Forest Home grew from mills along Fall Creek to a residential neighborhood

By Bruce Brittain

Forest Home is a small residential hamlet located on the banks of Fall Creek in the Town of Ithaca. First settled in 1794, it quickly evolved into a water-powered industrial and milling community. Early names for the community included Sydney’s, Phoenix Mills, Phoenixville, and Free Hollow (aka Flea Hollow).

Free Hollow Cider Mill, circa late 1800s.

In 1874, a letter to the Ithaca Daily Journal suggested that if street trees were planted in Free Hollow, it could deserve the name “Forest Home,” just as Ithaca was known as “Forest City.” In 1876, when a lodge of the Good Templars was formed in Free Hollow, it took the name of “Forest Home,” which was said to be appropriate, since the woods were increasing. Later in 1876, when a Post Office was established, it, too, took the name of “Forest Home.” In November 1876, the name “Forest Home” was painted on the end of the Empire Grist Mill, thereby cementing the change.

The hamlet that we see today is the result of four distinct phases of development:

1800–1850: Mill Era. This was a time of rapid development, using the strength of Fall Creek to power some 10 to 15 milling operations. Roughly 30 houses were constructed at this time.

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Map of Free Hollow circa 1866. The community was renamed Forest Home in 1876.

18501905: Stability. Milling continued, but water power was gradually giving way to other forms of energy, and improvements in transportation allowed more efficient, centralized milling elsewhere. Some houses were enlarged or updated, but few new houses were built.

Empire Grist Mill c 1880 Forest Home
Empire Grist Mill in Forest Home burned in 1886 and was not rebuilt. Today, remnants of the mill can still be seen adjacent to the downstream bridge.

19051915: Cornell-Related Growth. Under the leadership of Liberty Hyde Bailey, the NYS College of Agriculture grew rapidly at this time. Many of the new professors chose to settle in Forest Home, and around 30 new houses were built, doubling the population of the community. This was a time of social turmoil, as the established mill-related families took exception to the new University-related upstarts who were disrupting their neighborhood. The community’s two iconic steel truss bridges spanning Fall Creek were built during this period.

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Bridge at Forest Home, circa early 1900s.

1915Present: Continued Evolution. The last of the mills shut down, and Forest Home became a strictly residential community, with infill development adding another 30 houses. The University acquired the surrounding farms, and the hamlet is now completely encircled by lands belonging to the Cornell Botanic Gardens and Robert Trent Jones Golf Course. This separation from other neighborhoods has allowed Forest Home to retain its distinct identity.

Forest Home bridge

Bruce Brittain is a native of the hamlet of Forest Home, in the Town of Ithaca, NY.  Dr. Brittain holds a PhD in engineering from Cornell University, and has taught at both Cornell and Ithaca College.  He has served as a trustee of the DeWitt Historical Society (now the History Center), and is the long-time historian for Forest Home.  He has been very active in the community, has surveyed and mapped all of the major roads in Forest Home in support of the Forest Home Traffic Calming Project, was instrumental in preserving the hamlet’s two iconic single-lane bridges, and prepared a Blue Form for every structure in the community as part of the successful nomination for State and National Register listing for the Forest Home Historic District.

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