By Rob Montana
April 7, 1817.
That’s the date Tompkins County became official. And now, 200 years later, the county’s bicentennial milestone is being celebrated.
“We’re doing something in the name of the community,” said Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen, who is a co-chairperson of the Tompkins County Bicentennial Commission. “We can join with friends for something that is cheerful and joyful, and we learn about what the county does.
“Most people don’t know what the county does for them,” she added. “They may know the health department, but do they know about the roads, the airport, weights and measures?”
Tompkins County Legislator Mike Lane, who serves as chairperson of the Legislature, set up the Bicentennial Commission and appointed Kammen to serve as co-chairperson with him.
“To think about where we’ve been historically,” Lane said of the importance of celebrating the county’s bicentennial. “To raise the awareness of the public about what our county does now – what it does for the people it serves.”
“I think it’s important that we know the conditions under which we live and how we got there,” Kammen added. “Those conditions, which really give us great privilege, also require great responsibility. I think it’s a citizenship lesson.”
In his view, Lane said, counties are probably the least understood of all the forms of local government.
“People know about towns and villages and cities, particularly about land use, but counties don’t do that,” he said. “We do the more difficult kinds of things – social services, mental health, youth services, highways and bridges, airports and solid waste. We have probation, we have a jail, we have a road patrol.
“All of those things are where the county tax dollar goes and people, unless they encounter a particular department, don’t think about those things,” Lane added.“We want people to really understand what the county government does for them, and we have over 700 employees that work very hard.”
He said it’s important for residents to know not only what the county does but how it has evolved in its history.
“Our government has grown from a Board of Supervisors from the towns in 1817 to what we have now, led by a Legislature with an appointed administrator,” Lane said. “I consider Tompkins County to be the best county. I’ve said that before and I have my prejudice, but we’re forward thinking on a lot of things – energy is a great example. It’s important for people to understand that we’re continuing to evolve.”
Though it is difficult to pick just a few important milestones from 200 years of history, Kammen thought of a few that helped shape Tompkins County.
“The founding of the county is important,” she said, noting that 1817 – the year the county was formed – was an important year. “The Erie Canal began construction that year, the Auburn prison opened in 1817, it is the year of suffrage.
“The creation of Cornell was important. It stabilized our economy and diversified our county,” added Kammen, thinking of other key times in county history. “And there were big fires in many of our towns that destroyed the middles of the towns.”
The county got its name, Lane said, from New York Governor Daniel Tompkins. He also noted that people do bring up the fact Tompkins never came to Tompkins County, but added that the former governor played a significant role in New York State history.
“He was a popular governor who served in the War of 1812 and protected our northern border. He also sponsored legislation that ended slavery in New York,” Lane said. “Tompkins County was formed to be geographically easier for people to get to a court, to have real estate records, to have a sheriff,” he added. “We still do those things, but we do a lot more, too.”
The best thing county residents can do to celebrate the county’s milestone, Kammen said, is to participate in the bicentennial events.
“They can tell us what they like to see, what they like to do,” she said.
“People can look at our website, they can see the exhibits, they can come out when we dedicate historic markers in all the county’s towns,” added Lane, “as well as in Hector and Covert, which used to be part of Tompkins County.”
Both Kammen and Lane stressed that the bicentennial was celebrating the whole county, not just the county seat of Ithaca.
“That’s really important to all of us,” Kammen said. “It’s important for everyone to feel involved.”
“We hope people from all over the county will be a part of the celebration. It can be what they want it to be,” Lane added. “We decided not to have one big festival that is a lot of money. The idea was to have a year-long celebration where we do a lot of small things throughout the county.”
One activity currently underway is distribution of blank Tompkins County maps, offering a canvas for people to interpret the county however they see fit.
“They can write on the map what the county means to them,” Kammen said, adding that the content created on each map is up to the individual. “Someone wrote all the dishes they liked at restaurants in the county; another person wrote haikus about the county on their map.”
Maps are available at the bicentennial website, The History Center in Tompkins County, the Tompkins County Public Library and community libraries throughout the county; the finished maps will be displayed at the Tompkins County Public Library.
Tompkins County Poet Laureate Zee Zahava recited a poem at last week’s county Legislature meeting, and the next one, scheduled for Tuesday, April 18, will feature a humorous dramatic reading of “9 Towns.”
“It’s a funny little drama about how the county was put together,” Kammen said, noting that members of the Bicentennial Commission would be reading the story. A reading of “9 Towns” will also take place at 6 p.m. Friday, May 5, at the Tompkins County Public Library.
On Saturday, May 20, the first of the “sign planting” events will take place, in the Town of Groton.
“We created a new sign for all of the towns and the city in the county, and for the two towns that were taken out of our county,” Kammen said. “They are roadside signs that will be put up in all of the places, with a celebration taking place for each one.”
Not all celebrations have been scheduled yet, with just the towns of Ithaca (Saturday, June 10) and Newfield (Saturday, July 29) currently on the calendar. The Town of Ulysses is expecting to have its sign planting ceremony in September, but the date is still to be determined.
The Commission is planning a float to take part in the Ithaca Festival Parade on Friday, June 2, and will take the display on the road for community parades throughout the summer.
Sweet Melissa’s, in Ithaca, will also be offering a special ice cream to mark the bicentennial – Tompkins Swirl. The flavor has yet to be unveiled, visit the Sweet Melissa’s Facebook page – www.facebook.com/sweetmelissasicecreamshop – to offer thoughts.
For more information about the Tompkins County Bicentennial, visit tc200.org.
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