For many years, if anyone outside the region had heard of Ithaca, it was very likely because of either Cornell University or the guns of the Ithaca Gun Company. Now, except for its reputation among gun owners and collectors, Ithaca Gun has mostly receded into local history. Only the smokestack remains as a physical reminder of the factory, and issues surrounding redeveloping the site have swirled for years, but the story of the company’s rise and decline are an important part of Ithaca’s heritage.

The genesis of the Ithaca Gun Company dates back to Ithaca’s manufacturing heyday. It was a feature of America’s growing Industrial Revolution during and after the Civil War that businesses were seemingly freely started and abandoned. There was a “can-do” spirit in the air, and if an enterprise failed, you picked up and tried something else. Ithaca Gun was born in that context.

Lewis Smith, of Center Lisle (near Whitney Point on today’s Route 79), had failed in the tanning business, so he started a general store. Then, at some point he connected with William Baker, also a Center Lisle native, who had designed and patented several improvements to gun mechanics, and by 1863, the two of them joined forces and began manufacturing firearms, first in Marathon, then in Lisle.

Soon Lewis’ sons, Leroy and Lyman, worked in the business and it grew. By 1877, they had moved to Syracuse, making “Baker’s Patented Double Breech-loaded Gun.” Then in 1883, Baker and Leroy Smith relocated to Ithaca as the “Ithaca Gun Works” where they purchased, for $6000, the property, flume, water wheel, and water rights on “water power lot #6” on Fall Creek. By 1885, they were calling themselves the Ithaca Gun Company.

The site they bought was already in an industrial pocket. It had most recently been the Ithaca Falls Steam Bending Hub and Spoke Works furnishing, according to an 1881 Ithaca Journal advertisement, “bentwork, hubs, spokes, etc. for carriages and sleighs.” That section of Fall Creek, thanks to Ezra Cornell’s 1832 dam and tunnel, supplied a reliable source of water power and there were grist mills, saw mills, and the Ithaca Paper Company that dated back decades by the time Smith and Baker got there.

In 1886, Leroy Smith and his brother-in-law George Livermore bought out the Baker interests, and the company became a family business, which it would remain for the next 81 years. Leroy himself was involved in the design of some of the company’s guns, and patented four “hammerless” shotguns in the late 1880s.

In time, Leroy Smith and George Livermore agreed in a handshake deal to split the company equally. Ithaca Gun incorporated in 1904, and the Smith and Livermore branches of the family each got 50% of the stock. Leroy and George and their descendants would alternate in executive positions until the mid-1960s.

The firm grew quickly. By 1900, Ithaca Gun had 80 employees. A series of expansions of the physical plant (1890, 1904, 1917) brought the facility from the bank of Fall Creek to the edge of Lake Street, and the company’s rise to prominence fit squarely within the rise in general manufacturing in the late 19th century in Ithaca. In the 1880s, when Ithaca Gun became an Ithaca company, the newly-minted city (incorporated in 1888) had a glass company, cigar factories, the Ithaca Calendar Clock Company, a hive of industrial activity around the inlet/canal and a host of other small companies. In 1890, there were 80 firms in and around town, selling $1.7 million in products.

In fact, even with all the new businesses, industrialization was still kind of new in the 1880s. Before 1811 in New York, a manufacturing company could be incorporated only by a special act of the New York State Legislature; a cumbersome process. Even after that, there were limitations on a company’s size and the types of manufacturing that were permitted. But by late in the century, a company could commence business much more freely, and could incorporate by filing a certificate with the Secretary of State. Of course, the labor movement grew in step with this surge in new businesses. In April 1881, Ithaca cigarmakers went on strike to oppose an anticipated wage cut. In January 1881, 21 women at the Button Works on the corner of Auburn and Franklin Streets walked out, demanding higher wages. (The factory relocated to Scranton, Pennsylvania in response.)

Ithaca was by no means unique in this regard. There was scarcely a city of any size in the Midwest or Northeast that didn’t have numerous manufacturing businesses at the time. Not all the companies would survive, but Ithaca Gun did, and its longevity as a family business makes it as noteworthy as its success. 

Also, there were the guns. Very early, the company developed a reputation for high quality, innovative design and artistic decoration. Ithaca guns were particularly noted for exquisite engraving on metal components as well as elaborately-carved wooden stocks. One of its greatest successes was in 1907, when Ithaca Gun bought the rights to Emil Flues’ patented shotgun that had only three moving parts per barrel. They upgraded the design and the Ithaca Flues double-barrel shotgun became the best-selling American-made gun of its kind, with more than 223,000 sold by 1926. It effectively drove Remington out of the double barrel shotgun market. 

All businesses ebb and flow, of course, but the first three decades of the 20th century were flush times for Ithaca Gun. During the 1920s, the company was making 50,000 guns per year, and its products were being sold and advertised widely. Annie Oakley insisted on Ithaca guns when she performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. John Philip Sousa (at one time president of the American Trap Shooters Association) was an Ithaca Gun enthusiast. Dwight Eisenhower and George C. Marshall owned Ithaca double-barrel shotguns.

Then the Great Depression hit and sales took a nosedive. At the lowest point, in the years 1931-1933, the sales force was reduced to 18-20 workers at any given time. Around 1937, though, the company began production of what is probably its best-known and most popular shotgun, the Ithaca Model 37. It was an almost immediate success and went on to have the longest production run of any pump-action shotgun, and more than two million of the guns have been sold over the years since. Lightweight and durable, its bottom-ejecting feature made it adaptable for either right- or left-handed users. It became the standard issue shotgun for the Los Angeles and the New York City police departments and is still available today.

