On the Discovery Trail: A look inside The History Center


By Eric Banford

Tompkins Weekly

The Discovery Trail is a museum-library partnership between eight member organizations that have been collaborating for nearly two decades to help visitors explore nature, science, and culture. Each month, we’ll be exploring one of the sites, highlighting their offerings and taking a look at their impact in the community.

Discovery Trail partners include Cayuga Nature Center, Cornell Botanic Gardens, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell, Museum of the Earth, Sciencenter, The History Center in Tompkins County, and Tompkins County Public Library.

This month we focus on The History Center, which has been part of the Discovery Trail since the trail started in 1999.

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The idea of a history center came and went for two short periods in the 1800s, the first with Erza Cornell as president. It evolved throughout the 1900s, originally being called the DeWitt Historical Society and housed in two different county courthouses and the Clinton House, before moving to its current home in the Gateway Center complex in 1993. In 2003, the organization rebranded itself – The History Center in Tompkins County – to reflect its broader mission.

“Our 25-year lease ends in December 2018, and the Trustees decided this was a good chance for a bold initiative,” said Rod Howe, executive director of The History Center. “We’ll be moving to The Commons where the Tompkins Trust Company is right now in Bank Alley.

“We’ll be co-located with the Downtown Visitor Center, Wharton Studio Museum, Dorothy Cotton Institute, Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County, and The Discovery Trail,” he added. “It will be an exciting destination.”

The new space will include an office for Star Bressler, executive director of the Discovery Trail, who noted that she is, “very excited about the new Tompkins Center for History and Culture on The Commons, this space will bring together many wonderful organizations and inspire more collaboration!

“The History Center in Tompkins County is a valued partner of the Discovery Trail,” she said. “I’m always amazed by the rich history of the people and landscape captured in their exhibits and programs. I come away with a deeper understanding and appreciation for our community.”

One of the key exhibits in the new space will be the ‘Tommy Plane,’ a high-speed advanced bi-wing trainer built during World War I at the Ithaca’s Thomas-Morse Airplane Company. To celebrate Tommy’s 100th birthday, one of the two remaining planes is being restored to flying condition, with plans for a commemorative flight in September 2018. (Visit TommyComeHome.org.)

“The Tommy planes didn’t actually go over to Europe, but pilots learned to fly in them,” said Howe. “They were really important for that time period, and the Ithaca Aviation Heritage Foundation was given one which they have been meticulously restoring.

“It will take one flight and then become a permanent part of our new space,” he added.

In anticipation of the move, The History Center is having a sale of its merchandise – 15- to 60-percent off local history books, photographs, images, postcards, and the Ithaca Kitty. It’s also preparing to pack its collection for transport.

“We’re starting a wrapping project for things that we are moving, people can come in and watch as we wrap and pack objects,” said Ksenia Ionova, who oversees Community Outreach and Visitor Services for The History Center. “Many of these objects are usually tucked away, we’ll be pulling out lots of fragile objects that you usually can’t see.”

The packing project will take place over the next year, leading up to the move. Interested parties can volunteer to get trained and help, and can contact Ionova with questions.

The History Center owns the Eight Square Schoolhouse, the earliest school still existing in Tompkins County, and the only brick octagonal schoolhouse left standing in New York state. As part of the “Kids Discover the Trail!” program, most fourth grade classes in the county participate in a “19th Century Life” program at the schoolhouse.

“The kids get to dress up in period outfits, they have to sit in class and behave properly, and they learn how to write the way they used to write,” said Ionova.

There are also summer camps and archaeological digs hosted there.

Another continuing project taking place throughout next year will be the Celebrating Rural Heritage series. Current exhibits include “The Many Names of Fall Creek” and “The Maps of Tompkins County.” A weekend conference will take place in the fall, with tours and lectures, and highlighting local food and history.

“Even though this is honoring rural heritage, we see this as an opportunity to explore where linkages might need to be strengthened, and where linkages have existed since the formation of the county, in terms of urban and rural partnerships,” observed Howe. “Is there still a distinct rural culture in Tompkins County? Is there a distinct urban culture in Ithaca? And is there a truly integrated Tompkins County culture that blends some of the urban and rural?

“Our tagline, which fits very much with the Discovery Trail, is ‘We Make History Every Day,’” he added. “And that is very much in the spirit of science and discovery and exploration of the Discovery Trail.”

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For more information about the Discovery Trail, visit DiscoveryTrail.com; for more information about The History Center, visit TheHistoryCenter.net.


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