15 Intriguing Facts About Ithaca, America’s Best College Town

Home to both Ithaca College as well as Cornell University, Ithaca is a city whose students & residents agree on one truth – it is the best college town in America.

They’re not the only ones who think so.

Recently ranked by reviews.org as the very best college town in America, Ithaca routinely rates among the best cities for the college-oriented student.

Active & youthful culture, outdoors activities, music festivals, a liberal culture – and a unique system of currency way before Bitcoin was cool – are just some components of the Ithaca experience.

However, Ithaca is more than just about its students.

It’s also home to tens of thousands of residents who work both in and out of the city’s higher education institutions.

So what makes Ithaca such an intriguing place to live? Here are 10 amazing facts about the nation’s best college town.

15. Ithaca Has Its Own Currency Called the HOUR

Equaling roughly $10, one HOUR has been functional since 1991, and is the oldest local currency system in the country, according to this article

People can use the HOUR for nearly anything; groceries, doctor visits, buying clothes, and more.

The system has been so successful, other cities throughout the US have adopted their own currency systems, including Madison, Corvallis, and Santa Barbara.

Started by Paul Glover, a prominent activist, the HOUR is one of this college town’s most distinct features.

14. Their Mayor Won the Position At Age…24

Defying typical expectations of political careers, Svante Myrick won the mayorship just two years after graduating from Cornell University.

During the election, Myrick was pitted against two other Democratic candidates for the position. Myrick ended up winning with well over half of the city’s vote.

Reviews of his tenureship as the Mayor have been extremely positive; he has helped reform drug policies, partnered with former President Barack Obama, provided support to the city’s students when speaking out in favor of climate justice, and more.

13. “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” Almost Certainly Was Inspired by Ithaca

We all know the Wizard of Oz and its classic Yellow Brick Road.

According to historical record, this was almost certainly inspired by the city of Ithaca.

The author of the Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum, most likely was a frequent visitor of Ithaca New York. Why would this legendary author come to Ithaca routinely?

His wife attended Cornell University before they were married. 

And here’s the best part…

At the time, yellow bricks did indeed pave the roads in Ithaca.

Ithaca is no stranger to inspiring some of the world’s most widely read novels and music, as you will see in this article…

12. It Has a Sister City in Kenya

Shadychiri, Skyline of Eldoret Facing West from Mups Plaza, CC BY-SA 4.0

Ithaca’s sister city is Eldoret, the fifth largest is all of Kenya with a population of nearly 300,000 people.

The purpose of this partnership, initially, is similar to that of other sister-city agreements throughout America; to promote an understanding of different cultures, world travel, tourism, trade, and more.

However, Ithaca’s particular relationship with Eldoret, Kenya is special.

Ithaca’s liberal community has taken a significant interest in helping the residents of Kenya, sponsoring drives, fundraisers, and more to further help the citizens of the amazing developing country.

11. Ithaca Has Not 1, Not 2…But 150 Waterfalls

Ithaca Falls
Stilfehler, Ithaca Falls Ithaca New York, CC BY-SA 3.0

Yes, you read that one right. 

There is a common phrase Ithacans hold dear; Ithaca Is Gorges.

This is a simple wordplay – not only is Ithaca naturally very beautiful, but the city is literally home to gorges, essentially narrow canyons of water.

Within 10 miles of Ithaca’s downtown, over 150 waterfalls can be found throughout this college town. I think it’s safe to say that no college town in America has nearly this many waterfalls.

Ithaca holds the rare combination of not only natural beauty, but also a bustling, active college town merging the best of city and scenery.

10. Cliffhangers Started in Ithaca

Although the literary device of a cliffhanger has been around for centuries, the term “cliffhangers” actually started in Ithaca.

This term was born from a movie series filmed in Ithaca by Theo and Leo Wharton. Called the Exploits of Elaine, this 1914 classic series is one of many examples of films actually produced in Ithaca during this time.

At the end of one episode, the female protagonist in the episode is actually seen hanging off a cliff. The term cliffhanger has been a staple of the English dialect ever since, all thanks to this.

9. Ithaca Was Once the Capital of the Film Industry

stan stewart, Stewart Park, CC BY 2.0

Speaking of movies, did you know that Ithaca was once more popular than Hollywood when it came to making American movies.

In what is now Ithaca’s Stewart Park, a film company owned by Theo and leo Wharton, called Wharton Studios, produced quite a number of silent films between the years of 1913 – 1920. 

Ithaca routinely brought in film stars who lived in New York City via the overnight train that ran between these two destinations.

Numerous silent films and serials were created in Ithaca. They include names that, although may not be known to the general public, are among the classics of early filmmaking, including The Eagle’s Eye, Beatrice Fairfax, and more.

