Published September 14, 2005 in Trumansburg Free Press (Trumansburg, NY)

Land & People
Lydia Sears's History of Trumansburg

by Bill Chaisson

First published by the author in 1978, Lydia Sears’ A History of Trumansburg, New York, 1792-1967 is in its fourth printing (1993) and approaching the 30th anniversary of its first appearance. It might be the right time to think about a special anniversary issue, with reprinted photographs and some footnotes to clarify references in the text (“near Dr. Carl Smith’s home”) that were clear in 1978 and are now historical. This is a pithy, personable account of a village with a preternaturally colorful history.

Ms. Sears’ source materials include diaries (those of David McLallen and Albert Stone), the account books and letters of Hermon Camp, and personal scrapbooks from the 19th century. These sources cause this to be chiefly a social history, with politics, business and nature playing supporting roles. Perhaps the longest thread in the fabric woven here is the struggle between the forces of hedonism and temperance. Nearly every chapter in the book contains some reference to seemingly eternal battle between drinking and cutting up and temperance and religion. Accounts of the 19th century are full of riotous parties and of riots breaking out at parties. Western New York was called the “Burnt Over District” in the 19th century because it was the epicenter for so many religious revivals.

The 1820s-1830s was the period of the “Second Great Awakening” (the First was in the 1730s-40s and the Third from the 1880s–1900s) and Trumansburg did not escape its sweep. According to Sears, “By the late 1820s, drinking and drunkenness had assumed alarming proportions and the temperance movement, which began in England, found a receptive public in many parts of the United States, including Trumansburg and its environs. On May 1, 1828 John McLallen took down the “rum pole” (against which bottles were traditionally broken) in front of his tavern and later in the year even Hermon Camp joined the movement.

One of the many delightful aspects of this book is Sears’ wry editorial sense of humor. To wit: “Trumansburg, never noted for half measures, changed, almost over-night from a  sinful, rowdy place into a decent, circumspect hamlet.” Later in her narrative Sears’ quotes some of the purple prose from an address commemorating Civil War dead and observes sardonically “It was a long speech.”
Natural history is not specifically addressed at any length in Sears’ book, but inevitably it stands along the margins and can be inferred between the lines. For example, in the wake of the religious revival there were many baptisms in Trumansburg in 1830. They were done either in the lake or in the creek below Hector bridge. It is probably not a coincidence that immersions were done on the upstream side of the village. Although the germ theory of disease was unknown at this time (it would introduced to American public health in the 1890s by native Trumansburger Hermann M. Biggs), one suspects that the creek looked cleaner as it came into the village than after it passed through it. Then again, perhaps it was simply easier to get down to the creekside at Hector Street than at Main Street. Sears’ text prompts many such questions throughout.

There is also much incidental information about nature and natural resources to be found. Cayuga Lake was frozen completely over in 1836, allowing people to cross on foot and in sleighs, and during the same winter “passenger pigeons flew uncommonly thick”. In 1845 Hermon Camp purchased most of the building materials for the construction of his house (completed in 1847) locally “except such items as marble, glass and brick” and “all labor hired was from the community”. Between the 1850s and into the early 20th century, “bluestone” was quarried locally and “shipped by water to the larger cities of the state, especially New York”. In the 1880s “farm products were abundant, especially in the last half of the decade and Trumansburg continued to be a shipping center both by rail and boat.”

References to industry are few to non-existent in the last few chapters. After the Second World War Trumansburg seems to have started the trend toward its present state of having a service economy and essentially no industry. The final chapters are quietly elegiac, with many endings (passenger train service ended February 3, 1963) and improvements (the central Main Street parking lot constructed to replace “old, old houses” partially destroyed by fire in 1965), replacing stories of beginnings and expansions.  Sears, in effect, shows the arc of American history in a microcosm, and she does it with economy and style.

Lydia Sears’ history is on the shelves at the Ulysses Philomathic Library and is available at the historical society.

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Last revised:  January 2, 2006