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What Your Village Government Was Up To 100 Years Ago

Trolly Car at Cayuga Circle, shown c. 1919, at the intersection of Upland, Highland, and Hanshaw roads. Photo courtesy of the History Center in Tompkins County

At the monthly meeting of the Board of Trustees on February 21 village historian Beatrice Szekely offered the mayor and trustees the following remarks about who their antecedents were on the first village board formed 100 years ago and what they were doing in the waning winter of 1917. 

In accordance with New York State village law the board of trustees at that time consisted of a president and two trustees who were empowered to make the municipality’s laws. An interim board, having been elected immediately after incorporation of the village in June 1915, served until March of 1916 when a new board was elected to serve for one year, as has been the case since. The same three men served on both the interim and first full-year village boards, all members of the faculty at Cornell. The president was law professor C. Tracey Stagg who served a total of four one-year terms until 1920; the trustees were professor of entomology Glenn Herrick and dairy scientist William Stocking who succeeded Professor Stagg as president, also serving four terms until 1923. There were two other elected officials, a treasurer who was Cornell math professor John Tanner, and a tax collector who was Walter Bells, the golf pro at the Ithaca Country Club then located on Highland Road. Cayuga Heights developer Jared Newman was appointed by the board as street commissioner, and entomology professor Oskar Johannsen was the first appointed village clerk. All these men were unpaid volunteers with the exception of Collector Bells who received 1 cent for every dollar collected up to a maximum of $1 per tax parcel.

On March 1, 1917 President Stagg and Trustee Stocking met, likely in the former’s Boardman Hall office at the Cornell law school, to go over a report from Treasurer Tanner on expenses made during the village’s first fiscal year that had just ended on February 28. The March 1916 to February 1917 treasurer’s report showed receipts of $941.41 turned over to Clerk Johannsen to fund the first village budget. Of this $890 had been raised by Collector Bells from the first round of Cayuga Heights property taxation and the balance from county mortgage taxes and cash on hand. The property tax was levied by the village board at a rate of 3 mills, or $3.00 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, on some 70 land parcels, roughly half built on to date, with a total assessed valuation of just under $280,000.

How was the budget spent? Twelve initial streetlights were installed by the Ithaca Gas & Electric Company at a cost of just over $100, and $200 was spent by Mr. Newman to take care of walkways and the dirt roadways including $8 for a street sign. Within “general expenses” a payment of $250 plus $5 interest was made to Treasurer Tanner who had loaned the village that amount to cover expenses before the first taxes were collected. The village corporate seal in use today was purchased for $3.50; costs related to the filing for the 1915 incorporation were recorded as having totaled $8. An unexpended balance of $330 was held over.

Cayuga Heights was in startup mode a century ago with a population of only 119 when the election of the interim village board following incorporation took place. Using an online-based inflation rate calculation, $940 in 1917 was worth roughly $19,000 in today’s dollars. Very small indeed when compared with the budget that our current mayor, trustees and village department heads will build for the upcoming fiscal year starting June 1, to be funded predominately by taxes paid this summer. While Professors Stagg and Stocking served intermittently as president in the early 1920s, the population grew steadily but did not quite reach 200. Despite these small scale beginnings, the work of these early village officials set the municipal government on its feet and established the same structure that has served our village well ever since.

To learn more about the Village of Cayuga Heights history or to learn about your house history, please visit the Cayuga Heights History Project website or follow them on facebook.