A Short History of Forest Home

This short history was contributed by Bruce Brittain, long term resident and historian of Forest Home. It was included in the book The Towns of Tompkins County, which was edited by Jane Marsh Dieckmann, published in 1998 by the Dewitt Historical Society (now the History Center). The History Center has kindly allowed reproduction of this Forest Home section here.

Free Hollow Cider Mill, circa late 1800s

The picturesque hamlet of Forest Home is situated on Fall Creek, in the northeastern part of the Town of Ithaca. Originally developed as a center for water-powered mills and industry, this small community has since evolved into a distinct residential neighborhood. Today, the woods and meadows of the Cornell Plantations1 and golf course completely surround Forest Home, separating it from the general suburban sprawl of the greater Ithaca area, and helping it retain its character and identity.

An Indian trail once passed near Forest Home, and several stone artifacts have been found in the community, but the quantities do not suggest a permanent Native American settlement. The first European settlers, Joseph and Martha Sydney, arrived in 1794 and built a mill and bridge in the general vicinity of the current downstream bridge. The availability of waterpower attracted others, and through 1850 the community developed as an industrial center, with many mills and businesses bordering the creek. The name of this new settlement changed from Sydney’s Bridge to Phoenix Mills, and eventually to Free Hollow, the name it kept for most of its industrial period.

In addition to grist- and sawmills, typical of early creek-side settlements, Free Hollow had specialized woodworking, cooper, turning, and cabinet shops. The cabinet shop also produced coffins and was operated by the local undertaker, William Criddle. Cloth and paper were important industries, too, with paper, woolen, knitting, and mitten mills located along the creek. The mitten mill was eventually converted to a house where, until recently, needles from the knitting machines were still being found in cracks in the wooden flooring. Other enterprises included a foundry, telescope shop, hemp factory, slaughterhouse, tannery, and leather shop, as well as cider and gunpowder mills. The drying house attached to the gunpowder mill exploded on September 20, 1849, sending pieces up to a half-mile from the site.

The second half of the nineteenth century was one of relative stability for Free Hollow. The mills continued to operate and were periodically rebuilt and updated, but no new mills were constructed. Likewise, the population remained relatively stable, with only three new houses being built during this period. When Free Hollow acquired a post office in 1876, the community name was changed to Forest Home.

The turn of the century signaled the end of the mill era in Forest Home. Improvements in transportation and the increased use of steam and electric power facilitated large, centralized manufacturing and processing, and the small, local mills could no longer compete. The woolen mill closed in 1892; the Empire Grist Mill burned in 1887 and was not rebuilt. The Red Grist Mill continued in production until nearly 1900, and Bool’s woodworking mill, the last to operate in Forest Home, closed in 1926.

Although the mills themselves are now gone, traces of this era can still be seen throughout the community – not only the many fine Greek Revival houses but also bits of stone mill foundation, remnants of sluiceways, and the end of an old log dam. The two mill remnants most easily seen today are both located adjacent to the downstream bridge. The concrete impoundment dam for the Bool woodworking mill is located just above this bridge, the stone foundation of the Empire Grist Mill just below. Another significant mill remnant is the vertical shaft cut into the gorge wall where the Red Grist Mill once stood. It can best be seen from the footpath on the side of Fall Creek opposite The Byway.

Of particular historic interest are the two single-lane riveted steel-truss bridges that carry Forest Home Drive across Fall Creek. Built by the Groton Bridge Company nearby (see Chapter 6), they are rare examples of a once-common bridge design. The downstream bridge (1904) is the oldest Warren pony truss in Tompkins County, and the upstream bridge (1909) is the oldest and one of only two remaining steel through-truss bridges in the county.

As the mill era in Forest Home was drawing to a close, a new phase of growth for the community was just beginning. Under the directorship of Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cornell University’s new College of Agriculture was growing rapidly, increasing approximately tenfold in just ten years and bringing over a hundred new faculty members and their families to the area. Many of these new families chose to settle in Forest Home, and approximately thirty-five new houses were built between 1900 and 1915, doubling the size of the hamlet.

