were at least four steamboats operating full-time in season on Cayuga Lake, with hundreds of daily passengers and all manner of cargo.

In fact, shipping was probably still the most important local industry. There were at least 10 boatyards in Ithaca, many of them in the vicinity of where Brindley Street and West Seneca Street now intersect, and 38 Ithaca citizens identified themselves as “boat builders” in the village directory. Since the lake and Erie Canal system connected Ithaca to the greater world, imported goods from all over appeared in stores. Frost & Covert Grocers on State Street were able to advertise oranges and lemons for sale in July, when the steamboats were running. India rubber overshoes, Brazil nuts and ocean fish were available. Of course, the Inlet’s water suffered. The hundreds of boats passing in and out used it as both bathroom and dump, and the waterway, dredged to a depth of four (later seven) feet, brought disease as well as business. Lead and oil from the boatyards seeped into the water. And canal, train and boatmen were notorious for fighting, drinking, staging cockfights and various other forms of mayhem. The west end of the village had a reputation that would linger for many decades.

If you made it to age 20 in 1867, you stood a decent chance of living to 60, though probably with little help from the local medical establishment. There were an astonishing 52 doctors registered with the Tompkins County Medical Society at the time. Of course, a license to practice medicine then could be conferred by any county medical society or by graduation from a medical college. As yet, the scientific community hadn’t embraced germ theory, and there was no local hospital until 1890. Almost all the birthing, illness and dying took place at home. Certainly, one could visit a physician such as Dr. George Hayborn, whose office and residence stood where the Alex Haley poolhouse on North Albany Street is now. He advertised that he was “prepared to treat all cases of rheumatism, scrofula, fits, heart palpitations, fever, ague, catarrh and those who have lost the controlling power of their limbs.”

In addition, there were any number of patent medicines available, such as Schenck’s Pulmonic Syrup, advertised in the January 30, 1867 Ithaca Journal, which promised a prompt cure for tuberculosis.

While America’s first football game would not occur for another two years, there were 400 active baseball clubs in America in 1867. Both Ithaca’s newspapers gave space to the equally popular sport of pedestrianism, a 19th-century form of competitive walking, often accompanied by wagering, from which the modern sport of racewalking developed. The most famous pedestrian of his time was Edward Payson Weston, who walked from Portland, Maine, to Chicago, Illinois, covering more than 1,200 miles in 26 days that year, winning a prize of $10,000. Weston would pass through Ithaca in February 1869 on one of his treks.

Parts of downtown Ithaca were still mottled with swamps then, and settlement was largely confined to the area between Six Mile Creek, Farm Street, the Inlet and East Hill. More than a few of those houses survive, and the 1867 Ithacan, transported to 2017, would recognize not only the layout of the streets but many of the houses on the downtown blocks of East Court, North Cayuga, North Tioga and North Aurora streets, not to mention St. John’s Episcopal on the corner of Cayuga and Buffalo streets.

In 1849, the village trustees had given Henry Sage, lumber tycoon and local benefactor, permission to install a water system as a private enterprise, so he and other local investors formed the Ithaca Light and Water Company and went into the business of selling water. The company tapped into springs partway up East Hill near Buffalo Street and created a 30-foot deep pond there as a reservoir from which the untreated water was piped down to the flats.

Still, in 1867 individual wells were the water source for most homes and businesses. While easy access to a high water table was a boon to residents, contamination was often a problem. This was a time before sewers, when homes and businesses used outhouses and cesspools in various states of repair and saturation. Human residents also shared their property with those hundreds of horses and, often, livestock animals such as chickens, goats and pigs. During rainy periods, bacterial diseases, especially cholera and typhoid, sometimes referred to as “Ithaca fever,” were a perennial problem.

The Civil War and its aftermath were still fresh and found its way into the sarcastic, even sneering tone of an article in the January 30, 1867 Ithaca Journal: “The following will show how admirably the people of Arkansas are ‘reconstructed.’” The report cited the murder of at least 52 “freed persons by white men in the past three months” in that state without repercussions.

