The Ithaca Rotary Club and the City of Ithaca recently handed out their 2017 “Pride of Ownership” awards. The prizes recognize property owners who have developed new projects or taken care of their properties in ways that enhance Ithaca’s neighborhoods. The Friends of the Ithaca City Cemetery (FICC), a project run through Historic Ithaca, garnered an award for its years-long stewardship of the city-owned property. Julee Johnson and Ellen Leventry, the two Friends who started the project, accepted the honor at the Common Council ceremony on December 6th.
Realtor and local historian Margaret Hobbie presented the award, outlining how much the Friends have accomplished over seven years of work:
“In October 2010, Ithacans Julee Johnson and Ellen Leventry went on Historic Ithaca’s annual tour of the Ithaca City Cemetery. This 16-acre burial ground near Cascadilla Gorge has been in use since the 1790s and is the final resting place of generations of local families. Each headstone and monument contains clues to how people lived and died for over 200 years of Ithaca’s history. The cemetery has always been municipally owned and maintained and its fortunes have risen and fallen with the city’s budget. In 2010 the cemetery was in disrepair due to time, erosion, vandalism, and the Great Recession. A few areas were in good shape because they had been maintained by volunteer veterans, firefighters, and others, but in general the cemetery was a depressing sight.
Johnson and Leventry were inspired to do something about this, and the following Memorial Day they and a third friend spent the day in the cemetery picking up trash and clipping ivy off monuments. The following Memorial Day they returned with a fourth volunteer, tree and brush trimming equipment, and trash bags. In 2013 the group, now calling itself the Friends of the Ithaca City Cemetery, brought in monument conservator Jonathan Appell for a workshop on cleaning, resetting, leveling, and repairing headstones. This workshop was sponsored by Historic Ithaca and supported by the County Historian’s Office, Cornell University, and the City of Ithaca. It was attended by a large group of public works employees from various municipalities, local historians, and caretakers of private and family plots.
Fundraising was the next goal, and in October 2014 the Friends and Historic Ithaca sponsored the inaugural Cemetery Sprint, a one-mile timed race through the challenging terrain of the cemetery. The race is followed by a fun run or walk along the same course, ideal for families with kids. Costumes are encouraged and prizes awarded. The Sprint, and ongoing administrative support from Historic Ithaca, have enabled the restoration and maintenance projects of the Friends of the Ithaca City Cemetery, who remain committed to increasing awareness and appreciation of this local treasure.”
“I think the nomination of the cemetery and this award may be unique,” noted Ellen upon accepting the award. “We [Julee and I] do not actually own the cemetery, even though we’d like to and we certainly feel that we do. It really is owned by all of us, the citizens of Ithaca, and so, on behalf of all of you, we proudly accept this award.”
Ellen went on to credit all the help that the FICC’s all-volunteer effort to revitalize the cemetery has received. She praised the Parks Commission’s support, as well as the City of Ithaca, and “specifically City Forrester Jeanne Grace who has been with us every step of the way. We couldn’t have done this without the hard work of Jeanne and her entire crew.” Ellen also called out friend Jan Schwartzberg, who was at the Common Council meeting, for help during the second-year cleanup, and thanked Historic Ithaca “for the invaluable administrative support and people power they provide.”