This rapid growth had profound effects. The old one-room Greek Revival schoolhouse on Judd Falls Road quickly became overcrowded, and so a new two-room elementary school with gymnasium was constructed in 1921. The Forest Home School District was absorbed into the Ithaca City School District in 1956, and the new Forest Home School closed in 1964. (Both former school buildings survive, the first serving as a three-car garage, the second as headquarters for the Cornell Plantations1.)

In 1915, with its increased population, the community built the Forest Home Chapel, designed by the dean of Cornell’s College of Architecture. Religious services had previously been held in the one-room schoolhouse until a school trustee, who believed in the separation of church and state, locked the doors, putting an end to the practice.

The arrival of so many new residents also caused some social friction within the community. The Sewing Circle, an established women’s social organization, chose to restrict its membership to the mill-related residents. In response, the wives of the new Cornell professors and students founded the Embroidery Club, whose membership was restricted to Cornell-affiliated women. With time, however, a sense of community prevailed; the Embroidery Club remains active today and welcomes all adult female residents of Forest Home.

The years since 1915 have seen continued slow residential development, largely as a result of the continuing growth of Cornell University. Approximately fifty new houses have been built, again substantially increasing the size of the community. The years preceding World War II also saw the dissolution of most remaining commercial establishments in Forest Home. Northrup’s general store closed, Stevens’s gas station went out of business, and Jack Smith’s service station was converted first to an ice cream parlor and then to residential use. The tea-room that had been operated by Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer for the instruction of Cornell home economics students was sold and converted first to a furniture store and eventually to office space. It is the last remaining commercial establishment in the community. One by one the working farms have been developed for residential purposes or become part of the Cornell Plantations1 or golf course. Several fine old barns remain in and around the community, however. Houses from all three of Forest Home’s major periods of growth are located throughout the hamlet, and the various architectural styles chronicle the community’s successful transformation from an early industrial center to a cohesive residential neighborhood.

The Forest Home Improvement Association, founded in 1920, serves as the community’s civic association. Early projects included various beautification efforts, assigning street addresses to the houses, and establishing a community water system and street lighting network. More recent projects have included gaining recognition of the community as a New York State Historic District, and the designation of Forest Home Drive as a New York State Scenic Road. The neighborhood also constructed an addition to the chapel, entirely with volunteer labor, and publishes periodic newsletters and an annual directory. The Forest Home Improvement Association is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the scenic beauty, historic heritage, and community spirit that have defined the neighborhood for so many years.

Forest Home has had its share of trauma and tragedy. There have been deaths and drownings, floods and fires, scandal and suicide. Perhaps the most widely known example involved Montgomery Cornell, 19-year-old nephew of Ezra Cornell, and Lucy Criddle, 16-year-old daughter of the local undertaker. On the morning of June 16, 1861, Lucy was found shot dead in Montgomery’s buggy, and Montgomery was discovered drowned in the gorge behind The Byway. The Ithaca Journal and Advertiser called this a double suicide, and “one of the most extraordinary and heart-rending tragedies it has ever become our duty to report.”

One major problem that Forest Home has faced in more recent years is the ever-increasing through traffic that winds its way along the community’s modest roads and across the two single-lane bridges, threatening the hamlet’s serenity, safety, and integrity. Petitions requesting an alternative route around the community date back to 1910, when Forest Home Drive first became a state highway. They continue today, as the traffic has grown progressively worse.

The hamlet of Forest Home enjoys a strong identity and sense of community. Its beautiful natural setting along Fall Creek, its charming historic architecture and two single-lane bridges, and the neighborliness of its people, all serve to attract and hold residents. It is a great place to live.

1. Editor’s note. In 2016, Cornell changed the name of the Cornell Plantations to the Cornell Botanic Gardens.