The African American community in Ithaca was well established by then, at first mainly in the Southside neighborhood, around South Cayuga, Clinton, Meadow and Green streets. The first African American church, St. James AME Zion Church on Cleveland Avenue (then Wheat Street), had been chartered in 1833. Famously, it was visited by Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and served as an enlistment site during the Civil War for soldiers of the 26th Regiment United States Colored Infantry. By mid-century, African Americans were also settling in the neighborhood of North Albany, Cascadilla, and Esty streets, which by then had its own neighborhood church. Calvary Baptist Church on North Albany Street was originally known as Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church “Colored” and was first established in 1857 as an offshoot from St. James.

In Ithaca, mail delivery occurred twice daily via stage and train, but in 1867 it was still necessary to go to the post office to get it. There were at least 50 post offices in Tompkins County at the time. Ithaca was one of the first places to get telegraph service, in 1846, and though the village had two weekly newspapers, and the Civil War had made us more national in outlook, there was still a decidedly local feel to daily life. It would be another 16 years before standardized time zones were adopted, and each town and village had its own local time. When it was noon in Albany, it was 11:48 a.m. in Tompkins County.

In the years after the Civil War, every township in the county except Ithaca lost population. Some of that was certainly due to the lure of cheap (even free) western lands. The February 20, 1867 Ithaca Journal carried an advertisement for lands in Clay and Cerro Gordo counties in Iowa, a “rapidly settling section of the state.” Cerro Gordo County, geographically larger than Tompkins County, had a population of about 2,000 in 1867. Tompkins County’s population then was about 32,000.

Outside the Village of Ithaca, in the townships of Ulysses, Enfield, Newfield, Danby, Caroline, Dryden, Lansing and Groton, change was far less apparent. By 1867, most of the land in Tompkins County had been cleared of lumber, and these were fundamentally rural communities.

The inhabitants were farm families, with a strong culture of self-sufficiency. Life required constant hard work, and the division of labor between genders tended to be along more or less traditional lines. Women baked and cooked with a wood stove, washed, scrubbed and drew water from an outside well. They made cheese, butter, soap and candles, plucked chickens, wove and dyed cloth, made clothes, tended livestock and cared for the small children.

The diary of Carrie Manning, a Tompkins County farm girl who was 12 in 1867, recalls a time when tools and horse teams and sewing machines were borrowed from neighbors, and work was exchanged among farmers. Her family knew the medicinal properties of wintergreen, boneset, catnip and pennyroyal. Schooling was had in one of the dozens of one-room schoolhouses in the county. Illumination was daylight or homemade candles, as kerosene, at $0.75 a gallon, was out of the reach of most farm family budgets.

The villages themselves were self-sufficient, too. In the Township of Newfield, home to 341 farmers, there was a hotel with a billiard saloon, two general merchandise stores, two law offices, a grocery and confectionery store, a milliner, two boot and shoe stores, a dry goods and grocery store, a hardware store, a doctor’s office, a harness shop/hardware store, a drug store, a meat market, a shoemaker and a photo gallery. And there were the mills that were essential to the local economy – saw mills, carpet mills, cider mills, woolen mills and gristmills.

Of course, many of those enterprises were pretty small. Businesses came and went quickly. A lot of them were part-time operations, comprised of only one person. Some were open only one hour a day, or by appointment. Farming continued to be the principal occupation in the townships, and there were still dozens of log cabins in use in the townships beyond the 1860s.

In Ithaca, the next 50 years would bring electricity, phones, streetcars, paving, sewers and the automobile, daily trains to New York City, water treatment and a sewer system, and rural free postal service. There was already a feeling of steady progress in 1867, though. Two bandstands had just been built in DeWitt Park, and new books were being announced at the Cornell library every week. Cornell would open for business the next year.

Already, by 1867, Tompkins County was a solid and established place with an eye to the future.

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