Local History Spotlight

Volume 3: Ithaca Gun Company

Buffalo Bill's Wild West  - Congress, Rough Riders of the World. Miss Annie Oakley, The Peerless lady Wing-ShotIthaca Gun Company has been a household name for over a century, receiving praise worldwide from the average hunter to famous figures such as John Philip Sousa, Annie Oakley and Iraq King Ghazi bin Faisal. Ithaca’s oldest industry, the Ithaca Gun Company was founded in 1880 by four men: investors Dwight McIntyre and John Van Natta and craftsmen Leroy Smith and W.H. Baker.1 Inspired by the high demand for guns, the men bought a small wooden mill built by Ezra Cornell for their first factory. Using hydropower from nearby Fall Creek they produced ten guns per day. Company co-founder Leroy Smith passed away in 1902, leaving his share of the business to his two sons, Sheldon and Louis Smith. The future mayor of Ithaca, Louis Smith became the “face” of Ithaca Guns when his picture was chosen to be the company’s trademark on all shipping boxes and stationery. He served as the company’s only salesman for 17 years and later became its president.

By 1924, Ithaca Gun Company’s production soared to 53,000 guns per year,2 establishing them as a major player in the industry. The company’s success was distinguished by numerous awards for its intricately engraved, high quality firearms. During World War II, the United States government took notice of Ithaca’s guns, contracting the company to produce 20,000 automatic pistols a day as part of the war effort.

In 1960 the growth of the company seemed unstoppable, but a series of changes occurred that made residents uneasy about the future of a business that for years had been an economic staple in Ithaca. First, a subsidiary plant was opened in Canada, instead of the United States. The company was then sold to General Recreation, Inc., which, under President J.T. Baldridge, added sailing catamarans, sporting goods and outdoor clothing lines to the company’s repertoire. Under Baldridge’s leadership, the company also announced its status as the first Ithaca company to have its stock admitted for trading on the American stock Exchange.3 Growing pains ensued as IGC continued to expand its work force and manufacturing equipment.  While company officials denied rumors that they were considering moving the company to a more economically hospitable area,4 in 1971, General Recreation was moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Although the remaining workforce was assured that gun manufacturing operations were to remain in Ithaca,5 the rest of the company was moved to Upper Sandusky, Ohio in 1987.

While the Ithaca Gun Company left Ithaca more than twenty years ago, it continues to make headlines today. After the company was moved, the former factory site at Fall Creek was found to be the source of a dangerous soil and water contamination problem. The high cost of cleanup stalled redevelopment plans, and in 2006 the building site was condemned; a sad ending to the grand history of a company that held great importance for many generations of Ithaca factory workers. New York State has since contributed substantial funds to aid in the cleanup of Fall Creek,6 providing hope that residents will once again be able to safely enjoy the area. The project is still in progress today, with plans for re-development that will usher in a new chapter in the history of Ithaca.

Sources

1 Ithaca Gun Company”. Wikipedia.com, Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 13 Dec.2010.

2 Mayer, Virginia W. Ithaca Past and Present. Ithaca City School District, 1956.

3 Jerald T. Baldridge.  “General Recreation: Year of Major Events.” Ithaca Journal Jan 28, 1972: Print.

4  Mundell, Helen. “Growth Calls For More Funds” Ithaca Journal Dec 20 1971: Print.

5 Mundell, Helen. General Recreation Plans Move West Ithaca Journal May 7 1972: Print.

6 Gashler, Krisy. “Restoration Grant Will Subsidize Public Walkway and Park Overlooking Falls” Ithaca Journal May 31 2008: Print.

Page last modified May 3, 2012