This year is the silver anniversary of the re-opening of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum by what is now known as the Council for Secular Humanism. (The birthplace of nineteenth-century agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll had been restored and opened as a museum twice before—in the 1920s and the 1950s—each time closing after a run of less than ten years.) It is a point of pride that the third restoration of Ingersoll’s birthplace has welcomed the public each year for a quarter-century (with no end in sight). Another point of pride is a regional spinoff project that went on to have a significant impact on cultural heritage tourism in west-central New York State: the Freethought Trail.
The idea for the Trail hatched in 2002 in a conversation between historian Sally Roesch Wagner, then in the early stages of preserving the Fayetteville, New York, home of freethinker and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage, and me. We knew that the Erie Canal’s central watershed, encompassing the cities of Rochester and Syracuse, was rich with freethought and other radical-reform history, much of it largely forgotten. How best to shine an overdue spotlight?