An Unexpected Milestone

Tom Flynn

Talk about small beginnings. In 1986, San Francisco retiree Phil Mass sounded the alarm. The birthplace of nineteenth-century agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll was near collapse. Worse, it faced demolition—the pizzeria occupying the house next door wanted to knock it down for parking. Mass contacted every national humanist, atheist, and freethought organization. Persistently. Repeatedly.

Okay. Today, we’d call it stalking.

Organized unbelief was far smaller and less prosperous then than it is today. Saving the Ingersoll birthplace would have been a tall order for any of the national organizations of that time. Some of them talked about it, but none of them acted. But Mass kept reaching out.

Somehow, he acquired Free Inquiry founder Paul Kurtz’s home number. He called Kurtz at home. Nightly. In part because Mass had made some contributions to Free Inquiry, Kurtz never stopped taking those calls.

Finally, enough was enough. Kurtz made his decision, and Free Inquiry went where no other movement organization had been willing to go. In 1987, the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (as it was then called) bought the Ingersoll house in Dresden, New York, along with the two acres of land it sat on.

The purchase cost $7,000.

That is not a typo.

I was never absolutely certain whether that purchase was made with the organization’s money or whether Kurtz, a wealthy man, had just reached into his own pocket. Either way, the evening phone calls from Phil Mass stopped, which may have been its own reward.

Being the owner of a historic house involves certain obligations. The pizza parlor still had its eyes on the house. Rumors swirled—the parlor owner was going to sue to have the house demolished as a dangerous eyesore (it was both). Or perhaps the owner would try to have the property seized by eminent domain because a pizza parlor with parking would contribute more taxes to Dresden than one without. On the advice of some history-professor friends, Kurtz tasked his minuscule staff with filing the necessary papers to get the Ingersoll birthplace on the National Register of Historic Places. Astoundingly, it worked—and it cost almost nothing.

One of the nice things about a property being on the National Register is that no one can demolish it.

One of the frustrating things about it is that you, the owner, have to leave the building where it is. (Kurtz and Gordon Stein, who would later be the founding director of the Center for Inquiry Libraries, had entertained thoughts of moving the birthplace to Buffalo, where more people might see it.)

Being the owner of a historic house that is on the National Register, can’t be knocked down, can’t be moved, and is about 120 miles away from your office involves yet greater obligations. Perhaps euphoric after the birthplace’s successful rescue, Kurtz made a bold decision. He invited bids on rehabilitating the structure so that one day it could house a museum.

The lowest bid came in at $250,000.

Keep in mind that in 1988 (which it now was), the organizations that published Free Inquiry and the Skeptical Inquirer had never spent $250,000 in a lump sum on anything. Our offices were rented. If our equipment was only second hand, we counted ourselves lucky.

And now we had to spend a quarter of a million dollars to restore a historic house in a rural village of just three hundred people in a very remote corner of New York’s Finger Lakes district.

I’ve told the story thus far with tongue slightly in cheek (though events did unfold as I’ve recounted) in order to stress how astoundingly unlikely it was that the Robert Green Ingersoll birthplace got saved—to say nothing of how it became North America’s first and only freethought museum.

To say absolutely nothing of how that museum is now about to mark its silver anniversary.

To make a long story short, we learned a lot about raising money and a lot about how passionate—and generous—the widely scattered admirers of “The Great Agnostic” could be. We raised and expended that quarter-million dollars, and the Ingersoll birthplace could welcome the public again. Which it did on Memorial Day weekend in 1993.

The task of designing the museum had fallen to me. Why? Before coming to work for Free Inquiry, I had designed fundraising “haunted houses” for organizations such as the March of Dimes and the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Therefore, I knew more about establishing a traffic pattern in a repurposed building than anyone else on staff.

I thought I was done with the tongue-in-cheek part.

Along the way, we benefited from further good fortune. We made the acquaintance of the James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust, whose generous grant was the largest single gift we received in that original $250,000 campaign. (The Johnson Trust has since become a frequent supporter of Council for Secular Humanism—and later Center for Inquiry—projects.) Also, New York State’s farm-winery industry experienced explosive growth, starting right around the time the Ingersoll Museum opened. In 1976, when New York’s farm-winery laws were reformed, there were nineteen wineries in the entire state. Today there are twenty wineries just on the west shore of Seneca Lake, which is where Dresden is located. Farm-winery growth has meant a big increase in the tourist traffic on State Highway 14, which is also how one gets to Dresden.

It is sobering to realize that something I helped to build is marking its silver anniversary. It makes me think of maturity. Or mortality. Definitely a word that starts with m. And it is gratifying to know that the Council for Secular Humanism has been able to preserve and interpret the memory of one of freethought’s most towering figures for a quarter of a century. And it’s still going strong.

Of course, there will be a celebration. On August 18–19, 2018, 150 lucky people will attend a silver anniversary celebration and conference in Syracuse, New York, not too far from Dresden. Attendance is capped at 150 due to the capacity of the four museums that attendees will visit via motor coach on August 19. One of them is the Ingersoll Museum; the other three1 are other anchors of the Freethought Trail, an informal collection of radical-reform sites within a two-hour drive of Dresden. Launched in 2005, the Freethought Trail now includes 112 marked and unmarked sites important to the history of radical social reform in west-central New York State (see “Tale of the Trail,” later in this issue). And to give old friends their due, I note that the August conference has been generously underwritten by the James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust.

So forgive an indulgence, Free Inquiry readers, but this April/May issue and the next (June/July) will present something of an Ingersoll festival.

This issue contains two photo features. One highlights the original Freethought Trail, in west-central New York; the other constitutes the baby steps of the Trail’s first spinoff. Working with Kansas City freethought historian Fred Whitehead and others, we are collecting information for a Missouri and Kansas Freethought Trail. Those two heartland states have rich deposits of radical reform history and some crackling stories to share.

Our next issue will present a cover feature on Ingersoll himself, the birthplace museum, and the freethought history whose rediscovery is now unfolding.

It’s all compoundingly amazing when you consider how improbably it began.



  1. The others are the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville and the Gerrit Smith Estate and National Abolition Hall of Fame, both in Peterboro.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).