Because of this, one century ago Ithaca was actually seen as the silent movie capital in the film industry.

8. It Has Perhaps the Best Music & Theatre Scene of Any College Town

Pete716, Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music & Dance, CC BY-SA 4.0

Music and the arts adorn the city of Ithaca, New York.

Porchfest is one of Ithaca’s most beloved traditions, an annual September event lasting 6 hours long featuring over 150+ performers playing at over 100+ locations throughout Ithaca!

Outside of Porchfest, Ithaca is next door to the annual Finger Lakes Grassroots Music Festival, an event that draws over 20,000 people to see performances of blues, Cajun, folk, and independent arts styles.

Ani DiFranco, the Avett Brothers, and more have performed here.

Ithaca is home to over a dozen theatres and performing arts organizations, including Ithaca Shakespeare, Cherry Arts, The State Theatre, and Opera Ithaca.

Additionally, Ithaca is home to numerous music venues, clubs, and more catering to an all-ages audience.

7. Both “Puff the Magic Dragon” As Well as “Lolita” Were Written in Ithaca

These two classics were both penned in Ithaca.

Believe it or not, the lyrics to the famous song Puff The Magic Dragon were written by Leonard Lipton, who was at the time a physics student at Cornell University. The song became universally famous when performed by the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary back in the mid-1960s.

Former Ithaca resident Leonard Lipton then went on to have a significant career in the film industry, creating a technology that allows for 3D films to be seen. This technology is now used in over 25,000 movie theatres.

Vladimir Nabokov’s famous book Lolita was also written in Ithaca. This text is widely considered the greatest novel of the 20th century. Stanley Kubrick later adapted the text into a classic film.

6. Famous Residents and College Alumni Include…

Scientist Bill Nye is an alum of Cornell University. 

CEO Bob Iger, the Head of Disney, attended Ithaca College, as did Grammy-nominated artist Gavin DeGraw.

Vladimir Nabokov and David Foster Wallace, two of the most important literary figures in history, were residents of Ithaca.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended Cornell Univerity, as did late night talk show host Bill Maher.

Even important 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once called Ithaca his home.

And this is just a partial list; many more amazing people once called Ithaca their home.

5. The World’s Most Famous Digital Instrument Was Created by an Ithacan

What do The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Wendy Carlos, The Doors, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and others have in common?

They all were huge fans of the Moog Synthesizer, a digital instrument created by Bob Moog. 

This synthesizer was one of the greatest inventions in the history of music; thousands upon thousands of recordings, performances, and more featuring Moog synthesizers have been created.

All thanks to one of Ithaca’s most celebrated former residents, Bob Moog.

4. Ithaca College & Cornell Produce Many Fulbright Scholars

sach1tb, Cornell University, Ho Plaza and Sage Hall, CC BY-SA 2.0

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a list of the most-awarded Fulbright Institutions in America in 2017, naming Ithaca College as well as Cornell University among them. 

In a city with so much intricate history, it is amazing that both of the city’s schools produce scholars who regularly win one of the highest honors in all of academia.

What does it take to be a Fulbright? Not only scholarly excellence, but also an idea and an application in alignment with the Fulbright’s ideals of promoting global academic partnerships.

3. The Campbell’s Soup Label – Yeap, That’s Ithaca Too

Back in the 19th-century, Campbell’s Soup’s colors were actually black and orange. 

However, when one of the companies executives in the 1800s saw a Cornell University football game, he noticed something interesting…

The Cornell colors were composed of a distinctive shade of red as well as white. 

Soon thereafter, Campbell’s Soup changed its color scheme to colors almost identical to that of Cornell University.

2. You Can Walk Through a Scaled Version of the Solar System in Ithaca

Located around the Ithaca Commons, a picturesque pedestrian mall spanning over two blocks, is one of the world’s most interesting science exhibits.

Known as the Sagan Planet Walk, named in memory of famed Ithaca resident and Cornell professor Carl Sagan, this museum features a walkable scale model of our solar system.

The walk is scaled down to one five billionth the size of our actual solar system. However, it is accurate in terms of the proportional distance between each of the obelisks used to outline the solar system.

1. The Ice Cream Sundae Was Invented in Ithaca

The oldest existing documented record of the ice cream sundae is from Ithaca. 

After performing a service at the local Unitarian church, Reverend John M. Scott went to the local pharmacy, asking shop owner Chester Platt for some ice cream. Instead of serving just regular ice cream, Platt scooped some ice cream, along with cherry syrup and toppings. Thus, the cherry sundae was created.

While other towns in America claim to have made the first sundae, Ithaca has the historical records to prove it

An advertisement for this sundae later appeared in 1892 in the city’s Ithaca Journal, a daily newspaper that started in 1815 and, amazingly, is still in publication over 200 years later.