Created By: The History Center in Tompkins County
HistoryForge Day: Connecting the Generations
The History Center in Tompkins County's HistoryForge initiative was the inspiration for this tour (see: https://historyforge.thehistorycenter.net/). On HistoryForge Day on October 7, 2017 (sponsored by M&T Bank), four houses in three Ithaca neighborhoods--Fall Creek/DeWitt Park, Henry St. John, and Southside--were selected to share information about who lived there in 1910. While tour attendees did not enter the homes, docents had a series of questions to engage participants about the lives of the residents of 100 years ago.
From information gleaned from the 1910 census, docents shared details about family relationships, age, race, occupation, literacy, employment, and other attributes. Participants also learned about the buildings and neighborhoods in which these families lived.
The decade from 1910 to 1920 was one of growth and trauma both here and abroad. World War I devastated Europe for much of the decade, and more deaths occurred from the influenza epidemic worldwide (known as the Spanish flu) in 1918-1919 than from the war itself. Americans entered the war in 1917, and more than 40 soldiers from Tompkins County were killed before the armistice in 1918. Dramatic transformations marked the era as well. Assembly-line production brought us automobiles like the Model-T that were accessible to people of modest means. Americans became avid travelers and tourists and some became commuters as jobs could be reached from burgeoning suburbs. Radio and movies helped spread popular culture beyond the regional to national audiences. Suddenly everyone loved Charlie Chaplin and drank Coca-Cola. Democracy reached underrepresented portions of the population as women throughout the country won the right to vote. New York women won the right to vote in 1917, and all American women were granted that right in 1920 as the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. The National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had been founded in 1909, and steps toward equality for African Americans came with the work of civil rights leaders like W.E.B. DuBois and A. Philip Randolph.
In Tompkins County a terrible fire in 1912 destroyed the Ithaca High School, and in 1915 flooding ravaged homes along Six Mile Creek. The Ithaca Municipal Airport opened near Cayuga Lake and the Thomas Morse Aviation Company built the famous “Tommy Scout” biplane for the British Admiralty and the US Army Air Corps for training pilots in the war. Cornell University expanded with the construction of new dormitories, and the Ithaca Conservatory of Music moved to quarters around the DeWitt Park area of downtown, where it would make its home until the early 1960s. The glamour of the movie industry captivated locals with the popularity of the Wharton Studios. The company leased a large section of Renwick (now Stewart) Park, and local venues were used as open-air sets for filming silent movies. Stars such as Pearl White and Lionel Barrymore stayed in Ithaca while filming, and a lucky few residents were used as “extras” on some films. Trolley rides around the city cost 5 cents, and two major railroad lines connected travelers to the larger nation.
While the cataclysm of World War I and the flu epidemic mark the decade, the larger context of social and cultural change also make it a transformative and noteworthy period for the families highlighted on this tour.