100 Block of East State Street in the 1920's

If you want to learning something about a new place often a good starting point is to learn its history. For anyone interested in investigating or even just browsing the history of Ithaca, there is a very accessible resource just a couple of minutes walk from the Commons. The History Center in Tompkins County offers free admission to over 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, a variety of programs, access to the research library, and a book and gift shop.

The History Center is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to preserve and encourage access to its unique collections, while designing learning experiences that pertain to the history of Ithaca and Tompkins County. In continuous existence for 80 years, it has been collecting books, documents, maps, artifacts, photographs and a vast amalgam of ephemera of all kinds since its inception.

Permanent exhibits include an impressive display of old local wall maps, an 1890s children’s play space, photographs from throughout Tompkins County and a timeline. There are also temporary exhibits. Currently, the “Captains, Commerce and Community”exhibit examines the considerable impact of the Erie Canal on Ithaca, which was a part of the Erie Canal waterway via Cayuga Lake and the Seneca-Cayuga Canal. A visit is an excellent way for a newcomer to learn about the history of Ithaca and its surroundings.

The History Center also offers free access to year-round selection of wide-ranging programs for adults and children—from hands-on workshops for children to book group discussions for adults. The educational outreach programs have been an invaluable resource to local schools for years.

The new executive director, Rod Howe, has been in his position since March of this year. He’s committed to keeping The History Center an active presence in local schools and the larger community.

Perhaps the most valuable resource for everyone from the serious researcher to genealogists to the casual browser seeking to look up the history of his or her house is the Research Library. There are 4,000 bound books, 1,000 linear feet of manuscript and archival materials, 2,000 genealogy files, 250 bound ledgers, 440 scrapbooks, 1,100 maps, and over 100,000 photographs. Overseeing this treasure trove is archivist Donna Eschenbrenner, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the collection and is demonstrably eager to help visitors with their questions and projects. 

Eschenbrenner is renowned for her helpfulness to every visitor. “The History Center Research Library offers newcomers, especially students, some great things to enjoy,” she said. “First, our local history resources, such as archival collections or local history books, give them a good context for this new community they’re living in. Knowing the history of a place helps to ground you and make you feel more at home. Second, for those that are artistically inclined, we have beautiful historic photographs, maps, paintings, and artifacts, many of which are on permanent display, or on display in our exhibits. And third, we offer student internships every year. For students that like history or anthropology, or those with art backgrounds we offer excellent museum experience.”

“We’re one of the keepers of Tompkins County’s history, and we take that job seriously,” she said. “The History Center plays an important role in ensuring that people remember their history and learn from it,” she adds, “but we’re more than just a repository of artifacts. We try to be a welcoming and interactive resource for the community.”

The History Center is a member of the Discovery Trail, a partnership of eight educational organizations promoting connections between science nature and culture. Located downtown in the Gateway Center building at 401 East State/Martin Luther King Street, two blocks from the Ithaca Commons, it’s open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Access to the research library can also be had by special appointment. More information can also be found at www.thehistorycenter.net/index.php. •

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