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  • Writer's pictureIthaca Heritage

Ithaca Inspired – Stories of Ithaca and Tompkins County’s Outsized Impact

About a million visitors a year come to Ithaca and Tompkins County. They come for a bunch of reasons - for Cornell and Ithaca College, our great Finger Lakes wine and cider, unique downtown, vibrant arts scene, ‘gorges’ parks and natural areas, and college town vibe. Many come just for ‘Ithaca’, for the special mix of things that make many people who have visited or lived here fall in love with this place.

How can we make local history a stronger part of the experience of visiting here? That’s the question I worked with local history and tourism experts on trying to answer by writing a Heritage Tourism Implementation Plan in 2016. In developing the plan, we knew out of the gate that we didn’t have just one main heritage story to tell. We aren’t a Gettysburg (Civil War Battlefield) or a Seneca Falls (Women’s History). Rather, we have a lot of unique stories that add up to a narrative about Ithaca as a place whose impact on the world, through the people that have called this place home, is truly outsized.

Here’s a taste.

Ithaca has been a hotbed of literary luminaries through the years. Alex Haley of ‘Roots’ fame was born here, Pearl S. Buck started her writing career here, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, E.B. White and Thomas Pynchon studied here, and Nabokov wrote Lolita here. And it continues today. Check out the Spring Writes Festival in April to discover the current generation of Ithaca-based authors.

Ithacans were the brains behind the A-Bomb. More than a dozen WWII physicists, including Manhattan Project scientists lived in the Village of Cayuga Heights in the years following the war.

The people of the Cayuga Nation, which is a part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, have called the land surrounding Cayuga Lake their homeland for hundreds of years. Modern day Ithaca is built on top of Cayuga burial grounds.

We made planes. Factories in Ithaca manufactured the Thomas Morse Scout, aka the “Tommy” as a training aircraft for WWI fighter pilots. Several buildings where the planes were made are still standing today including the Aeroplane Factory building on Brindley Street, and the building at S. Plain and Center St. in Ithaca now housing the Significant Elements store. A local group is working on restoring an original Tommy plane to its original flying condition. The group plans to fly it in 2018, then put it on permanent display for all to see and enjoy.

100 years ago Ithaca was a center of silent film production. The Wharton Brothers had a hand in over 700 silent movies and stars and starlets of the day visited Ithaca to make films with the surrounding gorgeous scenery as the backdrop.

Cornell University’s founding 150 years ago based on egalitarian ideals, non-sectarian approach, liberal curriculum and its early admittance of African Americans and women, make it the birthplace of the American university. Learn more:

Three current and 25 former faculty members and 12 alumni of Cornell have been Nobel Prize winners.

You’ve heard that Ithaca is brainy, but have you seen the Wilder Brain Collection in Uris Hall on the Cornell campus? It includes the brain of Edward Ruloff, a brilliant 9th century con-man and murderer whose brain was declared the largest on record following his execution. His namesake restaurant is just down the way in Collegetown if all that braininess works up your appetite.

The stories behind these facts and so many others provide even more reasons to discover and love this place. With the History Center in Tompkins County and community partners, we’re working to tell them better, to uncover the people, events, places and narratives that have made Ithaca what it is today. Come and experience what has inspired so many people to love this place, and take your own Ithaca inspiration out with you into the larger world to make an impact.

Tom Knipe Principal Planner / Tourism Program Director for Tompkins County, NY

Originally written for the blog by Tom Knipe. Published May 16, 2017.


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