In December 1941, the United States entered World War II, and the entire plant capacity was devoted to the war effort. All the civilian gun manufacturing equipment was packed into storage. Before the end of 1942, Ithaca Gun employed 900 men and women in day and night shifts, working around the clock. The company made, among other things, Colt .45 Automatic Pistols, producing 382,000 of them by the end of the war. 

After the war, the company was sustained by sales of the Model 37, and various products for the U.S. government and law enforcement agencies. Successive generations of the Smith family continued to run the firm. George Livermore actually remained as Chairman of the Board of Directors until his death in 1950 at the age of 104. (His son Paul left the family house at 313 North Aurora Street to the Ithaca community. It currently houses the Ithaca United Way.)

By the 1960s, though, things changed. For one thing, there was a shift in the culture. The civilian demand for shotguns leveled off. America was no longer a rural country where “every farmer needs a shotgun.” Furthermore, nobody in that generation of the extended Smith family was interested in running the company. It was decided that Ithaca Gun should be put up for sale.

The company was a family business in more than one sense though, in that there were families that had generations of gunmakers that had worked for Ithaca Gun. In deference to those employees, the Smith family held out longer than they should have, turning down a number of offers that didn’t promise to keep the company in Ithaca. Ultimately, a holding company bought the factory and the gun designs, becoming a diversified entity called General Recreation, Inc. The Smiths got the promise to stay, but not in writing.

It didn’t go well. While gun manufacturing continued, General Recreation filed for Chapter 11 (Reorganization) bankruptcy in 1978, and the plant closed. It was reconfigured and reopened by local investors in 1979, but the company filed again for bankruptcy in 1986, furloughing 100 workers. In the end, manufacturing was moved out of Ithaca to King Ferry in 1989. The company endured a number of sales and relocations in the ensuing years, and currently operates out of Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

The fate of the site of the former factory is a topic more familiar to recent generations of Ithaca residents. The company had operated on the property between Fall Creek and Lake Street for over 100 years. The building itself was described as a “hodgepodge of old and new, not suitable to repurposing to other industry” at the time of General Recreation’s first bankruptcy. More ominously, a century of gun testing and manufacturing residue had left a toxic legacy. It was also the location of uranium metal tube testing in the early 1960s for the federal nuclear weapons program.

After the second bankruptcy in 1986, the buildings were shuttered. A 1997 environmental site assessment commissioned by the City of Ithaca found that the main factory was extensively contaminated with lead and other toxins. The whole location ultimately became an EPA Superfund site. There have been numerous private and public remediation projects, with the goal of rendering the property suitable for development, and there have also been numerous development proposals since then, which have been abandoned in the chaos and expense of addressing the cleanup of the property.

It has been a cascade of unpleasant discoveries. Between 2002 and 2004, the EPA spent $4.8 million to reduce lead levels, and they removed 4,500 tons of lead-contaminated soil between the factory building and the creek. Still, tests in 2006 showed the continued presence of lead, as well as arsenic, cadmium, and chromium. Furthermore, the building had become a graffiti-covered hazard, with scores of mattresses and at least one fire. At a cost of $2 million for demolition and remediation, the old Ithaca Gun factory was torn down in 2009. There were unexpectedly-high levels of asbestos and barium present, so most of the bricks and mortar had to be removed from the site. Again in 2015, the EPA removed another 200 cubic yards of loose stone and lead-contaminated soil from lands bordering the site of the factory.

As recently as 2017, DEC soil samples revealed that lead levels on the nearby Ithaca Falls Gorge Trail exceeded the EPA’s removal management level, but also declared “that the site no longer poses a threat to human health or the environment”.

There does seem to be progress on the prospect of redevelopment, though. A 2020 amendment to New York State’s Brownfield Cleanup Program seems finally to have cleared the way to moving forward, and last December the property was acquired by 121-125 Lake Street, LLC, owned by Visum Development Group.

Currently, Visum is proposing to build a four-story, 77-unit, 109-bed market-rate apartment building—a mix of studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments—called “The Breeze Apartments.” The project is wending its way through the process of getting Planning Board approval and is a frequent item on the Board’s meeting agendas as issues regarding final soil cleanup and the nature of site improvements are addressed. The fate of the last remaining physical feature of the old factory—the Ithaca Gun smokestack—is up in the air.

In its day, the Ithaca Gun Company was a major local employer and a pillar of the thriving industrial portion of Ithaca’s economy. The company’s reputation for high-quality, artistically-decorated guns was international in scope and lives on among collectors and hunters. As with much of our industrial past, Ithaca Gun’s legacy is also inextricably entwined with the environmental costs of manufacturing. Still, the Ithaca Gun Company is an essential part of the story of the City of Ithaca.

(1) comment

Richard Ballantyne

Well written article, except you ruined it at the end by implying that there are always "environmental costs of manufacturing." First, that depends on what is being manufactured as well as the methods and procedures used. Second, even if all manufacturing were to cause significant harm to the environment, what is your solution? Manufacture nothing? That is pretty much what were doing now in New York compared to years past. Then what? It has already become so prohibitively expensive to manufacture most things in the USA. Thus in order to remain profitable, companies moved those operations overseas. We are now a plantation for China; they manufacture all the parts we use for everything, and we farm and make drugs, weapons, and vehicles. Our biggest export thesecdsys are US dollars, but that could change quickly once the US dollar loses its reserve currency status. Then prices in the US will rise even more dramatically as those dollars all flow back into the USA where they're legal tender, and where they will bid up prices even more than the newer dollars created by the Fed and commercial banks.

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