New exhibit celebrates untold local sports history, from pucks to rutabagas

ITHACA, N.Y. — The Center for History and Culture in Tompkins County officially opened its 2024 exhibit “A Sporting Chance: On and Off the Field,” celebrating untold stories of local sports culture from the county’s last 75 years during a ceremony on Feb. 2.

The display features seven different exhibits, most of which contain materials provided by community members thanks to solicitations over the last seven months, either maintained from their childhood or passed down from prior generations. “A Sporting Chance” will be featured for the rest of 2024 at the center. 

While plenty of local jerseys hang from the wall and brief informative readings are available at each station, visitors may notice some notable exclusions from the collection, like any mention of the annual Cortaca Jug game or Cornell University athletics, for example. Marketing Director Zoë Van Nostrand said the center purposefully left those out of the display since they are already widely covered. 

The point of the current display is to open a window into local sports lore that hasn’t gotten its due attention previously. 

“[The college sports] have their own recognition for what they bring and the power of their athletes,” Van Nostrand said. “We aren’t telling the story of Cornell. We are telling the story of the community, and we’re trying to bring in pieces that make the community feel connected to here.” 

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

One example of the effort spent making Ithacans feel connected to their community can be found in the section dedicated to the Annual International Rutabaga Curl, an Ithaca tradition that draws hundreds to the Ithaca Farmers Market during the height of the holiday season. 

The event, despite its “absurdity” in Van Nostrand’s words, has become unexpectedly popular in the area since it was first held 28 years ago. 

Van Nostrand said rutabaga curling should be considered a sport alongside football or tennis, for example because it “has a crowd— an audience.” 

“It’s not about the tools, you don’t get to carve your rutabagas so they roll better,” she said. “It’s not about the fields, you don’t get to nail down the boards so your rutabaga doesn’t bounce wrong. It’s not about the accoutrements of a sport, it’s about the community-mindedness of the sport.” 

The display emphasizes the culture that has emerged around the rutabaga curl, like the parade of costume-clad attendees and the various signs of supporters and tongue-in-cheek protesters. There is also a hallway set up as a rutabaga curl station, complete with faux rutabagas and boxes disguised as hay bales. 

The display also includes sections on the Ithaca Colored Vets baseball team, local youth hockey, the Tompkins Girls Hockey Association, the Ithaca Dragon Boat Club and the Finger Lakes International Dragon Boat Festival (through a collaboration with the Ithaca Asian American Association). The Special Olympics of New York, which have been held in Ithaca for the last three years, is featured as well. 

“We’re trying to tell the stories of the athletes, the community that supported them and the cultures that arose around each sport,” Van Nostrand said. “If you look at who an athlete is, you also look at which sport gets attention and crowds and funding, and then which had to overcome a lot of barriers to get that same recognition.”

The mock rutabaga curl station, with fake rutabagas provided for practice. Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

The residents of Tompkins County aren’t known for their fervent interest in sports, though certain local events can still pack an arena’s stands. But Van Nostrand said that was part of the appeal of choosing to highlight sports, since it was more likely to provide opportunities for learning about unknown parts of local history. 

Many of the materials on display were donated by community members, which limited the amount of time the center was able to include in the display. Rather, Van Nostrand said they chose to focus on the last 75 years of local sports history to increase material submissions and more deeply resonate with the community’s collective memory. 

This also allows the displays to show the full path of certain sports, both conventional and not, from when they were first legalized to the current day and how their presence has changed.  

Women’s sports provides a ready template for that story, with an exhibit highlighting the impacts of Title IX on local women’s hockey and how the game has such a stronghold here that other popular off-shoots have arisen, like the Ithaca League of Women Rollers for women’s roller hockey. 

Van Nostrand said back in 2009 when the team was first formed, the players were “literally” sewing their uniforms, relying on the generosity of the community to pay to support themselves and travel for games. 

“It was a big community pull and it has now established itself into a beloved local sport with a bunch of community theater elements that everyone enjoys,” Van Nostrand said. 

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

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