A history of history in Syracuse

Syracuse Museum Volunteers from left to right: Becky Grose, Sherri Crowley, Ernie Field, Jeani Field, Phil Gooch, and Dean Hill. Photo provided by the Syracuse Museum

The idea of starting a museum in Syracuse began in 1987 during the bicentennial celebration of the United States Constitution. Don and Genene Rentmeister set up a display of community-related artifacts they had collected over the years. The exhibit was a big success and popular with the residents. The following year, during the Founder’s Day Celebration, now called Heritage Days, Don and Genene asked if they could once again display the items. This time, they were challenged by Mayor De Lore W. Thurgood to accompany the artifacts with a researched, unbiased history of the Syracuse area. This resulted in the creation of the Syracuse Historical Commission, which became an arm of the city government. During a meeting in 1993, the members of the commission proposed creating a fundraising committee to finance construction of a museum building, and the Syracuse Museum Foundation was born.

From February 1994 until the beginning of 2000, monthly meetings and multiple fundraisers were held, resulting in the eventual creation and opening of the Syracuse Museum and Cultural Center in 2002. Cindy Gooch was the first hired curator at the museum. Under her direction, the museum’s day-to-day operations were supported by a dedicated team of volunteers. Cindy moved on from the museum as curator, but remained instrumental in grant writing. At that time, the volunteers remained the stable core. The museum was run entirely by volunteers until September 2019, when the city hired Annie Bommer as the curator. It is currently the museum’s goal to become a staple source of history for visitors and residents of Syracuse.

If nobody recorded history, fun and interesting tidbits would be lost forever. In Syracuse, there are many quirky things that have happened through the years. According to a statement on a plaque written by former Mayor De Lore W. Thurgood, during the bicentennial celebration of the US constitution in 1987, an “eagle emblem” was presented to Syracuse City by Brenda Newton, a former Soviet subject and KGB agent. Thurgood notes that “we know very little about Brenda other than, at the time, she resided near Kamas, Utah. She would not allow us to video her face and did not discuss her background. I suspect that the name she went by was an alias and that she was a subject of the Federal Witness Protection Program.” Though many of the events that happened during the bicentennial celebration were thoroughly documented, if Mayor Thurgood had not jotted this bit of information, no one would have ever known Syracuse’s small tie to the KGB.

Information about the first pioneers to come to Syracuse is found in a letter written on July 2, 1910, by Syracuse Ward Clerk John A. Waite Jr. Three men, Joseph Bodily, David A. Kerr, and David Cook, all met at Waite’s home to discuss who was the first to settle the area now known as Syracuse. The consensus was that Joseph Bodily, who built a log home in Section 18 of HN-R2W SLM in the spring of 1877, was the first “settler.” The Joseph Bodily cabin burned down in the 1940s, however, there are some original adobe bricks from the structure that are on display at the museum. David A. Kerr and others came later in 1878. It was also decided that in 1876, David Cook was the first pioneer to plow a furrow and sow some grain. He was a teen at the time, and his family did not come permanently to the area until 1879. The first public building in Syracuse was a 25 x 40- foot schoolhouse. It served as a meeting house, a schoolhouse, and a social center for many years. All settlers turned out to help build the structure.

In 1965, Cora Bodily Bybee tackled the project of compiling Syracuse history into a book. Her parents were Isabella Phillips Bodily and Joseph Bodily, the first official settlers of the area, so she wrote most of the history from first-hand knowledge. The next and most widely used encyclopedic history of Syracuse was published in 1994 by the Syracuse Historical Commission.
Its comprehensive contents cover the history of the area from 1820-1994. Much of the information gathered in these two books came from family histories written by the descendants and historic newspaper articles. The museum also houses a series of video-recorded oral histories done by residents in the 1990s.

Most information that gets recorded and kept at the museum today comes from newspaper articles and obituaries. They are kept in alphabetically and chronologically organized binders that are divided by family. The museum is always looking for more Syracuse history! If you or your family have something that is significant to the story of Syracuse, give them a call or stop on in!

Leave a Reply