Take a Trip on the Freethought Trail

September 13, 2011

As summer ripens into fall, there’s still time to immerse yourself in freethought history … on the Freethought Trail! For several years now the Council for Secular Humanism has operated an informal historic trail to highlight sites significant to the history of radical reform history in west-central New York State. Why there? First, of course, that’s where the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum is, which the Council has operated as North America’s only dedicated freethought museum every summer and fall since 1993. Second, that region — very roughly extending from Rochester, New York, to a bit east of Syracuse, and centering on the Erie Canal — was an astonishing center for radical social reform during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the so-called Golden Age of Freethought, the region was a bubbling cauldron of social ferment, bringing forth reform movements, new political parties, and even new religions. It played the same role on the national scene that Southern California would play during most of the twentieth century, as the bellwether region where social trends of the future emerged.

Among those trends were freethought, the abolition of slavery, woman’s suffrage, birth control, and anarchism. The Trail includes nearly eighty sites significant to their history. Some are museums; some feature historical markers; some are unmarked locations whose significance is known only to a few. Unlike some historic trails, the sites aren’t arranged along any single route. Instead, they’re scattered all across the hilly, lake-dotted topography of west-central New York. Our Web site is designed to help visitors choose the sites of greatest interest to them and get detailed driving directions for moving among them in the order they choose.

Some of the highlights include Ingersoll’s birthplace in Dresden, New York (you knew that was coming); the residences of leading suffragists Susan B. Anthony (Rochester), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Seneca Falls), and Matilda Joslyn Gage (Fayetteville); a thicket of Mark Twain sites in Elmira, his beloved wife’s home town; a profusion of Frederick Douglass sites in and around Rochester; and the tiny town of Peterboro, from which radical philanthropist Gerrit Brown helped fund the Underground Railroad, galvanized the abolition movement, and catalyzed developments that would be key to the woman’s rights movement.

Intrigued? Check out our site at https://www.freethought-trail.org. Or if you’re traveling the New York State Thruway, visit a tourist information booth at rest areas near the Finger Lakes and pick up our glossy fold-out brochure.

The Freethought Trial was jointly imagined by feminist historian Sally Roesch Wagner, director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center, and myself. It’s grown steadily over the years and has recently inspired new directions in general promotion of cultural heritage tourism sites throughout the region. It’s also unique among historic trails in that property owners need not apply for inclusion; if your site matters, we add it to the Trail at our own volition. (That’s how come we have one stop on the Freethought Trail that’s actually a museum owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For the full story, check out Palmyra, New York, on the Trail site.

The Ingersoll Museum will be open every weekend through the end of October; many sites on the Trail are open year-round. So if your travels will bring you to west-central New York State and you’d like to learn more about the region’s oft-forgotten leading role in the remaking of nineteenth-century America, check us out! Again, it’s https://www.freethought-trail.org. Or for more information — even some personalized travel advice, if you’d like — email me at tflynn@centerforinquiry.net.